Dear Pro-Vice Chancellor,
I’m writing this letter in response to the email you sent out to all students and staff at the university, following the tragic police-killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, in May this year.
I am sure you mean well and are only sending out the kind of message currently being delivered in every corporation and institution in the English-speaking world. But I hope, given that we’re in a university environment, you’ll forgive me if I submit it to a little academic scrutiny.
You begin your letter to us with the words: ‘We’ve witnessed distressing events in recent weeks that have exposed the persistence of deep-rooted racism in our society.’
I’m not sure exactly what you mean by this. Are you suggesting that George Floyd’s death in Minnesota is direct evidence of ‘deep-rooted racism’ in Britain, up to and including the university and its practices?
This seems a rather tenuous link. Perhaps you could, given several years and a research team, make a case that the two things are related, but at this stage I’m not sure the connection you draw would stand up to scrutiny in a GCSE essay. Indeed, one imagines an examiner whipping out the red pen and writing ‘sloppy thinking’ across it, and how much more bewildering the sloppiness is coming from you, a university professor. Presumably you’re able to make such an assertion because you know it won’t – in this climate – be challenged. Yet it is, one might argue, the false premise on which the remainder of your letter rests.
‘Higher Education in the UK,’ you say, ‘where the context remains overwhelmingly white, has a big role to play in making significant changes that make the educational experience a much richer one for all and a much fairer, just and relevant one for our Black students and colleagues.’
I wonder, what point are you making with the words: ‘Higher Education in the UK, where the context remains overwhelmingly white…’? If we’re to play this game of polarising skin-colours – a zero-sum game that’s dangerous and has an unstoppable momentum once it starts – then you wouldn’t need to be a demographic expert to point out that we are, yes, in the UK. In China you could expect Higher Education to be overwhelmingly Chinese, in Russia, overwhelmingly Russian. But what’s worrying is the way you’ve divided the campus neatly down the middle, with all the victimhood on one side and all the culpability on the other – an assumption that may have unfortunate and uncontainable ramifications in future.
You go on ‘As a white woman in a position of privilege…’ Apart from the scary note of self-accusation here – reminiscent of someone trying to stay afloat during a Maoist purge – there’s the clear endorsement you now give, from on high, to lazy racialised assertions. These are still largely unproven, but now spill out from your office to the student population with all the force of given truths. What you write today – the official line – will be accepted, even enforced, as campus fact tomorrow.
Your next paragraph is a collage of prefabricated phrases strung together, and is characterised, rather frantically, by lists: as though the chaos of our experience can be speedily captured in this way. The department must condemn, you say ‘all forms of systemic racism, violence, bias, aggression and the marginalisation of Black staff, students, friends, partners, as well as discrimination based on race, intersectionality, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.’
Apart from the dubious prose style and the mystifying jargon – a reader’s eye glides over these phrases like a snake going down a greased ladder – some of it is gobbledegook. What, I wonder, does ‘discrimination based on…intersectionality’ actually mean? Can you provide enough evidence of this ‘systemic racism, violence, bias, aggression and marginalisation’? Or are these buzzwords fired out in the hope, once again, that no one will challenge them, and that a convincing enough chimera will have been created to justify the programme it’s now professionally mandatory for you to impose? Who knew students were, all the time, inhabiting such a hive of chilling, omnipresent prejudice?
Except, of course, they weren’t. You know it, I know it, and so does everyone else. There’s virtually no place on earth more anxiously orthodox or sensitive to the most micro-tiny ‘abuses’ of language than a contemporary English-speaking university, or more eager to identify ‘racism, violence, bias’ and ‘aggression’ even where they don’t exist. Whole industries, we know very well, are built on it, many of them on campuses, and this was true for a long time before George Floyd’s death.
But these shaky premises are once again the ground on which your bullet-pointed action-plan jerks forward. It’s to be implemented, you say, with ‘even greater urgency’, three words which convey something of the lemming-like panic in which this letter was composed. Some of the bullet-points are cloaked in an elasticity of terms that’s frankly sinister.
‘Becoming an effective ally’ – What does that mean? While it’s scarcely something anyone could refuse to be, that word ‘effective’ carries a ring of menace about it, suggesting future scrutiny of all one’s words and actions on campus. In the final analysis, comrade, were you ‘effective’ enough?
‘Honestly examining all our biases, aggressions, and assumptions’ – while it’s questionable that a university should have jurisdiction over our consciences, it’s arguably possible to find more bias, aggression and assumption – about white people, as you categorise them – in your email than flit through most of our minds in the course of a decade.
‘Speaking out and speaking up against racism’ – this is something most of us would surely do instinctively already. Are we now being told that any silence will incriminate us, or that we must start turning each other in or face the consequences? And as if to confirm this, your letter goes on to mention the Orwellian ‘Report and Support Tool’ students must familiarise themselves with. It’s a tool that (as expected) gives them option of denouncing other students anonymously. One can only imagine what this will do to the spontaneity of campus life.
Finally, you speak of ‘updating our mandatory diversity training’, and the italics are your own. You don’t specify what this ‘updating’ means and again, it feels like a quick fix please-leave-us-alone measure to convey that things are being done. It doesn’t matter there’s little evidence that diversity training has any positive effect at all, beyond creating a resentment among students and staff that these sessions of homily, accusation and self-blame are carving into their day.
You speak in your letter about our ‘shared humanity’ yet, given your previous easy categorisations, it’s a bit like applying a band-aid to a war-wound. But I believe strongly in this concept, so perhaps I might allow myself to empathise a little. If I were a young BAME man or woman going to university, the very last thing I would want to feel is that I couldn’t trust a single surface, that people were being friendly to me out of pressure, or because they’d attended a course, or because the University had scared them into doing so. That no one felt they could act naturally with me or make the odd mistake, or joke, or careless remark, or any of those relaxations of which human contact and exchange – friendship, in fact – is composed. So I wonder what world it is you’re ushering into life with an email like that, and who you’re helping at all: beyond activists who find it bracing to see their edicts carried out, and ‘white saviour’ progressives who want to feel a glow of virtue at their rectitude, or relief they’ve got themselves off the hook.
For the moment, at least. Until the next demands are made, and then you too, perhaps, will find your tipping point. At which point that ‘shared humanity’ you mention may become vital to you, more than just an empty phrase.