At Don’t Divide Us we receive many messages from people who are facing the prospect of some form of compulsory training to deal with problems of systematic racism, unconscious bias and white privilege. Irrespective of whether one believes these claims to be true, partially true or false, it is vital that we have the freedom to raise questions and criticisms without fear of formal or informal sanctions. People are beginning to ask questions and voice their concerns. We think it’s always helpful to hear what others have done – for guidance in how you might start such conversations in your own situation, and also just for some moral support – you are not alone!
Below is one example of a story we have received. We hope others will be encouraged by such examples which are so important irrespective of immediate outcomes, although press coverage is no bad thing! It’s good to see the case at University of Kent covered in the press, which you can read in The Telegraph here.
Ellie Lee, Professor of Family and Parenting Research, University of Kent
Over the past couple of years, I expect like many like other University academics, I have been very aware of the increasing pressure to conform to initiatives promoted as EDI. Probably the most pressure I have felt so far has been around reading lists; the insistence that these lists should be ‘decolonised’. Until fairly recently, I have reacted only by raising points with colleague-friends, informally.
Last academic year, however, I found myself more worried. Indeed, I was surprised to find I was, in my mind at least, preparing myself for how to react, in the event of being subject to complaint. For example, last term I taught a section of a module about the sociology of health and illness on the topic of ‘the medicalisation of society’. At the outset, as is my usual approach, I set out for students an introduction to some key authors, whose work I consider important and central to discussions we should have. I named Talcott Parsons, Eliot Friedson, Arthur Barsky, Peter Conrad and Frank Furedi (two are dead, and all, as you will notice, are ‘white men’). I then worried about whether I should say something about this – make a joke perhaps, or instead earnestly explain how I come to the place I do, in regards to selecting readings. Through all of this, I also asked myself if I am being paranoid, since surely it could not be the case that it would be considered wrong to teach Talcott Parsons to students learning about ‘the sick role’!
This term, however, with the new academic year, matters where I work (the University of Kent) seem to be changing in a direction that worries me more. In turn I consider I now have to say something more publicly.
The week before teaching started, all staff at the University were sent an email, about a module that appears on all students’ moodle pages, called ‘Expect Respect’. The email included the following text:
As you may be aware, we expect all students, regardless of programme, level or site of study, to complete the module. It introduces students to the culture and expectations we have at Kent in terms of respectful behaviour and discussion, and also helps aims to increase students awareness [sic] and understanding about a variety of different themes and nuances in relation to equality, diversity and inclusivity.
The module takes about 4 hours to complete and can be dipped in and out of, but it is expected that students will complete it by the end of their first term at Kent (for most, this means by mid-December).
Changes this year have included an expansion and review of the (Anti-) Racism, Xenophobia and White Privilege segment, new segments on Ableism, Sex and Ageism and updated further learning resources, including a link to the optional, free Santander module ‘Union Black: Britain’s Black cultures and steps to anti-racism’.
I went into the module and was genuinely horrified at what students were asked to do and ‘learn’. The section titled, ‘(Anti-) Racism, Xenophobia and White Privilege’ begins:
Throughout, we review the meaning of racism and how to recognize it, microaggressions and structural racism, white privilege and white supremacy, and bias as well as offer some starting methods as combat these forms of oppression with antiracist action. There is also information provided on help and support available at Kent for anyone affected by racism.
The content is, simply and explicitly, a statement of support for Critical Race Theory, and students encouraged to ‘learn it’ and behave accordingly.
Having received this email, I wrote back (to an email list that goes to all colleagues in my academic division). This is what I said:
While I understand I may be in a very small minority here (even of 1), I feel I have to state that I am not prepared to promote this to students. This is because I do not agree with presenting some of what is in this module as fact, which students are simply expected to accept and agree with.
No doubt everyone is aware that there are furious debates surrounding some of the matters covered in what is presented as ‘training’. My view is that these are legitimate debates, not settled questions, and it is the proper role of the academy to encourage open and better debate about them than currently occurs. (For example, I am right now involved in one such, about the re-writing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s words, purportedly to increase ‘inclusion’).
Given this, it would be entirely hypocritical of me to act as though that were not the case, and endorse this sort of training. I see the effort to generate a culture in which our students are told what they are to think to be an active barrier to what I see as essential to the conduct of education, as I understand it. I do not accept that it is right to say to students that there is only one acceptable way to think about these questions, and if you do not think that way, you cannot be a member of this community.
It may be there have been discussions that I have not been party to, due to being on leave, in which staff have had the opportunity to express their view on whether this sort of training is a good idea. Had I been present I would have made my views known.
I am curious to know what happens to a student who does not complete the training, or refuses to carry on with it, once they have started. Perhaps with is a question for Student Services, but do let me know if this has been discussed.
Following one colleague emailing in support of my points, discussion was effectively shut down. I was asked to desist in sending further emails, with emphasis placed on the upset this was causing others, and how not everyone feels ‘empowered’ to speak. However, I have also received quite a few personal emails, from staff members expressing support and sharing my deep concern about what is happening. Both the content of EDI initiatives, but also the way they progress (apparently without any openness or consultation) have been raised.
A colleague (I’m not sure who) also went to the press with the story, leading to the publication of an article in The Telegraph . Titled, ‘Wearing second hand clothes ‘an example of white privilege’, students told’. I talked to the journalist, and the article includes some comments from me. At the time of writing, I am getting emails (so far, supportive).
What next? I don’t believe there is any likelihood of ‘Expect Respect’ being taken down from Moodle, or even revised. However, maybe there are ways of opening up discussion.