Skip to main content

Hard-hitting talk puts racism under the microscope

BHM_roundtable_920x540 copy

Poet and activist Benjamin Zephaniah’s heart-wrenching tale of his first day at school in early Sixties Birmingham made a shocking start to an eye-opening talk about racism.

A powerhouse panel of Black scholars sat down at Brunel University London on 20 October to talk about institutional racism, Black Lives Matter and the Race Equality Charter.

Nearly 100 people joined the audience in what was part of month-long series of themed events to celebrate the 30th year of Black History Month in the UK.

To kick off discussions, panellists were asked to share their experiences of racism, and Brunel creative writing lecturer Professor Benjamin Zephaniah described his first day at school with his twin sister.

The headteacher asked pupils in assembly to bring in golliwogs. Later he was slapped in the back of his head with a brick on his way home from school and told, in less polite words, to go home. He was eight. “And poor little me thought ‘but I am going home’,” he said. “Then my mum had to explain. That was my awakening.”

BHM_roundtable_2 copy

“Stories like that are the norm in the black community,” said organiser Imarn Ayton, Brunel’s first anti-racism officer. “Therefore, it did not shock me or surprise me even in the slightest. Stories like these affect many people of colour and are associated with our reality.”

Sitting alongside him, the other panellists were Durham University’s Professor Jason Arday, expert in decolonising UK higher education; Educator and mentor, Gordon Stewart; Dr Chinedu Agwu, biosciences lecturer at Brunel Medical School; and Sophie Holder, an education, diversity and inclusion specialist at De Montfort University.

They were asked whether the Black Lives Matter movement did more harm than good, what decolonising the curriculum might mean, and about institutional racism in higher education and other institutions such as the police.

Another talking point was the challenges of applying for the Race Equality Charter, a national scheme to improve the representation, progression and success of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and students within higher education. It would take, they heard, strong leadership, adequate staffing and resourcing and a collective effort and organisation-wide culture shift.

“Celebrating diversity is an integral part of creating an anti-racist culture, a sense of belonging and fosters cultural appreciation,” said Imarn Ayton. “Black History Month is the perfect opportunity to increase engagement levels, shift paradigms, build awareness and promote integration.

“The continued planning of cultural events on behalf of Brunel is imperative, not only for the University pertaining to reputation management, but it also benefits both students and staff when trying to change and improve the culture.”

Brunel’s Black History Month events are running throughout October, with weeks focusing on Black history, Black future, anti-racism and cultural appreciation. The online and in-person events include a Black History Month party and quiz by the Union of Brunel Students, alumni invited back to share their experiences since leaving Brunel, and a webinar about the hidden history of Africa before the slave trade.