Breaking the Cycle: An action guide for anti-racism in Higher Education
Conceived at the peak of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, the book interrogates structural practices at every level of Higher Education to activate disruption on a large scale. At the LSBU book launch for the book, editor Arun Verma and his panellists encouraged attendees to ‘be your most disruptive self’ by building a community of resistance, implementing a culture of responsible accountability, and demonstrating the impact of anti-racist practices to senior leadership through measurable indicators. At its core, the book is an ode to intersectionality and a commitment to building an anti-racist learning experience for the next generation of students.
We sat down with Arun to discuss his action guide in further detail, and hear more about the role of intersectionality, action and disruption in dismantling structural racism in Higher Education.
In your book you bring together multiple voices to demonstrate the need for an action guide for anti-racism. How did this idea first come about?
I finished my PhD on intersectionality back in 2018 and have been working to understand how people put this theory and metaphor into practice ever since. Having been a student, a lecturer and a researcher, I’ve observed and experienced inequality in the sector first-hand – it’s a well-documented issue. What I couldn’t find was – how do you tackle this? How do you erase this gap between opportunities for Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff and their White colleagues? I spent most of my doctoral research looking at the theory and literature of intersectionality but struggled to find tangible activities or learning exercises that could be used to effect transformational change. When the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum in 2020, there was a definite shift – I, along with my peers, had been talking about intersectionality for about 7 years, but finally, people were more engaged and eager to see lasting change. For me, that meant opening up this conversation around intersectionality and anti-racism.
I started by putting on events, to see if people were interested in discussing these ideas in more detail – the first event was intended as a safe space for Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff and students to come together, and then I led a second event which involved everyone in the conversation. Through the discussion we had in these safe spaces, I ended up with around 50 or 60 people who were interested in creating a plan for how the sector could move forward. It was initially meant to be a sort of white paper, or an open letter, but I got so many contributions from across all the core functions of the Higher Education system that it evolved into something more.
The biggest achievement, I feel, is that I put the call out in June 2020, and six months later, we had a full book. Two years after that, it was published. The contributors had this collective frustration, solidarity and anger, and this book was about channelling all of that pain into something that could help to reform the sector. I've been so grateful to work with these authors, who were really honest and vulnerable in sharing their experiences, and the feeling I got was that people didn’t want to theorise it, they didn’t want commitments – they wanted action. We used this momentum to put this action guide together and put it out there so that individuals can go to senior leadership and say ‘This is what needs to happen. This is the change we need to see.’ What we have now is a fully formed action guide for anti-racism, split into sub-chapters that discuss the different areas within a university system and share tools to drive equity, equality, diversity, inclusion and intersectional programmes in Higher Education.
What’s the difference between being inclusive and being anti-racist?
I think this is important because there is a difference. Of course, they are related to the same goal, but I think that actually being anti-racist requires more work from the individual and from an institution. We're asking people to confront themselves, to really explore their identities, their privileges, their oppressions, and make sense of it in a way that can help level the playing field. So, I think inclusion is a great thing to always work towards. But I think to be anti-racist is to confront your own legacies and history to disrupt structures that perpetuate racism, which is a difficult thing to do. In the book, we’ve included some reflective questions to help with this and facilitate that level of introspection. Diversity and inclusion are huge buzzwords at the moment, and you see recruitment all over the place for these roles, but how many institutions can say that they’re using an anti-racist perspective to drive their diversity and inclusion work?
It comes back to intersectionality. One thing about this book is that I didn’t want it to be overly led by academics. I wanted professional support staff to contribute; I wanted students to contribute. We’ve included activists, HR staff, library managers – all of those voices coming together to show that books don’t have to be written just by academics. Even having a doctorate is quite privileged in some ways, and I think true inclusion is about making sure everyone has an opportunity to share their perspective. In the past few years, universities have changed a lot – they used to be led by academics, and now they’re much more involved with business and innovation. All those voices from those different functions are necessary to do that difficult work of becoming anti-racist, and truly inclusive.
One of the things I’ve noticed is that it’s not always the big statements and promises that make the difference, as these can take longer to implement. I think that compassion is the core tenant of anti-racism – the conversation can get quite politicised and yet, it’s also about small acts of kindness, which I think is so powerful. There’s one institution I’ve come across who were encouraging students to audio-record their names on their e-mail signatures so that staff know how to pronounce names correctly. It’s mandating and implementing those kinds of changes that can really help to make students and staff feel like they belong.
You mentioned your book has been structured to focus on different core functions of Higher Education. Can you give an example of how you’ve done this?
We had different experts taking part at each stage to help break these big topics down into manageable sub-chapters. For example, our chapter on pedagogies that enable racism focuses on the curriculum. That means looking at design, development, delivery, who's teaching, reconsidering the reading, the knowledge shared and critiqued, and shifting the cultural competence of staff. There’s a whole range of factors to consider when it comes to looking at curriculum through an anti-racist lens. Again, this is where the book benefits from people sharing their own lived experiences – the contributing authors highlighted key points where racism can be perpetuated, and it could be something as simple as not diversifying a reading list all the way down to challenging how knowledge and theory are used in teaching practice. A lot of the ideas we’re used to prioritising in academia are Eurocentric, which means we’re only teaching students from one perspective. So, one of the questions that we raise in the book is ‘how can the curriculum be culturally intelligent?’ It’s a big question to ask, but it’s a way for those involved in curriculum design or academic scholarship to start thinking proactively about whether a course is inherently geared towards white students.
I think the chapter that looks at university identity is really interesting, too. I found it fascinating that there has been no literature exploring anti-racist practices in branding, communications and marketing functions in universities. Similarly to the third sector, there’s a lot of saviorism in the way universities speak to students, particularly when it comes to internationalisation strategies. We see universities making a point of how many students they have from different countries, and how they’re improving their lives, and we see it in the language they use when talking about international students. But there’s no research on how universities plan themselves to be these globally leading institutions – I’d like to see universities reviewing their entire branding, marketing, and communication strategies with an anti-racist lens, and making sure the teams driving these projects are not only diverse but also literate in terms of race equality and anti-racism.
You describe your book as an ‘action guide’ for anti-racism. What are the first steps that senior leadership teams can take on this journey?
Lots of organisations have called for a full restructure, or drastic transformation, but I don’t think that’s realistic. It’s more about how you can make smaller changes in how your teams operate. A lot of universities are already doing some fantastic work on anti-racism, and sometimes it’s just a question of expanding that work across the whole institution rather than concentrating on just one department. At the end of the day, it’s about challenging institutions on the commitments they make towards inclusion – for example, is race equality being reported on? Who keeps track of how different teams are performing in terms of anti-racism in relation to diversity? Again, it’s about nudging people to think about these things differently.
Instead of first steps, I’d probably think about it more as core anti-racism goals. For me, participation is critical – the United Nations Child Rights Convention Article 12 talks about the ways in which children have the right to participate in decisions that are going to impact them. Why are we not following this principle in diversity and inclusion work? Those who are marginalised should be directly involved in institutional decisions that are going to change their outcomes and experiences. So, the notion of participation is critical. And I think we have to talk about governance here – the level of racial diversity in executive teams and senior leadership is incredibly low, and when you look at how recruitment is structured or how job descriptions are written, it’s clear that racialised people of colour are being excluded. I think this is an idea that goes beyond anti-racism, too. When you think about diversity in this way, you also tackle other issues – inequalities like ableism, or transphobia. It’s so important to always come back to who is being involved in the decision-making process, and how this impacts those it is for.
I think the other thing I should point out for senior leadership teams is that I edited this action guide alone, working with contributing authors and a wider network of support, without any resources or grant funding. I did it in my own time, working with a community of people who were passionate about change. If I can do that, there’s got to be ways in which institutions can draw on the resources they have to set these ideas in motion. I think this book lays out the stepping stones to help institutions begin this process, and empower students and staff to take part in developing a more inclusive and anti-racist culture. I’m so excited to see how institutions and individuals use it to inform, to strategise and to build their own action plans, so that future generations of staff and students entering the Higher Education community have a different experience.
Anti-Racism in Higher Education: An Action Guide for Change is available for purchase now at policy.bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/anti-racism-in-higher-education.
About the Author
Arun Verma is a strategic leader in co-creating and implementing equity, diversity, inclusion, anti-racism and intersectionality initiatives into meaningful strategic and operational approaches. As an innovator, Arun practices relational and transformational leadership that embraces systems thinking, complexity and creativity to achieve strategic vision and create positive social change against critical challenges facing vulnerable communities. You can find out more about Arun’s work on intersectionality, anti-racism and inclusion here.