Tackling Racial Inequality
The School of Biological Sciences is developing a BAME strategy to improve racial literacy, create an inclusive culture and ensure our practices celebrate diversity and enhance belonging for staff and students of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
I am committed to make the School of Biological Sciences a place where people of all ethnicities and backgrounds feel that they belong. In our School I will ensure we take action to remove the signs of institutional racism and raise levels of racial literacy.
These are uneasy times for us all, but this is especially acute for BAME staff and students, with COVID-19 disproportionately impacting this community and now comes the reminder that structural racism has not gone away in this world.
Although many of us are well meaning and our staff try their best to welcome everyone, recognising and tackling racism in all its forms means we must go further.
Our words must be backed up by action. We must be actively antiracist and advocate for minority groups. We are each responsible for improving our racial literacy, tackling unconscious bias and confronting racism wherever we find it.
Where are we now?
It is not enough for us to say that we are against racism in all its forms. We must listen and build a greater understanding of the lived-experience of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in our community and our society.
The problems we face are laid bare in the powerful document ‘Thematic Review on Black and Minority Students’:
While our black and minority ethnic students are proud to be at the University of Edinburgh, their stories and experiences are indicative of a significant lack of racial literacy among staff as well as from fellow students.
We need to understand the way that the structures and practices of a mostly white university with a history dominated by white men can insidiously seep into the feelings of those of other ethnicities and genders, leaving the message that they do not belong here.
What are we doing?
I do not simply want to state our solidarity and support for Black Lives Matter and the student and staff groups that are advocating for overdue change.
I want to go further and commit to actions that attempt to eradicate structural racism in our School and University.
So we are committed to:
- Close the BAME student attainment gap - 12% in our School
- Improve the representation of BAME staff issues within our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) structures and more broadly
- Improve our recruitment of BAME staff at all levels
- Enhance the racial literacy of all our staff and students through training and by opening up this conversation and keeping it on our agenda
Racial literacy means having the understanding and practice to recognise, respond and counter forms of every day racism or racial micro-aggressions at all levels, personal, cultural and institutional.
Here are a couple of examples that highlight some of the steps we have taken.
Displays of the predominantly white male holders of established chairs, may have some historical value, but are viewed by many as a reminder (even a celebration) of the dominance in the science hierarchy by one group.
These en masse displays are being re-thought and replaced by a celebration of achievement of the diversity of our staff and students
We will still display pictures of our most famous professors, but they will be contextualised and will not appear all together in the way they have done in the past.
Some have viewed the decolonisation of the curriculum as a process that can only be applied in the humanities and social sciences; NOT TRUE!
There are many examples of significant scientific achievement of people of different ethnicities and cultures that we currently fail to highlight to our students. By highlighting diversity in science and defocusing from white men by including other groups whenever possible, as well as presenting historical findings in we will go some way to re-dress the balance.
We have already committed to make sure that material displayed in lectures is not racially offensive. So, we will ensure that appropriate images and examples are used for teaching materials, with special attention paid to depictions of people of colour in our courses that deal with tropical diseases and epidemiology. For instance, it is unacceptable to show African people suffering from parasitic diseases in a degrading light, whether there are BAME students present or not, as this perpetuates stereotypes; we would not show similar pictures of white Europeans.
This is not just about avoiding offence, but understanding that such material conveys a message about black Africans and African society that is insulting, degrading and in large part inaccurate. Instead our emphasis will be to ensure the curriculum and classroom activities create an enjoyable and inclusive learning experience for all.
These examples illustrate two things:
1. How the mostly inadvertent, ‘normal’ behaviours of white people and the celebration of predominantly white society’s history may cause discomfort or even insult to people of colour by implied or explicit exclusion. Discomfort = lack of belonging
2. Action to avoid these offences must be far higher up our list of priorities. The Thematic Review delivered to the University Executive over a year ago, is now beginning to see action taken, but it is the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement that has given the impetus to expand our activities, awareness and commitment .
This slow rate of change cannot continue, we must speed up repairing our culture to make it inclusive, celebrating diversity and enhancing belonging of all ethnicities and backgrounds.
An eloquent vison of the journey we are beginning can be found in an open letter to the University from Diversity@Edinburgh Neuroscience. We fully endorse this.
Strategy and Leadership
As Head of School this is an issue that I feel passionate about and so with the help of many colleagues in the School of Biological Sciences and across the University, I guarantee actions that remove racism from our structures.
Our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion agenda within the School, led by Sinead Collins (interim SBS Director of EDI) and Karen Halliday (College Dean of Systematic Inclusion), will commit to the following:
- Ensuring that the Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee has BAME representation
- To develop and implement a BAME strategy for the School to alter our culture and practices – opening conversations and tackling key concerns such as race discrimination, cultural blindness, BAME student attainment gap and staff equality.
This is no quick fix, creating an inclusive culture requires consistently driving change across many areas over time.
What can I do?
Sign an open letter to the Principal
To influence the university to take action, you can sign an open letter from staff to the Principal, Peter Mathieson.
Submit your suggestions, comments and experiences
The School’s Equality and Diversity Committee welcome your suggestions, comments, experiences of racism in all its forms in the School or the University. These can be submitted anonymously.
We will use these comments to inform the School’s BAME strategy.
University of Edinburgh Reports and Further Reading
Book - Reni Eddo-Lodge: Why I'm no Longer Talking to White People about Race
Book - Afrua Hirsch: Brit(ish); On Race, Identity and Belonging
Book - Angela Saini: Superior: the return of race science