This is an incredibly difficult time for our black community at Newcastle. The murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and many other black people in America has rightly and long-overdue sparked a movement that we all need to be accountable for and play our part in.
It’s too easy to solely point our fingers at the US, their warped justice system and systemic racism. The UK is not innocent. Police brutality, racial profiling, the disproportionate amount of black people in prisons, the socio-economic inequalities that black people face on top of just the fact that we started the British Empire should be enough to be a UK-wide wakeup call. And our universities are not innocent too. Whilst there are many individual students and staff already taking a stand against racism, and have been doing so for a number of years, Newcastle University as an institution and our Students’ Union as an organisation need to be doing more to becoming proactively anti-racist and dismantling the systemic inequalities that makes it difficult for our ethnic minority students and staff to thrive and feel included on campus. Here’s why the Black Lives Matter movement is just as relevant to us, the students and staff of Newcastle University.
Students and staff are waiting for a genuine response to the Black Lives Matter movement. As the email sent on 4 June showed, Newcastle University went into defense mode - presumably because of the amount of pressure from email traffic - and produced an email which was quite frankly disappointing. The email overemphasised the positive progress that had been made so far, and promised that they are “working hard to ensure that they can study, work and live in a safe, enabling and inclusive environment”. Students needed a response where the University admits its shortcomings and failings and outlines binding targets that have been set to reduce inequalities for black and ethnic minority people, as well as highlighting the positive progress that has been made so far. The email, like many other university responses across Higher Education, epitomises institutional white fragility: the inability to admit to complicity in racism and instead using the story so far as a form of defense mechanism. Save the guilt - what students and staff need is authenticity and honesty.
For black students and staff, there needs to be personal communications. We need a statement that speaks to black students (not one guised in the acronym “BAME”) showing solidarity and support at this time. The events have been traumatic and the pain felt hardest by black people who have had to watch numerous black people be murdered on their screens whilst knowing that justice has not yet been served to many of these victims. The least our black students deserve is a recognition of their pain.
All of this demands to be set in the local context. The North East is an incredible place, and many of us love, adore and miss it because of how much it has to offer. But whilst we look towards and appreciate how beautiful it undeniably is, for black students it is a hot-bed of slave money and the foundations of shackle production. The very place that our Newcastle students are being asked to protest in, Monument, lies on Blackett Street, named after John Erasmus Blackett, an employee of George Cunliffe who was a Liverpool slave trader, trading slave-produced Jamaican rum. Newcastle and the North East made shackles which were used to restrain captured African slaves. Many early benefactors of the University were predominant slave traders. Whilst we look towards the beauty of our city and campus, we always need to be mindful that, we were built with tarnished money. This is an incredibly tough time, but it’s worthwhile highlighting the positive movements we’re making, the more beautiful aspects of NE history, including that Newcastle was (for a short time), home to Frederick Douglass, a notable social reformer and slavery abolitionist. We need to take account of our history together, not aspects of our history, all of it.
Newcastle is not a diverse enough place for our students, and we have a part to play in this. Newcastle University and NUSU both have a way to go in relation to recruitment of BAME staff and students (have a read of the recent Courier article about the lack of black professors at Newcastle University). Our educational spaces, our libraries, our campus cafes and our accommodations are all overwhelmingly white.
There are some stark inequalities for students of colour, but particularly black students, highlighted in Newcastle University’s Access and Participation plan. It’s not good enough to solely be transparent in these inequalities, but to make a difference in making a more equal learning space for students of colour. For both the lack of diversity and educational inequalities for students of colour, we need reassurance as to when these deep-rooted inequalities will be addressed and accountability for when promises are not kept.
I’m honoured to work with Sara - she educates, pushes and questions me on a daily basis, and I’m incredibly lucky to have such a powerful black woman by my side. But this situation is taking its toll on our black friends and peers - give them permission to digest this heart-wrenching information. We non-black people are privileged to be surrounded by black people willing to educate us on the mistakes of our ancestors. We are privileged to not have lived experience, but to be able to ‘learn’ and ‘educate ourselves,’ so do so. We need to do this together. Non-black students, do more, educate yourselves…please!
Katie Smyth, NUSU President
To all my black brothers, sisters and peers, I feel your pain and I know the fight for equality is beyond exhausting. Remember, you are not here to be an educator to white people, you are not here to comfort anyone’s guilt and you are not here to be a spokesperson on blackness or racism. These choices should always be afforded by you. As Katie has said, white people are more than capable of learning what racism and privilege mean conceptually and how it translates to their lived experiences. Ensure you prioritise your wellbeing and allow yourself to feel any feelings that come up - whether that is irritation, anger, sadness, disillusionment. These are all valid feelings.
Sara Elkhawad, NUSU Welfare & Equality Officer
From both of us, to our Newcastle students, we miss you, we’re here to support you where we can, we stand by you and we look forward to a time when we can come together again, bring about much needed change and be together again, as the Newcastle student community that we are.
Sara is running a safe space support session on Monday 8 June at 4pm - email firstname.lastname@example.org to join and get Zoom link.
To find more information on how to educate yourself, look after your own mental health or support black students, see here.