Equality & Diversity – Blog

Equality & Diversity – Blog

This section of THESIS is co-ordinated by Dr. Ilham Sebah and focuses on enhancing and celebrating equality and diversity in our student and staff population. The college is actively working on a range of projects to eliminate barriers for BAME staff and students, such as targeted coaching and mentoring schemes, and a project to further diversify the curriculum.

Decolonising the curriculum

A project is being designed with students as co-creators that aims to review and make changes to the psychology curriculum in order to make it more inclusive.

This project has two strands:

  1. To review the diversity of our existing teaching content and materials, and to highlight areas where we need to make improvements to the diversity of our educational provision.
  2. To work with our students to explore their views on diversity in our department, in the content we teach and the teaching infrastructure that we have established, and to use these insights to further develop our approaches to teaching to ensure that all of our students feel represented and heard within our department. This project will involve focus groups led by students in order to gain more of an insight into what students would like and what they would benefit from in relation their learning experiences.

Supporting BAME students

Dr Ilham Sebah, Teaching Fellow in Psychology, Royal Holloway

The death of George Floyd in May 2020 and the ongoing Black Lives Matters (BLM) protests have been a stark reminder that inequality and racism continues to blight humanity and is, unfortunately, very much part of everyday life for many people in our community. These events have ignited several global discussions about race, racism and white privilege. Here at Royal Holloway, we were appalled to learn about the discrimination that some of our students face, as well as how some BAME staff felt about whether the college would make meaningful changes in light of BLM. (‘Supporting BAME students as a BAME staff member‘ ‘Supporting BAME students‘)

Here in the department of Psychology, we have been working on creating concrete action items to address these issues on campus. The college is actively working on a range of projects to eliminate barriers for BAME staff and students, such as targeted coaching and mentoring schemes, and a project to further diversify the curriculum. The Equality and Diversity Committee within the department of Psychology was recently created to ensure that we seriously engage with the systemic and structural nature of racism and take action that moves beyond tokenistic initiatives in order bring about tangible changes. Some recent actions have included the launch of the Sarah Parker Remond Studentship to support individuals from a minority background who wish to undertake a PhD, and the MANDALA programme, a college initiative BAME career development programme which focuses on supporting colleagues to understand and overcome systemic barriers. We are committed to tackling issues around the BAME attainment gap and increasing BAME representation on key decision-making committees. We will continue our efforts to identify and implement clear actions and objectives to bring forward the promotion of racial equality through our pedagogy, with the aim of creating an inclusive curriculum that has students as co-creators. Conversations across the college regarding race equality are being facilitated and equality and diversity activity is communicated through the weekly newsletter.

Whilst progress has been made in the right direction, we acknowledge that this is only the start of what will be a lengthy process to dismantle such complex and long-standing issues. We are also aware of the need for more targeted work, especially with regards to the issue of racial discrimination on campus. The college takes a zero tolerance position to racial discrimination, harassment and prejudice and has set out to improve measures and increase confidence in the action taken following a race-related incident. RHUL Be Heard is a platform that provides accessible and anonymous reporting for victims of sexual harassment/assault, discrimination or hate crimes.

The events that have taken place globally this year, including the BLM campaign as well as the coronavirus pandemic disproportionately affecting BAME communities, have served to amplify existing concerns of inequality. We are committed to listening and ensuring that BAME staff and students are actively involved in identifying and developing the initiatives that we are working on. We hope that our collective efforts will ensure that Royal Holloway remains an inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone.

Due to some of the points raised by this blog, the college has attempted to improve its practice in equality and diversity. For more on changes the college has made, see this blog

Supporting BAME students as a BAME academic staff member – Dr Vandana Desai, Senior Lecturer in  Development Geography, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway.

As an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) officer in the department, emails and questions were being asked on what the department is doing for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. I know how angry, disturbed and distracted I was in those weeks. Academic staff wanted solidarity statements on departmental web pages and twitter accounts, which many departments and college complied with.  I strongly believed statements don’t necessarily commit to anything. If a department hasn’t been proactive in doing anything particularly for its BAME community (student and staff), what do these statements of solidarity mean?  Are these vacuous words, easily made from seats of privilege with no consequences to personal lives? The department and I were very concerned about the gestural nature of tweeted support, in a context where our public department twitter account is not one that has shown sustained commitment to these issues. Would a generic public message make BAME students feel supported or instead work towards making genuine, proactive change from a departmental level to support our BAME students?

Students in the department wrote a letter to the college Principal with 96 signatories urgently calling for recognition of the murder of George Floyd in the US and protecting our BAME community at Royal Holloway and for their pain and anger to be acknowledged and recognised.  This responsibility is particularly important to those students in already disadvantaged and marginalised groups whose interests are not guaranteed by society more widely to ensure their worries and concerns are listened to and addressed. During a time when BAME communities were especially hit by the global health crisis of Covid-19, it was a particularly difficult time for BAME staff and students around the world struggling to cope with the pain caused by yet another tragedy to their community and struggling to set aside their anger to concentrate on anything else, including academic work.  Students were granted extensions for extenuating circumstances, or extra time in completing their alternative assessments in these already difficult times.  The general consensus was that students would greatly appreciate a department-wide email expressing our solidarity and support to our BAME community, to ensure that this reaches all members of the Geography department who may not have social media or see social media posts.

As a BAME academic staff member, I felt aware of my own responsibilities to BAME staff and students.  I felt that we need to collectively work with support and sensitivity towards anti-racism in and around our campuses. A small practical thing we could do was to organise an open meeting in the department for students to participate.  This would help students raise issues, voice their concerns, take it to the departmental board and include a few changes on how things can be done in the future.  It just seemed a way to channel the hurt being expressed and bring changes into our systems so it has a positive legacy.  The meeting led to some really insightful perspectives from students and was beneficial to hear from (e.g. fieldtrip, decolonising the curriculum, support for students within the department).  Wider student involvement can help develop possible initiatives and also share the burden rather than it becoming stressful on one individual EDI representative.   Hence it was decided that the department will be having EDI representatives on the Staff-Student Committee and the EDI meetings within the department from next academic year.

Now that the term has ended, I am wondering what next? Staff are concentrating on research and wanting a well-deserved annual holiday before it all begins again for another year.  Is this all forgotten? How do students and staff keep momentum that was gained during the BLM movement a few months ago?  What structures are we developing within departments and college for reporting future experiences of racial abuse and discrimination against BAME students or staff? (For example creating safe space and inclusive environment within the department/college, understanding the emotional/disclosure burden for student representatives and others who raise concerns). We obviously don’t want empty rhetorical statements from a few weeks ago all forgotten.

I would expect college and departments to be vocal about the realities of the distinct and institutionalised injustices faced by the BAME community within college.  Silence on these matters in the next academic year at Royal Holloway would resonate Bishop Desmond Tutu’s (1984) words best – “By remaining silent in situations of injustice, you have ultimately chosen the side of the oppressor” – and that is shameful.  Non-BAME staff and students have a responsibility to influence and turn the tide towards a fairer and safer academic environment for BAME academics and students. Also collectively there is the power to carry out real, transformative change and invest in our institution fighting to eradicate systemic inequalities (e.g., BAME attainment gap, race and gender pay gap). BAME students and staff do not want empty rhetoric. They want to see more proactive, meaningful efforts to take action and openly support students and staff. The voices of our BAME students and staff from a few weeks ago are not forgotten, and are respected and upheld with care and compassion.  It is also important to understand the emotional burden on BAME student and staff in raising these issues over and over again. Institutions/college already have evidence in the form of statistical data and equality assessment reports outlining what is needed.  It’s time for actions rather than words or more interviews, surveys or focus groups with BAME students or staff.

The Black Lives Matter movement has certainly been a catalyst in provoking some important conversations within our department and we look forward to working together with our students. It’s easy to make a quick statement about events miles away, but much more difficult to actually make the changes in your own institution that would make a real difference.  RHUL has an amazing history on fighting for rights of equality but at the moment I feel it has a long way to go.

Due to some of the points raised by this blog, the college has attempted to improve its practice in equality and diversity. For more on changes the college has made, see this blog.

Supporting BAME Students Pavan Bains, Psychology Graduate, Royal Holloway. 

Hi all, my name is Pavan. I recently graduated from Royal Holloway having studied Psychology. I would like to share my experiences and thoughts as an Indian student at RHUL.

While my experiences may resonate with other BAME groups, they certainly face their own unique difficulties, so it is important we do not generalise the ‘BAME’ experience. Understanding these unique difficulties is the only way to be able to fully address racism in universities. I will speak on my experiences, specifically.

You would think that coming to a university where people arrive from all parts of the world would create an environment where everyone is new and wants to mingle. Unfortunately, I did not find that that was the case. I found groups tended to be monocultural, rather than ethnically diverse. Perhaps this was not everyone else’s experience, but I personally felt like an outsider in groups where people were predominantly White. White British people appeared to be more comfortable with people who were also White, even if they came from a different culture. This bias was subtle, but I noticed it throughout my degree. Again, I’m sure other people have other experiences, but this was an issue I personally faced.

Furthermore, there were occasions during my time at RHUL where I experienced overt discrimination. For example, in my first year I had an encounter with a White male who was drunk. This person asked me where I am from, to which I responded East London as that is where I was born and raised. He then rephrased and asked what my ethnicity is, to which I said Indian. His immediate response was ‘my people used to own you.’ Whenever I look back on this incident, I am incredibly enraged. However, at the time of the incident, I was in too much shock to offer a response. I would love to go back in time and change my response, but what I would love more is if we lived in a society where nobody would dare say something like that. Some may argue that he was just ‘drunk’ and didn’t mean it. I do not tolerate racism, and I do not tolerate people trying to justify racism either. To experience this fairly early on in my first year of university disappointed me, but I can’t say I was surprised. Individuals like this person are still present at RHUL, and they live their lives with no consequences.

Additionally, there is not enough Black staff in the university. It is quite disappointing that the university lacks Black representation in academia. The lecturing staff is predominantly White. There are some South Asian staff, which shows some progress, but White individuals still disproportionately make up the representation of academic staff. At the highest positions, this disproportionate representation appears to get worse. I imagine it is not encouraging for Black students to see no representation in academia. It is something I could never get over during my time at RHUL. There are no credible differences in intelligence, skills, and any other prerequisites to a career in academia between different races, so why is it that there is always more White staff in academia?

Things can be changed, though. The consequences for racism almost feel non-existent. There is little encouragement to report incidences, and the ‘culture’ at RHUL makes it feel like it would be bad to report it. Some students at the university make it seem like they will attack you for coming forward to report discriminatory incidents. Reporting an incident does not protect you from the possible abuse you will receive as a result. The university should provide concrete support, should any student be faced with a negative response for coming forward. A readily accessible way to report racism, ran by people who actually care about the topic and want to make a change, would be significantly better. It feels like the current system is there to tick a box. All universities have a way of reporting racism, yet there is still a shocking amount of racism in universities. Solely a means of reporting racism isn’t enough to tackle the issue at hand. In the current system, it feels like nobody cares and there will be no consequences. I know several individuals who have been discriminated against by senior staff. If some of the staff at the university are racist, it creates the impression that reporting racism is a waste of time because those at the ‘top’ are racist themselves.

An important step in the right direction involves changing hiring practices. I am Indian but I do not only care about injustices Indians face. There is a reason that less Black academics are hired, and it comes all the way down to the root level of Black students not being encouraged to pursue academia by lecturing staff. A big reason for that is the lack of Black lecturing staff. People want to see ‘people like them’ in the positions that they aspire to. It creates hope and motivation. Staff at universities have racist biases that covertly prevent Black people from obtaining PhDs and careers in academia. Current academic staff should be careful to ensure they do not inadvertently discourage students from pursuing a career in academia because of their background.

 On a positive note, I did enjoy my time at RHUL. I never felt discriminated against by any of the staff in my department specifically, but unfortunately I cannot say the same about all of the students and staff I encountered. There is certainly a drive in the university to do better, a drive I noticed in the Psychology department, and I am certain that things can change for the better, if efforts are made to do so. This is, in no way, an exhaustive list of my thoughts and experiences as an Indian woman at the university, but I believe it does illustrate the environment at RHUL. Some may disagree, but if you do, consider yourself privileged. Racism exists at RHUL, and you are fortunate if you were not subject to it.

To sign off, I want to make one thing clear. A ‘zero tolerance policy’ to discrimination has little meaning if no action is taken in response to discrimination. Empty words never accomplished anything. Remind yourselves of RHUL’s roots – a university opened in 1886 for women only, in a time that women weren’t allowed to study at many universities. RHUL was one of the first institutions to offer women access to higher education, at a time that they were fighting for the right to vote. RHUL was founded to fight for the minority, and it’s important that we never forget that and never let that legacy go.