In advance of the Centre for Equity & Inclusion official launch, Dr Alex Rajinder Mason shares his ambitions for the Centre and why he thinks it is important. He also highlights his fears about project managing something that could be exploited and used to reinforce the status quo.
Whilst we are increasingly seeing attempts to improve the undergraduate experience for students of colour, little emphasis is currently being placed on postgraduates. This is despite the growing body of literature highlighting how difficult university life can be for such students. At the University of Sheffield specifically, postgraduates of colour have highlighted how they feel othered by ‘the prevailing culture and environment of the institution’, and that the persistent upholding of elitism in predominately white academic spaces enforces the idea that they are ‘lucky to be here’ whilst entrenching feelings of isolation and ‘powerlessness’.
This speaks to my own PhD experience. Despite my supervisor’s unwavering support and my passion for the research being undertaken, I found the experience utterly isolating. I felt marginalised by the cultural interests, values and principles pushed by the Faculty and did my best to avoid both the university building and people within it. I struggled to find a community with which to share my daily frustrations, process my growing understanding and direct experience of race and racism, agitate for change, and simply decompress. There were very few people of colour in my cohort, and even fewer who expressed a similar interest in and commitment to racial justice. My ability to continue with and complete the doctoral programme was almost entirely dependent on making connections with socially conscious individuals outside the institution, most of whom were from racially marginalised backgrounds. I remember the sheer sense of relief, a quite literal release of physical tension, whenever I sat amongst such people, who aside from being critically astute also showed so much warmth in their interactions with me. Familiar with the debilitating effects of the university environment, they deliberately practised a politics of care. I never learned so much or felt so inspired as when I was in these circles.
It is my hope and ambition that the Centre offers the same sense of solace and direction to current and future postgraduate students of colour. Collaborating with esteemed organisations invested in racial and social justice, with deep ties to the local area, should not only help develop a core knowledge base, and an appreciation for the practical application of scholarship, but also provide some of the much-needed comfort, support and safety associated with community. Equally, it will enable students to share their growing expertise and personal experiences around race with these organisations and therefore help enrich the activities and outputs of those already doing important work in Sheffield. This is critical because as much as this Centre is about supporting postgraduates, it is also about facilitating a distribution of resources (intellectual, financial and otherwise) and ultimately dismantling power structures between the university and marginalised organisations in the city.
We do not underestimate the difficulty of this work, or the emotional toll it can take; especially when conducted within the hostile university environment. It is something that all of us connected to the Centre contend with on a regular basis. That is why we put such an emphasis on reflection sessions and mentorship. Whilst recognising the infeasibility of truly safe spaces, we still find value in facilitating private conversations amongst those facing similar experiences. Another way in which students can process, reflect on and share experiences and ideas is through the Centre archive, which helps students document their journey through creative expression. It will be my role as Project Manager to bring all of these different components together.
Despite my excitement about the Centre’s potential to deliver positive change, I also feel a certain ambivalence about being involved. I am acutely aware of the possibility, even likelihood, that the Centre will be used for University PR purposes, regardless of whether it delivers on its promises. It is telling that one of the first questions raised by the organisations involved in the Centre was about how much freedom they would have to express their thoughts about institutional racism. Underlying this question was the impression that the University had the power and motivation to start censoring partners if critiques suddenly became too pointed. Often at the receiving end of superficial and opportunistic acts of engagement, these organisations are well attuned to university double-speak. For this Centre to mean anything, its participants must have the freedom to talk plainly about current conditions. The Centre must then not only discuss changing these conditions for racially marginalised students and organisations, but actually move to change them.
There is a considerable risk that the Centre intensifies rather than disrupts the operation of systemic racism. It is so easy for once subversive anti-racist work to be subsumed by the university machine and used to sustain the status quo. Whilst the Centre provides an opportunity to maximise the impact of our work, it also threatens to compromise it completely. I take seriously the following warning issued by Dr Nadena Doharty (a Co-Director of the Centre), Dr Manny Madriaga and Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury (2020):
Institutions advance rather than dismantle racism by adopting the work of a few racially minoritized groups, but exploitatively draining the useful parts of their scholarship to meet institutional metrics and marketise fashionable buzz-words that appeal to social media hashtags. Therefore, whiteness, so invisible and “everyday” can result in BME scholars, becoming complicit in supporting the limited progress institutions herald as significant achievements – working themselves to the ground by sitting on and contributing to, a disproportionate number of Equality and Diversity, BME student support initiatives, Race Equality Staff networks, and Race Equality launches.
I, like many others, have succumbed to the pressure to take part in such activity during my time at the University, both as a student and staff member. Demands from senior figures (or direct line managers), a desperate desire to stimulate some change, any kind of change, and a general loss of perspective when it comes to discerning what constitutes radical transformation, reform, or more of the same, after long-term exposure to a staid institutional culture, all make us vulnerable to this kind of complicity. The stakes are particularly high for something as substantially resourced and visible as the Centre for Equity & Inclusion, which can cause real damage if it becomes just another vehicle for limited progress. I am genuinely anxious about dedicating at least three-years of my effort and energy to such an enterprise. As a student I saw myself as someone who railed against the institution. Now I have the capacity to uphold its interest. Ensuring this does not happen requires the utmost vigilance from myself and everyone attached to the Centre.
Self-reflection and transparency seem like important starting points. For the duration of my time with the Centre, I will be recording and sharing regular reflections on its development. These will be more organised and thematic when presented through monthly blog entries, and more ad hoc and varied when communicated via social media and elsewhere. This commitment to open reflection comes principally as an effort to hold myself to account and maintain my own sense of integrity. But it is also a mechanism for highlighting the everyday conversations, decision-making, conflicts, accomplishments and moments of progress that often take place behind closed doors when creating something like a Centre for Equity & Inclusion. I hope this is an important first step towards us delivering genuine change. But the fears remain.
Nadena Doharty, Manuel Madriaga and Remi Joseph-Salisbury. 2020. ‘The University went to “decolonise” and all the brought back was lousy diversity double-speak!” Critical race counter-stories from faculty of colour in “decolonial” times’. Educational Philosophy and Theory. 53:3, pp.233-244. DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2020.1769601