Category: Race equality

Combating racism at Imperial

Eradicating the impact of racism at Imperial requires us all to play our part, write Kani Kamara [Head, Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Centre] and Stephen Curry [Assistant Provost  (EDI)]

As we join the scientific community to address the deadly threat of the coronavirus pandemic, events in America in the past week have made us starkly aware that humanity faces another enormous challenge. They have brought to the fore the racism faced by black people, not just internationally but also here in the UK.

Black Lives Matter protesters in the US
Black Lives Matter protest in the US (photo by Daniel X. O’Neil, shared under a CC-BY licence)

While anyone who saw the footage of the killing of George Floyd or the police violence meted out to protestors will have been horrified, it is clear from the reactions of many of our black staff and students that these events have resonated especially strongly with them. They have spoken out eloquently and powerfully. The news from across the Atlantic stirs such visceral responses because it is yet another reminder of how racism affects black communities – and other ethnic minorities – in Britain every day.

The concern isn’t just fear of racist mistreatment by the police, although black people are far more likely than whites to be stopped and searched in London, or to die in police custody. Such incidents affect only a minority of black people. Rather, it is the cumulative effect of less visible stresses of stereotyping – the micro-aggressions (“Where are you really from?”), the promotions denied, the anxieties of racial harassment – that nevertheless accumulate in the statistics for education, health or employment. Anyone who cares to seek out the numbers will see that life in Britain is still permeated by racial inequality.

The statistics for Imperial College, currently being unearthed and examined for the first time by our Race Equality Charter (REC) self-assessment team, show us that as an institution we too are permeated by racial inequality. Progress is being made, but across the board – in student admissions, professorial appointments, in the career progression of professional and technical staff, and in surveys of staff and student experiences of life on our campuses  – a story of under-representation and unfairness is told and retold.

We are resolved to be clear-sighted about the scale of the challenge that we face and our REC submission, due in January 2021, will be accompanied by a concrete plan of action.

But of course there is no need to wait until then to take action. And nor should we expect Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic members of our community to bear the heavy responsibility of combating racism at Imperial. As our EDI Strategy makes plain, this is a task for all of us.

For white people, who are clearly in the majority at Imperial, it can be difficult to know how best to help. In part this is because we are unlikely ever to have experienced being racialised. That is our ‘white privilege’. We may well have other troubles and traumas in life, but racism is not one of them. Many white people may feel unsure or uncomfortable in broaching the topic of racism, but we can learn to become active allies to black staff and students and other people of colour.

To help with that, our EDI Centre has put together a webpage with guidance and resources to help people understand how to be a white ally. As well as practical suggestions, it has a reading list of articles and books and links to videos. We hope this will be useful to anyone keen to join the fight against racism but uncertain where to start.

These are steps forward. We know we still have a long way to travel. We have been brutally reminded of just how urgent this work is. Our commitment to inclusion and respect at Imperial remains undimmed and extends to all staff and students who carry the burden of inequality. But we will only lift that burden if each and every one of us knows how to stretch out a helping hand.


Changing culture and changing minds

A lot of the work to promote equality, diversity and inclusion at Imperial is about looking at our processes but it will also demand changes to our institutional culture. 

There are of course many positive aspects to the culture at Imperial already – we have lots of smart, highly-motivated and thoughtful staff and students in the College community. Even so, we know from looking at the demographics and from survey data that there is more to do to improve diversity and to try to ensure that everyone here has a true sense of belonging. 

BBC Radio4 web-page advertising the radio programme mentioned in the post

Improved processes can take us so far, but the culture of the place is key to helping people to feel that they are appreciated and understood. Culture is a hard thing to change. Partly that is because it is a hard thing to define. But it’s also because work to promote EDI inevitably takes place at the interface between what is desirable and what is possible. As any physicist or engineer will tell you, at interfaces there is always friction – and resistance. 

In my first two years as Assistant Provost for EDI, I have met people who have told me that “women and minorities get all the breaks these days”; that “you will never achieve gender equality”; that “we shouldn’t be wasting money on diversity”; or that “girls just don’t like physics”.  In each case I have tried to counter, but it isn’t easy and I haven’t always been successful. 

Even when there is agreement on where we should get to, there can be different perspectives – disagreements even – on how best or how fast get there.

Disagreements are difficult. Few of us seek them out, and many of us try hard to avoid them. But avoiding difficult problems is usually a good way to exacerbate them. So what is the best way to face up to disagreement, particularly if you are trying to change someone’s mind?

One way forward is to develop a better understanding of human behaviour and of strategies that have been shown to work. A fascinating BBC radio documentary presented by Margaret Heffernan addresses these challenges head-on.

In ‘Can I change your mind?’ Heffernan, who gave this year’s Athena Lecture at Imperial, explores the psychology, sociology and neuroscience of how we can easily become entrenched in our views. But she also talks to people who have shown that how carefully structured interactions can open minds and sometimes change them. I can recommend it highly. If we are going to make changes to the culture at Imperial, we will all probably need to think more carefully about how we interact with people who don’t share our experiences or our point of view. 


P.S. While on the subject of radio programmes and understanding difference, might I also recommend the recent episode of Desert Island discs, which featured the black American actor, Wendell Pierce? Pierce is currently starring in Death of a Salesman in London’s west end (a production I am determined to see) but is probably best know for his portrayal as Detective Bunk Moreland in ‘The Wire’. Desert Island discs can be a bit hit or miss – some subjects use the opportunity for grand-standing; but Pierce was extremely candid about the racism he experienced in his childhood in St Louis (his first choice of disc was not one I could have predicted!) and about the tension he feels between his higher aspirations and his human foibles.


Superior: the return of race science

I thought I would have time over the summer to post more regularly, but I see from the calendar that summer has gone. September is already half-finished and the start of term is hoving into view. The only way I am going to be able to post more often is to post more briefly, so here goes.

The imminent arrival of October means that an event that we have been planning for some time is almost upon us. At lunchtime on October 9th we will be hosting journalist, broadcaster and science writer Angela Saini to talk about her new bookSuperior: The Return of Race Science.

Advert for Angelan Saini's talk

This is Angela’s second visit to Imperial. She came a couple of years ago to talk about her previous book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research that’s Rewriting the Story.

Superior dissects the historical and political roots of race, why scientists can’t seem to look beyond it, and the disturbing ways in which scientific racism still exists today. It is a deeply researched and beautifully written book – I reviewed it for the Cosmic Shambles Blog.

As well as being a great writer, Angela is a great speaker and I can highly recommend her talk. Reserve your free seat by clicking on the Evenbrite link on this page.

For those who can’t make it to the South Kensington campus on the day, we will be live-streaming Angela’s talk using Panopto. This link will go live a few minutes before the talk is due to start. Please make sure to catch it live as we are not able to record the talk.

Angela’s talk is one of a number of events that will be happening to mark Black History Month and is part of our ongoing efforts to highlight and discuss important issues of equality, diversity and inclusion at the College – and in particular to apply for the Race Equality Charter award.