By Vanessa Madu, Undergraduate, Department of Mathematics
So it’s September, social media feeds are back to normal, the only chanting you hear in the street is the jolly song of ‘socially distanced’ pub-goers on a Friday night and it feels as though the world is slowly turning a blind eye to one of the biggest injustices happening in the world today.
On 25 May 2020, a horrendous act of police brutality took the life of George Floyd. Police brutality was an issue that was known to be particularly bad against the Black community in the United States but this time it was different. This time it was filmed. The entire world grabbed a hold of this and many different people, organisations, cities and even whole countries stood in solidarity with the Black community.
However, I was focused on what was happening closer to home at Imperial. The population of Black students and staff at the College is known to be low, showing that we have a long way to go to truly becoming a ‘global university’. Though the College as a whole responded to Floyd’s death, some departments across Imperial didn’t reach out to their staff and students and respond directly to the events that were going on. A vast majority of students don’t interact with the College as an entity; we find our communities within our departments, and by not responding, it felt like they weren’t working to actively support us or promote an anti-racist culture. This is something that I wanted to work to change. It is extremely important that every department at the College stands with and is making commitments to support their Black students.
So I put out a survey. I wanted to know if this was an experience that was unique to me or if the feeling was more widespread. As a mathematics student, I have an appreciation for data and am very used to looking at numbers and being able to tell what they mean. The survey had more than 250 responses from students and staff of many different backgrounds from the faculties of Engineering, Medicine and Natural Sciences and from reading each of these responses, a number of disappointing things became clear.
The first thing that the survey highlighted to me was the need for departments to not only say that they are anti-racist and working towards broader representation and diversity, but also to show how they’re doing this. Some respondents felt that a number of departments gave vague responses to the Black Lives Matter movement, without commitment to action. This left their Black students without the reassurance of knowing what actionable plans to fight racism – in both the short- and long-term – are being made.
Systems for reporting racism
More than 84% of the students surveyed did not know the systems that are in place to report racism in College, and a large proportion of the Black community in particular felt that in order for their reports of racism to be believed, they needed to gather excessive amounts of evidence and have as many witnesses as possible.
Big actions are taking place on the College-wide stage but once we get down to the departmental level, there can be a feeling that racism is not being addressed as seriously as other types of discrimination, as members of the Black community feel they need to mentally prepare themselves to report instances of racist behaviour. From this it is clear that, while Imperial has made efforts to increase diversity in its staff and student populations, there is still a way to go in making Imperial feel inclusive for every member of its Black community.
The survey also highlighted a student voice issue. Almost one third of the students surveyed said that they didn’t get in touch with their department asking for action because they did not feel as though their voice would be heard.
Why do students feel this way? Is this specific to the discussion of racial matters or do these students feel as though they don’t have a voice in College issues more generally? Departments need to think about how to create the type of cultures that enable all students to feel as though their voice matters and makes a difference.
Another interesting issue that arose is related to being a White ally. Some survey respondents agreed that, though it’s important to be vocally anti-racist, they don’t feel as though it’s their responsibility to be critical of their department for a lack of action. Racism is not an issue for Black people to fix. Racism, especially systemic racism, is caused by a societal system designed to work for those who are White.
This is not to say that people who are White don’t have issues and problems, but instead to highlight that those who are White don’t generally face problems and issues because they are White; this is not the case for Black people. Racism is everyone’s problem, wherever you’re from and however it affects you, and in order for the students at Imperial to begin to adopt this perspective, the College needs to lead by example.
Committing to change
Imperial has a way to go to in becoming a more ethnically diverse place and in developing and communicating the support that’s available for its Black students and staff, but progress has been made. After having discussions with the Head of the Department of Mathematics, I saw some very exciting commitments to change.
These include: members of staff continuing to attend Imperial as One meetings to better understand the experiences of their Back colleagues; working to bring in Black speakers; a new mentoring programme for Black students and the use of a generous legacy gift to the Departments of Physics and Maths for several full three-year scholarships for BAME students.
One thing I did learn from this experience is that student voices are more valuable than many students themselves might think. Yes, it might feel like I had to jump over hurdles to help make change happen, but my experiences and opinions were listened to, and the Department’s commitment to becoming more actively anti-racist evolved as a result of that. The Department of Maths is showing a great example and I hope that patterns like this are happening all over College.
The Black Lives Matter movement might come and go from the mainstream media but we, as a College community, need to make sure that we don’t go quiet with it. This isn’t the time to go back to normal; this is the time to be loud.
If you’ve experienced discrimination, bullying or abuse of any kind you can find confidential help and support via the links below.
Students can raise any worries or issues with their personal tutors, senior tutors and supervisors. Find out more about:
Staff can report issues to their line managers and Heads of Department. Find out more about: