Being Human – Principal’s Blog, June 2020
Black Lives Matter, because
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
These are the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drafted by Eleanor Roosevelt (among others) in 1948, and they are my values.
Yet the shocking events in America - the brutal killing of George Floyd and treatment of protesters which followed, and the way in which the Covid crisis lays bare many of the structural inequalities in our society against Black people – are shocking, distressing and frightening.
They show that the ideals of the Universal Declaration are very far from being fulfilled, in social institutions across the world, including higher education institutions, and including our own.
In a world full of so much violence and injustice, how can we stop the words of the Universal Declaration just being empty statements? Can we do it? To borrow words from a fine American equality advocate, yes we can.
Yes we can. But it takes work.
Mansfield is part of Oxford University. The University is part of the social power structures of this country which have upheld racial inequality for hundreds of years. It is a culturally powerful place. So we need to recognise that we can and must seek to redress the ongoing historic and cultural legacy of racism.
I pledge to work with the Governing Body, and JCR and MCR benches at Mansfield to secure an environment which respects, protects and promotes the equal dignity and worth of all people, including recognising what positive steps are needed to secure everyone’s equal capacity to live lives they would wish.
Mansfield has put its voice to supporting Black Lives Matter on its social media channels; I have contributed to collective letters on this subject both in the national media (read the letter in The Guardian) and on the Oxford University website (read the open letter on the University website).
I do not believe that expressions of support are empty performative acts: solidarity matters. But so does capturing the impetus for change which has been generated by following up with practical action to address patterns of discrimination and inequality and disadvantage in our society.
At Mansfield we already do quite a lot of this. We pride ourselves on our pluralism and diversity, but we are not complacent. We know that our college is not perfect, and we recognise that our Governing Body (as with most academic institutions in this country) does not represent the racial diversity of our society. So we need to listen to the voices of our students, and wider civil society, in deciding what more should be done. As the disability rights activists of the 1990s said, ‘there should be nothing about us, without us.’
As well as our longstanding and successful access and outreach work, and work of many of academics on diversifying the curriculum, here are some of the things we have done to support Black and other BAME students at Mansfield this academic year:
• Last term, the JCR BAME Representative, Mustafa Iqbal, and I organised a well-attended meeting for Black and other BAME students to talk about their experiences and support Mansfield could give them with issues including micro-aggressions. We acted on their advice (including on staff training) and have offered financial support for BAME students to hold mutual support groups and socials.
• In discussion with the BAME student representatives, and with the enthusiastic and imaginative support of our fellows, the College Librarians have refreshed reviewed and updated our collections, so there is now an up-to-date collection of academic work about equality in the Mansfield library, covering a range of disciplines. There are now prominent links and clear guidance about how to find these works in the “Mansfield College Library Equality Guide” and a display of books and links to online resources about understanding racism.
• To encourage broadening the range of academic collections across Oxford, we have shared our work with other College libraries and the Bodleian.
• We will also spread information about links provided by @OxEARS to academic institutions and programmes at Oxford University and in the UK more broadly that are actively engaging with racism, slavery and white supremacy in British and American History.
• I have taken steps to ensure that speakers at our regular Friday talks are diverse, and that we discuss racism regularly openly and directly (for example, in 2019, Kamal Ahmed spoke about his experiences of racism; Anne-Marie Imafidon spoke about in STEM; we sponsored an MCR equality forum; Angela Saini spoke about her book “Superior”; and but for the Covid crisis, June Sarpong – head of Creative Diversity at the BBC – was due to speak here in May about diversifying voices and experiences in the media).
• As part of our college strategy, our Senior Tutor and Academic Policy Committee are identifying the practical steps we can take to diversify our academic body, and to promote pathways to academic and other careers which give voice to Black students.
I am also gathering groups of BAME students at Mansfield regularly, so that I might continue to listen to their ideas and learn from their experiences.
Redressing generations of racism is a process, not a one-off action, and it takes a community.
I hope that all our students will contribute to this process in their time at Mansfield. And I hope that, when our students leave us, they will look for sectors in which they see Black and BAME people under-represented, and use their education and voice to enter them, and to change them for the better.