Updated: Feb 26
I came to Birkbeck because almost everyone that I'd met had only good things to say about the university, and the psychosocial studies department (for transparency I want to state that my Social Research and Psychosocial Studies MRes landed me in the school of Politics) – but I came to Birkbeck to belong to your department. As someone who tries to act with integrity, the communities that I belong to matter to me. When I am part of a learning community, I look to be surrounded by people who are committed to acting with integrity too. I’d heard lots about how much the institution cares about its students, how active lecturers were out in the world, in affecting change and how deeply committed the school was to social justice. I was really excited, I thought that we'd be a great fit. I was especially excited to read things like this on the department website:
“Psychosocial Studies researchers at Birkbeck are defining and shaping the field by investigating issues of social, political and personal concern such as violence and conflict, racism and diasporic experience, and care and welfare with the hope of throwing light on both the socio-political sources and psychological investments that help to sustain them”
As you teach us, structures of racism are supported by silencing people of colour. The erasure of our experiences often takes place when those more powerful than us re-write our truths through narratives that create the world through their eyes. Systems of inequality are sustained, in part, when those of us who challenge injustice are ignored, or when our challenges are framed as threatening to the fragility of those who perpetrate these injustices. Honestly, I was sadly not surprised when I heard that a white academic was using the 'N' word as an example to illustrate a concept in class, but I was disgusted to learn that when this lecturer was asked to stop by a student of colour, the lecturer shut the student down and responded in a way which implied that their reaction, and subsequent request was unreasonable.
While the wider stories linked to this situation are not mine to comment on really, I do want to share how absolutely heartbroken it makes me feel to hear that, even after this incident was brought to the attention of the department, and challenged by two people of colour, the institutional response was still incredibly poor. I tweeted a bit about this, and then imagined the same situation playing out again; my voice as a woman of colour being dismissed – possibly as needless and empty anger. So I wanted to write to you, personally, and tell you why I feel so deeply upset and angry about what I've heard.
My best learning happens when I feel connected, seen, heard and part of a community. I understand that part of our contract with one another in class is that I will be respectful of you, and other students present. I go the extra mile to make your job easier, and my learning experience more meaningful. I try to be fair in the amount of airtime I take up, try and respond to other people’s comments to get class moving and speak my truth, even if sometimes it makes me feel a little vulnerable – that is an important part of the learning experience for me. In return, the very least I expect from any of my lecturers is to take me seriously if I’m voicing how or why something matters to me. As far as I’m concerned, class or not, that is basic human kindness.
The way that we feel matters, the way that we make other people feel matters. Words especially, they cut deep. Now, I know you know this, but the ‘N’ word has a deeply loaded history, if anyone, but especially a black person is voicing their discomfort at hearing a white person say this word – continuing to use it, or dismissing that person is a heinous act of power. This situation is made unbearably heavy by the weight of the history that underpins it. This exchange and the following mess of silences and silencing that happened within the department is located in a deeply unjust and inhumane shared history. Dealing with racist incidents with deep clarity and integrity matters, especially in institutional contexts. If you search yourself – you know this to be true.
It matters to me that you recognise my expectations. It matters that you recognise my hurts, and the hurts that my sisters and brothers of colour carry with us into your classrooms. Racism is painful, it is affecting. I understand if you don’t always judge the situation correctly, but if I’m telling you how I feel about an action that is inappropriate, I am well within my right to expect you to acknowledge that it matters. I would do the same for you. It is your responsibility to have some understanding of the weight that we, as people of colour, feel landing on us when you use violent, racist language that carries years of injustice along with the bodies of our mutilated, broken, drowned, raped, killed, stolen, but wonderfully powerful, loving and incredibly resilient ancestors, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children. I ask that you take note when I voice anything about this. That is the bare minimum I should be able to expect from you.
As an act of solidarity, as a step towards justice – the bare minimum that I expect from my lecturers is that you respect me, or anyone, who expresses any discomfort at your inappropriate actions or use of language. I should be able to expect that you know enough about inappropriate behaviour, that you don't do these things in the first place. When you get it wrong though, I can understand if you misjudge your reaction in the moment - just. However, I need you to understand, that challenging you in situations like this is a deeply embedded, and necessary part of my politics. To gaslight and silence people of colour who are addressing acts of racism cannot be the precedent that you set for dealing with these incidents as they take place in your department.
I hope not to have to sit up until midnight on Diwali to have to write a letter like this again.
In fury, love and solidarity,
As always, we are trying to create an engaged learning community. If this piece spoke to you, please share - and maybe make space for reflections - so that others may engage with your thoughts, and with ours.