Getting comfortable with the uncomfortable - talking race at work

Blog 9 Sep 2020
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Back view of man presenting to students at a lecture

This week, we launched a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Staff network at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM).

The first initiative of its kind at the school aims to support all UK and International staff that identify as BAME by raising awareness of race equality, and to promote the creation of a working and learning environment in which all staff, students, stakeholders, and visitors feel welcome, comfortable, respected and valued.

This is the result of 8 months of volunteering, but it has been one of my most rewarding personal endeavors so far at LSTM. Through the course of many frank and honest conversations with colleagues, I have had the opportunity to speak to, empathise with, and learn from many people whom I would not otherwise have met in my day to day role.

It has led to building new relationships, and having the honour and heavy responsibility of bringing new perspectives to leadership, and enabling the organisation to start to have uncomfortable conversations about race.

The network is a grass roots initiative which started from a realisation that there was a lack of representation of BAME staff at senior levels, and that the Higher Education sector in general was failing BAME staff and academics as illustrated recently by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) inquiry into racial bullying and harassment in higher education.

The report found that in all higher education establishments:

  • 24% of minority ethnic students had experienced racial harassment since starting their course
  • 3 in 20 university staff and 1 in 20 students left because of racial harassment
  • Over half of staff reported being ignored or excluded because of their race

In addition, according to 2019 data from Advance HE, the sector is already missing over 300 black professors and over 1500 black academics, something that is likely to only get worse after COVID19 given that BAME staff are more likely to be on fixed term contracts.

I have worked at several Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) and it has been the same story in most places I have worked. It became clear that as with many other UK HEIs, we needed clear and measurable action on race equality, and a collective voice was imperative to improve visibility and influence of ethnic minority staff.

The timing of the development of our network was important, it was developed in the midst of the global Black Lives Matter movement, and the realisation of the disproportionate impact of COVID19 on BAME communities. This has magnified the shocking health inequalities caused by structural racism that have always existed e.g. Black mothers in the UK are 5 time more likely to die during child birth.

We cannot make a change without the support of staff, students, partners and leadership, and we hope, over the course of the next 18 months to make an impact through focusing on a range of ambitious objectives to improve racial equality.

We hope to look back in 18 months and see change brought on by collective awareness and action, we appreciate this is a task that will take time, emotional energy, and positive disruption, but we will always stay committed to the cause.

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

James Baldwin

References

MBRRACE-UK (Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries across the UK)

Tackling racial harassment: universities challenged

Racial harassment in higher education: our inquiry The Equality and Human Rights Commission

Equality in higher education: statistical report 2019