How far have we come on combating racism?

An event at the end of last week heard of the mental and physical toll racism takes on individuals.

African American businesswoman with colleague


The mental and physical toll of racism and the need for Black people to act strategically to preserve their wellbeing in the face of hatred was discussed at a Cambridge Festival event at the end of last week which looked at whether any real progress has been made since the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

Dr Claire Hynes, a Lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing, School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, said she had moved from being very involved in conversations with white people about the impact of racism to choosing when she needs to preserve her energy because people won’t listen. She now favours speaking in more supportive environments and is more strategic than she has been in the past. Professor Jason Arday, 2002 Professorial Chair in the Sociology of Education at the University of Cambridge,  said that Black and ethnic minority people continually have to exercise restraint in the face of racism and that internalisation of feelings that are being restrained can have a psychological and physical toll.

The two academics spoke at the session, which was chaired by Darren Lewis, Assistant Editor of the Mirror, about the racist statements by Conservative party donor Frank Hester about Diane Abbott. Dr Hynes said part of the difficulty she felt was caused by the constant repetition of what Hester said in the media. “Sometimes it is more about how these things are being discussed than about the words themselves, how it is being played out,” she said, adding that in a way the comments were very much out in the open so could be addressed whereas a lot of racism is more subtle.

Professor Arday commented that the position of Black women in society is “permanently precarious” and that their trauma is normalised. Hynes added that the demonstrations she saw on her social media feed against the attack on Abbott were, nevertheless, “very affirming”.

Both said that the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer and the subsequent protests were “a flashpoint”, but should be seen as one of many over the last decades.

From parenting to education

Both also spoke about how their parents had prepared them for the racism they would confront. Dr Hynes said her mum told her she would have to work twice as hard as white people. Professor Arday said that his dad told him at an early age that if he was stopped by the police he should drop his shoulders and adopt a soft body posture so as not to seem threatening.

The discussion also covered the education system and in particular the lack of Black academics at British universities. Dr Hynes said she felt her school had low expectations of her and so she didn’t think university was for her. She went into the media and eventually did a PhD. When someone suggested she become an academic she laughed because it seemed so unlikely.

Professor Arday said of the 24,000 professors in the UK, just 210 are Black. He said the structures that keep Black people out of academia or not progressing need to be interrogated and addressed. Dr Hynes called for curriculum change and said the way academics teach has changed from a top down approach, but the content needs to shift further. She spoke of resistance to changing the curriculum even though bringing in more authors and perspectives would only enrich it.

Professor Arday said we need to think about the purpose of education – to prepare students to take their place in society. That means giving them a toolkit to navigate a multicultural, multi-ethnic world, he said. “All too often we are not equipping them with these tools. To do so requires acceptance of difference and creating an empathetic space. We need to move beyond the nostalgia about how things used to be – this colonial amnesia,” he said. Dr Hynes added that not equipping students with that toolkit left them feeling shortchanged by their education. Decolonising the curriculum is not about getting rid of the cannon, but broadening it, she said.

Both were asked about the Conservative cabinet being the most ethnically diverse in UK history. Professor Arday said the ambitions of individuals that politics encourages should not be confused with representation of ideas. He added that “aggressive ambition” was not the same as race equality.

Asked what they would like to see change, Dr Hynes talked about the need for people to exercise more power as consumers when it comes to racist institutions and individuals and the need for more allyship and proactive support from white people. She would like white parents to talk to their children about the impact of racism just as Black parents talk to theirs.


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