‘None of us are powerless’: how to be an antiracist student

UK students have more power than ever to effect political change on their university campuses. In the wake of the global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, Oxford University’s Oriel College voted in favour of removing the controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes, and calls for other institutions to confront their colonial pasts have been pushed to forefront of the education discourse.

With just a fifth of UK universities revealing they are committed to diversifying their curriculum, we asked two experts what students can do to hold their institutions to account.

Ask the right questions

You can only really assess your university’s commitment to anti-racist practice if you know how to ask the right questions. Fope Olaleye, the NUS black students’ officer, recommends enquiring not just about inequality figures, but also how your university is acting upon this data to implement change. She suggests questions like: “What stats does the institution hold in relation to black students’ experiences of harassment, satisfaction rates, drop-out, usage of support services and hardship funds, and have these stats been worked into institutional targets to review and improve termly? Has the university ever been accused of racism by students or staff, and where is this acknowledged and tackled openly? Has a race equity analysis been conducted around the curriculum with reading lists, colonial bias, and missing thinkers, concepts and texts?”

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Join student networks

If you’ve got something to shout about, a collective voice is always more powerful. Be sure to find out who the big names on campus are. How popular is your university radio station? How much sway does the student paper have? As Jihna Gavilanes, president of student services at Studee, says: “Suss out who shares information and has influence. It will be hugely helpful for any campaigns you wish to run.” It may also be worth connecting with alumni to find how the university handled past campaigns and whether former students were met with any resistance. “See if you can pick up any legacy projects so you don’t have to start from scratch, and build on work that has already begun,” Gavilanes adds.

Get involved in all types of activism

Campus activism can initiate small-scale changes or it can support national issues. Olaleye says it can be “cathartic and empowering” and act as a “reminder that none of us are powerless, especially when we join forces”. If you’re new to activism or feel unsure about how to start the conversation at your university, Gavilanes recommends beginning online. “You can use social platforms to host events, share information and create petitions, but also to hold your university to account. Share your experiences and tag influencers to get your voice heard.”

Olaleye adds that campus activism could also be as simple as asking your students’ union for support to make your university’s annual equality, diversity and inclusion reports public.

Know when to complain

Racism and discrimination can take many forms, as Gavilanes notes. “Students shouldn’t wait until something dramatic happens,” she says. “Micro-aggressions, such as dismissive and stereotyping comments or being ostracised, should immediately be addressed.” If you feel you need to lodge a complaint she advises first talking to your faculty or dean of student services before using your institution’s own complaints procedure. “If you still don’t feel satisfied that your university is doing enough you can take your complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator and get advice from the Equality Advisory and Support Service,” she says.

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Olaleye adds that reporting incidents can help future students. “To create an accurate picture of the current environment, it is important to report incidents even if they don’t seem that major. Approach your students’ union first – they’ll have an independent, free and confidential advice service just for students for help taking a complaint forward.”

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