25 June 2020
On 11th June 2020, PhD students in PPR came together to discuss the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter protests that have followed, and the events leading up to the removal of controversial slave trader statues in the UK and beyond. I organised the discussion in my capacity as PGR Representative to the PPR Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Former students and current PhD students in their first, second, third, and fourth years participated in the discussion.

Having Difficult Conversations

The reason behind organising the discussion stemmed from a feeling of helplessness, a feeling I am sure many people experienced after hearing and seeing the cries of “I can’t breathe”, in the widely circulated video documenting the killing of George Floyd on the 25th May 2020 in Minneapolis. Scrolling through hundreds of articles in the news exposed us to conflicting opinions and often increased confusion. Then, on the 2nd June, came #Blackouttuesday, an online anti-racism campaign that spread across all forms of social media, acting as a gesture of solidarity for some, and a subject of disagreement for others. Petitions were signed, donations were made, debates within families and groups of friends were sparked, but I continued to wonder what else could we do? Encouraging difficult conversations among the PhD community seemed like another important way to contribute to ongoing anti-racism activities on campus, such as the “Why is My Curriculum White?” campaign, Lancaster University Race Equality Network (LUREN), and the recent PPR seminar on “The British Empire and Decolonising the Curriculum” to name a few.

Main Topics

The main topics for discussion were chosen in parallel to the way the situation was reported in the media. We started with the murder of George Floyd and considered how this event is just the tip of the iceberg, epitomising centuries of systemic racism and police brutality, not restricted to the United States. Then, we discussed the global Black Lives Matter protests, spanning from Syria to Brazil to Manchester to Sydney. We discussed the use of violence, looting and vandalization during protests and considered why some believe the protests are an excuse for anti-social behaviour and a complete disregard for social distancing measures during a global pandemic. Exploring the ‘us vs them’ narrative that has been formed in such debates also revealed that others view violence as a last resort after peaceful protests are met with police brutality in the form of rubber bullets and tear gas. Finally, we talked about the toppling, on the 7th June in Bristol, of the statue of the 17th century slave trader Edward Colston. We considered if this could be a watershed moment that could prompt petitions to remove hundreds of statues up and down the country.

What Can You Do?

Drawing the conversation to a close, we thought about the ways in which we can keep moving forward in navigating stories and topics that have the potential to divide us. The five main takeaways were;

1.) Research, learn and listen.

2.) Donate if you have the ability to do so and sign petitions.

3.) Vote.

4.) Speak and have those awkward/difficult conversations.

5.) Take responsibility of your own bias and unawareness of privilege.

Resources

Seeing simple cardboard signs that said “it’s a privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing it your whole life” was a poignant reminder that education is an essential tool in moving forward. Whether that be in an effort to decolonise the curriculum, or to raise awareness of the racist undertones that plague our educational institutions, we have a moral responsibility to broaden our understanding. In an effort to provide multiple ways of learning about these issues, we looked beyond books and journal articles. We endeavoured to curate a collection of resources which would be diverse and accessible to all, both academic and non-academic audiences. Below are some of the resources that were selected and the full resource pack can be found here.

What to Read: the full resource list includes news articles, opinion pieces, journal articles, books, and children’s books.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race 2017 sold out in a matter of days following the murder of George Floyd, resulting in Reni Eddo-Lodge becoming the first and only black woman to top Britain’s non-fiction bestseller chart. Eddo-Lodge encouraged those purchasing the book to make the same monetary contribution to local and national racial injustice organisations. Although Eddo-Lodge was “dismayed” by the circumstances that prompted such sales, that does not reduce the importance of the book and the essential contribution it makes in understanding white privilege.

On Twitter, JSTOR released a series of stories and perspectives that can be accessed for free in an effort to help students understand George Floyd’s death in the context of institutionalised racism. Available here.

Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy started as an Instagram challenge in 2018 where people posted #meandwhitesupremacy in an effort to take responsibility for upholding white supremacy. It has now become a key text in understanding how white privilege can be damaging.

Dr Muneeb Hafiz, an alumnus of PPR, pointed out the open letter sent to the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University on structural anti-Blackness. This is an interesting read that expresses why students feel critical about University efforts in tackling racism. Available here.

What to Watch: the full resource list includes podcasts, YouTube videos, documentaries and films.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere was recently released as a series adaptation on Amazon Prime. Not only is it a gripping watch, but it addresses the complicated relationship between privilege, race and class, showing that although people may have good intentions, they are often blind to the racial biases they uphold and adhere to.

The What Matters episodes 1-4 available on the Black Lives Matter website explore numerous topics from the inequalities in the American Health System, the shooting of Breonna Taylor, the disproportionate effects of Covid-19 on black communities and more.

Netflix’s When They See Us details the wrongful conviction of Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Antron McCray, Korey Wise and Yusuf Salaam who were prosecuted on charges related to the Central Park jogger case. It portrays how racism and prejudice prevailed justice and equality.

PhD candidate Jenna Higham recommended the BBC Two link to Black and British: A Forgotten History. This is a series of episodes where David Olusoga uncovers the relationship between Britain and people of African origins, the history of slavery and the historical figures who stood up against the empire.

Thank you to everyone who attended the discussion and I hope this is a step in the right direction to further challenging but transformative conversations