The most recent Black Lives Matter protests precipitated by the murder of George Floyd in the US have accelerated a polarisation in debates about the nature of “race” and racism in the UK and other “liberal democratic” states. Hard coded into the movement’s very name is a recognition of the fact that black people experience systematic harm and death in structures of white supremacy. ‘Black Lives Matter’ is a powerful message which carries with it both an acknowledgement of the realities of white supremacy and an invitation to dismantle its structures. Here in the context of UK Higher Education, Sussex UCU is striving to respond to this call by recognising that the work of dismantling white supremacy needs to be done in British universities too. Our first step is to centre the demands of Black activists and break white silence about the existence of white supremacy. In this blog post, we show why naming white supremacy as the thing against which we should all be struggling in solidarity, is essential in how Sussex UCU organises.
Firstly, recognising white supremacy as a set of intersecting social, political and economic structures which accrue benefits for those racialised as “white”, as Frances Lee Ansley and Remi Joseph-Salisbury argue, provides a robust response to the claims “all lives matter”. Those who also argue that “white lives matter”, are examples of white backlash, which is powerfully explored in the work of George Yancy. The most generous interpretation of this backlash is one of a lack of understanding around what it means to not be white. “At best, white people have been taught not to mention that people of colour are “different” in case it offends us. They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universal.” Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote these words in a blog post in 2014 titled, “Why I am not longer talking to white people about race.” In short, these are people who do not comprehend the structural advantages they experience simply by the virtue of being racialised as white. Eddo-Lodge would go on to expand her post into a book of the same name. In the wake of the BLM protests her book has received renewed interest, making her the first black British author to top the UK book charts. This fact alone tells us a great deal about the deep-rooted racial inequalities in Britain. Indeed, Eddo-Lodge has reflected further on the implications of her book’s resurgence in popularity: “The work of anti-racism requires a level of self reflection that I don’t feel is coming from all the people or organisations that now say Black Lives Matter”.
Of course, the “white lives” and “all lives” arguments are more commonly made by white supremacist hate groups, but they also have mainstream traction: the “all lives matter” riposte particularly so. The risk of focusing on these hate groups – though they cannot be ignored – is that racism becomes a matter of an extremist fringe. Instead, we must understand “race” and racism as deeply entrenched within and unavoidably foundational to economic, political and cultural spheres of life, including spaces of education; it is not a relic of a regrettable past, but a continuing force that shapes and directs the present. When we talk of white supremacy this is what we mean, as the Frances Ansley quote that heads this blog post so effectively articulates. The BLM movement has brought the concept of structural racism into the realm of popular discourse, but liberal understandings of racism as a matter of individual bias or prejudice still persist within universities and distract us from the work that needs to be done. These biases are a product of the very white supremacy they are reluctant to acknowledge and seek to distance themselves from.
Sara Ahmed wrote in 2012, that practices of "diversity" within universities (under the banner of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion initiatives), which are supposedly aimed at making institutions more inclusive, instead work to further entrench whiteness. Ahmed has written more recently that naming or complaining about the white supremacy embedded in university structures and cultures is often met with hostile and defensive responses, which reveals that “talking about racism means dealing with the racism articulated in response to what you are talking about”. And so the Ivory Tower continues to reproduce itself in its own white history and colonial legacies, tempered by the performative uses of “diversity as damage control” through EDI policy frameworks lacking political education and commitments to material transformation.
UCU Sussex wants to dismantle these structures of white supremacy at our university, but even as we organise around these issues, we are aware that we are a part of these same structures as the rest of society and must educate ourselves and learn from the experience of others. One of our first activities in this endeavour is to establish an anti-racism reading group, which will begin by discussing Jason Arday and Heidi Mirza’s edited collection Dismantling Race in Higher Education: Racism, Whiteness and Decolonising the Academy (2018). If this reading group, and our anti-racism work more broadly, is a project that you would like to be involved in, we urge you to get in touch.
Further Reading: Anti-Racism Reading List