Many Days Late and Many Dollars Short: COVID-19 Institutionalised Racism and the Black British Experience

Dr William Ackah, Lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector studies, reflects on how COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting Black, Asian and other global majority heritages.

I watched my first virtual funeral this week. I and around 80 others joined the 15 or so people who were physically present in Bristol UK to say goodbye to an amazing woman. I first met this woman nearly 20 years ago, when I moved to the city. She was then recovering from a brain tumour operation. My wife and I would give her a ride to our local church and on the way she would tell us stories about her nursing career in Britain and the obstacles she had to overcome as woman of Jamaican heritage to gain recognition in her profession. She would talk with pride about her children making lives for themselves in the UK and in the United States and of her dream that when she was able to drive again, she would buy herself a Jaguar. I never quite believed that she would get the car, but lo and behold eventually she did. She was the quite the character, one of a number of wonderful people in that congregation in St Pauls in the heart of the city.

I fondly remember tasty lunches with people of Indian heritage, playing games with families from Singapore, becoming a godfather to a daughter of Malawian descent, being pastored by a man of white south African descent and praying and fasting with Nigerian descendants, Guyanese, Ghanaians, Jamaicans, Brazilians, Romanians, Croatians, Australians and white and black British. In that small church we weaved an international tapestry that criss-crossed continents, cultures and identities. Doctors mingled with taxi drivers, who talked to cleaners, dentists, lawyers, barbers and cooks. It was a living, breathing community with a network that was global in its reach and connections. The death of one the precious members of that community at this time is a very hard pill to swallow.

The bitterness of death is made even harder by the fact that the precious life of this woman will barely register outside of her immediate community. She alongside so many others will invariably be reduced to a BAME statistic. Night after night via the media and the data machine of the day, complex individuals with amazing stories and profound life experiences are reduced to racialised entities. In this reduction they are robbed of their humanity and their dignity. In life they faced discrimination in death they face denigration by statistics.

The primary data sets that reference the Black British experience primarily tell their/our story in proportion or disproportion to the ‘white’ population. The value of Black lives therefore according to the data only exists in relation to ‘whiteness’.  This invariably leads to them/us becoming a freak side show. Them/us are people that require further research and investigation, as opposed to being human beings that first and foremost need support and protection!

The statistics reveal that people from Black, Asian, and other global majority heritages are dying in some cases at four times, the rate that ‘white’ people are. A question that should be asked is why is this public health disaster only warranting calls for a public enquiry and a Public Health England investigation? We might not know why they/us are more prone to the virus, but we do know without question that they/us are particularly vulnerable so why are they/us not being shielded as a matter of priority? Why are they/us not being placed on automatic furlough?  Why are the circumstances around Black deaths not considered a national health emergency that demands immediate action?

Why oh why yet again after Windrush, Grenfell and so many other countless failings by the authorities of this nation are Black citizens once again left to suffer and die? Time after time like clockwork all we hear are words of regret and the promise of an investigation. Is that really all we are worth? Is this nation pathologically predisposed to continually s…t on its non-white citizens?

When a migrant descendant doctor, nurse, care worker, bus driver, supermarket assistant dies the impact often goes far beyond that of their immediate family. ‘Successful’ migrants and their descendants are often at the apex of complex and unfolding pyramids of influence. Their finances, knowledge and influence support communities and individuals both locally and globally. Where the state is absent here and abroad these women and men are often a vital cog in sustaining families and communities. COVID-19 is fracturing these community structures and the state through its lack of action to protect its ‘global majority’ citizens is adding salt to the wounds.

The country faces challenging times ahead. How we treat minorities and the vulnerable in a time of crisis is a true test of how ‘Great’ a nation we are. Britain’s Black, Asian and other descendant communities with origins from all over the globe have demonstrated once again their courage, loyalty, and integrity to support the nation in its time of need. What will the nation do in return? We need a systematic and comprehensive plan backed by substantial resources to eradicate racialised discrimination from our society. It is ultimately the only way to end the curse of the BAME label and stats with all their marginalising characteristics and connotations. There are many lessons that the nation needs to learn from this life-changing event, but one must be that it is time to end the madness of racialised inequality in this country once and for all.

 

 

 

 

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How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?

This post was contributed by Professor Matt Cook, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. This comment piece first appeared on Thursday, May 5, in the Times Higher Education. The article “How welcoming is academia to LGBT staff?” features six academic’s responses to the question.

Birkbeck values its diversity and celebrates IDAHO – International Day against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.

“Many of those engaged in these early struggles and projects have sustained strong supportive networks. I have benefited hugely from these”

Professor Matt Cook

Professor Matt Cook

As a gay academic working on queer themes in history, my feelings of comfort and belonging owe a lot to the emergence of new areas of scholarship, to my discovery of community among colleagues and students – and to good timing.

I began my postgraduate studies in the mid‑1990s, just as work on gender and sexuality had gained some credibility and was even fashionable in some places – not least at Queen Mary University of London, where I found myself. By the time I emerged with my PhD in 2000, much ground had already been laid and my specialism was not the impediment to gaining an academic post that it had been for the preceding generation. There was a growing sense that explorations of sexuality had a real significance to broader understandings of society, culture and politics – past and present.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the scholars in the UK who inspired me – Jeffrey Weeks, Lynne Segal and Sheila Rowbotham among them – wrote much of their early work outside the university sector or against the grain of the jobs they were being paid for. They were nurtured instead by political and community networks arising from women’s and gay liberation, from the Gay Left collective and also from the History Workshop movement and journal (which, from its inception, had taken gender and sexuality – and those working beyond the academy – seriously). Such scholars had to argue that women’s and gay history were not marginal or peripheral areas of study and had a place in university departments. Once hired, some of them (including those I’ve mentioned) faced overt disdain or were “benignly” expected to focus on other things seen as more significant.

There was some notable resistance to this marginalisation. At the University of Sussex in 1991, Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore established the Sexual Dissidence master’s programme, exploring history, literature, post-structural and queer theory. It felt especially urgent in the context of the Aids crisis, Clause 28 (which prevented UK local councils from “promoting homosexuality”) and a broader homophobic backlash. Unsurprisingly, it was derided as insignificant, trendy (an insult in this context) and part of a “Loony Left” agenda. But, tellingly, the programme is still running 25 years on.

Read the original Times Higher Education article here

Read the original Times Higher Education article here

Many of those engaged in these struggles and projects have sustained strong supportive networks. I have benefited hugely from these. Research and teaching projects have meanwhile allowed me to work with LGBT community groups and with archive and museum professionals – giving me sustaining anchor points outside academia.

At Birkbeck, University of London – my institutional home for the past 10 years – I have found further communities. One is a history department with a collective commitment to wide-ranging historical work (and the intersections that it fosters). Another is with colleagues brought together through the Birkbeck Interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality research centre. A third is with students whose engagement with their studies has often been underpinned by much more direct experiences of discrimination and marginalisation than I have had to deal with. Being a white, middle-class man has made me an insider in more ways than my queerness has set me apart.

Matt Cook is professor of modern history at Birkbeck, University of London and the author, most recently, of Queer Domesticities: Homosexuality and Home Life in Twentieth-Century London (2014).

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Current Affairs – Calling all Applied Linguists

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Language class (Photo: Jirka-Matousek)

Language class (Photo: Jirka-Matousek)

In a previous blog, I wrote about the determination of the origin of migrants through linguistic analysis. Since then, the refugee influx has become more significant by the day, now reaching major crisis proportions. Unfortunately it is no sort of solution to anything, but a few further reflections on linguistic aspects of this crisis come to mind.

English speakers

First, there has been much misinformation as to why so many migrants who have been camping in Calais wish to enter Britain rather than staying in France. Although the government would have us believe that it is because of our “over-generous” benefits system, in fact it is largely for other reasons, notably the fact that many of them speak English and not French.

Britain has benefited hugely in the past from English being a world language (although this is largely due to the power and influence of the US rather than that of Britain itself). Now, the status and ubiquity of English have, as it were, come back to hit us in the face.

Language lessons

Secondly, you may have read recently that the German government is offering 600 hours of German language lessons to the migrants settling in Germany. Scandinavian governments also have been offering language lessons to newly arrived settlers for many decades. This is a highly effective measure: learning a language is probably the best method for understanding the relevant culture as well as allowing suitable adaptation and integration in the host country. As an added bonus, it provides work for an army of language teachers, a fact which people reading this blog should appreciate.

IELTS exams

A third recent news item also provides food for (linguistic) thought. The Home Secretary Theresa May, desperate to cut down the number of migrants to the UK in order to fulfil election promises, plans to impose a higher IELTS English language requirement on prospective students from non-EU countries than the one demanded at the moment.

As someone who teaches students of many different mother-tongues, I agree that insufficient English language skills can be a problem. But on the whole our international students can express themselves quite adequately in oral discussion.

The problems arise with academic essay-writing, on the basis of which their university performance is graded. The difficulties there are less to do with incorrect English as such, and more to do with understanding what type of discourse is expected in such an essay – a complex linguistic and cultural question, though one which can of course be taught.

The IELTS language exams are not designed to measure these types of academic skills, so the university itself has to try to fill the gap by providing academic English and study skills training. But this is often too little and too late.

In fact, the proposal by Theresa May has nothing to do with academic motives – nobody really even pretends that it does. It is purely a way to legitimate the exclusion of one cohort of migrants and so make the overall immigration figures look better.

Excluding university students is, to put it mildly, a strange choice, since the government has elsewhere explicitly committed itself to accepting skilled, as opposed to unskilled, migrants. In purely financial terms, it means that the UK will benefit less from the overseas students’ fees – never mind the loss of goodwill which will result if we no longer allow overseas students to be educated in the UK.

In each of these news items, the linguistic issues are only part of the picture and political solutions are by far the most pressing. Still, the part played by language in day-to-day problems is evident. Applied Linguistics may not be able to solve the world’s problems, but it is important as the discipline which allows the related linguistic issues to be addressed in a scientific and well-informed manner.

Read the BBC’s recent article on “the battle over the words used to describe migrants”

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