Ten #alternativefacts about race in student activities

Wednesday 12-04-2017 - 09:51

Last month I travelled to Philadelphia for the Association for College Unions International’s annual conference. While there, I had the pleasure of attending a keynote delivered by Professor Shaun Harper - a leading expert on race and gender in the States.  

Shaun’s session on ‘Race Matters in College Unions and Student Activities’ was especially timely given how its themes dovetail with our own Race Matters programme of work here at NUS - which is why I wanted to share some of my takeaways from his presentation with you.

At a time where research and evidence is getting buried by ‘fake news’, Shaun decided to give his keynote through the medium of #alternativefacts.

He explained the importance of challenging ‘facts’ with the empirical evidence and drew on data from tens of thousands of students whom he works with.

Here are his ten alternative facts about race in student activities…

1. Communities are inclusive because we say they are and we consistently enact the espoused values

A review of significant numbers of institutions found that all had diversity promises in their brochures; all promised to ‘prepare students to thrive in racially diverse communities and the global economy’.

The evidence, however, showed the spaces were safe for some students, some of the time.

2. Communities are inclusive besides a handful of student leaders from particular identity groups say so

Studies found that sometimes a small group of engaged student leaders from some backgrounds will tell you that it is all fine, but they will often not represent the different views from within those groups.

Shaun gave examples where the management had been told all was fine, while in the meantime in interviews, students would weep at the homophobia, transphobia, racism and sexism they face.

3. We learned how to build inclusive campus communities in graduate school (in the USA they have specific qualifications to work in SUs)

Evidence from graduates shows they don't learn about racism, structural inequality and racial equity. Nor do they get education on how to deal with hate crime or racial inequity.

4. Experienced senior student affairs professionals have figured out how to foster inclusive campuses

Not true. Unless people are explicitly trained and supported in anti-racist approaches and practical strategies we can't just 'pick up the skills' because we get more experience.

5. We can advance campus communities without talking explicitly and fluently about racism

This just isn't possible. In research asking people of colour and white people to write down any burning questions they have about race, racism and whiteness  - Shaun’s colleagues expected to get complex questions, but the simplicity of the questions showed that the issues are just not being talked about.

6. Racism happens everywhere else on campus, apart from the union or student activities

Nonsense. All the evidence shows that often people of colour believe the union is not for them because it has portraits of white people everywhere, activities appeal to white cultural interests and the demographic make-up of the staff is at odds with the student population.

Racism is as much an issue in unions as it is across the rest of campus.

7. Only some of us are qualified to lead inclusive community advancement efforts

Yes, of course, people need training and support, but promoting race equality is not, and must not be left to people of colour alone.

White people are going to have to get better at working with diverse communities across campus.

8. Student affairs professionals can foster inclusive campus communities on their own

No. A cross-campus, multi-faceted partnership is required with the academic staff. Union and student affairs staff have to work together with students and to care what happens in the classroom.

9. We actually advance community in education

Racism is woven into the cultural architecture and norms of institutions. So making progress is really hard in that system. But it is and must be possible.

We have to stop making baby steps and ensure there is a strategic set of actions and efforts to tackle institutional racism within education.

10. It is possible to advance community without evidence of inclusion, cross-cultural interaction and learning

We must be developing metrics to measure belonging, inclusion and perceptions of commitment to diversity, as well as understand where and what they learn about race.

In a nutshell, we know we need to; be serious in our intent to secure racial equality and have the strategy to make it happen; be committed to collecting evidence of our progress; constantly be willing to try new things in new ways; measure the climate on campus and adapt as a result; and use the existing literature and continue to develop the evidence base.

Following the publication of the Runnymede report on Institutional Racism at NUS, we are now in the process of developing a Race Equity Plan which will set out a clear vision for change and practical steps we need to take at NUS and as a student movement to achieve it.

It is clear that there are many lessons the UK can learn from the USA, and the USA can learn from the UK as we progress our work. I look forward to working with colleagues within ACUI to exchange knowledge and learning.

Professor Shaun Harper is the Founder and Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrShaunHarper. For more about Simon’s trip to ACUI conference, read his full blog.


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