Can you Poet: Identity

This Blog post is based on a talk given at the University of Northampton on 25th September 2019.

Dr Melanie Crofts

Senior Lecturer in Law, De Montfort University and Chair, Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council

Firstly, I’d like to thank Tre for inviting me to this event. I am not a poet, I am an academic currently teaching Law at De Montfort University (DMU). I am also seconded to the Freedom to Achieve Project at DMU.

The Freedom to Achieve project is DMU’s response to try and tackle differential degree awarding (also known as the attainment gap) between students of colour and white students. I will return to this project and issue more in a while.

I am also the Chair of Northamptonshire Rights and Equality Council which campaigns for social justice and equality and supports victims of discrimination and hate crime.

Since being asked by Tre to come and talk at this event I have been thinking a lot about the theme of this evening, identity. The last few years have also challenged me to think about how I define myself and issues relating to my identity.

My mother is German and I was born in Germany, but have lived most of my life in the UK. I am a dual national. Following the Brexit referendum I experienced racism for calling out the racist and xenophobic hate I was witnessing online. For the first time I felt that the country I had lived in for all my life no longer wanted me and my family here.

This sounds awfully dramatic, but this is how the referendum result felt to me. It made me reconsider my British identity and resent the fact that my European and German identities were seemingly no longer valued, even rejected. If my mother had not found her documents saying she had indefinite leave to remain (granted to her in 1979), she would have had to register, with no guarantee that she would have been granted permanent settlement. However, despite having indefinite leave and living and working in the UK for over 40 years, she still has to apply for new digital documentation proving right to stay in UK.

However, despite this challenge to my own feelings of belonging and identity I have little grounds to complain. The issues I have experienced over the past 3.5 years are nothing compared to others. The reason? I am white. That isn’t to deny or downplay the xenophobia and feelings I have had since the referendum, but my whiteness (along with other elements of my identity, such as my able-bodied-ness, my hetero-sexuality and my economic privilege) continually shields me from the worst consequences of racism. In fact, my whiteness doesn’t only shield me, it provides me with privilege.

When I say privilege, I don’t mean in an economic sense. Of course class and wealth also has an impact on privilege, but irrespective of class and wealth, whiteness provides automatic and inherent access to privilege. My whiteness means I won’t have experienced the hostile environment, I’ve never been stopped and searched (neither has my husband or step son), I have never been viewed as a terrorist, no-one has ever asked me ‘where do you come from’, I have never been asked for my ID walking across campus, I have never been denied access to a restaurant or bar, I have never been falsely accused of shoplifting, I have never been told that my hairstyle was not professional enough, I am 17% more likely than my Black colleague to gain a 2:1 or First at university (if you take the current Northampton figure) and 8.9% more likely to gain a 2:1 or first if I studied at DMU. More on this in a moment.

Some of the examples I give are of every day racism and micro aggressions experienced by people of colour. Others, for example the hostile environment, issue of stop search and degree awarding, are more insidious. These forms of racism are embedded into the structures and fabric of institutions such as immigration processes, the police and universities, institutional racism. These institutions historically are built by and for white people. It is therefore no wonder that people of colour have vastly different experiences. Dismantling racism is therefore not just about challenging obvious or overt forms of racism. It requires a critique of whiteness and white privilege and the role this plays in the every day experiences of people of colour. It requires those with privilege to play an active part in in dismantling that privilege.

I’d like to finish by considering the issue of degree awarding in a bit more detail. The so called ‘attainment gap’ is beginning to be more widely known and talked about. I prefer to refer to the gap in degree awarding as this locates the ‘blame’ and responsibility on institutions and does not cast aspersions on the ability of students of colour to achieve. Across the university sector the average attainment gap is 13%. In other words, if you are a student of colour you are 13% less likely to be awarded a 2:1 or 1st than your white counterparts.

Two years ago DMU was awarded funding from HEFCE, (now the Office for Students) along with a number of other institutions, to address this attainmentgap. The project was led by Kingston University. At DMU the project was called Freedom to Achieve. In 2015/16 the gap in terms of degree awarding at DMU was 13.6%. in 18/19 this had been reduced to 8.9%. It is worth noting that this figure is an aggregate figure for all non-white home students. There are considerable variations when you break this down in terms of different ethnic groups with Black African and Caribbean students being even less likely to be awarded a 2:1 or 1st.

Although lauded as a great achievement, there is still a huge amount of work to do. To its credit, after the funding from the Office of Students came to an end, DMU management agreed to fund the project for another 2 years. 0.5 of my role at DMU is seconded to this project. In total we have 5 people seconded either 0.5 or 0.25 of their contracts to the project. We have a full time research fellow and a Professor of Education overseeing the research and evaluation side. The project lead is the Dean of Health and Life Sciences (now also Pro Vice Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) and the head of Equality and Diversity is also on the project team.

The focus of the project over the last 2 years was to move conversations away from deficit model thinking i.e. placing the ‘blame’ for the gap with the students. Kingston developed something call the Value Added score which is a way of calculating differential degree awarding which takes prior attainment and course choice into account. This means that any arguments which suggest that the gap was because students of colour come in with lower entry grades were dispelled. There is still a huge gap!

DMU are rebranding Freedom to Achieve as we move into the second stage of the project. Although not yet confirmed or launched to the wider institution, it is hoped the project will focus on decolonising the institution and focusing on institutional racism. The vision of the project team for this stage is currently being considered but discussions about the next stage have centred around the need to recognise the origins of racism and dismantling institutional systems, hierarchies and behaviours that create disadvantage.

At this point I want to highlight a quote by bell hooks, author, academic and intersectional feminist scholar:

Since the notion that we should all forsake attachment to race and/or cultural identity and be “just humans” within the framework of white supremacy has usually meant that subordinate groups must surrender their identities, beliefs, values, and assimilate by adopting the values and beliefs of privileged-class whites, rather than promoting racial harmony this thinking has created a fierce cultural protectionism.”

I hope that the process of decolonising De Montfort University will go some way to challenge this fierce cultural protectionism.

My final thoughts are this, I am proud to work for a university which is attempting to dismantle institutional racism. It is incumbent on all universities to consider how they are going to address institutional racism and differential degree awarding and to ensure that students of colour do not have to surrender their identities and assimilate. Students and staff need to be asking questions of institutions which challenge the status quo which pushes institutions in to action beyond providing mentors for students of colour or encouraging BAME students to engage. This focuses the problem on the students and fails to address the reason students of colour are not experiencing the same outcomes as their white counterparts, white privilege.

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