Transforming the Ivory Tower: how a former student reinforced my hope for young Black people and their future

Transforming the Ivory Tower: how a former student reinforced my hope for young Black people and their future

Since the start of 2020 I have felt psychologically and emotionally drained.

The cause of my mental anxiety has been the ongoing and enduring burden of labouring against institutional racism in higher education, swimming against a tide of resistance while surrounded by White privilege and complicity.

Over the years in my current role, I have felt extremely devalued and dehumanised as a Black female academic, as documented in the Ivory Tower series and was grateful for my sabbatical leave to give me time to reflect on how to move forward, while working on a forthcoming book, chapter and research papers.

However, the time I so desperately needed for mental healing was cruelly snatched away by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, adding to my trauma firstly by observing the alarming rates at which Black people and people of colour on the frontline in public services were struck down, and then succumbing to it myself.

Before I could fully recover physically and mentally from the experience of covid-19 – not just the detriment to health but the psychological impact of the isolation away from family, friends and loved ones– I have been struggling to deal with the impact of covid-19 on the African American community in the US, and the continuing White racism that manifests in health, criminal (in) justice, educational, economic disparities and routine violence against Black people. My boyfriend is African American and I constantly fear for his health and safety, as well as the health, safety and wellbeing of friends and associates in the US.

I fully support the ongoing resistance by activists here and in the US protesting against anti-Black racism and the very persistent and specific manner in which Black humanity is denied and Black lives are deemed dispensable.

However, while the murder of George Floyd in the US has attracted world-wide condemnation, I question why some recent expressions of solidarity from White colleagues, celebrities and protestors have been previously absent following the deaths of other Black men and women, not just in America, but here in the UK.

I question and am incensed by the opportunistic behaviour of White colleagues, celebrities and the like, who suddenly see a ‘value’ in associating themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement – a term used indiscriminately and largely disassociated from the Black women who actually created the movement – Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi – to affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, those with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.

The resistance and on occasion, disrespect I have endured from mostly White students whilst trying to teach them about race and racism, as documented in the Ivory Tower series has often made me question whether teaching in a predominantly White institution benefits Black students and students of colour that endure racism and marginalisation themselves.

My whole chapter in Transforming the Ivory Tower reflects on my work around critical pedagogy, and feelings of self-doubt have resurfaced, as I contemplate the book’s publication on 22nd June.

As if sensing my mental distress, out of the blue last week I received an email from a former Black, female student that re-ignited my motivation to focus my efforts on supporting and developing young Black people and gave me hope for their future. It is published below, with her permission:

“Hi Deborah, 

I hope you are well. I know it’s been almost two years now since finishing uni but I want to thank you for educating me on the institutional racism we are going through and have been going through. I remember in one of our seminars when you corrected my ignorance of this matter, at first, I remember being so defensive and then reality hit. I realised I wasn’t being taught better growing up so I didn’t know any better – so I started educating myself of what it takes to being black and living in this unjust world. 

Now as a black woman navigating life in this world, I have nothing but gratitude for you and the lessons you taught me because you made me understand that actually I am not privileged but at the same time you made me to start to understand my worth in this world and that I deserve to be heard and we deserve to be heard as black people. 

The death of George Floyd shook me in a way that racist slurs hadn’t before. Me and my black peers are literally grieving but we wouldn’t have if we were still ignorant to the fact that we live in a world were systematic racism is still festering and thriving. 

Thank you so much for your resilience in educating white people about their privilege in the space you are currently at and for educating us young black people to look at our ignorance too regarding this issue, as most of us are not taught about our history in schools. 

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for fighting, thank you so much for choosing to be bold and fearless, especially in Bournemouth where black people are such a minority. Thank you for continually challenging the Chancellor and BU staff, thank you for all you do because like me, you are changing our mentality little by little and it’s something that will always stick with us, I know it has done for me. 

 Thank you so much!

Sincerely, RM.”

The reason I have chosen to publish the student’s email – with her blessing, is because I know I am not alone. I know from conversations with other Black women and women of colour that they are also suffering both from the gendered racism we experience daily and of White complicity and duplicity, especially at this current moment in history.

I also know that there are many more students out there who are grateful for the tireless efforts of Black women and women of colour in academia and like me, I think their spirits would be uplifted and their hearts touched to know how much they are appreciated.

To all the students who have supported me during difficult times, who have engaged with issues around race and reflected on either their privilege or racial disadvantage and who have made my teaching so meaningful (as I share in Transforming the Ivory Tower), I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I call on all students who have been taught by Black women and women of colour to send them a message of support and to let them know how they have impacted you. This is what Transforming the Ivory Tower is all about – it is both a stand against race and gendered discrimination and a celebration and acknowledgement of the ways that we strive to effect change.

To be  published on 22 June

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Dr Deborah Gabriel

Dr Deborah Gabriel is the Founder and Director of Black British Academics, an equity, diversity & inclusion consultant and academic in race, media, culture, gender and communication.

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