Three-D Issue 34: Race, racism and resistance: why Black Lives Matter in higher education and the role of media education as a catalyst for change

Deborah Gabriel
Bournemouth University

My earliest experience of racism in British education was at the age of five, when a dinner lady marched over to me in the playground during a primary school break and said: “Why don’t you go back to your own country?”

I was shaken and perplexed and mumbled in reply: “But this is my country, I was born here.” Her angry expression made it clear she was dissatisfied with my response. However, her words were to have a profound impact on my life thereafter.

Ever since that day over five decades ago, I have been acutely aware that as a Black female – as a person of African descent; that regardless of my citizenship status, my sense of belonging is fragile and White people and systems of White supremacy can validate or delegitimise my right of belonging.

I observed and experienced anti-Black racism during my secondary education at an all-girl’s comprehensive school in south London. It was no coincidence that Black girls were disproportionately placed in the lower streams and directed towards vocational qualifications and sports.

For geography, maths, biology and art and design, I was placed in the lower stream where, even if I scored 100% in my exams, I could only obtain a CSE grade 1 – the equivalent of a GCE grade C.

With the exception of art and design, in the other lower stream classes, Black girls, myself included, were always singled out, scolded for questioning anything, while Asian and Chinese pupils were encouraged, supported and praised, as the ‘model minorities’.

By contrast, for English language, English literature and French, I was placed in the grammar stream and had an entirely different experience. I was treated like an intelligent person, smiled at rather than scowled at, encouraged and supported.

Despite suffering a traumatic family bereavement in my final secondary school year, I still left with three CSE grade 1’s and two O’ levels, failing only in French, which I passed a year later at a further education college.

More than two decades elapsed before I gained the confidence and self-belief to attend university as a mature student to pursue my interests in journalism and communication. Unfortunately, history was to repeat itself.

Despite applying for a bachelor’s degree in journalism, I was offered a place on a foundation degree. I later observed that the bachelor’s degree cohorts were predominantly White, while the foundation degree cohorts were predominantly students of colour and White students from working class backgrounds.

Yet again, the way that the two cohorts were treated by teaching staff were profoundly different. Some of the lecturers teaching foundation degree students were routinely rude, unhelpful, and unsupportive towards us as Black students and students of colour.

However, as the elected student representative and member of the School of Media Board of Studies, I was able to speak out about our experiences and make recommendations, such as increasing ethnic diversity in the curriculum to better represent minority journalists and their contributions, and including the historic experiences of people of African descent in contextual studies.

Between 2004 and 2007, when I also worked as a freelance journalist, this undergraduate experience served as my foundational work around racial inequality in higher education. However, I have been resisting and challenging anti-Black racism since my first experience of it as a primary school pupil.

I have always believed that Black Lives Matter in education, just as our lives matter everywhere else that our experiences, supported by a plethora of data, suggests otherwise. In health, criminal justice and employment, longstanding racial disparities evidence that since the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Black lives have remained at bottom of a racial hierarchy, maintained through White privilege and systems of White supremacy.

Before Covid-19 laid bare the extent of entrenched racism in the health system, and before the public killing of George Floyd exposed yet again, the extent of police violence against Black people; during my MeCCSA keynote in January, I sought to highlight the media’s role in all of this – and how higher education has an important role to play in tackling racism and White privilege.

The explosion of global Black resistance to anti-Black racism was inevitable. As a Black Diaspora we have never accepted racial oppression as history bears witness to our ongoing struggles over centuries through slavery, colonialism, apartheid, Jim Crow, lynching, racial discrimination in health, employment, housing and education, limiting social mobility and economic empowerment.

The disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black people and the public killing of George Floyd, coming in the wake of the murder of Ahmaud Armery, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black lives in 2020 served as a tipping point.

The Black Lives Matter movement was established in 2013 by three Black women: Patrice Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi. This is the same year that I established the Black British Academics network to tackle racial inequality in higher education and the wider society.

When White people joined the Black Lives Matter protests around the world, the mainstream media took an intense interest and the news became saturated with stories about civic unrest, with White journalists attaching their own meanings to the term in a manner that misrepresents the cause.

Black Lives Matter , like Black British Academics, represents an evolutionary turn in the longstanding resistance of Black people against White supremacy and racial oppression, over hundreds of years.

Problematically, the mainstream media detaches it from this historic significance, contextualising it to events in 2020 and reducing it to simplistic soundbites. This serves to limit public focus to the present, disconnecting it from the past – which is important to understand how we arrived at this juncture.

Students of today are the journalists and media professionals of tomorrow, therefore; media education should contribute to social justice and equity, as I argued in my keynote. Too often it perpetuates Eurocentric ideologies that uphold the hierarchy of race and reproduce intersectional racial inequalities.

These are evidenced by racial disparities in the attainment and experiences of Black students. As I have aimed to highlight through this reflective article, most Black students enter higher education with substantial life experiences of anti-Black racism that have a cumulative impact on their university education.

Anti-Black racism is a derivative of White privilege, sustained by hegemonic whiteness. Many individuals may profess to be ‘antiracist’, while continuing to benefit from and perpetuate White privilege, often through their teaching and academic practice. However, ‘racism’ cannot be addressed without dismantling systems of White supremacy to achieve racial equity.

Equity requires recognition of the social, cultural, political, and economic benefits that White privilege has brought people racialised as White for centuries, through systemic racism. Equity necessitates that positive actions are taken to redress the racial advantage of whiteness before equality can be achieved. Racial equality cannot be achieved without racial equity.

A good place to start is the curriculum. As events in 2020 have highlighted, teaching the historic roots of White supremacy and its contemporary legacies is urgent and necessary in a world where racial inequalities persist, especially within higher education and especially within media education.

Since education practice is a primary site of complicity in the reproduction of whiteness and White privilege, I developed the 3D Pedagogy Framework™ as a strategic approach to decolonise, democratise, and diversify the higher education curriculum.

All three measures are necessary to achieve racial equity. I discuss 3D Pedagogy™ in detail, reflecting on my experience of teaching race in media programmes and the impact on students and myself, in my opening chapter of Transforming the Ivory Tower.

Transforming media education around race as an incremental step towards racial equity, is a monumental undertaking that requires in-depth understanding of its shortcomings, the impact this has on students, staff, media practice and the wider society, before implementing infrastructural changes.

I have been charged with the task of developing an edited collection for this very purpose, building on our influential research on race and gender inequality in academia through the Ivory Tower Project at Black British Academics.

Through a global focus, it will probe three key areas: firstly, the educators – who is teaching race in media, how are they teaching race in media and what are their experiences? The second part of the book will interrogate and analyse the media landscape, linking media education to practice and its role in maintaining and perpetuating racial inequality and White privilege in the wider society. The final part of the book will deal with pedagogy and social transformation, with analytical case studies of critical and emancipatory practice, like the 3D Pedagogy Framework™ ending with recommendations for widespread change.

As a starting point, I will shortly be circulating a global survey of practitioners who teach undergraduate and postgraduate media modules or units where ‘race’ comprises at least 50 per cent of the course content and is included in the assessment. The responses will be used to identify potential contributors and co-editors.

2020 marks the start of a new evolutionary turn in the ongoing resistance against anti-Black racism, White supremacy and racial inequality in higher education, where media education around race, has an important role to play as a catalyst for change towards racial equity.

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