On Tuesday I found myself writing another rather personal piece; bear with me in this, because it has turned into rather more than that. And although the timing of any message of this kind is fraught with difficulty, with more emails arriving by the hour, there is a need for a response and that responsibility is mine on behalf of the RVC. This is both an apology and a call to action.
Last week I wrote an apolitical commentary on what happens when authority abdicates responsibility by breaking its own rules and tossing trust to the wind. But what has happened this week following the horrific death of George Floyd in Minnesota is of a completely different order. His death was a tipping point in a series of deaths of BAME people.
You may or may not have seen the statement that was published on our website, the intranet and my blog wherein we restated our values and spoke of our commitment to support and defend our colleagues who may be subject to racial discrimination. All well and good, but I know that some are asking “why this event?”, “why this cause?”, “why comment now?”, “what about all the other injustices?”, “what do we mean by the statement?” and, most importantly, “where is the action?” – all very reasonable questions, pointing as they do to the lack of detail and substance that is almost inevitable in a statement that steers the course between highlighting the issue at hand at the same time as trying not to diminish other injustices of a less high profile nature. Frankly, bland. Safe, honest, but bland. Some have taken offence, which was never my intention, and for that I am sorry.
So, to the personal comment. We have reflected on what we have said and done and have spoken with students and colleagues – both here and in the US - and it has helped me to crystallise answers to some of the questions in the paragraph above. In answering the first three, there is a certain element of currency, scale and proximity that makes silence untenable; and when it affects our colleagues, our students, our neighbours; when it is part of an escalating trend, when it is country-wide and when it impacts on our own organisation and the organisations to which we belong, and when it is so blatant, “no comment” is simply not acceptable. Does that mean we approve of other instances of racism elsewhere? No. Does it devalue other injustices arising from, say, homophobia or misogyny? Again, no: Indeed, we have commented institutionally on these counts previously. But by focusing on this event, on this cause, on Black Lives Matter, we must ensure that we take action and that, frankly, we use our outrage, to address the fundamental attitudes in each of us that allows these things to happen in the 21st Century on our own doorstep. And on our watch.
The RVC has too many incidents in its history for us to look the other way – whilst we do not knowingly do so, we clearly have got things wrong in the past, and for that I apologise. The recruitment of BAME colleagues, the honouring of BAME people as RVC role models at our graduations, our commitment to BAME targets in our admission cycles, the unconscious bias training, and the creation of senior posts and roles to champion equality and diversity…. these are all steps that we have taken but they are undone and simply not enough if racism persists in our organisation. And we need to acknowledge and support those whose mental health and wellbeing have been so affected by the recent events.
It is not enough to be not racist. We must be anti-racist. It is not enough to write pledges if they are not followed through by action against racism where we encounter it; calling out the micro-aggressions when we meet them; being prepared to be an active bystander when required. And if these terms are unfamiliar to you, then this must be your first step if you are serious about being anti-racist. There is a need for urgency. There is a need for persistence.
I have only had a chance to speak with a fraction of those affected by recent events, but I am in no doubt from the communications that I have received that we need to do things better. We will need your help in this - staff, students, alumni – so, if you have ideas or want to lend your support, please do contact me or Dr Christine Thuranira-McKeever, Chair of our Equality and Diversity Committee, or Ms Ferhat Nazir-Bhatti, who oversees our diversity and inclusion agenda across the RVC. We will use this to create a momentum of change and an action plan that we will share and to which we will commit.
As I said, I started writing this piece before social media highlighted certain events in our history and before my inbox was filled with messages from alumni and others, some of which made incredibly difficult reading. But nothing like the difficulty of the lived experience of many of our BAME brothers and sisters. Black Lives Matter.