The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery on 23rd February, Breonna Taylor on 13th March, and George Floyd on 25th May, have sparked a backlash of unprecedented proportions, raising numerous concerns over how the UK – and education institutions like UEA – can become a more accepting place for the BAME community.
We need change, and so we need to listen. I listened to Tsema Ogbe, President of the African-Caribbean Society (ACS) 2019/20, who kindly spoke to me about his experiences at UEA and his hopes for the future.
I started by asking “As the outgoing ACS President, what is something you wish everyone knew about ACS?”. Tsema answers without hesitation and with a clarity that you would expect from a President, “Not a place to segregate but to congregate,” he continues “I know that a lot of people looked at ACS as not the African-Caribbean society, but as the black society. This is wrong. ”
Tsema reminds me of ACS’s recently elected white Ethnicity and Diversity Officer, Ellie Boyd. His sentiments are wholly understandable as Boyd’s knowledge, compassion and sensitivity to the subject matter was made abundantly clear during a recent BLM panel discussion.
Earlier this month, Prof David Richardson – UEA’s Vice Chancellor – released a statement regarding the murder of George Floyd and Black lives matter, concluding “UEA stands in solidarity with all our black students and staff.” When asked whether he agreed with this statement, Tsema hesitates. “I agree with that statement, but I feel a lot more needs to be done.” I ask in which areas and he tells me “microaggressions,” the most insidious and hardest to root out form of racism.
He tells me of an incident in his first year where one of his friends had been denied entry to the LCR, on grounds an incident had occurred the previous week involving another black man. His tone sharpens. “They had mistaken identity and they didn’t bother to check who he was, they just made an assumption.” I asked him if he has ever felt demotivated and at a disadvantage because of the colour of his skin?
Tsema recalls an incident during Black History month, both in the 2018/19 and 2019/20 academic year when the ACS organised a series of events, “So, we’d organise it, we’d do all the work for it, but sometimes the SUN would try to take credit.” I flip the question – “Has there been a time at UEA where you have felt empowered?” The resounding pride in his answer gives instant optimism in his tone, the signing of the diversity charter. “It was the step in the right direction, it actually showed that they’re not just hearing what we are saying they’re taking action to improve” but most notably “It empowered me to also want to bring change to UEA.”
My final question turns to the future – “In terms of UEA, what changes does he want to see amongst the student body?” His answer typifies the man.
“I feel it’s very important for anyone going to UEA or any university: really educate yourselves on the history of prejudice, the history of racism. Because when you do that, that’s what prevents it. It all starts with not looking at your flatmate a different way, or treating your flatmates a different way purely because they don’t have the same skin colour to you. When you adopt that mentality in your own flat, you’ll adopt that throughout your career, and throughout your life. That is where the change comes”.