Black History Month – February in the US, October in the UK – is the one time of year that Black people’s histories are featured. Yet, cramming a deluge of talks and cultural activities into a single month creates a false sense of engagement – and as soon as the month is over, Black histories and cultures are often once again relegated to the background.
The University of Westminster’s Black and Minority Ethnic Network became concerned about this one-month approach because it constrained the celebration of Black people’s achievements without sufficiently recognising the injustices they were experiencing. This limited focus could also diminish the significance of their experiences, effectively recolonising histories through tokenistic posturing.
The need for a sustainable Black History Year Programme
The killing of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked Black Lives Matter protests around the world. Across the higher education sector in the UK, it exposed what seemed to be an institutional unresponsiveness at a critical time in history.
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The BME Network collectively drafted a statement outlining the changes required. Senior leaders at the University of Westminster committed to working collaboratively to become an anti-racist institution. Members of the network founded a steering group to focus on addressing often misunderstood, ignored or erased Black histories.
With emerging inequalities laid bare by the disproportionate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, alongside the BLM movement, the focus on Black History Year was galvanised.
How to do a Black History Year
Start by exploring the history of racialised communities. Westminster’s Black History Year programme was launched with a review of Black people’s contributions in historical England, specifically the Tudor era. It recognised the people who were initially respected for their artistry, skills and economic contribution to society and gave the BHY steering group a solid foundation on which to build programme content and initiatives. Adopt a similar approach to ensure your programmes lay the groundwork for further activism in this area.
The steering group held online conversations about the experiences of Black people in higher education in order to span the breadth of Black people’s present-day experiences and help understand how we had arrived at such inequalities. We heard from activists on issues such as the Windrush generation and Black experts in the music industry, politics and business. It’s crucial that coverage of racialised experiences is balanced to include achievements and challenges, to inspire the university community.
For example, imposter syndrome is a common experience among Black academics and students. It was important to put it in the context of institutional racism and structural challenges to distinguish it from mental health issues. Expert academics and practitioners discussed the seldom-heard experiences of Black men’s mental health, and topics such as Black love and death and grief were also explored. Embrace the sensitive aspects of human experience. This will raise awareness of the depth of emotion that can fester in racialised circumstances and help develop culturally relevant support for staff and students.
Measure impact and sustainable outcomes
The impact of the programme has been significant, contributing to education, research, knowledge exchange and relationship-building within and outside the university. It complements initiatives to improve a sense of belonging for students and staff through teaching and learning, research and knowledge exchange. In turn, this has encouraged compassionate behaviour and allyship as part of equality, diversity and inclusion strategies. Black History Year programmes can strengthen collaborations between staff and students and lead to sustainable partnerships all year round.
Westminster’s Black History Year led to bespoke initiatives such as BHY Create, a six-month initiative designed to empower Black students during the final years of their undergraduate degree programmes, and the BHY Researchers Network, which helps build skills for writing papers and applying for grants.
Senior leadership support is crucial
Establishing a Black History Year programme creates a legacy of cultural information with a credible space in university archives. But senior leaders must provide support if the programme is to endure. At the University of Westminster, leaders have committed to the BHY as it enters its fourth year, enabling us to celebrate diverse academics, students, staff and businesses in our communities.
Though we have experienced pushback, with some seeing Black History Year as “neoliberal pandering” and others as “too woke”, the university is determined to continue with an initiative that started when the world was in flux. By recognising the histories and cultures of people who have overcome persistent challenges, we give ourselves and the sector a hopeful frame for the future.
Deborah Husbands is a reader in psychology, leads the Black History Year programme and is a co-chair for the BME Network; Dibyesh Anand is the interim deputy vice-chancellor for employability and global engagement; Stephen Bunbury is a senior lecturer in law, co-chair for the BME Network and programme lead for Black History Create, all at the University of Westminster.
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