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A Place to Breathe: Making Sense of George Floyd and The Impact of Covid-19 on BAME communities 

UEL students at Dockland Campus

The Black Academy gives Black staff and students a voice 

Staff and students spoke of their own experiences of racism at a University forum to make sense of the tragic killing of African-American George Floyd in Minnesota and the subsequent outpouring of anger and grief across the US and Europe.

George Floyd died as a white police officer pressed his knee onto his neck for nearly nine minutes, despite Floyd’s cries for help and his declaration that “I can’t breathe”, a phrase that has resonance from Eric Garner’s murder at the hands of the police in 2014.

The forum was hosted by the Black Academy, which was formed in 2019 and gives Black students and staff a voice, focusing on issues of social justice, racial equity, anti-racism and Black representation.

Opening the session, Lurraine Jones, acting head of social sciences and founder of the Black Academy, said, “It is OK to feel. We are hurting, we are angry, we are upset. We have emotions. That knee was on every Black person’s neck, wherever they were in the world.”

George Floyd, 46, was stopped by police on 25 May in Minneapolis. A video of his killing went viral around the world and sparked protests over the treatment of the Black community by police and other powerful institutions.

Protests erupted in several US cities and have continued across the globe, including the UK, Australia, the Netherlands and France.

For many, the outrage over George Floyd’s death was a release for years of frustration over acts of racism, inequality and discrimination. Students spoke honestly and openly about their own experiences of being Black, voicing their anger and fear.

Speaking after the forum, student Nadine Fontaine, said, "I attended the online Black Academy Event because I wanted to feel safe in what I needed to express and this platform provided this space.

“We all need change and we all need to learn, firstly that race is an alien concept given to us to cause division. Second, we can all be reconditioned to understand that we all belong to one race which is the human race, and finally we all need to have uncomfortable conversations so we can collectively come up with solutions based on mutual agreement, mutual respect and mutual compassion for all human beings."

Regina Everitt, director of Library, Archives and Learning Services, spoke about her experiences as a Black woman living in London and seeing her hometown (Philadelphia) in flames following the eruption of anguish and anger over George Floyd’s killing.

She said, “I didn’t know George Floyd personally but the image of the white cop’s boot on George Floyd’s neck is as metaphorically familiar to me as it was to my elders before me as they endured the ‘middle passage’ and existence beyond.

Regina spoke about the challenges that came with the Black experience. Speaking directly to students, she said, “We feel what you feel, and you are not alone.” 

Dr Winston Morgan, reader in toxicology and clinical biochemistry, spoke about the impact of Covid-19 on Black communities, highlighting that groups described as BAME are more likely to be affected by the coronavirus.

He said, “If you are a Black man, you are four times more likely to die from Covid-19. Even if you take away things like economic class or deprivation, Black men are still twice as likely. In their latest report, the government provides no explanation for the higher death rates or what the they are going to do about it, which is worrying. “Whenever race is used to explain any societal outcome, whether it is housing or anything else, I always think the underlying cause is racism because without racism, race does not exist. It has no relevance and no significance. Generally the confusing misinformation about Covid-19 and race is suffocating the real discussion we should be having about structural racism. Because the narrative is confusing many BAME and particularly Black students are feeling an extra burden of the pandemic.”   

The key message from the forum was: dismantling racism is everyone’s responsibility. Angela Y Davis states that it is not enough to be non-racist. One has to be anti-racist. Having been awarded the Bronze Race Equality Charter Mark in May 2019, the University of East London is actively working towards becoming an anti-racist institution. One initiative is a White Anti-Racist Group currently being piloted in the School of Arts and Creative Industries.

The University’s Office for Institutional Equity (OIE) is the first of its kind in the UK and has specific responsibility for addressing inequalities within the institution by creating sustainable cultural changes which will positively impact the University community.

Professor Marcia Wilson, founding dean of the OIE, said, “It was a powerful and emotional experience to hear our student voices and as an institution, we all need to work together to dismantle racism.”

Note: The word ‘Black’ in this piece has been specifically included with a capital ‘B’ in view of the context of this story: see advice in link:
https://consciousstyleguide.com/capitalizing-for-equality/