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Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education Conference: Lessons for Oxford

Image of Dr. Machilu Zimba (Equality and Diversity Unit, University of Oxford) and Dr. Nadiya Figueroa (Dean of Scholarships, Director of Leadership and Change, The Rhodes Trust)

Voices Across Borders

The Blog of the Race and Resistance Research Programme at TORCH

Posted by: Erinie Yousief

Date: 4th November 2016

Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education Conference: Lessons for Oxford

On Friday 28th October, the TORCH series held a panel discussion featuring Dr. Machilu Zimba (Equality and Diversity Unit, University of Oxford) and Dr. Nadiya Figueroa (Dean of Scholarships, Director of Leadership and Change, The Rhodes Trust). The topic concerned the recent ‘National Conference of Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education’ in San Francisco.

Dr. Zimba’s reflections on the Conference focused on how the struggle for racial justice in the UK differs from that in the U.S. “We’re always making comparisons [between the UK and the U.S], but it is important to consider context,” she said. While at the Conference, for example, she noted that the U.S bases its racial justice rhetoric around slavery rather than colonialism. She also discovered that the U.S has significantly more academics of color than the UK across all disciplines.

Dr. Zimba offered five lessons from the Conference: first, sustained dialogue between students and the wider community is key to building momentum; second, once students have momentum, they must carry on the work. “To avoid losing momentum, students must set realistic, time-bound goals for the University,” said Dr. Zimba. Third, theory should not be dismissed. “Theory offers us a way to discuss race in several different ways—and it is important to be able to speak about race in several different ways.” Fourth, more conversations on ‘whiteness’ have to take place alongside (fifth) conversations on ‘intersectionality.’

Dr. Zimba concluded with information on what the University is doing to address racial justice, particularly in working towards the Race Equality Charter Mark, which involves among other things the collection of a great deal of data. Currently, the University supplies the Race and Equality Working Group, trains staff on implicit bias, has launched the ‘Race and the Curriculum’ series, and has created an Equality and Diversity Forum.

Dr. Figueroa began her response to Dr. Zimba’s reflections on the National Conference by agreeing that “context is critical.” In addition to the differences that Dr. Zimba noted between the U.S and the UK, Dr. Figueroa offered the example of affirmative action and reparations. “The U.S emphasizes affirmative action, which reflects equality, while the UK emphasizes reparations, which reflects justice,” she said.

Dr. Figueroa further agreed with Dr. Zimba that students need to have explicit goals or else “people will leave” and that conversations on ‘whiteness’ and ‘intersectionality’ must take place. “People need to understand that whiteness is not only an identity, but an attitude. People need to understand that whiteness does not have to be enacted and embodied simultaneously all the time.” She concluded by highlighting the importance of diversity in academia. Quoting from a professor she met at Stanford: “If you’re not diverse, you’re not excellent. You’re not attracting the best. You’re not competitive.”

Erinie Yousief is an exchange student from Sarah Lawrence College, studying Forced Migration and Post-WWII History at Wadham College

Voices Across Borders is always looking for new Race and Resistance Research Programme members to contribute to this blog. If you would like to write a piece, or if you have a response to a blog entry you have read here, please e-mail the blog editor, Tessa Roynon, on  tessa.roynon@ell.ox.ac.uk.      

The viewpoints expressed in Voices Across Borders are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Oxford.