This is the first blog in a new series related to the Student-Led Anti-Racism (SLAR) projects funded by the Provost’s Office, and supported by the Education Incubator. The authors – Asha Ali and Clara Akiki, (along with their team members: Mishaal Javed, Roman Ibrahim, and Arthur Dart) – use this blog to discuss the genesis and aims of their ‘Roots Resistance’ project, which was granted funding in December 2020, and will run until July 2021.
There are also four other SLAR projects, who will post blogs over the coming weeks; you can keep up to date on these projects by searching for the hashtag #SLAR, or by following the Education Incubator on Twitter here.
Last summer 2020 was a time of upheaval and change for many. For us, students at Exeter about to enter our final year in the Arabic and Islamic Studies department, it was the start of a journey that led us to forge a vision that became The Roots Resistance 2021.
Throughout our University experience, we have been lucky enough to forge great relationships with many amazing students who are People of Colour (PoC), that shared our frustration of being excluded of side-lined from numerous spaces, ranging from classrooms to societies and everything in between. Due to this exclusion, we created our own environments in which we could share our pains, our joys, and hopes for the future. This led us to have some wonderful conversations, discovering the multitude of talents being held within our University, and how due to structures of racism, students were unable to fully showcase their skills and talents.
The tipping point for many of us was the killing of George Floyd; having watched those eight minutes and 46 seconds, we were once again confronted with how our bodies get dehumanised and how the structures that are ‘built to protect’ do not include people that look like us. Further, the educational institutions that we pay thousands of pounds to could not even acknowledge how they have contributed and continue to contribute to the dehumanisation of PoC’s bodies. After weeks of discussions, tears, panic attacks, laughter and dancing, we realised that it was up to us, all of us, to ensure that our voices are heard.
I was at home in rural England during this period. I felt far from reality, and the only thing that made me feel a vague state of consciousness was the media. Ironically, it was in this context that I re-assessed everything I saw (or did not see) going on around me. My identity as a British Arab means I am far from being part of the national majority, but no less immune from supporting racism. Racism is a reality in the Arab world as much as in the UK. As I navigated the pool of surging media and content, I found the Arab community become increasingly vocal on the issue of race. The Arabs for Black Lives movement exploded and reiterated our responsibility to acknowledge and confront racism in our community.
During this period, we received a call for contributions from ‘The Rest of Us, Stories’, a student-led project seeking to platform with honesty the experience of PoC in Exeter. It was the opportunity I had been waiting for, a place where I could express my thoughts and impressions in a space made for journeys like my own. The founder of the project, Charice Bhardwaj, provided support, encouragement, and incredible vision that fostered a truly inclusive and vibrant space. I contributed to the publication without fully anticipating the profound impact it would have, not only on a personal level but for our whole community. I, like many others, are so grateful for all the work, time, and effort put into making ‘The Rest of Us, Stories’, a reality. Creating a platform such as the Rest of Us demonstrated that it was possible to address important issues at a time when the world seemed disconnected the most. Each piece of writing, poetry, and photography was part of the protest, part of the movement. The Roots Resistance, similarly, hopes to forge solidarity between PoC by providing space to share and recognise the nuances and complexities that each of our stories tells.
Meanwhile, in Exeter, similar to many cities across the country, numerous protests were organised. Even at the height of a pandemic that brought the world to a standstill, millions of people around the world marched and affirmed that Black Lives Matter.
I attended protest after protest, in the hopes that it will make a difference, thinking and hoping that ‘this will be the one that will make people wake up’; sadly, at least for me, after each protest, I felt angrier than the one before. One after another, people went on the stage to share their experiences; many of those who shared their stories were not Black people, but rather white people, who only realised the night before that Black people should not be killed, that they, solely based on the colour of their skin benefited from the oppression of PoC. Yet, everything they said and shared was about them, their emotions, their struggles of belonging to the ‘preferred race’, without understanding the historical, social, political and economic contexts that led to that. One of the most astonishing speeches was (trust me, there were many) when one of the attendees went on stage and said ‘I am sorry that I am white, and you are not.’
My friends and I left the protest in a state of rage and pain. How dare she think that we want to be white, that we are not happy and proud of the complexities of our skin tones? The fact that she did not understand that our Blackness is the source of our strength, joys, and that we as PoC do not have a problem with our skin colour, but that it is the racist structures that are built to subjugate us that have a problem with the colour of our skin. I am a proud Black woman; my brothers are proud Black men; we belong to a group of people, who, after centuries of oppression, are still here, and who will continue to be here!
In the midst of all of this, again another “protest” was organised by PoC members of the community and their allies, but this time it was not a protest but a vigil, on the Cathedral Green, a space in which PoC could share their pain, and for allies to listen and hopefully learn from our experiences. For the first time in weeks, I felt heard, and most importantly, empowered by all those who attended. Of course, there was, as usual, those who made it about their “whiteness”, but this time, I could drown out their voices, pay attention to those who were inspiring me to make a difference, those who validated my emotions and truly saw me. The two most influential people at the vigil, whose words have stayed with me, who inspired me to do the work I am doing, were Malcolm Richards and Kalkidan Legesse. They both exuded love and compassion; I felt truly honoured to be in the presence of two amazing Black individuals, who, in their eyes and voices one could feel and see their sense of justice and love not only for Black people but for all of humanity.
Their presence and words on that way will forever stay with me, and at times of difficulties, I take solace in remembering their beautiful faces!
As we participated in conversations with our department and the people close to us around the experience of PoC, we exchanged ideas and experiences in an atmosphere that called for awareness, respect and growth.
In particular, there was the Anti-Racist and Social Justice book club, a monthly group set up by students and faculty members of the Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies (IAIS). The idea came during a forum discussion on race and racism and how it has shaped the IAIS community, the steps we wanted to take in order to challenge the structures of racism that are embedded within our departments, and our institution as a whole. The bookclub has provided PoC and their allies with space to critically engage with issues surrounding racism, through both literary analysis and personal reflections based on lived experiences. It has helped shape our thinking and provided us with immense emotional, mental and intellectual support. It reminded us of the importance of having spaces in which we, PoC, feel safe to not only express ourselves but also to be our authentic selves. This project has been hugely influenced by all those who have worked tirelessly, in their busy schedules, to continue with the book club.
Our plans for cementing The Roots Resistance started as passing conversations of how much we admired the buzzing creativity that circulates within our community in Exeter, and how much we would love to communicate with honesty the experience and impressions of being a student of colour that vary from each individual. With the help and support of the staff and leaders of the Education Incubator project, we realised that our plans did not have to be tentative, but could be achieved in reality.
This project is inspired by PoC and their allies. Its success in getting funding from the Education Incubator as well as the Annual Fund is due to them, and so the future success of this project will be. So, we thank you, all those who gave us words of inspiration, our friends old and new, who shared their frustrations with us, as well their hopes and dreams for what could be. The students who persevere in the fight for racial and social justice in detriment to their own wellbeing, who in the midst of threats to their lives continue to fight and inspire us to do the same: We see you, we hear you, and we are with you, even in our silences. To the lecturers and professors and the faculty members who continue to challenge institutional racism, who have and continue to listen to our concerns, we thank you.