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'How can systematic institutional racism in the curriculum be challenged?'

Josephine NwaAmaka Bardi
  • 8 Comments

In 2016, I set up the campaign Raising Awareness of Mental Health in Higher Education, as this is a big issue, particularly for international studies in the UK. 

As part of this campaign, I feel there is an urgent need for universities to rethink the contents of their curriculum to ensure that learners are empowered as individuals rather than embedding a system where teachers trigger mental health symptoms among university students.

The RAMHEE campaign is advocating a rethink of stereotypical language and racial power dynamics that are deep-rooted in the UK curriculum.

I am referring to the systematic and indirect institutional racism where teachers show only poverty in Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) countries to make it look like there are no hungry or poor people in the UK.

”It may lead to low confidence, low self-esteem, shame, rejection of identity and poor mental health among some BAME students”

This creates a false impression and promotes a class and social class distinction where some students may believe that they are superior to their peers, and their peers may feel inferior.

Worse still, this racially constructed curriculum is taught from the first year, and it may lead to low confidence, low self-esteem, shame, rejection of identity and poor mental health among some BAME students because of negative views of themselves.

As a mental health nurse, it worries me that rather than embed mental health into the curriculum, some lecturers embed self-doubt into the subconscious of the learners and trigger mental health problems among students from BAME groups.

As a PhD student and lecturer, students have complained about the negative impact of module content, which disempowers them in the class, making them voiceless in the presence of their white lecturers and white classmates.

Let us not forget the negligible diverse workforce at most UK universities, with a ridiculously low percentage of BAME lecturers.

Not only do these students have to deal with the white lecturer standing in front of them, but they also have to watch as the lecturers show only videos and images of poverty in BAME countries.

Is this a case of academic slavery? Next time you prepare your teaching materials, I want to think about the consequences of your actions before you include those videos and images that portray BAME countries as poor.

It is important that teachers examine the contents of their learning and teaching resources, to ensure a global learning resource, rather than the one-sided view, which stereotypes a group of people.

Teachers in higher education should think local first, by using examples that are relevant to the UK, alongside other examples. This will help learners to contextualise and position the UK among other countries.

“It is important that teachers think about the implications of their curriculum content on the mental health of students”

As the negative mental health experiences among university students increase, it is important that teachers think about the implications of their curriculum content on the mental health of students.

In my opinion, this will be a very useful early intervention strategy which will enable students to value themselves and where they come from.

For some university students, mental health experiences may have started from as young as 10 years old, when the person who was supposed to teach and enable a positive learning experience chose to embed images of poverty, lack and self-doubt in their young minds.

Any teacher who makes some learners feel like they are less than others because of the colour of their skin or where they come from is guilty of race crime.

In the absence of positive mental health, the student experience is hindered, and academic achievement may be limited.

Josephine NwaAmaka Bardi is a mental health nurse, ESRC PhD student, Mental health and wellbeing, University of Nottingham. Founder of Raise Awareness of Mental Health in Higher Education

  • 8 Comments

Readers' comments (8)

  • Good article. African people in the UK suffer disproportionately from mental health problems as a result of institutional and personal racism. Misused images of African poverty in the context of lack of teaching of world history will indeed contribute to this. Keep up the good work, Josephine.

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  • See my blogpost, 'Colour me racist, blame my genes – racism explained as a redundant instinct' (https://soothfairy.com/2016/08/14/racism-a-redundant-instinct).

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  • An interesting article, which raises several questions:

    1. The author states that lecturers who make students '...*feel* like they are less than others because of the colour of their skin' are guilty of a 'race crime'. As described I'm not sure how this can be mitigated in reality, if racism is perceived, rather than intended then no lecturer can be safe from claims of racism. Clearly, if a lecturer intends to make a BAME student feel like this then they *are* racist, but it is dangerous to disconnect racial discrimination from intention. What is required is dialogue and choosing to interpret peoples actions more charitably, rather than ascribing them to racist sentiments.

    2. 'Not only do these students have to deal with the white lecturer standing in front of them...'. In the latest (2011) census, 81.9% of the population was White British, this is a demographic reality and to perceive that the very presence of a 'white lecturer' as problematic is deeply troubling. I understand that BAME lecturers are underrepresented and that gap should be closed! However, the UK demographic means that the vast majority of lecturers are going to be white British.

    Lecturers are there to teach students, irrespective of a students colour. Comparing a 'white' lecturers presence in the classroom as 'academic slavery' merely because of their skin colour strikes me as unhelpful rhetoric. Has the author considered what the stress and anxiety of worrying about being perceived as racist has on lecturers mental health? I suspect not.

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  • In reply to Anonymous (23 November, 2018 1:15 pm) - point 2: fair point, I'd say; but point 1 seems to miss the point. Surely the writer's point is that the lecturer's choice of content, which associates poverty with Africa and the Asian subcontinent, contributes to low self esteem in BAME students. Microracism, perhaps, but it all adds up.

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  • I thought your article incredibly resonant. I give English support to international nursing students and even amongst this cohort an assumption of 'good care' in SE Asian countries vs 'inferior care' in African counties is regularly voiced. Next week we will look at your article and address this. There will always be defensive comebacks by white males to any accusation of racism or discrimination (I assume the above comment by 'anonymous' is one). I hear such 'offence' voiced regularly in my university setting (with an assumption that, as a white woman, I will for some reason collude with them). They feel their 'rightful' position as top dog is under threat, poor things. Keep on raising awareness.

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  • Interestingly, the anonymous author from the 24th of November would rather judge my comment by reducing me to my (alleged) sex and skin colour, instead of addressing the substance of my comments. Some would consider those actual examples of sexism and racism.

    Rather than being offended, I was concerned at the poor argumentation and lack of empirical data to support her claims. I would recommend not confusing criticism with offence, they are not one and the same thing. I certainly don't think of myself as a 'top dog', it is interesting that you also try to dehumanise me with your language.

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  • It doesn't stop at university, one or 2 white staff nurse colleagues feel that it is their place to mock your accent whilst on shift. It is pitiable indeed. How do you begin to give examples of exactly how they said it at a Grievance meeting? "God sees it all" may be a defeatist statement, but I choose to feel that way!

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  • " I am referring to the systematic and indirect institutional racism where teachers show only poverty in Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) countries to make it look like there are no hungry or poor people in the UK."

    Really? I think your ire needs to be directed more at the media, who show the poverty stricken large communities in these countries rather than the somewhat less visible poverty in the UK. Would you not agree that these issues are more visible when whole communities are affected? Hunger and poverty are well hidden in the UK, reported as statistics rather than pictures of whole communities. And isn't it right that lecturers should raise global issues to heighten awareness and understanding?

    And out of interest...I wonder if the author of the article is as concerned about the mental health of LGBT students, whatever their cultural/racial background, when sensitive subjects such as the prevalence of HIV infection or homophobia are discussed? Surely you could apply the same rhetoric to any group of students, when teaching any subject.

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