HOW TO UNLEARN PREJUDICE AND STAND COURAGEOUSLY

19 Jan 2021 | Student Advice, Wellbeing

Amidst the chaos and confusion of this year, we have all been forced to reflect not only on ourselves but the society we live in. When George Floyd was murdered on 25th May, at the hands of US police officers, shockwaves were felt across the globe and the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement encouraged people to start an important dialogue on race and belonging. Often, people avoid discussing racism due to fears of making mistakes, dislike for discomfort and the refusal to re-educate themselves. However, I believe that for anti-racist change to be enacted, we all need to be vulnerable enough to unlearn our past assumptions and brave enough to learn from the experiences of others.

 

Using the well-known adage, I believe that the first step to recovery is acceptance. We must all accept that prejudice lives within each of us, regardless of how it is expressed or contained. The root of this prejudice lies in our ignorance of others and our lack of awareness and understanding of their life experiences. As theorists Benedict Anderson points out in his seminal Imagined Communities, we are all conditioned to believe that we belong to specific groups and within these groups we develop a distrust for those who are unlike us or not part of this constructed community. These groups are socially constructed in the same way that stereotypes and assumptions are.

When studying at the University of Exeter, I witnessed the institution face countless racism scandals. The most notorious being the 2018 case of the Bracton Law Society (BLS), which saw a WhatsApp group chat leaked. The leaked messages showed some student committee members writing racist, sexist and Islamophobic messages in the chat. As one can imagine, the university reputation took a hit but the BLS Scandal was one of many incidents of racism reported on campus. In 2019, a similar issue arose after an unofficial university students page was created and soon attracted racist neo-Nazi messages. Whilst the university had no control or involvement in the anonymous Facebook page, many students, including myself, began asking senior management to address the obvious problem within our campus.

In light of the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, five students, including me, formed an anti-racist collective called the Unlearn Collective to address racism within our campus. Our multi-racial collective penned an open letter which included a list of demands such as greater transparency in investigations of racism, a commitment to decolonise the campus and the creation of an anti-racist pledge for new staff and students to sign. I then filmed a news report for BBC Spotlight with the hope of conveying our Collective’s message and encouraging signatories. To our surprise, over 400 people signed our letter and joined our campaign to create a more inclusive university.

We deliberately named ourselves the Unlearn Collective as we were encouraging the people to acknowledge the instilled prejudices they may hold and be open to unlearning and unpacking that flawed mentality. The process of unlearning involves people engaging in honest and sometimes uncomfortable dialogue. As I often say, Education is key. We must all be proactive in the fight against racism and willing to listen to the lived experiences of marginalised individuals. Those seeking to educate themselves should not only read vital anti-racist texts, but also engage with diverse local and national histories. Only through knowing our past can we learn to move forward.

We all have a collective responsibility to fight prejudice wherever we may find it. No matter how difficult it may be, we must continue engaging in anti-racist dialogue and stand courageously against all forms of discrimination. In the words of activist Darcus Howe, ‘we must become the shapers of our destiny’.

By Bryan Knight

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