By Theresa Anyanwu, EDI & Research Culture Co-ordinator
What is Black History Month?
This October is Black History Month in the UK, when we celebrate the vast contributions and reflect on the challenges of people of Black heritage. This year we are called to view these through the lens of 'Saluting Our Sisters' and 'Black Resistance'.
The theme 'Saluting Our Sisters' focuses on recognising and amplifying the often-overlooked voices, accomplishments, and stories of Black women across the globe. 'Black Resistance', in short, refers to both the historical and everyday opposition to the systemic structures holding racism, inequality, and oppression in place.
People of Black heritage in academia
Black members of staff and students within academia have historically been required to resist the ingrained biases, lack of representation, and experienced otherness existing within higher education. Women of Black heritage experience the dual challenge of being both an ethnic minority in a predominantly white environment, and subject to inequality related to gender.
I have had the pleasure of speaking to two members of staff of Black heritage - 2nd Year DPhil student, Morgan Mitchell, and Clinical Research Fellow, Joseph Kamtchum Tatuene. Both Morgan and Joseph currently work in the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences (NDCN), with Morgan looking into targeted memory reactivation to help improve stroke rehabilitation, and Joseph working towards establishing a Global Stroke Programme in Africa.
Journeys into neuroscience
Joseph describes his career beginnings in Cameroon: 'I got my MD back in 2010. Then I did my specialisation in neurology, because I was always fascinated with the brain, the way it's organised. And the more people were saying that neurology/neuroscience is difficult, the more I wanted to go and discover what was difficult about it.'
Morgan shares her experience growing up in a small estate in East London: 'So I'm originally from a small estate in East London. Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets, that sort of area. I went to a very small, local school basically, or as local as you can get in inner city London. It was fun.' After a diversion away from studying medicine, Morgan embarked on the path of neuroscience, later combining this with her interest in sports to study for an MRes in Exercise and Sport Science.
Morgan and Joseph are open about the barriers that each of them have faced during their journeys into academia. Morgan highlights the lack of representation: 'I think generally, it's just the idea of not seeing very many people that look like me, to be honest. And I think, in some ways, that maybe sounds quite minor to somebody who doesn't identify as being from an ethnic minority background, but it makes a big difference.'
Speaking about the potential obstacles for international members of staff and students, Joseph elaborates: 'It takes courage to be a foreigner...it's not only about discrimination, I'm lucky that I have not experienced that much open discrimination. On the contrary, I think I got a lot of support. But I think there are challenges that you face as a foreigner, for example, you are constantly required to revalidate your exams, when you move from Africa. I think that we'll probably need future ways to harmonise the training and maybe make some equivalence between the medicine degrees, so that people don't have to spend their life writing exams when they move around.'
Joseph continues: 'I think the other challenge that I see is that when you are a foreigner somewhere, people are sometimes unsure whether or not they should support you, or to what extent they should do that, because they are never sure whether you will stay at the institution or whether you will leave to go to another institution, or go back to your country. It means that, most of the time, you are left on your own to really design your own path, decide what you want to do, and how you want to achieve it.'
How to support people from ethnic minority backgrounds in NDCN
To support Black, Mixed, and other minority ethnic staff and students in NDCN, Morgan and Joseph advise the following:
- Don't assume everyone's experiences are the same. 'I think the main thing would be to not assume that everyone knows lots about research culture. Oxford is a completely different kettle of fish when you think about academia generally. Don't assume that they will know, have been given the same access, or have a similar trajectory. Between my undergrad and masters, I've spent lot of time doing jobs that weren't research related, I had to work. I didn't have a shiny, nice internship to go to every summer to accrue more research experience.' (Morgan)
- Take into account the impact of the smaller things. 'Be aware of the sensitivities around race, ethnicity, background, and things like that. I feel like, most of the time, it's not the big things that go unnoticed - we all know what racism is. But things like microaggressions are a lot easier to miss. And, I think, just being able to listen. If you're not necessarily someone from an ethnic minority background, or Black or Mixed background, okay, you might not understand why this is a microaggression for someone or why this felt a certain way. But the fact is, that person's experience is authentic. So, if they felt uncomfortable then that's enough.' (Morgan)
- Take into account the differences in culture. 'A person comes into a programme that is usually designed for British people. It's not that you want to exclude people, it's just that you need to do things for the majority. But you also need to be aware of the fact that if someone comes to the UK that doesn't fit the profile, you need to sit down with that person and really understand what they need, so that you can provide a kind of targeted support for them, no matter what their origin'. (Joseph)
- Recognise the power of mentoring. 'Putting myself back in the shoes of a Black African going to train abroad, I think sometimes you need someone, maybe a mentor, to discuss the reason why you came to study, and what you want to achieve before you go back, if you want to go back. Whether they want to stay or not, get people involved in activities from the beginning, and if it turns out that they want to stay, discuss with them about leadership, lectureships, and senior positions'. (Joseph)
Racially motivated tragedies, such as those informing the Black Lives Matter movement, have encouraged several institutions to openly discuss and work towards tangible change. It is vital for us as a Department and wider University to strive towards creating an environment that encourages Black voices to be heard and allows Black people to thrive, with real and visible actions.
- Listen to Morgan Mitchell telling her story as part of the NeuroTales event in 2022.
- BIPOC STEM Network - supporting the University of Oxford's scientists of colour.
- Black Women in Science Network - an online networking platform providing support and guidance to Black women scientists throughout their scientific careers.
- Black In Neuro - a grassroots initiative that looks to connect, celebrate and amplify Black voices working in neuroscience.
- SiSTEM - a platform and network that aims to connect women and science.
- Black and British: A Forgotten History – In this four-part BBC Television documentary series, Historian David Olusoga explores the enduring relationship between Britain and people whose origins lie in Africa.
- I May Destroy You - If you can't remember it, how could you consent? Resisting the label of sexual assault victim, Arabella takes on the painful, freeing climb to who she could be. Written by the Ghanaian-British actress, filmmaker, singer, and composer Michaela Coel.
- Black History Month | All You Need to Know | Newsround - YouTube
- Manifesto – a detailed account of Bernardine Evaristo's inspirational journey towards becoming the first Black woman to win a Booker Prize.