CW: racism, homophobia
Sharessa Naidoo, a BlackED Ambassador, kindly answered some of our questions about what we can expect from this inherently inclusive movement, how we can get involved and her own personal alignment with the work they are doing.
For those who may not know, how was the BlackED Movement formed and what is your mission, has this mission had to evolve during the pandemic?
The BlackED Movement was founded by 7 dynamic black female students at the University of Edinburgh last year in response to George Floyd’s killing in the US and the University of Edinburgh’s lack of response. The movement was founded to envision and implement practical solutions to continuing racist action on campus. The movement is made up entirely of students and was meant to galvanise all black students specifically that are systematically discriminated against directly and indirectly. As a BlackED Ambassador I see BlackED for what it is, a movement. A movement begins with a common goal and continuously innovates to achieve it. The pandemic simply required more innovation for the movement. In my opinion, the pandemic made the movement more education focused. Consequently, the pandemic gave BlackED more far-reaching support since digital platforms used for virtual events allowed for international conversation relating to the movement.
How did you personally get involved?
I personally was involved in facilitating these conversations that were incredibly informative. We ran a Reproductive Justice (RJ) Webinar series that brought different experts together monthly to talk about the different dimensions of Reproductive Justice. I also was responsible for conceptualising and creating editions of the current ‘BFS Goddess’ political cartoon that features the heroine fight everyday sexist encounters that all womxn have experience of. The idea with the cartoon was to visually show BME womxn that it is possible to overcome discrimination once we unite and question why things are the way they are around us.
Having partnered up with Girl Up and created Black Feminist Space, what has been the goal for this separate initiative?
Mainstream culture and society pre-determines our place in it by attaching normalised society expectations to our skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, nationality etc. The partnership project group that is BFS was formed to create a focused community that places emphasis on intersectional experiences. Being a womxn is wrapped up in the other identities she holds as well. The combined effects of these identities cause multi-layered discrimination. At BFS we wanted to, and did, create a space that welcomed and enabled all those that mainstream feminism marginalises. We wanted to change the narrative around what all womxn can or cannot do.
Horrible incidents like those during the Afro-Caribbean Society Zoom event are a reminder that racism exists closer than we think even if it isn’t right in front of us all the time, how can Edinburgh Uni do more in eradicating discriminatory practices?
The university needs to continuously reinforce their commitment to a university environment that tolerates zero forms of discrimination. Something I feel extremely passionate about drawing attention to is the fact that being seen as racist should not be seen as a personal attack. Once people are educated that racism is systemic and always works in the background to guide people’s decision-making, we can make substantial progress in eliminating it. Instead of defending themselves, white people need to draw their attention to checking their white privilege. The university must communicate this message. But more concretely, we need sufficient guidelines and consequences that perpetrators face. The university could publish an assessment of all digital platforms and how to make them safe spaces that are fair to all students. The university could even consider making each student sign an anti-racist contract upon matriculating each year and setting up an investigative task team that extensively looks into racist incidences and holds wrongdoers accountable by suspension or expulsion depending on the offence. On a bigger level, if the university had more BME staff members, lecturers and tutors, maybe discrimination would not be so rampant. People need a standard that they measure their beliefs against.
Your most recent events have focused on Reproductive Justice, seeing events that recognise racism is never just one issue and emphasise intersectionality is really important. What has been the response to these events, and can we look forward to more events like this in the future?
These events have been met with overwhelming support and interest. As I said the movement centres around educating people and education is most effective when it is innovative and different. Reproductive Justice is a different way of looking at anti-sexist action. As a result events such as these ones are pivotal to seeing an anti-sexist environment established at the university and thus certainly will be continued.
A lot of your social media posts are about mobilising students to be more proactive, with performative activism featuring a lot and to be avoided, and the need to change the narrative and vocabulary we use around the black experience. What are perhaps the keyways we can help with your anti-racist intersectional cause during the pandemic and help BlackED fulfil their goals?
Listening and being open to discussion is crucial. As a South African, I was initially shocked by most people’s refusal at the university to use the word ‘black’ to describe black people. Although I am in no way inclined to express views that black people hold, within discussion with black people involved in BlackED, it was communicated to me that black people prefer when they are referred to by what they are: black. Racism leaves black people and BME students questioning their place in society constantly. By refusing to call black students black, you make them question themselves more. Also, truth be told, not saying black does not erase racism. If anything it keeps it alive by making no terminology available to address it head on. Therefore, I believe the terminology we use to address issues is so important because it frames discussions and contributes to its context. So to help with anti-racist intersectional causes means to use terminology supported by those movements aims to benefit.
Lastly, after International Women’s Day are there any women you are thankful for, any feminist icons who we should know more about or women part of your campaign that you would love to highlight?
Shira Graubart is a force to be reckoned with. Her dedication to Girl Up is completely admirable as well as her brainchild to start the initiative ‘International Advocacy Day to End Period Poverty’. She understands that feminism which is not inclusive is not feminism.
Additionally, I love all feminists that communicate practical thought-provoking messages. Having read the book ‘Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men’ at the start of lockdown, the feminist game for me was completely changed. The author Caroline Criado-Perez is a visionary.
I am also in love with the power of art. I am currently obsessed with a woman called Neri Oxman that consistently combines all her knowledge to create leading technology and art. She is the living and breathing example of female ambition that I believe is so quintessential for any society that wants to equalise womxn and men.
Thank you to Sharessa for answering our questions and for all the work BlackED is doing!
A shortened version of this interview appeared in print on 16th March 2021.
Image: BlackED Movement logo