Shades of Noir “what is diversity?” – DMAW16 ‘Why Does Race Matter In The Learnign Environment?’ review

Shades of Noir was set up in 2009 to create opportunities available for marginalised groups and their need for safe spaces to articulate self-determination and liberate the struggles from oppressive structures both in education and society.

Shades of Noir supported “Diversity and the Media: The Black Presence in Contemporary Europe (BLAXPLOITALIAN screening and Q&A)” 18th April, and “Why does race matter in my learning environment?” 21st April panel discussion on the 21st April during Diversity Matters Awareness Week. Here’s the full article:

“Why does race matter in the learning environment?” was one of the events that Shades of Noir supported as part of the “Diversity Matters” awareness week, held at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London (UAL), High Holborn.

The panel included academics; Jennifer Williams- Baffoe and Lawrence Lartey, the UAL Student Union Educational officer Bee Tajudeen and. UAL Senior Management Jeremy Till (Pro Vice Chancellor of Central Saint Martins School of Art) and George Blacklock (Dean at Chelsea College of Art), Staff Network Co-Chair Tanicia Payne (GEMS – Group for the Equality of Minority Staff UAL) and Samia Malik, UAL Alumni and Artist.  The main topics of the conversation were equality and diversity.

Is our university (UAL) an equal university? On the surface, it may seem so, but anonymous marking systems have only been introduced recently, the data around attainment and retention of particular groups still suggests marginalization and conscious or unconscious bias may be at play. This makes you think what has been happening to students during this time? Is equality an image for marketing?  Is ‘diversity’ a word use to desensitize the inequalities a play?

What is diversity?

“Diversity… is like having a big welcome sign in neon saying everybody welcome”. Melodie Holliday- LCC Foundation Course Tutor (‘Lets talk about race’ by Kai Lutterodt)

In theory, diversity means when a diverse range of people has the chance to be represented. But in action, it seems more like a box ticking method. As a person of colour, it doesn’t take long to get involved in this system of tokenism. Tokenism is the policy and practice of making a perfunctory gesture towards the inclusion of minority groups. You may think it’ll never happen to you. You may think that people respect you more than that and would never treat you as a token.  However, look around you, are you the token BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) person on the panel discussion? The only black person in the friendship group? Or the token brown person your course? Is that diversity?

“Diversity is a concept that is clearly generated by non-diverse user of the language” Jorge – CSM student (‘Lets talk about race’ by Kai Lutterodt)


How can diversity be achieved?

If we don’t want to be the token we need to be present from the beginning of the process, at the heart of change, and in the seats of power. Putting that in university context the people at the top must represent the greater communities within the UK. Which is the reason that it has taken until now for BAME students to be able to raise their voice?

Shades of Noir started in 2009 and has been behind the scenes actively lobbying for representation, pedagogies of social justice, leveling the playing field and highlighting the benefits of cultural value.

‘SoN offers higher education a range of activities that support the change in behaviour and practice, through an online resource database, debates, exhibitions, workshops, curriculum design, audits, validation, and reviews. SoN was created to address a lack of embedded representation, cultural currency and accessible knowledge in the creative curriculum and pedagogy within the art, design and communication HE. It has been described as art school’s’ critical friend, and potentially a blueprint for higher education by a number of organisations.’ Richards and Finnigan (2015, p8)

#UALSoWhite is a campaign started by BAME students in 2016 which has both staff and students supporters focusing on institutional injustices. One of their demands is to “An Increase of BAME professorships.” looking at statistics UAL only has 9% BAME lecturers. This reflects the amount of BAME students who are then able to study those courses taught by the non-BAME lecturers.

Find more about UAL so White here

Jane Elliot, an American lecturer and diversity trainer, believes all non-black folk are racist, as racism is something children are conditioned to learn because of white supremacy.

In Political terms, racism means a system of oppression based on race created in a country to favour the majority and oppress the minority.

We need to stop being afraid of stating facts and being called by a term such as “Racist” because if we believe everyone who benefits from racism is part of the system of racism, it’s only then that we allow change.


Statistics show that BAME students are less likely to graduates with Firsts,  however, there are experiments that show through anonymous marking these students achieved higher grades. This only makes us reflect on the institutional racism and what this means to our futures both in higher education and beyond. (I’m currently looking for links to prove these)

The university has allowed Ten years to diversities the institute. However, ten years seems to be too long when the impact of the inequalities last a lifetime.  During the event “Why does race matter in the learning environment?” A point I raised during the event was:

“If it will take ten years, how many BAME students will the university lose due to the current system.”

We can name students who felt so invisible in university they have left the institute.

“Why do I have to work Ten times harder?” One academic from the audience said. Most BAME staff are overqualified for their positions, compared to their white colleagues who are sometimes less qualified than the BAME staff but have higher positions in the institute and greater prospects for progression. It is common knowledge that we prefer people ‘who look like us’, and this is something that impacts the hiring system.

Why do you always have to make it about race?

“If we say race doesn’t matter, we are whitewashing the students and staff” Susan Orr-Dean of Learning (‘Lets talk about race’ by Kai Lutterodt) and we will face even more BAME students leaving their courses because they feel underrepresented.

As a UAL student of three years, I have constantly found myself in spaces where I was the only BAME person, which is not the best position to be, as you find yourself constantly being the one standing up for BAME rights, cultural value, and voice. The reason for this could be simpler than it seems, people may simply not have the vocabulary, and historical knowledge to defend BAME rights? This could also be one of the reasons talking about race and our differences are still deemed a taboo subject for many.

Should the educational institutes be the ones educating the staff and students about this vocabulary, contextualised by historical knowledge and the narratives of the oppressed?

When talking about diversity, discussions around gender and sexuality discrimination is often excluded. If we fight for racial diversity and forget about gender-based discrimination women face in the patriarchal society or forgetting about the discrimination faced by folk who do not fit into the gender binary and the views of heteropatriarchal society on sexuality, we are still failing to create diversity. Intersectional theory reminds us of discrimination faced by people who fit in more than one categories where political failures are in charge. What does diversity look like for  a person who is discriminated against by gender, race, sexuality and class?

As creative arts students, we may have by now realised that art history mainly consists of white male creatives and this is harmful to BAME students and women particularly, but also to white students whom may be fed the rewriting of histories that doesn’t offer the global curriculum that offers an international and local breadth of understanding and knowledge to transcend our practices. Is this why we don’t talk about White Privilege in class? What does an exclusive curriculum mean to all students and the  struggle of oppression of the marginalised?

Citation from ‘Lets talk about race’ by Kai Lutterodt – More about Diversity Matters

Read more about Intersectional Theory

Additional reading

Finnigan T, and Richards, A, 2016 Retention and attainment in the disciplines: Art and Design

Richards, A and Finnigan T, 2015, Embedding equality and diversity in the curriculum: an art and design practitioner’s guide

Article by Katy Jalili – content developer for Shades of Noir

CLICK HERE for our DMAW16 follow-on events this term until July including screenings, workshop, art exhibition and an opportunity for students to sell creative works this summer though Divercity Arts Project supported by UAL Careers and Employability!

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