Towards sanctuary: Reflecting on clients’ stories and the June 2020 WERS webinar: Lifelines, lockdown, imagination, and trust

Alexandra Bannon is a 2nd year Undergraduate Sociology student at Newcastle University. She reflects on the role Newcastle’s West End Refugee Service has played in supporting refugees in Newcastle, following participating in an eye-opening refugee week webinar.

Taking part in the WERS refugee week webinar and reading the highly emotive personal stories of some of their clients has sparked some reflections about the refugee week theme of ‘imagine’. It became evident from the accounts that for many individuals who find or are referred to WERS, their first encounter with the service is that of a crucial lifeline amongst the chaotic and volatile nature of their situation. For many, it is a last resort, beginning their relationship with the organisation as a one-way form of support but results in clients staying and developing a rich relationship with the organisation, creating a culture of hospitality and leaving clients wanting to help others in the same way. In addition, after experiencing the ever-growing commitment, community and trust, WERS becomes a place of sanctuary, safety and family, instilling hope and providing a place for people to begin to imagine a better life for themselves within Newcastle.

The success of the befriending scheme transcends the accounts, exhibiting it as an invaluable part of the client’s lives. This well-established initiative provides one-on-one support to the clients through dedicated volunteers, aiding them in everyday activities, reading letters, phone calls and day trips. It is evident from the accounts that the consistency of this project is a way for clients to feel empowered and in control of their lives in Newcastle and indeed allows them to imagine a life for themselves within the city. The hope instilled through this programme and through Ali as not only a support worker but as an example of a fulfilled future in Newcastle, shows the potential for this city to become a place of sanctuary for many. The webinar exhibited the organisations commitment to this scheme, showing how due to the current pandemic the need for befrienders has become even more necessary and so a remote befriending scheme has been implemented. This consists of regular phone calls between volunteers and clients, enriching activities, and remote meet ups. The unprecedented times that we find ourselves in, becomes even more volatile in the context of refugee lives, therefore this scheme enables clients to have some routine and consistency within their lives and actually becomes a simultaneous support network for both the clients and volunteers, enabling them both to imagine a life outside of lockdown.

The term intersectionality was coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) to explore the multitude of oppressions that African American women face as a result of their intersecting identities of race and gender. The concept’s ability to adapt to differing forms of social oppression makes it a successful framework to use to understand and support refugee lives. This concept significantly resonated with me whilst reading these accounts, particularly in the context of refugee mothers who use WERS services and is something I am increasingly interested in as a soon to be third year Sociology student. Often the norms and values of host countries contradict the culturally sanctioned customs of refugee’s home countries, rendering women significantly marginalised within host countries and in need of additional support.

One particular account expressed the importance of WERS providing the Bititi project to mothers and their children who are trying to navigate parenthood in an unfamiliar setting. This initiative empowers women and administers access to services within their houses when they need it most. It is clear from the accounts that this project is a crucial lifeline for these women as it successfully recognises them as doubly oppressed victims and enables them to reach their full intersectional power. Furthermore, COVID-19 has put substantial pressure on all parents and the multifaceted intersectional nature of refugee mothers has made them doubly isolated, as mentioned by Hannah, WERS’s volunteer project manager, during the webinar. The lockdown has seen WERS identify women in need through the remote befriending scheme and working closely with welfare education services they have provided activity packs for families. Relieving pressure for refugee mothers to entertain their children in this challenging time. I believe the continuation of this dedicated support both normally and during this health crisis is what it takes to encourage refugee mothers to recognise their power and WERS as an organisation not only provides a space to empower them as intersectional subjects but enables them to imagine and believe in their own potential.

All in all, participating in the webinar, crafting specific questions for Ali and Hannah and reading the clients stories has been a hugely enriching and insightful experience for me. Something that particularly resonated with me was the ever-growing networks surrounding WERS and their extended community. Whether that be the refugee communities who inform newcomers of WERS services or the interdisciplinary nature of WERS relationship with local organisations in order to identify and provide the upmost support for their clients. In short, it is evident that although there is always more work to be done, Newcastle, with WERS at its heart really does have the potential to be a place of imagination and sanctuary for all who need it.

Crenshaw, K. (1989) “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum, issue 1, article 8, 139-167. Available at:

The West End Refugee Service (WERS) at 20: Histories and challenges of refuge in Newcastle

Silvia Pasquetti and Cathrine Degnen are Sociology staff members at Newcastle University. Here they write about the experiences of asylum seekers in Newcastle, and the role the West End Refugee Service has played in supporting them over the past two decades. (In addition to writing this blog, Silvia and Cate took part in a webinar with WERS to mark its 20th anniversary. This can be viewed here.)

Sauda is a refugee from Burundi who has lived in Newcastle since 2004. Like many other asylum seekers who were “dispersed” in Newcastle in the early 2000s, Sauda’s early experiences of and in the city, were troubling and disorienting. Newcastle had become an asylum-dispersal city in the late 1990s as a result of the Home Office policy to “disperse” asylum seekers outside the London area. Yet, the globally displaced people arriving in Newcastle had, at that time, little institutional or social support. They struggled to find people who spoke their languages or understood their experiences of displacement. They felt isolated and uncertain about the environment around them.

For example, Sauda was initially “dispersed to Angel Heights,” a now-closed accommodation for single refugee women on Westgate Road opposite to the main hospital. Before becoming an asylum centre for refugee women mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, Angel Heights hosted up to a hundred single Afghani men. Before that, it was a nurses’ hostel. In the chapter that she dedicates to “the politics of dispersal” in Newcastle in her book Human Cargo (2006), Caroline Moorehead describes Angel Heights as “both decent and dreadful; both humane and cruel.” What impressed Moorehead the most was the silence: “Angel Heights is a waiting room, a building in which nothing happens. Few of its inhabitants speak English, and few can speak to each other…Forbidden to work, they [the refugee women] have literally nothing to do; nothing, that is, except to worry…They sit alone in large rooms full of cobalt-blue chairs in rows; they stand in the corridors; they queue by the single payphone. Angel Heights is quiet; when the women speak, they speak in whispers” (p. 147).

Despite the isolation wrapped around her, it is at Angel Heights that Sauda heard from another resident about the existence of the West End Refugee Service (WERS). This informal conversation was the beginning of a more positive experience of refuge for Sauda. For that is to say, about six years after Newcastle became an asylum-dispersal city, Sauda had tapped into a growing network of support in which the local residents who eventually founded WERS in 1999 were key actors. These residents were not particularly expert in refugee law or human rights issues. Yet, they took note of all the changes and challenges that the arrival of globally displaced people brings to a city. In a way, even when the language of sanctuary or protection was not explicitly used, these local Newcastle residents started to work to transform an asylum-dispersal site created through top-down policies that are often (willingly or neglectfully) convoluted, fragmented, and contradictory into a city of sanctuary where refugees can rebuild new lives, and local residents can also grow in knowledge of and involvement in global issues of injustice.

This network was and still is striving to produce, solidify, and expand an environment of possibilities and growth for newly arrived refugees in the city. Each achievement brings a new challenge. Historical events such as the global financial crisis, Brexit, and, more recently the covid-19 outbreak, risk setting the clock backward endangering some of the achievements reached gradually and with a lot of hard work against racist and anti-migrant practices and discourses. Yet, the case of WERS demonstrates that positive change can and often is effected from below in everyday life through everyday communication. Sauda’s experience of WERS in the last fifteen years confirms the importance of such a network of support. It traces the way forward for newly arrived refugees who, unlike for her 15 years ago, often find a richer urban environment in both social and institutional opportunities. This trajectory emerges from how Sauda describes her encounter with WERS, an encounter that for her stood in stark contrast with her experience of dread and isolation at Angel Heights:

 I went [to WERS] and got some clothes from their store. WERS made me feel so welcome and I really liked what they were doing. I came back and asked to volunteer.  I have now volunteered on and off for WERS for 14 years which I still really enjoy doing.  My experience of being in the UK would have been so very difficult without WERS. I feel I had the whole team by my side fighting with me to get my leave to stay in the UK.  WERS has provided counselling, a weekend break at a Friary with David the counsellor and Helen from WERS, where I was able to relax. I still have very fond memories of the experience, I will never forget it!  WERS more recently referred me to Wise Steps and this has aided me to develop my skills and become more confident in my abilities!

Over the past year, we have been working with WERS to tell more of this complex and still evolving story of its role and presence in the community here in Newcastle. We have been listening to and learning from the voices and experiences of the people who make WERS what it is – founding members, volunteers, support groups, refugees turned into volunteers, and members of the broader local community – who first embarked in a transformative journey for themselves and the city where they lived. Our reflections in this blog post draw on our research interviews conducted this year as part of this work, and from 20 biographical stories of WERS clients that were assembled to commemorate the past 20 years of the service. Called “20 years, 20 stories”, these personal accounts come from refugees and asylum seekers. They are their own reflections on their experiences with and at WERS. These individuals have arrived in Newcastle from Zimbabwe, Algeria, Eritrea, Iran, Burundi, Nigeria, Israel, India, Sierra Leone, the Congo, Iraq, Iran, Cameroon and Nigeria. They are women and men recounting their own stories of the refugee and asylum seeking process in contemporary Britain, and specifically in the northeast of England.

This permits us to research and tell the story of WERS from both historical and contemporary perspectives, through memories of the past and activities of the present. Both these personal narratives and the interviews with WERS stakeholders, staff, and founding members make clear the deep and pernicious challenges that people seeking refuge and asylum face in Britain. The system is cold, it is harsh, and it is often an impenetrable, faceless bureaucracy. There is a designed intentionality in this experience, the government’s so-called “hostile environment”, and it does damage to one’s humanity.

In marked contrast, WERS is described time and time again by the people who come to it as offering a haven, as feeling like home. This is attributed in part to key things that WERS helps with (such as finding housing, finding a solicitor, registering with a GP, attending hospital appointments, understanding letters and paperwork, and making support payments), and the supplies it can provide (including clothing, bedding, toiletries, food parcels, and items to furnish one’s home). This assistance helps individuals who attend WERS, but also evident in the testimonies are the positive ways in which this impact ripples out into families as children, parents and siblings also benefit from the support and advice delivered by WERS.

But whilst these forms of assistance help generate a sense of home, it is also the connections of reliability and trust that emerge from the testimonies: “WERS has been with me all the way through good times and bad and never gave up on me. WERS is not just a place to get things.”  This sense of connection that WERS creates is present in Sauda’s words above, and attributed by many of the “20 years, 20 lives” participants to the humanising atmosphere that is built at WERS. People use “safe”, “trust”, “happy”, and “it takes stress away” as words to describe how the space at WERS makes them feel, as well as these words to describe it:

“Being a part of WERS helps you to feel integrated and part of the society you are living in, not just the asylum process.”

“Ali and Helen’s faces, it makes me feel a part of something and not just an asylum seeker.  Familiarity is rare when claiming asylum, there is so much that is unknown.” 

“Coming to WERS has helped me to feel better about myself.  Being amongst people, being able to talk and feel relaxed has helped a lot. Just being able to sit and watch people helping each other makes me feel happy, less isolated and more a part of life.”

“WERS has helped me to remain responsible, keep my dignity and independence!”

“I am able to dress in smart suits from the store when I attend church or group meetings.  I don’t have to beg and ask others for bus fare to Middlesbrough.  Without WERS I would have lost these things which are so important to me.”

“Thank you for WERS you have given me my life back!”

Forced displacement ruptures the connections that knit us into place. Isolation, the unknowns of the asylum process and the loss of control over everyday circumstances can be profoundly dehumanising. These challenges can and do feel insurmountable and unyielding at times. But what we have learned from the memories of the recent past here in Newcastle and the activities of the present is how WERS mobilises its energies into a focus on emotional wellbeing, and dignity, alongside practical assistance. Both are key elements that help people like Sauda rebuild their lives by opening a possibility of sanctuary, and a possibility of becoming knit into place once again.

Oh Canada…Why I am not celebrating Canada Day today.

Adrienne Attorp is a Sociology and Social Policy PhD student at Newcastle. She is also Canadian, and struggling with the problematic history of Canada Day, her country’s national holiday. She writes about this here.

Today, 1st July, is Canada Day, an annual holiday that marks the day in 1867 when the British North America Act was signed, uniting the colonies of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into a single Dominion – Canada – within the British Empire.

The holiday is typically celebrated with much fanfare: parades, concerts, fireworks, and large gatherings with family and friends which almost always involve a barbeque and lots of beer. I grew up wholeheartedly taking part in these activities and have continued to do so even as I have lived outside of the country, always finding fellow Canadians to mark the occasion with. Only in recent years have I begun to reflect on what Canada Day means and what I am celebrating when I take part in festivities to mark the occasion.

Photo credit: Maarten van den Heuvel

Canada is a settler colonial project of grand proportions. European explorers first ‘discovered’ what is now Canada in the 15th century. Early explorers, traders and missionaries were followed by settlers (including my maternal great grandparents) who were actively supported by their home countries – initially, Britain and France – to claim territory in this vast wilderness. In the mid-19th century, Canada built 1,600 kilometres of “colonization roads” in a bid to make it easier for settlers to claim land, and thousands of kilometres of rail were established. Over the course of a century, the Dominion of Canada grew to stretch across 9.9 million square kilometres, from British Columbia in the west to Newfoundland in the east, and far north past the arctic circle. A true feat of empire.

What has been left out of this narrative until relatively recently, is that in order for brave settlers to forge new land for King (and Queen) and country, a key problem had to be overcome: this ‘wilderness’ was, in fact, already inhabited by millions of people.

Various authors (e.g. see Bev Sellars, Nick Estes and Thomas King, among many others) have eloquently documented the process by which the British and French governments, then the Canadian (and American) government, set about destroying Indigenous people in what is now North America. There is not space here to even begin to detail this violent history, but in short, concerted focus was placed on systematically eliminating “the Indian Problem”.

Indigenous people were violently uprooted from their traditional homes and pushed far into remote areas where they would not get in the way of new European settlements. Generations of Indigenous children were taken from their families and “aggressively civilised” in residential schools, where they had their culture literally beaten out of them. This is not ancient history. Canada’s last residential school closed in 1996.

The Canadian government finally established a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in 2008, and formally apologised for its treatment of Indigenous people that same year. However, for many, the apology rang hollow, as have subsequent apologies, including from a tearful Justin Trudeau. Many Indigenous communities in Canada still live in abject poverty, their suicide rates are the highest in the country, more than 4,000 Indigenous women have been murdered or are missing (something which has officially been classified as a genocide), and the Canadian government continues to steamroll over Indigenous rights to land and livelihood as it pushes through new pipelines and dams on Indigenous territory.

As Nick Estes and Nyla Matuk argue on the excellent Red Nation Podcast, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was more about Canada absolving itself of its crimes than about making tangible change. Moreover, what is there to reconcile if there was not conciliation in the first place?

Wet’suwet’en Land Defenders protest the construction of a natural gas pipeline that passes through their unceded territory in northern British Columbia, Canada
Photo credit: Jennifer Wickham

Canada is not unique in its treatment of Indigenous people. The United States, Australia and New Zealand, among others, are all products of similar settler colonial projects. However, many Canadians still seem unable to understand the implications of the European settler colonial project that birthed their country and remain fiercely – and uncritically – proud of their nationality. Canada Day narratives serve only to perpetuate this, almost entirely glossing over the colonial history of the country.

Equally, we must contest the narrative that these issues are simply ‘in the past’. To this day, Canadians hold tight to a pervasive narrative of Canadian ‘multiculturalism’ (e.g. Canada is a ‘mosaic’, unlike the United States, which is as ‘melting pot’), which overlooks the continuing influence of racism in Canadian society. This extends beyond the country’s ongoing reprehensible treatment of Indigenous people. Black people in Canada are twice as likely to be on a low income than other Canadians and are more likely to be a victim of a hate crime. In Toronto, Black people account for 37 percent of the victims of police violence despite making up only 8 percent of the population. I could go on.

So, I am not celebrating Canada Day today, not because I think Canada is a uniquely terrible place, nor because I think Canadians have nothing to be proud of. Rather, the history that this day in particular represents is something that should not be celebrated. Moreover, Canada Day celebrations perpetuate the notion that Canada is an unproblematic bastion of multiculturalism and progressive politics. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Progress will not happen until white people become unsettled: Exploring the centring of whiteness in the fight for racial equality

Claire Gardiner (@claireg98) is a fourth year Sociology and Philosophy student at Newcastle University. In the final blog of our Black Lives Matter series, Claire writes about how important it is to de-centre one’s own ‘whiteness’ in order to become truly anti-racist.

We white people have grown used to most spaces being tailored to our needs and feelings. The positive portrayal of white people in the media, the spotlighting of the white perspective in colonial history and the disproportionately high representation of white people in many schools and workplaces are just a few of the multiple ways this happens. By default, social structures focus on white people’s comfort and, as a result, we are not required to confront how we benefit from people of colour’s discomfort. Thus, it is not surprising that even during the large-scale ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement we have seen a centring of white voices and sentiments.

Obvious examples of this are seen in white people’s self-victimisation when we are called out for racism. For example, at the beginning of June, Ivanka Trump was supposed to give a commencement speech for Wichita State University Tech. Given the timing of the Black Lives Matter protests and the Trump administration’s militant and controversial response, the university decided that it would be insensitive to present Ivanka as a role model.

Ivanka responded on Twitter, claiming to be a target of “cancel culture and viewpoint discrimination”. She implied that the university was censoring which viewpoints were presented to its students and, subsequently, claimed it was an illiberal attack on her freedom of speech. By centring herself as the victim, she created a form of equivalence, while diminishing her privilege and diverting attention away from why her speech was cancelled in the first place. Post-racial narratives and narratives of racial equivalence are mobilised to assert that white people are now the victims of structural oppression, in order to re-centre whiteness and deny racism.

White privilege also manifests in performative displays of anti-racism online. Performative allyship is when someone in a position of privilege shows support for a marginalised group, but for superficial purposes. Whether it is to feel good or prove that you are a ‘good’ ally, these motives centre on whiteness and the feelings of already privileged groups (see Rashida Campbell-Allen’s blog in this series). Performative acts tend to be unhelpful, and can be actively harmful, because they draw attention away from marginalised groups.

For example, (white) social media influencer Kris Schatzel was spotted having a photoshoot at a Black Lives Matter protest for Instagram (above). Of course, we do not know what anti-racism work people do behind the camera, and in an age of social media, it is understandable to want to engage in public displays of anti-racism. Nonetheless, we need to evaluate whether our posts are helpful, or whether we just want a pat on the back. Allyship is a sustained commitment to dismantling racist structures and institutions and requires effort even when no one is watching.

The centring of whiteness is less apparent in the example of calling out racism online. Calling out racism, and taking action against people who represent morally compromised views, is necessary to educate and hold people accountable for their racist expression. Yet it is sometimes confused with call-out culture (or ‘cancel culture’), the more aggressive method of public shaming and excluding the person as well as condemning their racist expressions. As a result, it can be scary to speak up and challenge ideas that we do not agree with. Nonetheless, we must get over this fear and accept the discomfort that comes with calling out racism and being called out ourselves.

Fear is an unproductive emotion which stifles thoughtful commentary about how to progress. For example, there is currently a debate among Newcastle students about renaming the Armstrong building. William Armstrong was complicit in the slave-trade, and some argue that someone with such a sinister history should not be celebrated. Others assert that we ought to keep the name while providing additional information about its history. These discussions are difficult, but are useful and necessary in establishing how Newcastle University will approach anti-racism moving forward. If we are too scared to express our views on such matters for fear of being called out or shamed, these nuanced and diverse discussions might not happen. However, we must not regard our own discomfort as more important than discussing and acting against racism.

Of course, our silence is usually not intended to cause harm or restrict progress. One might think that, instead of centring ourselves, we are being considerate and leaving space for others who know more. However, this is a failure to recognise our privilege in being able to speak out with fewer damaging stereotypes stacked against us than black people face. For example, white women’s testimonies are more likely to be taken seriously as they are not invalidated by the ‘angry black woman’ trope. Our silence can also lead to the expectation that black people must also take up the burden of anti-racism alone. It is, therefore, our responsibility to realise this privilege and use it to re-centre discussions around black lives and amplify black voices.

I want to highlight that all white people, including myself, are guilty of centring whiteness whether we are aware of it or not. Social structures are built on deeply-rooted white supremacy and racism. Dismantling these oppressive systems will not be easy. Sometimes, our opportunities to speak may be taken from us. This does not mean we are ‘victims’. Rather, it means we are sacrificing some of our privileges to leave space for black voices instead. And when we are given a space to speak, we need to be open to having difficult conversations that involve calling out others and being held accountable ourselves.

Finally, the most uncomfortable act of anti-racism: we need to reflect on how racism operates in ourselves and confront how our beliefs and actions contribute to the suffering of black people. Only when we stop centring on our feelings and start focussing on how we can improve and support the black community will notable change occur.

Reverse racism is not a thing.

Lucy Butcher (@lucyebutcher1) is a Newcastle Politics and Sociology graduate who, in the fifth blog of our Black Lives Matter series, takes on the idea of ‘reverse racism’.

Union Jack flag at Black Lives Matter protests in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire on th 13th May 2020
Black Lives Matter protests in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, 13th May 2020
Photo credit: Jack Raistrick Photography

In the UK, protests against George Floyd’s murder and a resurgence of support for the Black Lives Matter movement have sparked waves of education about the country’s historical and systemic racism. The public are learning of the UK’s repressive colonial past through, for example, the tearing down of a slave trader’s statue, which, in London, has led Mayor Sadiq Khan to set up a Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm and for local authorities across the country to review statues that arguably idolise slavery, colonialism, and racism in the UK. Recent petitions following George Floyd’s murder have highlighted the deep-rooted and inherently unequal systems in the UK including the ethnicity pay gap; the latter has since been debated in parliament. The protests have also pressured Boris Johnson into establishing a cross-governmental commission on ‘all aspects of inequality’ in the UK. Whilst each of these political motions are at risk of being only gestures, and not markers of systematic change, it is nevertheless worth acknowledging how the power of protest has put these agendas to the forefront. Racism is at least being discussed.

Yet, these recent Black Lives Matter protests have also been met with resentment across the country. Viewing this backlash on social media platforms within my local Northern working-class community of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, I have witnessed attempts to undermine the anti-racist movement by misunderstanding the concept of ‘white privilege’, through arguments that poorer white people have had a difficult life, are subject to ‘reverse racism’ or consider themselves to be a minority due to the ethnic makeup of the area. 

Dewsbury, my hometown, has a population with more South Asian people than the UK’s average. This fact is used to justify far-right racist beliefs such as segregation and the belief that majority Asian areas such as Saville Town are ‘no-go’ zones, which have led to hate crimes.  

Building on these existing prejudices, I have seen a flurry of comments from family and friends decrying that “All Lives Matter”, arguing that by focusing on Black lives, the movement is attacking white people and disregarding their hardships. This demonstrates a lack of understanding of the systemic racism that instigated the Black Lives Matter movement, which tries to bring attention to the way that Black people are constantly being treated like their lives matter less than their white counterparts’. The Black Lives Matter movement has never been about saying that some lives don’t matter, rather, that all lives can only matter when Black lives matter.

For example, these views disregard how the anti-racist movement is one that seeks class solidarities; the working class is not only white. The three words ‘white working class’ mean that working class ethnic minorities are excluded from the possibility of forming class solidarities. White people can still be discriminated against based on social class, age, gender, or sexual orientation, but having white skin means that we have more advantages in everyday life. People of colour are also more likely to be working class than not in the North of England, and have been part of working class communities since post-world war. To state that as a working-class individual you face more discrimination than people of colour is to state that you do not even consider them to be capable of being working class, a rhetoric that distracts politicians from finding solutions to help working class people of all races.

Further to this, the idea of ‘reverse racism’ simply does not make sense because there is no systemic privilege afforded to ethnic minorities. For instance, people of colour in England are disproportionately more likely to die from COVID-19, have worse housing conditions, find it more difficult to gain senior positions in workplaces including education, are more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs, are more likely to live in poverty, are underrepresented in literature or fashion, and even find it harder to get a good haircut.

Excerpt from a mixed-race individual on Twitter highlighting everyday racism they have experienced in West Yorkshire.

Some may argue that this doesn’t apply to working class areas within Northern England that have levels of poverty and deprivation (e.g. see above Facebook post). Yet in Northern England, deep racial and ethnic inequalities have been highlighted in the labour market, education, home ownership and employment. Even within West Yorkshire, within the last month, we have seen multiple reports of racism such as an assault by two white teenagers on a young black teenager in Holmfirth, racial abuse of an employee at a popular donut shop in Leeds, allegations of lack of due action and support for two young black girls who were racially abused at a Leeds school, and figures that show that West Yorkshire Police use force against black people three times more than white people.

Contrary to the suggestion that it is segregation that creates racial tension in Dewsbury, it is actually the rhetoric and criticism of anti-racism by white residents. It has justified extreme right-wing beliefs as seen in the regular far-right demos held in the area by the Yorkshire Patriots, Britain First and the English Defence League. This normalisation of racist ideas in the local area can have dangerous effects on the community. It contributed to the murder of local MP Jo Cox by Thomas Mair, whose neighbours believed that he “wouldn’t hurt a fly”.

If the people of Dewsbury, and the whole of the UK, really think that All Lives Matter they should stop spouting discriminatory ideas like ‘reverse racism’ and criticism of anti-racism protests, and try to listen to the experiences of their black and brown neighbours.

White Privilege and systemic silence: A case for education as the key to its dissolution

Siddy Nicholls (@siddynicholls) is a Newcastle Sociology and Philosophy graduate who, here, writes about the need to make in-depth discussion of racism compulsory in the British education system. Fourth in our ongoing series on Black Lives Matter.

White privilege. A phrase that until very recently, most white people either did not know, or were painfully reluctant to say. Unready to give in to the idea that, due to the colour of their skin, they are in a privileged position. Instead, white people have always been quick to assert that “No! We white people have struggles too! What do you mean we’re privileged?”

If we look back on our compulsory education, it becomes clear that this is something that goes unaddressed. We learn about social disadvantages and disparities largely in peripheral ways through news outlets, TV shows and films. The extent of most people’s knowledge of inequalities is limited to either what they experience or what they passively pick up through the media. But mainstream media very rarely draws attention to race issues or to whiteness and the privilege it brings, meaning that for people who do not experience racism, it can easily go unnoticed. Where attempts are made to bring attention to racism, they are often suppressed. One need only look at the government’s handling of their report on disparities in Covid-19 outcomes for ethnic minorities to see this. The impact of race is silenced and white privilege remains a reticent permeation in white people’s lives.

Systemic silence breeds white privilege, so exposing it is the first step in unraveling it. Until very recently, a critical understanding of white privilege had to be more actively sought out. Yet, with an influx of educational graphics about white privilege across social media and the increasing global awareness of brutal events like the murder of George Floyd, this covertness is hopefully at risk as it is brought into the open. This risk will only be actualised once racial issues become compulsory education, as this information is still largely avoidable. But why would a system teach about a concept that threatens its entire infrastructure? White people becoming aware of their own privilege allows its dismantlement to begin but this requires seismic change. It is intrinsic to white privilege that white people are unconscious of it or can easily deny that it places them at advantage, so undoing race and challenging white privilege poses a threat to the racist system that instilled it in the first place.

If it weren’t for my choice of degree programme and modules, this could easily have been an entirely new concept to me, as it is to many. Although racism has shaped my life, I had not reflected before on the fact that racism truly has no concrete or biological basis but is an entirely constructed reality underpinned by white supremacy. These kinds of discussions had not featured in my school education, in which experiences of racism in Britain did not feature. Following a seminar on my degree programme last year, where I first had an opportunity to discuss critical whiteness and white privilege, all I could think about was how menial the basis of racism is. This insanely unnecessary reliance on inferiority/superiority based simply on skin colour, where the smaller the evidence of blackness, the less disadvantage endured, and the more white privilege prevails.

As a generally white-passing mixed-race person, white privilege and racism have intersected throughout my personal encounters and identity. I have undoubtedly struggled with race-based insecurity. I have resented looking ‘different’ and have straightened the life out of my very curly hair. Yet I am also conscious that my lighter skin is something that places me at an advantage over black friends and family. Whilst my black father was victim of racial slurs, discriminated against in the everyday but also within institutions, I have been complimented for my ‘tanned’, ‘olive’ skin tone. When asked, “Where are you really from?”, it is his belonging that comes into question when my Dad asserts his Caribbean ethnicity. Yet when I disclose I am partly Caribbean I am met with compliments about my ‘exoticness’: “That’s so lucky! I wish I was exotic like you – you must tan so easily”, as though blackness becomes exoticised when diluted with the whiteness and privilege that comes with lighter skin. My mixed-race identity leaves me racialised, while I simultaneously benefit from white privilege. I recognise this and the critical problems with this evidence of race in my own experience, as well as in wider society.

I have seen videos of young boys looking for ‘the right mix’ when asked their opinions on mixed race girls.“I don’t look exotic. I wish I looked exotic”: words of a white YouTube creator taking an ancestry test wishing for just a bit of an ‘exotic’ ancestry. White people fetishizing or glamourising this idea of a little bit of blackness, but not too much. Not enough to the point where it could threaten the white privilege they have. This is the same white privilege and glamourisation in play with instances of cultural appropriation: appropriating the ‘desirable’ elements of black culture while avoiding the racism the community faces with a shield of white skin. This is severely problematic, a dimension of race and white privilege that needs more exposure to threaten its subsistence. Race is social, with whiteness and blackness constructed within systems and disseminated into society. Our task is therefore deconstruction, which relies on systemic changes. It is a lack of education around race that allow these instances of white privilege exertion to persist. My education is what made me recognise this, and necessitating such content nationally will encourage this recognition on an instrumentally larger scale.

There are countless more layers to white privilege than are mentioned here, all of which rely on a collective silencing. White privilege and the general lack of awareness of it is the product of a racist system. A consciousness of one’s privilege and how this relies on the oppression of ethnic minorities is what poses a threat to the system itself, which is why it is so vital to this movement. For this to occur, it is imperative that something in our education changes. Though an incredible tool, we should not be relying on Instagram graphics to educate us on the truths of our society, nor be relying on victims of racism to teach us about it. Already from social media, literature and tragic events like George Floyd’s murder and the deaths of black people in custody in the UK, white people are learning an instrumental amount about systemic and enduring racism. If this same energy and commitment to truth could be pushed to a national, compulsory level through the education system, this threat to society’s racist infrastructure becomes even stronger. Perhaps, and here’s hoping, this movement will draw these humanitarian issues of justice, generally exclusive to social science and humanity studies, into required education. White privilege will become common knowledge and in time become dismantled, along with the racist system that breeds it.

Time to ‘test and trace’ race?

Freddie Hall is a 3rd year Politics and Sociology student at Newcastle University. In the third blog of our Black Lives Matter series, he argues that our approach to tackling racism should mirror that of the ongoing effort to control COVID-19.

“There is a virus greater than COVID-19 and it’s called racism”. These were the words painted across one placard as protestors in the UK took to the streets, following the tragic killing of George Floyd. Professor Gary Younge, writing in the New Statesman, also highlights how it is systemic racism that has been the real killer of black people during the pandemic, citing inequalities in housing and employment as examples of such injustices. “Being black is a pre-existing condition”, he writes. These arguments, that Britain is in the midst of social crisis as well as a health crisis, do raise questions. If racism is a virus then shouldn’t we start treating it as such? More specifically, what can our anti-COVID-19 strategy bring to the fight against racism?

Key to the strategy to defeating COVID-19 is knowledge. Research allows us to understand the character of the virus – where it came from, how it is transmitted, what its symptoms are – and by establishing what it is we are up against, the government is able to take more informed action in order to tackle it. From the beginning of the pandemic, research from the scientific and medical community has been extensive, rigorous and has stopped at no lengths to uncover critical information about the virus. It is with this state of mind that we should approach the fight against racism in UK. We need to relentlessly ask ourselves uncomfortable questions about racism – where it comes from, how is it spread and at what levels it currently exists. Afua Hirsch, writing in the Guardian, argues that many “British people are ignorant about how racism works”, and there have been calls in recent weeks to address this ‘ignorance’ through the education system. One such call has come from Lavinya Stennett, founder of ‘The Black Curriculum’ campaign, who has questioned how racism is taught in schools. She argues that too often the “teaching of racism individualises it” and that more attention should be paid to how it operates on a structural level (Cranshaw, 2020). This is particularly prescient in a UK context, where racism exists in a less overt capacity but permeates all spheres of life.

A successful anti-COVID-19 strategy also relies on testing. Testing is seen as the crucial way of identifying the scale of the virus and thus enables us to gain the bigger picture. Also significant is how the numbers related to testing are presented by the government. They are updated every 24 hours and placed visibly in the public sphere, routinely read out in the daily Downing Street press conferences. The numbers have been hammered into us, ingrained in our memories. Could we recall how many black people were stopped and searched by the police last year? Through the establishment of the UK government’s ‘Ethnicity Facts and Figures’ website, there has been some effort to centralise figures on racial disparities. It was concerning, however, to discover that on the issue of overcrowded housing, the latest statistics to be published on the website were from the year 2016/17. This matters even more in the context of the current health crisis, with inequalities in housing widely seen as a significant part of why the black community has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. There are arguments that numbers are relatively unimportant when it comes to the fight against racism and that it is action that makes the real difference. This view is misplaced. Numbers focus minds. They quantify the threat we face and inject urgency to address it. The words of the World Heath Organisation feel fitting: “test, test, test”.

If testing is about gaining the bigger picture, then tracing is about getting a more refined view. Through tracing, the government is able to locate virus hotspots. This targeted approach can bring many benefits to fighting racism in UK. Evidence suggests that racism is particularly prevalent in certain areas of society, as revealed by inquiries like the McGregor-Smith Review. It found dramatic racial disparities in the workplace, such as in decision making structures, where just “6 % of the top management positions” are held by BME workers. Clearly this is an area that needs to be addressed and again, here we can see where the tracing system provides a useful template to adopt. Effective tracing relies on fast action in order to quickly bear down on virus hotspots. This decisiveness has been sorely missing when it comes to tackling racism. The British Medical Association this week criticised the government for removing recommendations from its report on the impact of coronavirus on BAME communities. Saying ‘lessons will be learnt’ is simply not enough. Defeating COVID-19 requires dramatic government intervention. The fight against racism should be no different.

Why a change to the black history taught in UK schools is long overdue

Kyla Scott (@__kylascott) is a third year Sociology undergraduate at Newcastle University. In the second of the Black Lives Matter blog series, she writes about the lack of black representation in the British school curriculum as well as the glossing over of the reality of the British Empire. She argues that as long as British history in schools continues to glorify the patriotic narrative of empire and Britain’s imperialist past, a nationalist and racist narrative will continue to shape British society.

In the three weeks since the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in America, there has been a surge in existing calls to address the long-standing whitewashed and Eurocentric British education system. In particular, the current curriculum is criticised for failing to acknowledge the wider reality of the British empire and the UK’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and for not including positive black role models who are significant to British history. ‘The Black Curriculum’, an educational social enterprise which aims to address the lack of black history in the UK curriculum argues that the:

“Current History National Curriculum systematically omits the contribution of Black British history in favour of a dominant White, Eurocentric curriculum that fails to reflect our multi ethnic and broadly diverse society” (The Black Curriculum, 2020: 2).

Although the current British school curriculum does acknowledge the slave trade and currently covers a range of topics during Black History Month, these are not covered in great depth or detail, with the National Education Union adding this week:

 “We must improve the curriculum so that students learn about how Britain was founded on global histories. Students should learn about the achievements and roles of black Britons in every field of human endeavour” (National Education Union, 2020).

It is clear, even from my own educational experience, that the current teaching curriculum in schools does not go far enough to address the atrocities of the British empire.

The current conversations about statues across the country highlight how considerations about black history have previously been missed. For example, the pulling down of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol during the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the negative reactions to this has highlighted a deep lack of knowledge about slavery in the UK.

Bristol: Plinth of Edward Colston statue following the statue's removal during a BLM protest on 7th June, 2020
Bristol: Plinth of Edward Colston statue following the statue’s removal by protesters during a Black Lives Matter protest on 7th June, 2020.
Photo credit: Phil Riley, B24/7

There had already been calls for the statue to be removed as it was a celebration of an individual involved directly in the slave trade, but these went unheard. There have been protests against other statues across the country, included one of Winston Churchill in London, which was vandalised during the Black Lives Matter protests. These protests have been met by a defence for Churchill that resonates with the way that he is portrayed in the GCSE curriculum: a ‘hero’ who ended World War Two. This representation crucially omits his direct responsibility in the Bengal Famine and his controversial views on eugenics, which I know from personal experience are not taught on the current UK curriculum. Misconceptions about Churchill and wider British history are rooted in the history (mis)taught in UK schools. This is then reflected through the lack of awareness about how statues are seen by many as problematic. This was also seen locally in Newcastle when self-defined ‘statue defenders’ at ‘All Lives Matter’ protests congregated around Grey’s Monument in the city centre as they believed the Black Lives Matter protesters were aiming to deface the statue. The swift call to arms from the statue defenders clearly didn’t allow for enough time to research the subject of their defence as Earl Grey oversaw the Slavery abolition Act in 1833. Rather, the Black Lives Matter protesters were seeking the removal of statues of historical figures who were pro-slavery or racist.

Another broader implication of a lack of black history being taught in the UK curriculum means a large part of our heritage and personal family involvement in colonialism is omitted from history lessons. This is important as “to leave this history out denies the existence of a section of the British population giving an incomplete understanding of British society and its development” (Visram, 1994: 57). This can have a deep impact on the lives of black pupils as the history they are being taught does not relate to their own histories and how these are entwined with Britishness. When schools do teach black history, it is mostly done by placing black history within superficial discussions of slavery or the American Civil Rights changes during the 1960s, further distancing black pupils from their heritage and the role of Britain in the reproduction of racial formations. “The black curriculum seeks to teach black history beyond slavery. The students that we have taught have really benefited from seeing themselves in positive roles…[t]hat it wasn’t just slaves” (The Black Curriculum, 2020). In doing this, black pupils have the opportunity to develop a sense of belong to their past. It is also important for white pupils to critically engage in Britain’s history of treatment of black people in order to understand racism in the present. With this knowledge, children can then become more confident to call out racism when they see it.

How you can help

There are various petitions circulating online that are seeking for parliament to implement changes to the current UK curriculum (e.g. here and here). Alongside signing these, it is important that we all take an active role in educating ourselves on the topics missed from our own education through reading and engaging with a broader understanding of British history. Whilst educating ourselves, uncomfortable conversations with friends and families need to happen in order to use privilege to fight racism. 



Visram, R. (1994). British history: Whose history? Black perspectives on British History. Teaching History. London: Routledge. 

The Black Curriculum (2020). Black British history in the national curriculum report.  (31.02.2020)

National Education Union (2020). Black Lives Matter.

Dear white people, anti-racism is not a trend…

Rashida Campbell-Allen (@rashidacallen) is a 3rd year undergraduate combined honours student at Newcastle University. In this, the first in a two-week series of blogs from undergraduate students at Newcastle about Black Lives Matter and systemic racism, she reflects on social media and ‘performative’ activism.

The death of George Floyd is not a wake-up call. In fact, the same alarm has been echoing since 1619, but ignorance and privilege have hit the snooze button time and time again.

News of Floyd’s death spread like wildfire across the globe and as it did, I was overwhelmed with emotions, being a black woman myself. Anger, trauma, confusion and frustration. But also, a sense of excitement for the changes the uproar could provoke.

In a contemporary digital era, it is unsurprising that social media has become the arena within which most of our lives and interactions take place, especially in the midst of a national lockdown. Whilst social media can act as a useful source of information and a platform for communication, it also enables anonymity, detachment and performativity.

Anti-racism is neither a trend nor transient, because racism has been historically omnipresent and persistent. However, there is something about this particular occasion that feels different. Is it that everyone has more time to be on social media now, meaning more time to engage and pay attention to such incidents? Or was it that for the first time in my lifetime, white people were publicly waking up to self-reflect on their whiteness and listening not just to hear, but to understand, respect and raise black voices?

Spaces such as Instagram have become saturated with #blacklivesmatter content, from images, resources and petitions as well as brand and celebrity statements. While this exposure is welcomed, I cannot help but be sceptical of the effectiveness and longevity of these actions.

For example, there were numerous ‘chains’ being shared, where accounts were tagged, calling people to continue the chain and proclaim that they are not racist.

This self-indulgent proclamation and performative solidarity felt trivial and insulting, because who were these posts really helping? It seemed an easy way for white people to feel safe and assured that they are one of the ‘good’ ones. This showed how social media poses a risk to anti-racist efforts by encouraging performative behaviour instead of taking real action and interactional change. Having my timeline swamped with these posts spoke to the very way white people can use their privilege to selectively and comfortably (dis)engage with conversations about race.

Another example which really unsettled me was #blackouttuesday. Waking up on Tuesday 2 June, my heart felt heavy. Why did it appear like the world had closed its eyes and taken a break from the movement? As if white people were being granted some breathing time to digest everything. I then learned that it was rooted in activism and change. A way for the music industry to take a commercial break to avoid distraction and centre the focus on BLM. However, on Instagram, that intention was quickly warped.

Social media turned the black box into a superficial trend. My timeline was plastered with black squares, uploaded by people who had said nothing supportive in the days prior, and as if their activism existed within the four walls of this empty black space. To this I say no. Being non-racist does not make one anti-racist. It requires real recognition and mobilisation of privilege. Signing petitions, reading up on Black British history, provoking conversations amongst white friends and family members. Using your privilege to donate money if possible and so on. 

Whilst I am filled with pride and optimism that social media activism has provoked real change, as seen in recent passing of progressive laws in the US and reopening of cases in the UK, I am reluctant to see what the future landscape of anti-racism will look like. Will this be another phase of activism that will eventually sink back into the shadows? When another piece of news replaces the headlines, will the anti-racist work continue offline?

Institutional statements and engagements with these trends also demonstrated how social media can create opportunities for hypocrisy. Newcastle Student Union posted a black square with advice on how to be an ally and support the movement.  However, the university received backlash and calls to do more than join the trend, because of a previous lack of transparency and action to racism within the institution, in addition to the memorials of Martin Luther King Jr and Frederick Douglas being called “tokenistic gestures”. In response, the university emailed a much-awaited and welcome response to students which began to acknowledge the need to go beyond tokenism thus highlighting the impact black students and anti-racist allies can have. Hopefully, we will continue to be heard in the future so that this moment is not fleeting.

I want people to understand that true allyship and anti-racism is not a trend. Allyship and anti-racism is not a week-long performative act. Being anti-racist is a realisation that race is a universal matter – not just an issue for black people. It is lifelong commitment to self-reflection, action, education, awareness and listening to constructive criticism. Your black squares and hashtags are not enough. Your shock is not enough. In this case, actions need to speak louder than words.

Complexity, Contradiction and the Symbiocene

Shane Finan is a visual artist from Ireland who works with mixed media installation to create places. Through his art he tries to unthread some of the complexities and contradictions inherent in ‘networks’. Here he discusses these ideas in relation to ‘The Symbiocene’ – a world in which humans live mutualistically with the natural world.

A computer generated image of lines randomly spreading out from a central point, like branches or routes, or maps in an unplanned city
Image credit: Shane Finan

 “Infinity and nothingness are infinitely threaded through one another so that every infinitesimal bit of one always already contains the other.”

(Barad, 2012, p. 17)

The global, the local, the branches, the roots, the city, the rural, the home.

1.    Complexity

In the 19th Century, people did not believe that extinction was possible. The complex idea of a species disappearing contradicted the popular belief that God would not allow a creature to die out. Thomas Jefferson believed he would one day astound the European continent by finding a living mastodon. The complex idea (extinction) contradicted the dominant belief (religious consistency) making it difficult for people to resolve.

Now, in the 21st Century, any five-year-old can explain extinction. This is an example of complexity, contradiction, and eventual resolution.

Any dynamic idea is complex, and art is great at untangling complex ideas. The literature of Beckett, Kafka or Lispector unpicked the complex ideas of existentialism. The music of John Cage untangled the roots and branches of forests and fungi.

A photograph of a cluster of many sulphur tuft mushrooms growing on dead, mossy wood in a forest surrounding
The network in forests sustains itself through complex networks. The sulphur tuft mushroom thrives on dead wood, living off death, to feed other forms of life. Image credit: Shane Finan

In my art, I have looked at complex contradictions over the past twelve years. My focus is on the idea of ‘place’, and how perceptions of place differ from one person to another. The aspects that make up a place include history, communication, ecology and environment. No ‘place’ is a unique entity: it is part of a global whole. A wind will not stop at the edge of a field because the land beyond belongs to a different person: identity is more than borders.

I am working on unthreading the complex ideas of ‘networks’: of people, and of plants (see ongoing videos from this project here).

2.    Contradiction

Thinking about complexity often requires believing in ideas that are contradictory. A strong example that is common throughout the western world is the paradoxical belief that Jesus Christ was simultaneously god and man (Visser, 2015). This apparent contradiction formed the basis of one of the most widespread religions in the world and is widely accepted among Christians.

To understand two contrasting topics simultaneously, scepticism and curiosity are needed in equal measure. The Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico specialises in complexity, using areas as diverse as art, experiential philosophy and data analysis to understand complex aspects of our world. This combination of apparently disparate ideas leads to unusual or unexpected discoveries and is arguably the easiest way to overcome issues of prejudice or bias. By retaining complex thinking, the assumption is that a subject can be viewed from many angles: social, scientific, political, philosophical, historical, contemporary, artistic.

The multi-disciplinary application of different schools of thought applied to an individual subject creates an opportunity for questioning the subject in-depth, through its complexity. Further to this, collaboration between disciplines opens new possibilities of understanding.

3.    The ‘Symbiocene’

Philosopher Glenn Albrecht believes that after the Anthropocene (the period where humans are having an unprecedented effect on the geology of our planet), we need to move into a way of living mutualistically with one another and with the natural world around us. He coined the term symbiocene to describe this idea of mutualism. Albrecht sees this as an activity across disciplines. It requires a major paradigm shift from the dominant belief system (competitive expansionism) to another (mutual collaboration).

To move out of a dominant belief system, it is important to first identify and challenge that system. The grave danger in prejudice is the ‘locking in’ of prejudiced ideas. For example, cognitive capitalism encourages the idea of constant growth through the extraction of natural materials, exploitation of human work and amalgamation of data. This dominant ideology argues, from a position of power, that economic capital leads to better societies. This may be true, but without a competing ideology, it is impossible to test and verify.

Other philosophers, including Rosi Braidotti and Judith Butler, highlight this need for a mutual approach across different areas, from science to technology, from sociology to environment. Butler has lamented that this view is often seen as naïve, but points out that the naivety is suggested by those in the same dominant belief system (Butler, 2020).

A photograph of New York City taken from a high building, lit up at night showing large skyscrapers with illuminated windows, out to distant suburbs and lower lying housing
The city is a human network of infrastructures, that is dependent on complex natural and artificial processes. Image credit: Shane Finan

4.    Networks

The overall goal of my research into networks is to point to how ideas and practices can be brought together. Part of the aim of this work is to offer a different perspective on the world. For example, one view of nature is that all species are in competition, pushing for survival of the fittest. In this view, flowers evolve to control insects and make them transfer their pollen. An alternate view is that nature is collaborative: flowers offer food to insects, who in turn transfer pollen.

A belief in a mutualistic worldview requires this paradigm shift in thinking about how the world works. This is complexity and contradiction. My artworks are built to encourage this mutualism, by encouraging a new type of network between people and people, and between people and other organisms. This would be a small step in moving toward a symbiocene.

The universal.

All images are copyright of Shane Finan


Barad, K. (2012). What Is the Measure of Nothingness? Infinity, Virtuality, Justice. 100 Notes–100 Thoughts. dOCUMENTA (13). In: Hantje Cantz Verlag.

Butler, J. (2020). The Force of Nonviolence: The Ethical in the Political: Verso Books.

Visser, M. (2015). The geometry of love: Space, time, mystery, and meaning in an ordinary church: Open Road Media.