The Real UWC Challenge: Educate Yourself, Educate Others


by Sulan Bailey, United World College Maastricht
3rd June, 2020


On Monday, May 25, 2020, an African-American man by the name of George Floyd died with a white cop’s knee pressed into his neck in Minneapolis. By the next day, the news and video of the murder had reached me and most other people around the globe, largely thanks to sharing on social media. I admit that while outraged, saddened and hurt, I was not surprised. Although I was still reeling from the news of the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, it felt like a matter of time until the next tragic story surfaced. The murder of African Americans (usually connected with some form of police brutality) has felt like a constant in the news for years, especially since the 2013 shooting of Treyvon Martin. 

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In the face of this tragedy what really shocked me was finding out how many people, especially students and other young people, are still unaware of the scope and background of a crime like George Floyd’s murder. My own classmates were sharing posts negating the racial implications of the killing and chalking it up to just the evil actions of one man. But how could I blame them? The complex history and systemic mistreatment of black people and people of color (in places like the US) isn’t really embedded in our curriculum. Furthermore, our school, and the wider UWC movement, didn’t get involved in making progress on racial issues in the same way we’re known to attend climate marches. So when a friend of mine shared a particular Facebook post from an alumni, it really caught my eye. Juan Antonio Nelson, a UWCSEA alum from my very own NC had posted:

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“I’m surprised our community has not issued a response to the racial killings and unimaginable experiences of people of colour, specifically black people, in the United States. Is it a concern at all? How do black alumni in the United States know that the community stands in solidarity with them? The silence is deafening. This is the real UWC challenge, to stand up for a community that is overlooked and goes unheard. We all have privilege but are we using it selectively? Are we taking action?”

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Moved by his poignant words, I searched myself to see if I was doing everything I could to live out the UWC mission in my own life where this issue is concerned. I reached out to him over Facebook, interested to know more of his thoughts of how we can fight for change within the movement. He agreed to sit down with me (virtually, of course) to discuss this further.

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What was your experience of race-related issues/discussions at UWC? Were such discussions facilitated/encouraged? If they were, were they balanced?

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I think it’s safe to say that they were non-existent. I think back to that time and nothing comes to memory. I think part of the reason for that is black students, including Africans, Caribbean students and African-Americans, made up a tiny fraction of our school population. I was the first Jamaican who had ever gone there. There were also only two black teachers that I remember. My UWC goes from kindergarten right up to DP and, when and in my time there, only 3 black students outside of the DP program attended. I felt like a fish out of water from Day 1 and the discussion [about race-related issues] never really came up.

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In your post, you expressed that the UWC movement has a responsibility to join the conversation on this issue and show solidarity with black alumni at this time. What would you like to see done by the movement to push the needle forward, from an official standpoint? Whether it be the international office, individual colleges, etc.?

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From an official standpoint, I would love to see more diversity and representation, particularly in the staff. My own school was blanketed by Euro-centric culture, specifically British culture. I wondered why the teaching staff seemed to be disproportionately British, Scottish and Irish until I discovered that those countries are where most staff recruiting is done. Even though our school is physically in Asia, it felt as if I was in the UK. It sends a really bad message to have such an overwhelming majority of European teachers and to use their knowledge and experience as the standard when we are United World Colleges. 

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As students, we often feel disempowered when it comes to issues that would require huge changes in legislation to address. What are some ways that we can take steps toward change on such a sensitive and complicated issue?

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I’ll speak to how things can start to change on a personal level first. Check your own biases. Speak to the people around you who you know don’t have an understanding of the problem at hand, people who are racist and have prejudice. Begin to have those difficult conversations with your family and close friends.

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I’ve been seeing the trend of people posting #blacklivesmatter and tagging ten friends. While I appreciate the sentiment, this seems futile to me as the ten friends that each person is tagging are people that already are aware of and care about the movement. Nothing is changing, we’re just repeating ourselves. We need to start the difficult conversations with those who need to hear it.

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Educate yourself on the history of race in the US (slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, etc.) and how much it still impacts black people today. A lot of people may feel like “I don’t need to know about it. It doesn’t affect me.” but here’s the thing: You constantly consume American media, Hollywood movies, rap and R&B music. You’re constantly consuming the culture. Use as much time as you would spend learning the lyrics of the hip-hop songs to learn something about the experiences of black Americans. 

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Our movement is made up of so many people from varying cultures who don’t identify as being black or white. How can non-black people of color and black people who aren’t American show their support for Black Lives Matter and other such movements?

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Firstly, non-black POC in the US have finally acknowledged that they do benefit to some extent from the race hierarchy that exists here. They need to address the racism and anti-blackness that exists in their own ethnic communities. Euro-centric values have invaded many cultures and it manifests as lighter skin tones being seen as more valuable in countries all over the world whilst indigenous peoples and people with darker skin tones experience a lot of ill treatment. So identify racist practices and ideologies within your own communities and confront them.

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For black people outside of the US, it’s all about solidarity and supporting in any way you can. Listen to African Americans and their experiences and show your support.

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There’s been a lot of talk of white people using their privilege and their platforms to help push the conversation forward. How can this be done, from a student perspective?

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It all comes back to educating yourself. Read books, watch shows and movies, consume content that documents the black experience. There are podcasts articles, all sorts of media. Just on Netflix alone, there’s Dear White People, The Hate You Give, When They See Us and Moonlight. Use your social media to follow activists and organizations that fight for racial equality so you can continue learning about the black experience. Spend your dough (money) in black businesses as we know economic power precedes socio-political power. Listen to black people and don’t tell them what their experience is and what they should do. Then use your knowledge to educate others around you. Do not ask black people to teach you the history of their struggle. Understand why we use the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Systemic racial inequality isn’t something we can change in a day, but at least we know where to start. You can’t help address the problem if you don’t know what it is.

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Since George Floyd’s death, we’ve seen protests and riots all over the US. The media’s attention toward this issue will eventually pass, but do you believe people’s outrage will subside?

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Not anytime soon. I think this was a breaking point. The wheels of progress are just starting to turn. Not just black people, but other people of color and white people are starting to acknowledge, speak out and act out against the injustice that we’ve suffered for years. For the first time, they’re taking it personally and becoming so outraged. This killing pushed the realities of racism in people’s faces. They could not ignore it anymore. This is pushing for change. So in the next two weeks I expect things to die down and for people to care less about tackling racism and anti-blackness but I suppose we’ll be in a better position than we were before.

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Last comments/remarks? 

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Black people are outraged, and rightly so. If your black friends are feeling overwhelmed and don’t want to discuss this issue, give them space. Do your  own research. Check your own biases. Start to have those difficult conversations in your own communities.

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Special thanks to Juan Antonio Nelson for the interview

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