Liverpool Learning Summit Blog Series - Experiences and Reflections

Posted on: 18 December 2020 by Dr Tya Asgari in General

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(Liverpool Learning Summits - Race Equality)

When I was asked to contribute to this blog I thought it’d be good to look back on my experience and share it with you. I moved to the UK 11 years ago as an international student. If I remember it correctly, the first thing I noticed was how reluctant home students were to work with international students. And also, how international students consciously or unconsciously created their own networks.

There was little or no attempt to encourage students to get to know each other so our awareness of each other's cultures was limited to stereotypes and our travels. I lost count how many times I had to explain that Iran is not a desert, it snows, and also we don't speak Arabic. But, it really didn't bother me as I didn’t have much knowledge about other countries either. I think one of the main aims of education should be to go beyond those learning outcomes which are specific to the course and enable students to learn about different cultures and provide an opportunity for open respectful conversation. I can bore you all and cite so many references to prove how these conversations can potentially decrease racism, xenophobia, sexism etc. But I think you get what I mean. Later when I did my PhD, I spent a considerable amount of time studying such student networks, and aspects of human psychology and social psychology to make sense of these phenomena. When I started understanding the ‘why’, then I started noticing it all around me. It is fascinating.

When I worked as a Research Coordinator - in an incredibly diverse place - I came to see the actual reality of not being white. It was an eye opening experience. I was frequently mistaken with other non-white colleagues even though we didn’t have any physical similarities except our skin colour. When someone wanted to pass a message to a BAME student they would ask me because I was more similar to ‘them’ and wouldn't cause much resistance, and so on. But the most shocking experience was when I led a research project on BAME students' experience. I held a series of focus groups with our BAME students, and remember that every time I was sitting in the room and waiting for them to turn up, my participants would gather outside the room and send one person in to check if I was white or not. They were so honest to tell me they didn't want to be interviewed by a ‘white’ member of staff. They wanted someone who shares their characteristics and feels their pain. It was an absolute shock to me. I cried almost after each focus group. Their experience broke my heart. I believe my experience is hugely different from non-white British students. Even though I’m heavily acculturated, to some extent my Iranian culture is my dominant culture. I still have that unconscious feeling that where I'm from is inferior to the West (I know, it’s very wrong and very sad). But believe me when I say that people never fail to remind me either directly or indirectly - by asking bizarre questions or acting in a way which is inappropriate. One may naively think that an educational setting is a safe place. But, people who know me closely still confuse me with my other non-white colleagues, I was once told that my presence would be appreciated in a meeting because I bring ‘diversity’, I ‘should be happy’ that I moved to the UK, etc etc. These examples are a small fraction of my experience in various workplaces. Imagine how bad it would be in regular society.

You might wonder why I’m telling you about myself and my experience. It’s because I truly believe we need to teach our students what it means to live in a diverse society. Or, what is the true meaning of global citizenship. And we should ask ourselves, when our teaching is prominently based on white history, what message we are sending to our students? How does it make them feel? Superior? Inferior?

Looking at my experience as a student and at work, it wasn't the reading list that caused ignorance and failed to encourage diversity. It was the lack of honest respectful conversations around it. We never had any opportunity to reflect on our differences and notice our similarities (of which there are more than what most people assume). When we want to create a change we get stuck in the process of the change rather than really reflecting on what we exactly want to achieve. Decolonising is beyond the reading list; it's in the conversation we create as part of our teaching. It’s enabling students to reflect on the lack of diversity in their field and understand the why behind it.

Almost everyone can get educated, but not all of us and our graduates learn how to be a better person, how to reflect, be resilient, and a kind compassionate member of society. We are rushed through our degrees to prepare for a career and earn our living.