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The vote for social justice in Chelsea

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 30 May 2022, 11:58

Last week I asked colleagues to consider voting for the Hands Off Mangrove garden at the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower Show. There was a great response, people were enthusiastic about the opportunity to show our support for both racial justice and re-forestation. 

Probably none of us are surprised that the garden didn't win - and wasn't even in the top three. There is a long way to go before racial justice is a popular cause - particularly in places like the RHS Chelsea show. However, it was great to be able to discuss social issues in this elite context. 

A lush green garden, set out in formal lines, with white and plum colour planting.I did laugh when I saw that the garden which won was the one that I admitted was my personal favourite - which I had set aside in the voting in order to support my political convictions. However this choice by so many other people made me think. 

The Perennial Garden: 'With Love', had won a silver medal, to the disappointment of its designer. Loose, wilder planting (including a beaver dam landscape) had been more highly favoured by the judges. Hands Off Mangrove, which will be relocated in inner city London, is about reclamation of an urban site with a loose informal mixture of flowers and edible plants and won a silver-gilt medal. 

However, the Victorian formality and the romance of The Perennial Garden: 'With Love', was a big favourite among the visitors. Two couples even got permission to go into the garden and propose marriage under the Tennyson quote on the neon sign: If I had a flower for every time I thought of you. Unlike many of the large loosely planted garden sites, those of us with ordinary gardens to plan could see how we might take a section of the garden and replicate it, in even a small space. I myself liked the garden because it helped me realise that loose planting (which I generally favour), needs formal structure to support and contain it, otherwise it becomes messy, and that tall spires of white flowers will add depth and perspective to a flower bed. 

Wildflower meadow with pink dog rose, scarlet pimpernel, buttercups and ox eye daisies growing loosely.I have put aside a square of garden for loose wildflower planting, but in the rest of my garden I use arches and a trellised arbour seat to give a sense of structure.  

      

Richard Miers is not really looking back in a pastiche nostalgia. His garden has modern art installations as well as the formally clipped Victorian look. However I suspect that it was chosen by people who are looking backwards, in a time of great uncertainty about the future. The uncertainty we face is made even more difficult under a government which has been severely criticised for the way it manages the economy. Families on low incomes are under intense pressure, while ever more money appears to have flowed into the pockets of those already in the top 1% earners in the population. Policies which feed people's fears about Black, Asian and minority ethnic refugees and asylum-seekers, and by extension - UK citizens too, are used as a distraction from this poor record. 

(This is why it is significant that Hands Off Mangrove was built at RHS Chelsea, showcasing the work of two Black gardeners. We had the chance to both think about issues of social and environmental justice, and to realise that Black - and Asian and other minority ethnic, people are not that exotic; we might be gardeners as well as political activists.) 

Paul Gilroy has written about the phenomenon he calls 'postcolonial melancholia', originally in his After Empire and now in a book called Postcolonial Melancholia. This is an idea which adapts Freud's 'melancholia' - the state in which people fall when they are unable to let go of someone who has died, and properly mourn. Freud's argument is that people behave strangely in order to avoid acknowledging that death. 

At a social level, Gilroy argues that many are in denial about the loss of empire and consequent descent of Britain from Greatness into ordinariness. This is evidenced in strange behaviour like chanting: "Two world wars, and one world cup," which English football fans would shout at German fans, or Brexit, or the constant cultural impression created by anti-immigration legislation that Britain is under threat from immigration, when in fact we depend on immigrant workers to keep vital services like the NHS going. (My students on DD102: Introducing the Social Sciences, are about to write an essay in which they could use evidence from the module about this.) Why would we want to shut hard-working people out of our country, instead of welcoming in help for our failing economy?  

Historically, white working-class cultures and people get pitted against Black, Asian and minority ethnic cultures and people. Upper classes do not have to introduce economic management which redistributes to those on low incomes if they can identify a common enemy whom they encourage people to blame for problems like high unemployment. Tapping into nostalgia for an era when Britain was Great (conveniently forgetting that it wasn't particularly great for those in e.g. Manchester slums - again see DD102 material showing one of Engels's sketches of how factory workers' houses were laid out, without any gardens) takes people's attention away from the worrying problem of spiraling energy costs and food prices. 

Are the Emperor's clothes starting to look skimpy even to those with postcolonial melancholic longings? While much of the population are still reliant on newspapers owned by the elite, which unsurprisingly continue to claim that it's the elite who are best placed to manage our economy, I am not confident we can soon move to a vote for social and environmental justice - in elections where this would not just be a symbolic vote. However, with a garden like Hands Off Mangrove built and shown on prime time television, so we can discuss its message openly, maybe we are slowly getting there. 

What would I like to see in the future? Well, maybe a garden by someone like Cleve West that is formal and that showcases how much we have gained from the rest of the world: roses, lupins, peonies - all classic Victorian/Edwardian flowers featured in The Perennial Garden, and all immigrants from elsewhere in the world. Or a cottage garden that is not full of flowers and nostalgia: that shows clearly how 'cottage gardens' were for people who had to use whatever space they could find to grow food and medicinal herbs after they had finished a hard day's work. Maybe a garden that is a solitary auricula in a pot, like weavers used to keep because that was all the garden they could afford.   

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Black cat and pink blanket

Mum

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Friday, 22 Feb 2019, 21:06

This is my mum, who passed away suddenly last year. It would have been her birthday last Monday. I took four days off, although this is the busiest time of the academic year for me, with New students just submitting their first assignment and three cohorts of students from the autumn, many catching up after a long winter of illness, house moves, births and bereavement. (Marriages are usually in the summer.) Teaching mature students, I sometimes feel that a pageant of life worthy of the pen of Chaucer moves through the requests for support that come into my email in-box. 

When I say that I took four days off, two of the days were the weekend and one was my normal day off - usually at this time of year I would be working all the way through. In Camus's L'Etranger, the protagonist asks for a day off to go to his mother's funeral and, thinking his boss is looking strangely at him, apologises for the inconvenience. A stranger to normal human sociability, he can't comprehend emotion in his life. Increasingly, though, I notice colleagues and students apologising when the most difficult circumstances interrupt our work and studies. I myself found it very hard to get time off when mum died. So partly I am using this blogpost to appeal to people to be more understanding, to be more vocal in our support to colleagues who need time to come to terms with loss and other difficulties. I'm not surprised at the rise in mental health issues when I see how we are expected to be Strangers to emotion in the workplace. 

Black and white photo of Japanese woman in 1950s western dress

My second reason for writing about mum is to continue my account of racism in Higher Education which I began in my last blogpost. Thinking about mum gives me hope for the future. My own working life has not been at all easy, however I have had a much better time than my mum. Although mum lived a good and interesting life, travelling extensively with my dad and we three children, and her own mother, she never secured an academic job. In 1960s Britain, her qualifications and experience were completely discounted with no legislation to support her if she felt discriminated against. 

My mum was a young child in World War II (subsequently she wrote a book about her experiences). Afterwards, she became a student at Tokyo University. This is a spectacular achievement even today, and for a woman at that time was remarkable. She then won a Fullbright scholarship to go to the States and study with Margaret Mead. The States was an unsympathetic environment at that time for anyone Japanese, and mum made up her mind to go back to Japan, however Margaret Mead suggested she go to Cambridge. In Cambridge, she had tea with E.M. Forster and she was one of the first women to eat in the dining hall at King's College (women previously were allowed to watch men eating from a gallery above the dining hall). Later, I was to become one of the first generation of women to study at King's, and I used to sit and look up at the gallery and think of her. 

Travel then was a much less common experience than now. Mum went to the States from Japan by ship. 

Japanese lady in elegant western dress holding bouquet of flowers and waiting to board a ship Young Japanese woman sitting on floor typing. Above the photo it says 'Jan 58'.

When dad asked mum to marry him, she had to decide to make her life in the UK - although eventually she did travel all round the world accompanying him in his work across Africa and Asia. He tried to get her some work experience, but her intelligence and achievements were not highly regarded. Later on in life, people would continue to talk down to her. I'm sorry to say I was myself dismissive towards her, as I had got used to correcting her pronunciation since the age of three. (I still struggle to say Fullbright properly.) 

Mum was hugely proud of me. As soon as I had successfully got through my PhD viva, I rushed back to the flat I was then living in in London, threw some things in a bag and ran out the door to catch the next train to Bath. I had to tell her in person. I can still see her opening the door to me, with a hopeful smile on her face. It was our joint triumph. 

When I think of how difficult it was for mum, I see there has been some (painfully slow) progress. I hope the workplace will be much better for my daughter, her grand-daughter. 

Only one institution I worked in has ever got my title and name right on my office door. The office staff had not been instructed to put up a door plate for me. A woman professor down the hall noticed, and wrote out my name on a piece of paper; she felt it was wrong I didn't have something to tell students where I was. Oxbridge don't officially recognise doctorates from anywhere else, so I was a bit surprised and touched when I got this letter from my old college, whom I had contacted recently about visiting with my daughter, without saying anything about my title. Mum encouraged me to aim for King's College and for my PhD, and in her Japanese way, she would have liked this envelope which acknowledges my status with respect. 

Envelope with King's College postmark addressed in handwriting to Dr Anita Pilgrim


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Black cat and pink blanket

Not Much Black in Higher Education

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Friday, 15 Feb 2019, 16:27

Lakhi sits by Paul Gilroy's There Ain't No Black in the Union Jack

Black cat sitting beside pile of books on race studies

An Equalities and Human Rights Commission survey into racism in the Higher Education sector will close at the end of this month. Meanwhile the BBC published an article in December showing that ethnic minority staff are often put on lower pay grades and struggle against prejudice and bullying. Many did not want to be identified in speaking up about the poor conditions we work in. 

I decided I would. 

I didn't want to name any institutions. All the many Higher Education institutions I've worked in have been equally poor at rewarding my efforts and recognising my contributions in research, publication, impact in the wider sector and teaching. 

At the worst times, when I did think I would be overwhelmed and just swept under without anyone noticing (except my daughter), I doubted myself. I couldn't believe it was true, that I was being discriminated against in such a blatant way; that the structures of the institutions were so integrally white, masculine and middle class that they could not see how their nobly worded policies were being contravened. 

For 20 years I've worked on casual and short-term contracts in Russell Group, post-92 and distance learning universities. This is a recognised fate for academics who are women and also for academics from ethnic minority backgrounds. Sometimes people do say to me "perhaps you just weren't good enough for the full-time position." Actually, if you are constantly having to be re-interviewed and prove yourself for your job, you have to be much better at it to stay in it for 20 years. 

Very often, I didn't get the job. These were some of the reasons I was given for not being appointed: 

  • I never thought of you! Why not? Of course, you would have been perfect. 
  • You can't teach quantitative methods
    • But I'm already teaching quantitative methods
    • Oh. Well, you can't do research. 
    • But I'm the only person in Wales doing sociological research on race and ethnicity, and you advertised the job saying you'd give special consideration to any applicants in that field.  
  • You can't debate the uses of social science. 
    • (10 years experience teaching postgraduate research methods and writing social policy reports for government.) 
  • You can't demonstrate the relationship between power, inequalities and evidence. 

It was that last one that provided the break-through. I am the author of an Equalities and Human Rights Commission review of evidence on Education and Inequalities, and I was being interviewed by an expert in film and television studies. Evidently he could not know better than me if I were demonstrating the relationship between power, inequalities and evidence. Some other small thing he said in the interview was actually racist. I was able to finally bring a legal case for discrimination, instead of being brushed off by someone from Human Resources saying (never in writing) "it's very unfair, but unfortunately it's not against the rules." 

The Dean of Faculty wrote to assure me that the Faculty treated such cases with great seriousness. They valued the qualifications and experience of staff such as myself. Unfortunately when he did this, he addressed me as Ms. while signing himself Prof. I had to write back and point out that a PhD was part of my application for the job, and a professional qualification in our field of work. After three days he wrote to say: "I note your concern about the use of your title." I knew he had had to go to the lawyers and that I had won. 

When I say 'won', I don't mean we were in court and I got proper recompense for losing that job. I mean that we came to a gentleman's agreement that I was sitting on a heap of embarrassing evidence about the way those in power were instituting inequalities and that I would give anyone who tried it on me again a very bloody nose. We both understood that I would be treated scrupulously fairly in the future in job interviews (not favoured - be treated fairly). Sometimes since then I have not got through in interviews, and I believe these were fair decisions; I understood the reason I was being turned down. I worked incredibly hard, putting in long hours to write up evidence and show how power and inequalities were related in my case. It was worth it, although I am still angry I had to waste such a lot of time and effort just to get fair and equal treatment. 

In this looking glass world, I did often doubt myself. I could not believe that people who would laugh and joke with me at other times, academics in the social sciences who did research and teaching on equalities, would treat my qualifications and expertise with such contempt in the vital context of a job interview. 

There were two kinds of people who made it hard to believe what was happening. Those who discriminated against me, and those who were so lacking in discrimination themselves that they couldn't believe a person like me - whom they respected and loved - could be the target of such irrational and cruel prejudice. They couldn't believe it was happening. They said things like: "Are you sure?" "Maybe he meant …" instead of: "Can I take your daughter for the morning so you can write your case out for the union to look over?" 

I survived because the union had my back. The union recognised what was being done to me, supported me and represented my case. United we stand. 

I've not had a high-flying career, but I have a job. I enjoy my job, but I don't put my photo up on my profile. I would rather people not take my cat profile picture seriously than not take my real photo seriously. 

Black cat sitting up as if in bed, looking indignant

What is to be done? Higher Education cannot become diverse by sticking different kinds of people into itself, colouring up the profile pictures. It must change from within. 

People in Higher Education must listen when women or ethnic minority or disabled or gay staff are concerned about how we are treated, when we say we are made to feel uncomfortable. The knee-jerk response to bring the shutters down and protect reputation must be replaced by genuine open-mindedness and willingness to question: Was it fair? I think I am treating this person as an equal, but perhaps they are actually smarter than me? Too often people in power feel anxious and uncomfortable around ethnic minority staff, and quickly move to thinking the ethnic minority person is a problem rather than the predominantly white working culture. 

It would also help if employers immediately started assuming they under-estimate black and minority ethnic staff, and 'artificially' increased their idea of how well we are doing. Then we might get recognised for some of our achievements instead of constantly over-looked. Then they might find they have much better numbers of black and minority ethnic staff in senior roles. 

Friends worry about me writing this blogpost, in case I experience backlash of some kind. I fear the opposite: that I will be met by a wall of silence, drowned out by white noise. ("We never think of you.") Even my friends will hesitate over the 'share' and 'like' buttons, made anxious and uncomfortable. Although even if one other person reads this (woman, gay, transgender, disabled, ethnic minority - just different), and realises 'it was true! It wasn't me, it was them,' that will be worth my making the effort to write. 

Partly I wrote this blogpost because I wanted to read Why I'm No Longer Talking (To White People) About Race (lent to me by a friend of Cornish/Irish heritage). I wanted to write about my own experience first. I'll make notes about my reading on Instagram and tweet using the hashtag #WINLTTWPAR. It would be a start great if you could check it out and give me some feedback. 

Glass of water beside copy of the book Why I'm No Longer Talking (To White People) About Race


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