Less Talk More Action
Written by Aswan Magumbe
IT’S TIME TO PUT THE IDENTITY BACK IN EDUCATION – HERE’S WHAT THE STUDENTS AND TEACHERS HAVE TO SAY
In an industry where cultural appropriation fails to cease, it’s interesting how little we hear from students having to navigate environments where they’re discouraged from exploring their own heritage.
We were all witness to the seismic shift that occurred globally in 2020, where students especially were impacted by its effects; some awaited exams they never took, prepared for work they’d never complete or were launched into unprecedented circumstances while still having to cough up over nine grand for tuition fees. Nonetheless, with this change, it did also offer some enlightenment for Gen-Z and Millennials in approaches towards academia, and their consequent careers, as well as those teaching and guiding them through it. However, an element of this change that was overlooked was the way in which heritage – and race, and ethnicity – could be used as a tool to amplify one’s work, especially for creative students.
Approaching institutions, often that are predominantly white, can be a daunting experience for many ethnic-minority students. Adjusting to their way of doing and thinking can differ greatly from the schooling that many had prior to higher or further education. Pair that with the lessons taught at home where cultural teachings hold greater significance, it can create some friction. So, when students seek to embed their heritage within their work, which has rightly become a focal point within the teaching model, yet hasn’t necessarily been dealt with correctly, there is a tension between academics and students that goes unaddressed.
In a survey of seven students conducted in January 2023, only one student was taught by an ethnic-minority tutor weekly whereas 57.1% said they had never been taught by one. Ifeoluwa Rotimi, a final-year Psychology with Business Management student at the University of Sussex, is yet to be taught by a Black academic. “Having someone, who was also an ethnic minority, teach me made me feel seen as their dissection of literature meant that they highlighted the issues that impacted me while my white lecturers didn’t,” she said.
Attitudinal differences have proved to be a recurring issue in the ethnic-minority student experience. Ramona*, a Fine Art student who graduated from Central Saint Martins in 2020, was the only person who expressed overall dissatisfaction with their university experience. “[There was] less of “freedom of thought” and “freedom to explore” than I thought there would be,” they said. “Tutors were quite inflexible and could not connect to different thought processes that were not aligned to their own.” This is something that can be easily averted considering that university is a place where, it seems, diverse perspectives are encouraged – until it becomes uncomfortable for the authoritative figure. “I’ve worked at probably at least eight to ten different institutions now, in the last 18 to 20 years, and one of the patterns I see amongst students is that there’s not an acceptance,” said Tanveer Ahmed, a senior lecturer in Fashion and Race at Central Saint Martins. “If we go into the nuances of it, the staff might not know how to respond, so it might not be to their ‘taste’. They might not have it because people of a similar age (or generation) have been through a solid Eurocentric fashion education.” And with 71.4% of students from our survey agreeing that, as an ethnic minority, they experienced feelings of inferiority or being less privileged – the rest being ‘not sure’s’ – this needs to change.
Apranji Sarah Kerketta, who graduated from the London College of Fashion in 2020, explained how she didn’t want to use her heritage in her work in order to come across as “more multicultural” from other Indian students who referenced their culture. “I vaguely remember a tutor or someone making a remark to an Asian student about how they needed to step away from their culture and not simply use it as a crutch. I suppose that affected my thinking,” she said. However, a student’s identity is core, if not crucial, to their academic experience. This is something that Jason Forrest, Fashion Marketing course leader at the University of East London, actively affirms with his students. “Through encouragement, it shows not just their capabilities, but it also keeps them interested in the work that they need to do. There’s always continuous feedback in relation to the structure of the process, how their idea fits into that, what additional elements they need to research or look into to support what goes into this particular framework that we work that I’ve embedded into the course but fundamentally, empowers the students to be able to showcase their identity.”
Both Ahmed and Forrest, members of FACE (Fashion Academics Creating Equality), suggested that there are specific tools that are pivotal to ensuring a more well-rounded experience for ethnic-minority students. Amongst them, they specify race-related training, building networks that are reflective of the student body, therefore highlighting industry peers from ethnic-minority backgrounds, a recognition of and change in the language used from teachers to students, and continuing to grow staff bodies to have wider representation across all academic institutions. Maybe then upon these implementations will we see greater multitudes of colour across the industry. But as Forrest said: “I don’t think there needs to be any more talk or discussions around these matters. It’s now time for action.”