Racism at UCL: Why denaming buildings is important but just the beginning

Hannah Lising- White analyses the renaming of the university’s buildings through the lens of Cultural Geography and speaks to students about their experiences of racism at UCL.

The renamed North-West Wing, formerly the Pearson Building in UCL’s main quad. Image courtesy of @joharameyer

UCL’s decision to rename buildings named after the founders of eugenics is acknowledged by most black students as an important symbolic gesture of the university’s commitment to anti-racism. However it is also criticised for its superficial nature for paying lip service to the cause whilst failing to address and improve the present realities and opportunities for black academics at UCL.  

Contemporary Cultural Geography understands urban landscapes as deeply embedded in society’s web of culture, politics and power, hence the profundity of buildings named in honour of Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. As an institution of education, commemorating the founders of eugenics (the ‘biological’ practice asserting genetic superiority of white people) is a clear contradiction to UCL’s principles of innovation, diversity and excellence. UCL is more than a built functional space of study, it is important not to decontextualise the space and instead recognise its history that has promoted the subordination of black people. Whilst the names of the buildings will not directly impact the structures that currently restrict opportunities for black academics, renaming marks the important recognition that racism has been upheld and reinforced at our university. Most view this performative action as symbolic of a commitment to dismantling the structures of oppression that current powers have thus far enabled.

Acts such as renaming buildings, monuments and the removal of statues is problematised since it has become a clear target of anti-BLM arguments claiming that this represents the vandalism and erasure of British culture. This rests on the misled notion of ‘cultural structuralism’ that sees culture as an unchanging set of norms and values. Whilst Pearson and Galton were prominent figures within their culture and their racism was profitable, culture is transient and is constantly reconstructed. These men were not objective cultural figureheads of Great Britain, they are eurocentric markers of Britain’s racist legacies. It is important to understand British culture beyond eurocentrism. The commemoration of these people is problematic and the renaming is symbolic of the long overdue anti-racism that UCL must commit to. The delay of recognition exposes the normalised racism deeply rooted within contemporary society.

Conversely, some black students viewed the renaming of buildings and removal of statues as futile for anti-racism, understanding it as a more destructive approach that gives ammunition against the BLM movement. They expressed the need for energy to be diverted instead to positive affirmative action to increase the admissions of black students to account for structural disadvantages, such as offering bursaries and lowering admissions requirements. The significance of physical commemoration remains important, since they suggested that UCL should commit to naming future buildings after pioneering black academics, however expressed no sentiments of oppression by the current names and are in favour of keeping them for educational purposes. The importance of awareness and education was universally agreed upon, however denaming and renaming was contested.

UCL brands itself as ‘the first university in England to welcome students of any religion and to welcome women’ however inclusive admissions is the bare minimum. Joshua Wayoe, MSc Entrepreneurship student, emphasises that since racial discrimination is so deeply entrenched in society, black students face many barriers to higher education and simply opening the door is not enough, UCL must improve outreach. He calls for an inter-departmental initiative for black students to visit sixth forms and colleges across the UK, to make prospective black academics feel that they are wanted in academia and there are places for them. He explained that imposter syndrome from internalised racism is enough to deter black students from applying and it is UCL’s responsibility to remedy that. This reinforces the imperative for denaming the memorials that celebrate academics who pioneered the racial superiority of white people, which contributes to making black students feel out of place at UCL. 

Another key barrier that Joshua described as indicative of UCL’s disregard for black students is the failures of recruitment and admissions. These processes cannot just be neutral when unconscious bias persists, they must be committed to eradicating these biases. This means that where white and black applicants are equally qualified, the position should be offered to the black candidate, since the reality is that the white candidate is statistically more likely to be offered additional opportunities. Joshua emphasises that black students have a stake in UCL and deserve to be represented, they are at the university to contribute to research and education, therefore UCL are responsible for ameliorating the racist barriers they face. 

Last month UCL hosted a virtual Town Hall meeting attended by almost 900 people to open a discussion about experiences of racism at the university. One of the hosts, Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu of Pharmaceutical Neuroscience, highlighted the responsibility the university has since ‘living and working in a place with true racial equality affects all our emotional wellbeing’. Viewing the university in the absence of its historical and cultural context has impeded the achievement of racial equality. The sustainability of anti-racism lies in the momentum of society’s structures. As an institution of higher education that informs knowledge at a popular and policy level, UCL has the power, ability and responsibility to create more opportunities for aspiring black academics and must take deliberate positive action.

I would like to sincerely thank Joshua Wayoe, co-founder of the podast Cultr Talk, and Kadeejah Kallo, co-founder of @theblackdiscussionclub at UCL, and the students who wished to remain anonymous, for their time, energy and insights into their experiences of racism at our university.

Learn more:

Podcast founded by UCL Students Joshua Wayoe and Shuhan Ali.

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