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Marking Black History Month
In October, the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan (BCCJ) marked Black History Month, an event to recognise the contributions that people of African and Caribbean backgrounds have made to the history of the UK, and which has been held annually since 1987.
In an online event entitled “Conversations with the BCCJ and the University of Oxford Japan Office,” moderator James Nepaulsingh, a University of Oxford graduate, senior associate at a magic circle law firm and member of the BCCJ Executive Committee, invited past and current students of the University of Oxford to share their own Black experiences and consider how to achieve racial equality.
Meeting Malcolm X
Dr Louis Nthenda, who has worked in Japan since 1981 with the Japan International Cooperation Agency and in the energy sector, observed that his connection to the University of Oxford had opened doors for him in Japan that otherwise would perhaps have been closed. “I was given responsibilities and opportunities because I had graduated from Oxford,” he said.
Reflecting on his student days, he explained how he came to invite civil rights activist Malcolm X to give a lecture at the Oxford Union in December 1964.
Nthenda had met him by chance at a hotel in Nairobi, Kenya, a few months earlier and found him to be much changed from his public persona in the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca and travels through Africa, said Nthenda, had had a profound effect on his religion, politics and views on race.
“He no longer saw White people as incurable racists. He thought the White youth of America would be the engines of change,” Nthenda said, adding that Malcolm X’s views at that time were worth hearing, as evidenced by the invitation he had already received to speak at Yale University. Fortune shone on the Oxford project as the BBC agreed to fund it.
When asked to share the biggest takeaway from meeting Malcolm X, Nthenda said it had changed his life. “I’ve been associated with Malcolm X because [of the lecture] for 50 years,” he said. “I learned quite a lot from him … such as the courage of saying what you believe in … that is real leadership quality.”
Striving for race equality
Chimdi Okpalauko, a student at the University of Oxford and vice-president of the Oxford African & Caribbean Society, outlined details of the university’s Race Equality Task Force. Set up in November 2020 comprising students, staff and other stakeholders from different backgrounds, the initiative is intended to drive unified change in race equality as each of the university’s colleges are autonomous.
Having carried out the initial stages of research, including on the student experience, undergraduate access for ethnic groups and the retention and progression of diverse staff and students, Okpalauko and her colleagues are now at the consultation stage. Once completed, the Task Force will consider the response to the consultation and report back, using the input to develop a final university-wide strategy and funded business plan for approval by the University Council at the end of the 2021–22 academic year. Its outputs will also feed into the university’s next Race Equality Charter submission in 2022.
“There has been great progress so far,” she said of race equality at the university, but pointed out that “some colleges are making more progress than others.” The task force’s aim is to help “streamline progress” and encourage the colleges that have been slow to act to look to their fellow colleges as best practice and be more proactive.
Black Britain and Japan
Born of parents whose combined heritage encompasses Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria, Switzerland and Germany, Warren A. Stanislaus said he “embodies global Britain.” The Japan-based PhD candidate at the University of Oxford and associate lecturer at Rikkyo University shared his experiences of working in Japan.
Stanislaus said that his students tend to offer tennis professional Naomi Osaka or Black Lives Matter protests in Tokyo as examples of Black encounters in Japan despite the centuries-old history of connection between Black and Japanese people. He pointed to Yasuke, an African man who arrived in Kyoto in 1579 and became a samurai; the Black people who landed in Japan with US Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and the Black GIs living in the country post-WWII.
Furthermore, most Japanese people associate Black History Month with February, the month when the US observes the history of the African diaspora, and are somewhat unfamiliar with the Black British experience, he said, adding that Japanese people rarely guess he is from the UK.
“The image of the UK in Japan is limited to afternoon teas and Harry Potter. The Black British story isn’t part of that,” he explained.
As part of his efforts to raise awareness of the UK’s cultural history, Stanislaus worked with the British Embassy, Tokyo, last year to promote the concept of multiculturalism and has written articles on the diversity of Blackness in Britain, including in academia and politics.
When asked how optimistic they are about the eradication of racism, the panellists expressed positivity but said more needs to be done.
Nthenda pointed to the increase in diversity in the University Oxford’s student and staff bodies, including the addition of African fellows, which “would never have been thought of” in the 1960s. African fellows are teaching African history (among other subjects), which indicates “that one can go all the way to the top,” he said. “One day, we will have a Black vice-chancellor.”
Greater awareness of diversity and inclusion has resulted in a better student experience, too. Okpalauko said students are “feeling more comfortable to go to a college and say that something [that happened] was unconscious bias or racism, and colleges are now comfortable to change it and discuss issues.” Moreover, the university “takes a stronger stance on racism and celebrates culture more,” she added.
Okpalauko and Stanislaus agreed that being able to have honest conversations related to Black History Month is a great leap forward.
“To be able to speak openly about the Black experience … that wouldn’t have happened before last year,” said Stanislaus.
Having those important conversations is vital because it can stimulate meaningful social change, according to Black History Month, whose 2021 theme is “Dig Deeper, Look Closer, Think Bigger.”