“I find it unbearable to see how we keep using these completely false ideas about humans and people. These false beliefs about our differences deny us opportunities to develop and collaborate and to do things together and to grow as humans. We are so distracted by racism, that’s what infuriates me.”
Dr Mónica Moreno Figueroa is one of two Race Equality & Inclusion Champions at the University of Cambridge, a role she accepted in order to tackle racism from an institutional level. This article is based on a transcript from The Social Ideas Podcast: Making Racism Public (June 22, 2020).
Why did you decide to become one of the University’s Race Equality Champions?
Well, I’ve been doing this for a couple of years. At first I was thinking about institutional change in the university, and I started some small efforts within the college and in my department where I would sit down and talk more experientially about racism and how we are living through it in, in our everyday in our teachings in the classroom and facing a lot of students issues about how they were being treated and how what they felt in their every day.
And then the opportunity came in to become one of the university’s race equality champions, and I thought it might be better to try to tackle it in a bigger, institutional way than my smaller efforts in the department or in the college.
I saw it as opportunity to learn more about the institutional constraints, the different people involved, their agendas, and to understand what the weaknesses and the possibilities are for change. And it has definitely taught me which battles to fight! Strategically, there are definitely aspects where I prefer working in the department and in the college, and to do my own efforts. But working at the University level was a valuable opportunity for seeing the possibilities available.
Are the possibilities more positive than perhaps we’re led to believe?
It’s a mixed bag really. I found amazing people at all levels of institution that are really willing to make things happen and push for change. I also found some institutional constraints that are difficult to understand and aren’t communicated clearly, to me or to anyone else! Things like flows of power and money and resources, which are much more complex than we think.
During my time here I’ve seen a lot of change happening and I think it has actually altered my idea of what ‘change’ is. When we think of ‘change’, what is it that we imagine? Who makes change, and what are our understandings of that process?
So as part of this process I’ve seen a lot of people willing to think about things and open their minds. There’s a lot of consideration going on, understanding the constraints, but there are also lots of possibilities that we have seen moving forwards.
There have been a variety of processes that have been unleashed recently that have been accompanied by student mobilisation, in particular this current moment where people are talking about decolonization of the curriculum and decolonization of higher education.
I think I’ve taken up this work at the time where many things have been in favour of moving the agenda forwards. For example, we have an increasing number of people of colour coming into the university. But as the same time, we also have more people talking about their experiences of racism.
So the change is not that racism has suddenly disappeared – although of course the ultimate goal is to eliminate racism. That’s what I’m interested in, not just a small adaptation or changes round the edges. But what I see is that we’re moving towards that goal.
Can the elimination of racism ever happen? What are your own experiences that have led you to this goal?
I believe is going to happen. I wouldn’t do anything if I didn’t think it was possible. I’m not saying when or how exactly, but I’m working on it with other people, so it’s not just me.
I’ve slowly become more and more angered, I guess, by the unfairness and injustice of what racism represents. And that has been very difficult in my life, I come from a context where racism was has been denied for a very long time, where there is an anti-black racism that is really strong. Being mixed-race and looking ‘black’ has pushed me into situations where I’ve had to face sorts of things things that are not very nice, and I’ve slowly understood that this is not my fault, that it is not about me but rather it is a social issue and a group issue.
I find it unbearable to see how we keep using these completely false ideas about humans and people. These false beliefs about our differences deny us opportunities to develop and collaborate and to do things together and to grow as humans. We are so distracted by racism, that’s what infuriates me.
It even infuriates me that I have to do it as my research topic or as my political activism, because it takes so much energy and so much of our effort! We could be doing so much more, you know, with our humanity, and of course there are so many other problems as well as racism, sexism, classism, all these distract us from growing into our full humanity.
You talked about almost having to live an identity that’s being foisted upon you. What is that identity?
Well, being a black woman! I’m seen as a black woman, and I’m asked to perform and do all of this work as a black woman, and I try to resist it as much as I can. In the sense that I feel identities are very limiting of what we are and what we can do and what we can think.
I feel like I don’t have enough choices. I don’t have a choice not to be a black woman. I’m building towards having pride in being a black woman and doing all that, but nobody should be forced to be anything in particular, you know, a lesbian, a woman or whatever. We only are these identities because there is an unfairness, or a lack of opportunity, or an injustice that drives us together (as black people, as gay people, as whatever) to demand equal treatment, equal access to opportunities, or access to a good life.
My take is that we are only living these identities because we have to fight for something. If not, it wouldn’t really matter. You know, it’s a fact, it’s just a fact that I have a certain skin tone, or that I have certain hair or that I have certain sex organs or sexuality. Why there’s so much investment in that, and why that’s such a distractor from us having a good life, that’s my question.
And I think that it’s important to say that I’m not talking about racism because “poor me”: it’s not “poor me”! I’m talking about the thousands of millions of people that we need to respond to, that we need to be thinking about and that we need to work with. We need to destroy the structures of dispossession and exploitation that kill people, that kill us and kill the world and our environment.
So it’s a really horrible time with everything we are facing at the moment. You have social movements erupting all over the world that have to do with basic injustices and inequalities marked by race, class, gender, age, disability. I mean, you name it, inequality is the way that our society seems to function, and we should all be willing to give up some of our privileges, if not all of them, to have a better society for everyone. Now I don’t know if I’m going to sound too revolutionary, but I’m just like: What are we doing? What does it take? That’s what I want to ask.