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15th February 2023

French students walk out over “culture of racism”

French students walked out of a lecture on February 13 in protest of alleged racism by individuals, and a flawed curriculum
French students walk out over “culture of racism”
The flyer and quote from UoM Black Students Matter open letter

French students at the University of Manchester today walked out of a lecture in protest at racism within the department, including the use of racial slurs. 

In the lecture, a student who wished to remain anonymous, said that Dr Barbara Lebrun had said the “violently anti-black” slur ‘n*****’ in both French and English. The student also said “Barbara is completely aware of the distress this causes Black students and yet continues to use that racial slur”, referring to an impact statement which was read to Dr Lebrun as part of a complaint in 2022. 

The student called on others present, especially those “who posted black squares in 2020,” to do “a very small but tangible thing […] to show that you actually care about the Black students in your lives,” by walking out of the lecture.  

Having heard the speech, the majority of the class left the lecture, leaving only 6 students remaining. The Mancunion understands that most of the students who left were unaware before the lecture that the walkout would be staged.

The University of Manchester said that they are “investigating the matter as a priority”, when contacted for comment.

Since the incident, further classes, including a screening and seminars, have been “postponed”, due to “staff absence”, although the University has promised that these classes will be rescheduled.

In response, Dr Lebrun asked for a discussion with the UoM Black Students Matter group, asking if she could “walk out too”. Dr Lebrun then discussed the walkout and open letter with the students remaining in the class, after 21 minutes the lecture was cancelled.

In an email addressed to the whole module, Dr. Lebrun wrote that “I am sorry we could not have a discussion altogether today about this essential issue. Your walk-out was a shock but shocks can be beneficial to the system, at least I hope this one will be.”

The email ends “I truly hope that this complaint, which I take extremely seriously, can be a positive opportunity to change the course’s content and my delivery of it, and make further changes too. I believe that Black lives matter, and I do not want to reproduce structural racism.”

This, however, contradicts the demands of the students’ letter, which reads “We will not accept any redesign of this module that is led by Dr Lebrun.” The composers of the letter refused to comment on the email, because the ‘letter was deliberately not addressed to her’, but instead to Professor Schmidt.

Organisers of the walkouts wrote an open letter from “A collective of Black students who study French at UoM” to Professor Thomas Schmidt, head of the School of Arts, Languages, and Culture (SALC), from the students, describes a a “comprehensive failure to take anti-Black racism seriously”. 

Speaking in the lecture, the student noted that it wasn’t the first time there had been complaints about the use of the language. However, the student argued that Dr. Lebrun’s use of the slur was not an isolated incident, but “a particularly egregious example of the white supremacy that exists within the French department”.

The letter cites issues with the curriculum as well as individuals. In the module “Race and Empire in the French-speaking world”, “the word slavery was mentioned just once in the 62 powerpoint slides”. 

The lecture failed to acknowledge “the centuries of oppression African people suffered at the hands of the French and how the institution of slavery shaped what it means to be black”. 

Additionally, one student was told, after submitting an essay plan, not to “use the essay as a platform for personal exasperation or indignation around racism”; this was the same student who had previously made an informal complaint about Dr Lebrun. 

In response, the students called for a total overhaul of the ‘first year ‘Identity in Modern France’ module, with consultation from students who ‘should be paid for their time’. 

The students who make up UoM Black Students Matter said, “We urge people to read our open letter because it fully contextualises everything that has happened. If people want to support our campaign against the culture of racism in the French department, the single most useful thing they can do is sign our open letter and encourage others to do the same.”

Emily Turvey, the Humanities Officer, commented “Today, students staged a walkout based on their experiences of racism at the University of Manchester. 

I stand in solidarity with these students, the open letter they have written, as well as the Butterfly Effect campaign group, who are calling for a holistic and inclusive transformation of higher education.

I will continue to work with students who took part in the walkout and the Butterfly Effect campaign. I regularly meet with the Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and as part of my regular meeting, I will raise this issue directly.

If any other students have been affected by racism or other forms of discrimination, you can contact the SU’s Advice Service and use the University’s Report and Support service.”

A University of Manchester spokesperson said: 

“We have been made aware of the letter and the events during the lecture and we are investigating as a priority. We are fully committed to equality, diversity and inclusion in all of our activities.”

You can read the full letter here, and sign it by emailing [email protected]

Jacob Hartley

Jacob Hartley

co-Managing Editor (News and Current Affairs)

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