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  • Writer's pictureSumbella

Racial Equality and Ethnicity Balance

First published in Connect: Cambridge University Press & Assessment's internal newsletter for International Education Colleagues 

The new Co-Chair of the Racial Equality and Ethnicity Balance Network (REEBN) and Professional Learning & Development Specialist based in MENA Sumbella Khan talks about what led her to the role, her own experiences around race & identity and her hopes for the network.

What made you want to take on the role of Co-Chair with the Racial Equality and Ethnicity Balance Network (REEBN)? 

I attended a Conscious Inclusion workshop, and a particular phrase stayed with me:

 "If you’re not consciously including, you may be sub-consciously excluding". 

I think this points to the idea that 'inclusion’ in real life is more like a verb. It’s not something you just stick a label on, tick a box, and consider done. So joining as Co-Chair, for me, is about being conscious and pro-active about inclusion. 

The reality I’ve met with is that talking about racism - and things like ethnicity, race, and even culture, is not only tricky, but it can also be heavy. It's very political, and can be very charged. And so I wanted to be able to learn how to navigate this carefully and with empathy, and to discuss related matters where I’m supported by colleagues who recognise that. 

Co-Chairs are there to be a key point of contact for the networks, and to be a facilitator of sorts, liaising between the committee, network members, Executive Sponsors and our wider organisation. They are there to help facilitate meetings, discussions, and to help make decisions. For me, these are all vital skills I feel are important to constantly be developing. That, coupled with the fact that matters relating to race, culture and identity have been such an integral part of my life and work, especially being based regionally in Dubai, meant that I was keen to be involved and contribute in this way. 

How have issues around racial equality and ethnicity balance impacted your life and work? 

While being mindful that everyone has their own experiences and perspectives on this topic, I’ll share some personal examples of how this has impacted my own life and work. Half of my family - on my father’s side - is Pashtun (a tribal people situated in the Northwest region of Pakistan and Afghanistan), while the other half is English. At 14, on a family holiday to tour the US, I recall my brothers, mum and I passing easily through passport control - no fuss. Yet, we waited several anxious hours for my father to be let through while he was unexpectedly interrogated. We were never told why. I remember thinking that even if it was a spontaneous check, not racially driven, various anecdotes we heard from others led me to always be wondering if there was a bias occurring based on skin colour or other traits.

Matters of race and identity also had an impact on me in more existential ways. At school in London filling in a form I hesitated over ‘Ethnicity’. I recall wondering, naively: since I have fairly white skin, should I tick ‘white’? I even asked the teacher. But selecting ‘white’ didn’t seem right, and she agreed. Puzzling over this, we came to the last option, which I had ignored initially. It read: ‘Other’. That moment of being ‘other-ed’ became rather symbolic of how I had felt - and would feel - in various settings as I navigated the world. 

This kind of experience, along with lots of instances of family members and friends being treated differently in varying contexts, really made me conscious about matters of racism and ethnicity, and how this impacts our lives collectively. 

Yet, on the positive side, it also meant I began to take a keen interest in different cultures, different ethnicities, and finding a sense of belonging with and understanding of my own roots.

There is nothing like travel to broaden one’s understanding of the world and deepen a sense of empathy for people (I say that as someone who doesn’t find travel particularly easy!). But it is also one of the reasons I enjoy being at CUPA - that we have this opportunity to get to know colleagues from all around the world.

What are your hopes or aims for your role as co chair of REEBN? 

Some of the aims of the Racial Equality and Ethnicity Balance network are to strive to educate, include and inspire colleagues, as well as to help advance diversity. Those reflect many of my own aims too, in work and life.

Beyond that, is my hope. The best manager I ever worked with used to chuckle and say: “my goal here is to make myself obsolete!”. He wanted to help us all to become so strong and capable that he wasn’t needed anymore - that was when he felt his job would be done

In that vein, my hope for a role like this, and a network like REEBN, is also to make it obsolete! I’d love to be in a place where support networks and representation are not needed any longer, where we all have a default setting to include each other respectfully, create opportunities fairly, and treat each other with empathy. Some may say I’m too idealistic – but sunny optimism will always be my thing. 

Is there anything else you would like to mention?

For the culture curious, and since it’s on topic, I also felt it would be fitting to share a couple of things about the Pashtuns: They are a tribal people from the Northwest region of Pakistan, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), who were very much part of the history of the Silk Road. I share some photos here of traditional jewellery and the landscape. The photos of the landscape are from Chitral, courtesy of the iconic Ayun Fort Inn's Instagram page: 

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