Black Lives Matter: Reflections from the Principal of George Watson's College

Black Lives Matter: Reflections from the Principal of George Watson's College

Published on 5 June 2020

Melvyn Roffe, PrincipalThis morning I spoke to our Senior 5 pupils on the occasion of confirming the appointments of our Office Bearers for Session 2020/21. I would like to share some of my reflections more widely and an extract from my address appears below.

I hope that Session 2020/21 will not simply be about things continuing to happen. I hope next year will also be about things changing for the better.

I think - and I know that I am not alone in thinking – that as we recover from the Covid-19 crisis we have the chance to do things differently, to do things better.

You can’t have seen what has been going on in America and around the world without wondering, “is this the best we can do? After all this time and all the effort that has gone into building our societies has it come to this?”

The National Memorial to Martin Luther King lies just a few metres away from the National Mall in Washington DC, an area which for much of the last week has been cordoned off by heavily armed police and members of the National Guard.

On it is inscribed one of Martin Luther King’s less well known, but nevertheless powerful sayings in which he quotes from a 19th Century American Pastor Theodore Parker.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. 

Subsequently, President Obama used the phrase 

The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.

Justice is an abstract concept. You can’t touch it or see it. 

You may not be able to see justice. But you can certainly see injustice.

We saw it in gruesome, horrifying detail as George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer.

We see it when we look at pictures of the faces of NHS Staff who have given their lives to battle Covid-19 - and perhaps we think - I hope we think  - “why are so many of those faces the faces of people of colour?”

If Barack Obama was right and the arc of history does bend toward justice then frankly it needs some help. Anyone who aspires to leadership in our community or any other must see it as their job to help bend that arc. 

To bend it towards justice.

To root out injustice and prejudice wherever it lies. 

That’s my job, my colleagues’ job, but it’s also your job as leaders.

You know, as I know, that racist slurs are used around this school. Sometimes with malice, often not. But using them at all demeans us all. It puts us on the side of those who think that difference - whether of race, religion, gender or sexuality is a reason for scorn, not pride. 

That’s not who we are and it’s time that we all stood up and said that. Loudly, strongly and as often as necessary.

But it would be unfair of me to tell you to be leaders in the fight against injustice without acknowledging some difficult truths about how the school has dealt with injustice and prejudice in its own history.

In the telling of our story, we have been very pleased to celebrate the generosity of our founder, George Watson, without acknowledging the evidence of his complicity with the atrocity that was the trade in enslaved people.

We rightly celebrate the contribution of many Watsonians to the life of our country and the improvement of the world. But we may have been a bit selective. 

For example, until recently, I had never heard of Agnes Yewande Savage. She was a Watsonian who was the first woman of West African heritage ever to receive a university degree in Medicine when she graduated at the age of 23 with first-class honours from the University of Edinburgh in 1929.

A Watsonian who changed the world. Yet I’d never heard of her. It was as if her life somehow didn’t matter.

Well, it should matter and it does matter. And we need to get better at telling our story in ways that celebrate the diversity and difference which has long been part of who we are as a community.

So what are we going to do?

  • As soon as we can, Mr Boyd [Head of Senior School] will lead the Pupil Council in discussing how we can better tackle injustice based on prejudice in the Senior School. It will have a remit to think the unthinkable in order to achieve what needs to be achieved. Your voice and leadership will be crucial in those discussions and even more importantly in making change happen.
  • Again, as soon as we can, I will convene a series of seminars at which scholars who have researched the life of George Watson and his times can help us understand who he really was and the implications of his legacy for us today. This is really important because the commemoration of the tercentenary of his death is coming up in 2023.
  • Next session will see a major new focus for our work for fairer communities, a sustainable environment and global understanding. This will be led across the whole school by Mrs Robinson [Director of Project 810] under the Project 810 banner. Again, she will need you to make good things happen.
  • Next session you will also see the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the George Watson’s Ladies’ College. Within that - and in other commemorations in future - we will ensure that the achievements of Watsonians of colour have all the prominence they deserve.
  • And finally, next week the Watsonian Council will discuss a proposal to create what I think would probably be Scotland’s first Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Former Pupils Section within an independent school. It is not for me to say whether this should happen or how it would work, but I do hope that we can find a way of ensuring that the voice of Watsonians of colour - as well as your voices as current pupils - can be heard as we unite with new vigour to tackle racism head on. 

Does this all seem a bit rushed? Well maybe yes, although some of these ideas had been floating around for some time but hadn’t really been acted on. They should have been.

Part of the weirdness of our present times is that things that would normally have taken years to change have changed very suddenly. So why not this? What better cause to which to apply ourselves at this time?

Around the world young people are using their voices to call for change. Several of you have been among them, and have already let me know your views. I salute all who stand up for justice. Let’s all now add not just our voices but our actions to theirs.

Melvyn Roffe
Principal, George Watson’s College