Small Axe Star Shaniqua Okwok Slams Royal Central Drama Schools Performative Anti-Racism Pledges After It Stands By Tutor Over Slave Incident

EXCLUSIVE: Small Axe star Shaniqua Okwok has criticized The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama for paying lip service to anti-discrimination pledges after the prestigious UK drama school failed to say whether it disciplined a teacher accused of a “racist incident.”

Okwok, one of Royal Central’s most successful recent graduates, made a formal complaint against a teacher after they allegedly demanded that she embrace her “inherited trauma” and play a slave during an acting exercise in 2015.

Deadline can reveal that the complaint was upheld last year and Royal Central apologized to Okwok, but for confidentiality reasons, she was not told if the lecturer faced any consequences. The individual remains in post as a lecturer at the school, which boasts alumni including Judi Dench and Kit Harrington. The teacher did not respond to a request for comment.

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In an exclusive interview for Deadline’s Drama Schools Uncovered series, Okwok argued that Royal Central upheld her complaint in an effort to “shut her up.” She said her experience showed that the school’s efforts to rid itself of systemic racial prejudice were “performative.”

In a statement, Royal Central said it had issued an “unreserved apology” to those who experienced racism, adding that the school has overhauled its leadership team and is working to create a culture of “equity and inclusion.” Josette Bushell-Mingo, the Olivier Award-nominated actress, was appointed principal in 2021. The school’s vice president is Anne Mensah, Netflix’s UK content chief.

Okwok, who starred in Paramount+ series The Flatshare and appeared in It’s A Sin, was a leading voice in holding Royal Central to account during the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.

She and a group of graduates met school leaders on numerous occasions, with the conversations culminating in an action plan being announced in June 2020. Royal Central’s pledges included staff anti-racism training, a commitment to “decolonize” the curriculum, and plans to diversify its workforce.

Royal Central also encouraged graduates to make formal complaints to Intersol, an external agency engaged to examine historical allegations of racism. Okwok submitted a formal statement to Intersol investigators, in which she complained of the “racist incident” involving a teacher just weeks into her first year at the drama school in 2015.

Okwok described how during a movement exercise, she focused on walking neutrally with her hands by her side. Classmates were invited to comment on the walk in the form of a movie title, with one student shouting “chain gang” at Okwok, which was interpreted as a reference to her race.

Okwok said her classmates were shocked and she expected the teacher to intervene and encourage a conversation about unconscious prejudice. Instead, she alleged that the teacher told her to embrace the interpretation of her being a “slave in chains” because she was dragging her feet and her hands were close to her body.

Okwork said she was “horrified” and the incident “diminished” her for the rest of her training. The actress raised concerns to teachers at the time but claimed that the school was more interested in admonishing her for sharing her experience with friends on Snapchat than dealing with the substance of her complaint. Okwok’s classmates penned written statements supporting her story.

“I don’t think I was able to really understand what was happening at the time because I was being gaslit. No one was calling it racism,” she told Deadline.

Royal Central upheld Okwok’s complaint in February 2022, nearly a year after she formally lodged her concerns with the external investigators. After chasing the school for an outcome, she received a succinct letter from an HR officer, which said: “We can confirm that your complaint has been upheld and we wish to apologise for any distress.”

Okwok was told in an email that the disciplinary process was “confidential,” but that “matters arising have been managed” in terms of Royal Central’s procedures and curriculum changes. The actress replied: “Not sharing the conclusion leaves a world where the school is still keeping an unsafe environment [for students].”

Okwok Not Invited Back To Royal Central

Before speaking out in 2020, Okwok said she would regularly return to Royal Central to talk to students. She has not been invited back since the Black Lives Matter reckoning, despite being a lead star in Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock, part of the BBC and Amazon’s Small Axe anthology series. In contrast, Okwok has made regular appearances at The BRIT School, another alma mater, over the past three years.

“Everything is so performative. Do you really want to change?” she asked Royal Central. “The person who’s helping you change, and has also been engaged in the school prior to speaking up about everything, you now suddenly don’t want to talk to anymore.”

Deadline asked Royal Central why Okwok has not been welcomed back in recent years. A spokesperson for the school declined to answer the question.

On her reasons for speaking out, Okwok said: “There is no ulterior motive other than making it a safer place for those after us. [In 2020] there was nothing to gain in coming forward. There was no money, no real celebrity, there was nothing other than shifting the school forward.”

Deadline has spoken to two other Royal Central graduates involved in the 2020 efforts to bring about change. They believe the school engaged in good faith and made change, but said it was hard to say what impact this was having on current students. The school has upheld two racism complaints in the past three years, according to figures obtained by Deadline, though it is not clear if Okwok’s was one of those complaints.

Royal Central said: “In June 2020, some of Central’s students and graduates shared their accounts of racism and discrimination experienced during their time at the school. Central issued an unreserved apology and committed to undertake an extensive programme of work across all levels of the organisation to ensure accountability and create meaningful, lasting change. 

“Central, which has been under the leadership of a new senior team since 2021, has worked to acknowledge and own its history in an accountable manner, and to foster a culture of equity and inclusion.

“This includes but is not limited to: mandatory, ongoing anti-racism training for all staff and students; a dedicated programme of work focused on decentering, decolonising and repairing the curriculum; reviewing and refining the process of reporting concerns to make it more accessible alongside extended support; and strategic work to build a more representative staff and student community, with targeted outreach for communities that have been historically underrepresented at the school. 

“There is more work to be done, but this work is ongoing, and it is a priority. Central remains fully committed to ensuring a safe, equitable, inclusive and supportive environment for its students. ”

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