Racist Incidents At UK Universities
TW - Mention of racist incidents and white supremacy
In 2019, over 200 students and staff at UK universities recounted their experiences of racism to the Guardian. Incidents ranged from use of the N word, blackface and doubts cast over whether Black students can really be considered “British.” In 2020 - a year in which black people and allies took to the streets to protest during a pandemic - this should not still be happening.
Universities posted their shallow Black Lives Matters Posts but what have they actually done about this offline? And why are people still encountering prejudice over the colour of their skin.
When researching this post, I came across numerous incidents at racism at UK universities, many of which took place relatively recently. I’d heard about some of these before - Warwick’s so-called Bananagate is one such example. Others were new to me:
And, of course, group chats, but that’s a discussion for another post.
Right now, let’s talk about the reasons behind the racism.
One answer is that universities are a microcosm of general society. They’re meeting places for students and staff from all over the world, from different backgrounds and with different life experiences. Some students bring their prejudices with them. For this reason, universities reflect what’s going on off-campus. In 2020, we have seen a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, following US police brutality. But let’s not pretend that the UK is innocent. Police are more likely to target people from marginalised communities. Between 2012 and 2019, there was an increase in race-related hate crime. Racially minoritized women are more likely to die in childbirth. Schools have punished students for having braids.
So, how does that relate to universities? Black students are less likely to go to university than their white peers. For example, Cambridge only admitted 12 Black British students in 2019. Over five years, 996 complaints of racism were lodged at UK universities. Furthermore, students from marginalised communities are less likely to attain top degrees than their white peers. This is not an issue of capability or meritocracy but rather a manifestation of the impacts of having to live and study within an institutionally racist society. Universities are reflecting wider societal trends. If racism is still alive and well in the outside world, then it will also make its way onto university campuses.
Another reason for campus racism is the lack of diversity in both the curriculum and the classroom. In 2019, UUK revealed that around two thirds of academic staff are white males. Only 10% of professors are from a non-white background. Underrepresentation amongst staff shows a clear gap between universities’ diversity policies and practise. Can universities really claim to be inclusive if that isn’t reflected among their academics? As for the curriculum, that too needs updating. In recent years, there have been nationwide, and even international, campaigns calling for universities to decolonise their curriculum. This means having less of a Eurocentric focus and also turning our attention towards the people and politics of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Oceania, as well as crediting the scholars outside of the Western World for their contributions in respective fields. Otherwise, we end up learning very little about the world. A lack of diversity means we focus on the same old ideas, and those are often from a narrow, white-washed, colonial perspective. We need to hear from former colonies what colonisation meant for them, and how Europe’s rule over the rest of the world still shapes foreign affairs today through neocolonialism.
What happens if the curriculum stays the same?
It means that Black and other racially minoritized students don’t see their history properly represented, and it means that white students fail to understand how colonialism and white supremacy continues to harm people today. It means that none of us understand the world for why and how it truly is. Currently, progress is slow. The Guardian contacted 128 universities about this issue, of which 11 said they were actively working towards decolonising their curriculums across the whole university. 84 institutions said they wanted to make their curriculums more diverse, but only 34 are working with BME students to do so. Progress is looking very slow indeed.
So what do universities say they’re doing to tackle racism?
In August, Cardiff published a Strengthening Race Equality document, in response to the death of Goerge Floyd. However, that same month a former student told the BBC she is considering legal action after the university mishandled her case. Is the university principled or performative? Lots of universities have issued statements and tweets supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, but many fail to provide anti-racism training. Almost 90% of universities have general training on diversity and inclusion for staff, but this is not compulsory. Just one university gives all of its staff specific anti-racism training. No university offers compulsory training for students.
This made me wonder which universities have specific policies for racism. I have not had time to ask or Google every single institution (busy Masters student!) but looked at the following universities: Nottingham Trent, Warwick, Cardiff, Bristol, Exeter, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Sheffield, Birmingham, Liverpool, St Andrews, Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Coventry, Leeds and Nottingham.
Not one seemed to have a specific policy on racism. The topic fell under other policies - ones for respect, dignity, harassment and bullying. I do not wish to undermine the importance of these issues, but feel that racism deserves its own policy. Terms like ‘dignity’ seem too vague to me. It encompasses a wide variety of issues, for sure, but universities need to make it crystal clear in their policies that racism will not be tolerated. Several universities have specific policies for sexual misconduct and trans rights - racism deserves the same attention. This would show students that their university is taking the issue seriously. It would give clear guidelines on the many forms that racism can take, tell students how to complain, what support they would receive and possible sanctions. When universities have these policies in place, they need to enforce them. Otherwise, there’s no point.
Concrete policies and sanctions speak louder than tweets.
At the bottom of this post we're including the full list of incidents that we found. Sadly, these incidents are not the only ones out there, they’re just the ones that went viral.
Here’s what we found:
2018 - Racist Exeter law group chat
2020 - Eight Cardiff medical students complained to the uni and asked for a public apology after a racist 2016 play featuring blackface and other acts of racism (the students who took part were suspended, but allowed to return, whilst the complainants received no support)
2020 - Warwick student paper The Boar compiled a list of racist incidents at the University - low points include racism from a law careers advisor in 2017 and reports of slave auctions held by the Men’s Rugby Club in 2014
Student-led action/ speaking out:
2020 - Black Aberdeen student Jessica Eze congratulated for being able to speak English properly - Eze and a friend wrote an open letter/ petition to the uni, detailing racist incidents, nearly 500 signatures
2020 - Former Hull SU President wrote a twitter thread about her experiences
2020 - Around 10,000 signatures for a petition calling upon UAL to tackle racism