TW - Racism
In 2016, eight Black students complained to the university after a fellow student wore blackface in a charity play. This was in reference to the medical school’s only Black lecturer. The student in question also wore a black sex toy around his waist.
The university suspended all 31 students involved in the production, and had an independent inquiry. However, the students were later able to return and resume their studies. They had to write letters of apology, but the complaints say these could only be viewed under certain conditions. They were also unable to discuss the letters’ contents.
Cardiff University states there was “an open invitation” to read the letters, and that it offers its students a “wide range of support.” It acknowledges it “failed to foresee the depth of reaction and feeling amongst the medical cohort of students.” That said, in the whole BBC article on the issue, there doesn’t appear to be an explicit apology from the university.
Three of the eight complainants told BBC Wales that the university had let them down. Cardiff had revealed that the students raising the complaint were Black, singling the students out for discrimination. One student allegedly attempted suicide. Others felt uncomfortable attending lectures or walking down the street. Speaking to the BBC, one of the students, Natasha Chilambo, said the incident had a traumatic affect on her mental and physical health. She was unable to eat or sleep and had to transfer to a London university to finish her course.
Natasha is currently seeking legal advice. She is using GoFundMe to pay for her legal fees, which has now raised over £7000.
And what about Cardiff’s current students?
In June, students wrote a letter to the chief authorities at the University’s dental school, complaining of abuse suffered by Black and ethnic minority students. Cardiff had claimed to have learned its lesson. It had accepted 2016’s “failings” and stated it was developing a Student Staff Race Equality Task Group with student societies. It has also published a Strengthening Racial Equality doc, in response to the death of George Floyd. In the document, it reaffirms its commitment towards tackling racism, but does it really? Has it really learned from Natasha’s case or is it worried about appearing woke?
Of course, Cardiff is not the only university with a racism issue. Far from it. But it is a clear example of how universities have brushed the issue under the carpet. Having students return to campus and write letters of apology is not a solution. It is a half-hearted attempt at resolution. Universities need to tackle the root causes of racism. They need compulsory anti-racism training, and to update the curriculum to include modules on readings on slavery, decolonisation and their influence on today’s world. If they have anti-racism policies, they need to enforce them.
And, just as importantly, universities must be a safe space for Black and ethnic minority students. When students complain about microaggressions, there must be an understanding of what that means. For more serious incidents, students must be supported by staff who will take them seriously. Welfare staff need to have a thorough understanding of unconscious bias and racism in all its forms. There should be more Black professors and senior staff. Perpetrators must be shown zero-tolerance.
In the last few years, universities have made a conscious effort to combat sexual violence. Now, it’s time to do the same for racism.