Racist incidents at university: Shocking but, sadly, not surprising

Rufaro Chisango was the victim of vile racist abuse at Nottingham Trent University

On Monday when the horrific video footage of Nottingham Trent student Rufaro Chisango being racially abused went viral everyone described the incident as ‘shocking’ and something that they couldn’t believe was happening in 2018. Whilst it was certainly shocking it wasn’t, unfortunately, completely unbelievable that an incident like this had occurred.

What was surprising was the brazen, up close and personal nature of the attack, where more often these cowardly acts are carried out more covertly (as you would expect from cowards). Chisango, who must have been absolutely terrified, had just her bedroom door to separate her from her attackers, who clearly were not afraid to be identified by other students. When it comes to more extreme acts of racism the British have a great way of denying that a problem exists here, instead projecting it as something that happens in the United States (but not here). What happened on Monday is an ugly reminder that although racism may generally take a more subtle form in the UK than it does in, say, the US, it does nonetheless exist and can be acute (look no further than Britain First).

Monday’s incident was shocking but not surprising when you consider it as the latest in a line of racist incidents that have taken place within UK universities over the last few years. Within the past couple of years alone there have been the following cases that have made it into the news:

  • 2016, Warwick University – Faramade Ifaturoti went into the kitchen at her student halls to find a bunch of bananas left by one of her flatmates with ‘monkey’ and ‘ni**a’ written on it.

  • 2016 & 2017 University of Exeter – In 2016 Students belonging to the snow sports society wore T-shirts with racist slogans, including “Don’t speak to me if you’re not white” at a freshers’ week social event. Last year Exeter was back in the headlines after a swastika was found etched into a door in halls and a “Rights for Whites” sign on a student’s door was also found in the university’s halls of residence.

  • 2017, University of Manchester – A black student took to Twitter with a photo of a Confederate flag hung on open display in another student’s room; the said student allegedly admitted that he knew of the flag’s racist connotations and that he supported the history of the flag.

  • 2017, Loughborough University – A group of students thought it acceptable to organise a “slave night” and “slave auction” as part of the freshers’ events.

  • January 2018, UCL – It came to light earlier this year that for the past three years, Dr James Thompson, a member of UCL’s psychology department, had been hosting a conference once a year on eugenics. This had featured papers with research on the alleged links between race and intelligence being presented.

  • February 2018, De Montfort University – Elizabeth Sawyerr was invited to a girls night by two other students on her course, where they sang “Eeny meeny miny Mo, catch a n***er by it’s toes if you lynch it let it go” and apparently then called her ‘n***er’ to her face the next day on campus.

A confederate flag on public display at a University of Manchester student residence

Whilst Rufaro Chisango’s attackers have been suspended by the university and arrested by local police (on suspicion of racially aggravated public order offences), she – along with other victims of racial hatred at universities – was disappointed with the time taken for the university to respond and take action. A real concern is that universities simply are not taking these matters seriously enough.

Of course there are countless other incidents which either haven’t been reported (likely out of fear) or have not made it to the headlines.

According to Ilyas Nagdee, National Union of Students officer representing students of African, Arab, Asian and Caribbean descent, these racist incidents are commonplace. “Unfortunately this is the day-to-day experience of students of colour across the country and it has been going on for decades,” says Ilyas. Indicating just how frequently racist acts on campus are occurring, he revealed: "I'm contacted at least a couple of times a week by students asking me for help after experiencing racism."

There are also the microaggressions experienced on a day-to-day basis by students of colour. The ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’ campaign launched by Oxford University’s BAME students in 2014 successfully shone a light on the kinds of more subtle, yet no less offensive, expressions of racism that students at the notoriously non-diverse institution. The photograph series showed students of colour holding signs with examples of racial microaggressions written on them, including one which read “Oh, I was pleasantly surprised… you actually speak well,’ and another ‘So do you like speak ‘Nigerian’?’

I, Too, Am Oxford

Research carried out by NUS in 2011 revealed that 1 in 6 black students in higher education had experienced racism in their current institution, one third did not trust their institution to properly handle complaints, and one third felt that their educational environment left them unable to bring their perspective as Black students to lectures and tutorial meetings.In response to the report, the then NUS Black Students’ Officer, Kanja Sesay, said: “The findings of this research are an opportunity for us to focus our minds on how we ensure education institutions do more to enforce race equality legislation on campuses across Britain. Denying Black students access to opportunity in education has a knock-on effect in later years too and therefore requires everyone's urgent attention."

Starting university is a daunting enough experience for new students and their parents without the added fear of whether they will be singled out and attacked because of their race.

University is a challenging time for many, indeed that is the very nature of a degree course, but there is evidence which suggests that for ethnic minority students there are further difficulties still. Three-quarters of white students achieve a 2:1 degree or higher, compared to 60% of minority ethnic students. Given that all students need to meet the same requirements to be enrolled on a degree course, what these figures suggest is that, on the whole, there are additional obstacles to achievement facing students of colour than there are there white peers. If you then take the racial disparities in dropout figures - black students are 50% more likely to drop out of university and more than one in 10 drop out before finishing their degrees, then this theory seems to be cemented.

Racial isolation could be part of it. University is as much about socialising as it is studying but how much more daunting is to go out and make new friends when there are only a handful of people that look like you on campus? Experiencing racism (and the associated trauma) must be partly accountable. Rufaro Chisango was incredibly brave to come forward with her story of abuse and luckily those involved seem to be being held accountable but what if they are allowed to continue their studies? She must try to focus and go about her day to day life somewhere that she does not feel safe. There must be many students of colour across the country suffering in silence and fearful. How does that impact on their mental health and ability to enjoy their time at university and fulfil their potential? Not having a curriculum or professors that BAME students can identify with could be yet another part of the equation. How much more engaged in their course would a black history student that gets to learn about the incredible civilizations of pre-colonial Africa, not just white, Western history be? The black literature student who gets to delve into Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and James Baldwin as well Sylvia Plath and the other curriculum regulars?

The #RhodesMustFall campaign and reactions to the movement – which some criticised as a case of the lefties making a point of nothing – highlighted the differing experiences of white and minority students at majority white institutions. Having a prominent figure of colonialism be glorified by way of a statue on the campus was of course highly offensive to people of colour in a way that their white peers perhaps could not relate to, or at least not to the same extent.

Rhodes Must Fall campaigners

It is not only students at universities that experience racism, BAME staff have also reported incidents of racism and generally being treated unfairly by their academic peers and students too. A report from the Equalities Challenge Unit, found that BAME staff within academia describe feeling under greater scrutiny, believe they have to work harder to prove themselves, are less likely to be encouraged to go for promotion, and are less often successful in applications for promotion when they do apply.

Deborah Gabriel, senior lecturer at Bournemouth University, features in a book, Inside the Ivory Tower, which reveals the experiences of BAME female academics in the UK academia. She recalls:

‘During my first year of teaching, I became the object of racist and sexist discourse exchanged between a group of white students on Facebook, three of whom were women. Their online conversation, during which they referred to me by my race and gender in animalistic and graphic sexual terms, took place during my class, where they laughed openly, though at the time I was unaware I was the brunt of their jokes.

While their actions enraged me, I also felt a profound sense of disappointment – not least because I had willingly gone to great lengths to support some of those very students when they had come to me for additional assistance with their work. Their behaviour demonstrated not just a profound lack of respect for me as their tutor, but also spoke to their rejection of me as a human being worthy of respect.’

According to a 2015 report from Runnymede Trust, only 85 professors in the UK are black, and of them just 17 are women. Last year, figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that no black academics have worked in top management positions in any UK university for the last three years. The statistics also revealed that universities employ more black staff as cleaners, porters or receptionists than as professors or lecturers. What does this tell us? Well, these figures points towards institutional racism and an environment whereby academics of colour are not being given the same opportunities as their white peers to progress into positions of authority within higher education. Without black faces visible in highly deemed positions within universities, as within wider society, it is little wonder that racist ideas are able to flourish and black students and staff – who form a minority on campuses – can be held with so little regard by some and treated as inferior; campus not where they belong.

When it comes to student intake and the subsequent diversity (or lack of) among universities institutional racism can be seen at work yet again when studying the figures. The Runnymede Trust’s aforementioned report also found that it is much harder for black and Asian students to get into the country’s most selective universities, even if they have the same A-level grades as their white counterparts. Thus, an untrue picture is created in which it appears that BAME students are not as intelligent or well qualified as their white counterparts and that that is the reason they are underrepresented and universities, rather than racial inequalities in admissions.

Dr Kehinde Andrews, associate professor at Birmingham City University and the man behind Europe’s first black studies degree, argues that “universities produce racism.” Pointing out that “it’s only since the 1960s there have been any black or Asian people – or women – at all,” he says: “Are universities producing knowledge that challenges racism? I would argue that they are not.”

Last year at a conference held at King’s College London, Dr Winston Morgan, reader in toxicology and clinical biochemistry at the University of East London, delivered a presentation titled ‘Why We Need Black Professors’ in which he made the very strong case for increased racial diversity within academia as a way of encouraging more prospective students of colour to embark on an academic path and also ensuring that the talent of BAME students is properly nurtured. “If the higher education sector cannot provide equality of opportunity for BME staff, how can it provide equality of outcomes for BME students? Having black professors designing/informing the curriculum will reduce the Eurocentric content of the curriculum and make it more accessible, engaging and inspirational.” He continued, “Black professors on campus provide a powerful counter narrative and will inspire future generations to become academics, further increasing the pool of black professors. It’s a virtuous circle.”

When despicable acts of racism like the Nottingham Trent incident occur at universities it is imperative that the university in question takes immediate and strong action. Too often it is reported that the response from the institution involved is slow, sometimes only coming after the incident becomes more high profile by way of social media and the like. But in the long term minimising the occurrence of such events will mean taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture of racial inequality within higher learning. Admissions processes and figures need to be completely transparent and open to scrutiny, with universities which fail to have a student population that reflects the diversity of wider society penalised and held to account. Then there is the need to have more black professors, lecturers, researchers and other highly positioned academics. This is crucial not only to dispel racist ideas surrounding intellect but to inspire more minority students to follow suit and study or even pursue a career in academia, which in turn will mean more well qualified BAME people equipped with the skills necessary to secure the best jobs on offer. Last, but by no means least, there is the matter of decolonising curriculums and moving away from such Euro-centric focused learning which feeds into racism by denying students, of all races, a broad understanding of different races and ethnicities; the wealth of those cultures, their history and their massive contributions to history, literature, art, maths etc. Diversifying syllabuses would not only reduce the ignorance towards a mystery ‘other’ which facilitates racism, but would create more well-rounded students who are ready to enter diverse workplaces and work well alongside people from a range of backgrounds.

Universities should be a safe place for everyone, black students included. Quite literally, the word ‘university’ translates from Latin to mean ‘the whole.’ When universities fail in their obligation to protect all students, they must be called out. But safety is the bare minimum, they should also be beacons of inclusivity and diversity, bringing together the best minds from all backgrounds to produce a generation that has the best ideas and a true understanding of the value in embracing multiculturalism. Then, and only then, will incident’s like that which occurred earlier this week at Nottingham Trent really become rare and truly shocking when they do occur.

If you or someone you know experiences racism in any form at your place of learning then please do report it to your university, the police or through NUS: https://www.nus.org.uk/en/take-action/welfare-and-student-rights/reportracism/

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