For the first time in my four years at university, it’s starting to feel like campus racism is being noticed more widely than by the students who experience it. I’m writing in the wake of “Punish a Muslim Day”, a concept that feels dystopian but one about which students at my university rightly felt it necessary to circulate an open letter expressing their concern. The last few months have seen a rise in overtly racist campus attacks reported in the media, which Ilyas Nagdee wrote last month are “just the tip of the iceberg”. Nagdee is right, but we must also consider the idea that these cases of racist chanting or abuse are isolated from university culture more broadly.
As many expressed shock at these racist events as they unfolded, most BME students I work with say that these incidents are not beyond the realms of imagination. Many of us have experienced versions of the reports we’re seeing, sometimes in glimmers, or in subtler, more insidious guises, but they are there all the same. I have heard reports of university racism occurring everywhere from club queues to lecture halls to therapists’ chairs. Sometimes it’s obvious, in the form of slurs or chants, but other times it’s in the form of profiling, lazy assumptions or structural barriers. But both overt and covert forms exist on the same spectrum of behaviours – on the far end are Nottingham Trent, Warwick and Exeter’s incidents, but for students to reach those extremes their beliefs must be nurtured by a society, and a university culture, that has condoned their behaviour up to that point. A group of boys do not wake up one day and decide to chant “we hate the blacks”. They first have to believe they are in an environment in which they will be free of repercussions.
Racism can come from both from those who do not intend to be racist, and from structures and cultures; and it works alongside extreme incidents we see grabbing headlines. Many who are appalled by these incidents will nonetheless think that decolonising the curriculum and establishing safe spaces are extreme and dangerous measures; but these efforts are intertwined and interdependent. Making campuses safer for BME students means making meaningful cultural changes. A lack of diversity and representation in the makeup of staff and students also helps maintain an environment in which minority students don’t feel that their concerns and experiences will be validated or taken seriously. Victims of racism are still forced to take screen grabs or iPhone videos to be believed.
At Cambridge, the lion’s share of the work to tackle campus racism and to mediate its after-effects is done by the student body itself. The students’ union has long been engaged in the push for structural and policy changes, vehemently opposing the Prevent strategy this year. Student-run groups such as Decolonise Cambridge and Cambridge Defend Education have also fought the battle against the strategy, and against a narrow and colonised curriculum. Meanwhile, BME officers at each college work to establish safe environments for their constituents.
But far too little comes from a university level. I hope, for example, that universities heed the need for safe spaces; it’s difficult to watch those images of a first year’s locked bedroom door as the chants go on outside, and not wonder why they might want a private room where they can sit with others and talk about race. At my university, students have established their own networks, where attendance is growing: FLY, a group for women and non-binary people of colour; the students’ union’s BME campaign; and FUSE, a space for LGBT+ people of colour. These groups function as spaces for solidarity and support where students feel neglected by the institution and ignored, misunderstood and unrepresented by formal support services. So much more could come from university leadership – even a simple acknowledgment that BME students experience marginalisation, and that the communities they have forged to mediate this are welcomed and supported.
Beyond talking the talk, what more could universities be doing on a practical level? A place to start might be borrowing methods from the fight against sexual violence on campus. Cambridge’s Breaking the Silence initiative encourages anonymous reporting, which circumvents potential stumbling blocks around the bureaucracy of complaints, and still manages to demonstrate that sexual violence exists on a large scale. I know first hand that we have a low level of reporting of racism, but this is consistently incongruous with what’s divulged in student organising groups. Asking why this discrepancy exists, and then looking to anonymous reporting, might be a place to start across UK campuses.
As Sara Ahmed points out, the assumption that to remove a person is to remove a problem is often how the problem remains. A small cluster of universities disciplining students and issuing statements only removes the part of the problem that’s most visible. Racism is more than a PR crisis, and universities will need more than a communications strategy to tackle it. I agree that the climate among universities seems to be concern for reputation over racism – we must strive for more than the rubber stamp of metrics such as the Race Equality Charter Mark. Race is a politicised and difficult topic, but student welfare is a political issue. It may feel like a risk to take the lead in anti-racist strategy, but it would be fiercely proactive rather than feebly reactive.
Institutions must dedicate more funding to initiatives to tackle racism; they must craft clear, well publicised and viable means by which to report it; take a critical and accountable approach to their histories; and integrate intercultural approaches into their support services. A small group of students’ unforgivable behaviour has been addressed, but it would be naive to think that retrospective action will address the root of the problem.
• Micha Frazer-Carroll is the welfare and rights officer at Cambridge University students’ union