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Racist abuse at university is rife. Why is no one listening?

Kuba Shand-Baptiste has spoken to students of colour from all over the country who are navigating discrimination at higher-education institutions

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By Kuba Shand-Baptiste on

People are often told that their time at university will be the best days of their lives, and they often are for a lot of students. But the student experience can be overwhelmingly lonely and alienating for people of color (POC). As a number of reports have demonstrated in the recent past, instead of being welcomed with open arms by other students or feeling supported by faculty, many POC often come away from university with impressions of university – whether they recognise them at the time or not – that have been tainted by constantly having to grapple with the trauma of navigating discrimination.  

The stories have been rolling in nonstop, each incident casting yet more light on a higher-education phenomenon that many of us have endured silently over the decades: racist abuse at university.

It’s an issue that a lot of POC will have to deal with in some shape or form when they become students. But beyond the communities that are well aware of racially tinged taunts, social exclusion and lack of faculty support that often comes along with the university experience for POC, many have become blind to the very real presence of prejudice at university.

In my experience, unaddressed manifestations of racism at university meant dealing with everything from the smaller, but no less frustrating, task of correcting microaggressions, to summoning the inner strength to keep my head up when white locals lobbed verbal abuse at my four black housemates and I from cars as we walked through Canterbury’s winding roads.  

In one instance, which I had since buried deep in the corners of my mind before a conversation with a fellow writer at The Pool about this very subject, I was literally held responsible for the short-lived shutdown of the University of Kent’s feminist society, because I had dared to spark a conversation about the very real shortcomings of white feminism.

Almost five years after graduating from Kent, not much seems to have changed in the wider landscape of things. Since then, there have been dozens of reports about clandestine hotbeds of racism at other universities, one of which – you may recall – took place at De Montfort University in Leicester, earlier this year, an incident that reached new, complicated heights just last month.

Elizabeth Sawyer, a softly spoken second-year performing-arts student at De Montfort University (DMU), first hit the headlines in February, when she revealed, through a series of posts on social media, that she had been the victim of racist verbal abuse after being invited out by some coursemates. Sawyer tweeted DMU’s official social-media team to alert them that one of her coursemates sang her a song containing a racial slur during a “night out”.

Speaking exclusively to The Pool, Sawyer said that, “Twitter has helped [her] more than [DMU] have. I'm just trying to move on from it in a positive way now, because I don't see them doing anything more to help me.”

Sawyer said that DMU failed to address the incident for around two days after it was reported, an accusation to which the university responded: “Please be assured we take allegations of this kind extremely seriously and will not tolerate racism in any form on campus. Our chief operating officer is taking immediate and appropriate action.”

Further details of private Twitter messages between Sawyer and DMU after the incident, as seen by The Pool (we respected Sawyer’s request not to publish them), show that Sawyer informed the university that after asking the girls to refrain from using slurs and joking about lynching, they allegedly responded by saying, “If you can say it, why can’t I? Anyway, I was raised from a racist family.”

But a month later, Sawyer, who spoke to The Pool about her ordeal, was suspended by DMU. A statement from the university suggests that Sawyer’s suspension came about as a result of allegations from the same student who was alleged to have made the racist remarks towards her, with claims that Sawyer made threats to the student both online and on campus. Sawyer denies the allegations.

“If I was going to fight, would I not have fought since this whole incident happened?” says Sawyer, who briefly contemplated transferring to another university due to the stress of the debacle.

“I've been saying this on Twitter – I'm doing this properly so that the university can take it seriously and not, oh, another angry black girl. That's why I'm so pissed off about the situation.”

While the suspension may have been lifted, Sawyer says that all she ever wanted was for DMU and the parties involved to ‘just admit that they were wrong, and apologise’ 

Sawyer says that the university failed to provide clarity about her original complaint, and maintains that DMU moved “too quickly” to suspend her. She suspects that the students who racially abused her were given preferential treatment because “they’re white”. 

Sawyer, who is still in classes with the girls, says, “I literally had to go to [DMU] and beg them for a conclusion. But the other students didn't get punished for saying n****r and they didn't get punished for singing eenie minie moe. I still see them in hallways and I still see them in some modules.”

Not long after news of Sawyer’s suspension circulated, a petition amassing almost 5,000 signatures was launched to “stop racist treatment of Elizabeth Sawyer and reinstate her”. It’s an effort that she believes led to DMU lifting her suspension a few days later, despite, she says, not even interviewing her about the incident.

“After students made a petition for me to be accepted back into uni, within 72 hours, 4,000 people signed it and then the university called me and said the suspension had been lifted,” she said.  

“I was just like – they're crumbling so fast because of outside [pressure]. If the suspension was right in the first place, if the allegations were true, they would've spoken to me to investigate. It doesn't make sense,” she says.

A letter from DMU detailing the outcomes of the initial investigation, however, suggests that other witnesses of the incident “provided evidence which does not support” Sawyer’s allegations. It also said:

“If the evidence provided through witness statements had warranted a full disciplinary case, it would have seriously been undermined by: a) the video clip circulated on snapchat by one of [Sawyer’s friends] showing you (Elizabeth) laughing and singing the n-word repeatedly in public on the day that the allegations were made and b) the snapchat posts by [Sawyer’s] friend stating: ‘Nicely gonna collect my £800 in racism money from DMU Bitches, think I’m playing’.”

Clarity around the details of the investigation may be lacking – at this point, all the information we have are the accounts that Sawyer and DMU have provided separately. But the suggestion that Sawyer’s use of the n-word, or her friend’s arguably ill-advised remarks following the incident, negate the seriousness of the allegations that she made in the first place is questionable – especially considering the fact that Sawyer herself is black.

Still, the investigation has concluded. But, while the suspension may have been lifted, Sawyer says that all she ever wanted was for DMU and the parties involved “to just admit that they were wrong, and apologise” – an admission of fault that she feels she is still waiting patiently for, but has not been offered by the university.

But this isn’t just about one incident. Between 2016 and now, the scale of racism at UK universities has become much clearer, thanks to outspokenness from students themselves as well as the release of comprehensive data around racial prejudice at universities. A survey of 1,081 students between March and April this year from The Student Room, for example, shows that 58 per cent of students feel that their university “could do more to tackle racism”, while 40 per cent of students believe that racism is “a prevalent issue at their university”. And of those who did report racist incidents to university, as many as 88 per cent of respondents said that they were not “satisfied with their uni’s response”.

Some of the respondents to the survey said they had experienced a range of insults, insensitive humour and being underestimated by lecturers. One student said they had experienced: “Islamophobia and racism from fellow students and even from lecturers. One example is that a lecturer called me Jihad, when my name is Fahad and once I was called n****r several times by fellow students.”

Sarisha Goodman, a first-year sociology student at the University of Edinburgh, has been following reports of university racism closely since the explosion of incidents from DMU, Nottingham Trent University and Exeter University – where students were revealed to have been engaging in racist chants like “we hate the blacks” and jokes about bombing mosques.

When asked what made her decide to start her thread, entitled: “How widespread is racism at British universities?” she cited the exposure of racist conversations in the Exeter University Bracton Law Society WhatsApp group – which later led to the suspension of five students – as an inspiration, of sorts.

As the story goes, law students at Exeter were revealed to have exchanged a series of offensive comments about POC by Arsalan Motavali, a member of the aforementioned WhatsApp group. Motavali reportedly shared the incident with his university after hearing about another instance of racist abuse at Nottingham Trent University.

*Update: The students responsible for the racist abuse have now been expelled from Exeter University following an internal investigation.

“It was mainly what happened at Exeter, but I don't think those problems are isolated to Exeter. Just because you didn't see racism happening, it doesn't mean that it doesn't exist in your uni”, says Goodman, who still receives messages from people who claim that their universities are exempt from the spate of racism across the country, because they aren’t present in her thread.

“It does make it very difficult, because you kind of have to find proof, or you have to have your own very overt racist experience to have people actually believe that. People often make up excuses for covert racism. They'll say 'that was just ignorance' or that they didn't understand what they were saying, which may well be the case. But it isn't always.”

Sawyer concurs that one barrier many people come up against is getting university authorities to believe reports of racism. She says: “If there wasn't a video for the incident at Nottingham Trent” – wherein a student had two other students shout racist chants like “we hate the blacks” and “sign the Brexit papers” outside her bedroom door – “would they have believed her? Why do people feel as though we need to be taped in order to be believed and taken seriously?”

Goodman also received private messages from people who were targeted with racism at university. She describes their experiences as “heartbreaking”.

It was really sobering, I think,” she explains. “Some of the things – I have a lot more DMs actually, but I can't post them just out of respect for these people’s privacy. I've had university staff message me about racist experiences they've had in management and from other staff members, and I can't really post that because that's putting their career at risk. So, the submissions I've posted online are pretty much the tip of the iceberg, really.”

If it wasn’t for the power of social media and peer support, would we hear these stories? No. And it’s important that we question why

Goodman says that her own experiences of racism have been much more subtle than some of the reports she cites in her Twitter thread. She believes that a mixture of lad culture and racial prejudice have a lot to answer for where student exposure to racism – particularly concerning women of colour – is concerned.

“I've had random guys come up to me in clubs and say ‘you're fit for an Asian girl’ or that they've never shagged ‘an Asian’ before. I've also had 'you're exotic', which just makes me cringe, because I'd never go up to a white person and say 'I love how white you are'. It's stange. It's very strange.

“When I was researching that thread I was shocked at the amount of [rugby] and football teams that had engaged in racism. And when I think of it, generally, a lot of the black students at my school played for teams, but the ones who went to university aren't members of their sports teams, and I think it's very telling. Even in the most diverse universities, I think their absence tells us something very telling about racism in universities.”

Marla, a first-year chemistry student at Bristol University, also cited “lad culture” as an issue that her and her friends have had to deal with in connection to racism at university. As well as having a local antagonise her and friends with the n-word in a chip shop, Marla says a close friend of hers recently experienced a “gang of Bristol student lads” taunting her outside of a club by referring to her as “Shaniqua”.

But, otherwise, Marla says that unspoken social and sometimes racial division at university – which she feels is born of people staying in their own social bubbles – could be prevented if more students from a wider variety of backgrounds were encouraged to go.

“I don't think universities take enough steps to encourage ethnic-minority groups to apply,” she says, adding that she wishes that children who weren’t “already at the top” academically were given more attention in preparation for university.

Goodman, at the University of Edinburgh, who went to a predominantly Asian and black school in Ilford, made a similar observation: “University itself is very alienating, I find. Even if it's not intentional, you're very aware that you're very different to other people.”

If it wasn’t for the power of social media and peer support, would we hear these stories? No. And it’s important that we question why. In my case, I would not have been forced to re-examine the endless list of incidents that occured when I was an undergraduate student. I thought it commonplace – despite rarely encountering overt racism at home in London – to be called a “fat n***r” on my way home from campus, or to be told that my passion for intersectionality in the feminist society was divisive. It was just a part of my lot in life as a black person in a predominantly white environment, and I feel despair for the younger version of myself who, in the back of her mind, understood the unlikeliness of action being taken. This is still the reality for thousands of students across the UK. For years, virtually nothing – beyond blanket, paper-thin condemnations of discrimination and efforts to up the intake of POC students – has been done on the part of universities to really understand just how deeply racism can permeate the entirety of the student experience. Isn’t it time that changed?


A statement from De Montfort University:

"This statement provides a further update on allegations of racist behaviour made against students at De Montfort University in February and a subsequent, separate, investigation into allegations of threats made against students on campus and via social media in March.

Discrimination, harassment and bullying of any kind are not, and will not be, tolerated at DMU and allegations will always be fully investigated, in line with our robust procedures, and appropriate action taken.

We are able to confirm both investigations have now concluded and that letters have been issued to all parties concerned outlining full details.

The original investigation concluded with a range of disciplinary penalties being applied, as appropriate. This investigation was then closed and the complainant was made aware of the outcome.

A comprehensive outcomes letter was given to the complainant, detailing the nature of the complaint, the evidence gathered, the findings and the next steps.

We would have no objections if the student concerned chose to disclose the contents (in full) of this letter, which we feel would clear up many of the misconceptions, falsehoods and inaccurate claims which have circulated in online reports and on social media.

We would also encourage people to read our previous statement and the statement from the officer team at De Montfort Students’ Union in relation to the case, which states: “We were made aware of an allegation of students using racist terminology against another student. We monitored this investigation closely and were satisfied that De Montfort University (DMU) had dealt with it as was necessary.”

After the first incident was resolved, and the case was closed, a separate matter was reported. We would also stress that some of the claims made on social media about this case are inaccurate. Again, and unfortunately, we are not able to correct inaccuracies and falsehoods in more recent social media posts and in some media reports, as we must respect the confidentiality of all parties involved.

As mentioned, letters have been issued to all parties outlining full details on the investigations. DMU cannot disclose the details of any of those letters but we would be happy for them to be put into the public domain to correct any misconceptions.

Due to necessary confidentiality and data privacy, we are unable to discuss this issue any further in the public domain, but we can confirm that due process has been followed in both cases.

The welfare and wellbeing of all our students is of paramount importance and throughout both investigations we were in regular contact with all parties and offering all possible avenues of support.

We would also again refer you again to the DSU statement, which continues: “As a students’ union, we are and will assist any student involved who needs our support.

“DSU will continue to work with DMU to tackle any instances of racism on our campus. We do not tolerate it and it will not stand."

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