It’s not banter, it’s racism: UK students accuse universities of brushing complaints aside

As one of six black medical students in a cohort of 150 at Aberdeen University, Jessica Eze, a Londoner, says it is hard to speak out about prejudice because your voice feels “too tiny”. So when a white patient in the hospital in which she was training publicly congratulated her on being able to speak English, she couldn’t tell her tutors how demoralised she felt.

But as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered force around the world, Eze and her classmate Iona Robertson last month broke their silence with an open letter to the university, detailing eight incidents in which medical students had encountered racism and calling for change, including training for staff and students on combating racial abuse.

The letter has received nearly 500 signatures from doctors, alumni and students and the university has been quick to act. Now Eze is working with the dean of the medical school on a plan for addressing the issues it raises.

One student says in the letter that a patient referred to them as “monkey”, and “instead of saying anything staff just laughed”. Another says that when she asked a tutor how to deal with racist comments from patients on a GP placement he told her it was just part of the job and he faced similar discrimination about his “Scottish beard”.

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“Universities can’t control how racist our society is, but they need to acknowledge it,” Eze says. “They need to put something in place to help us cope with witnessing this sort of racism and experiencing it.”

She says her own experience was “very demotivating”. “This is my second degree and being congratulated for speaking English just felt too much.”

Prof Siladitya Bhattacharya, head of Aberdeen’s school of medicine, says: “I am shocked and saddened by the accounts detailed in the open letter, and I am actively taking steps to address the underlying issues these highlight.”

He says the university has already talked to health partners about issues raised in the letter, and will be launching a review of the school’s curriculum to make it more inclusive, as well as working with students to make it easier to report racial abuse or prejudice.

“There is much to do to tackle structural racism in education and research; we will do whatever is necessary to root it, and stamp it, out.”

Eze says the university “is clearly listening” and she is hopeful things could change. “The UK is majority white, medical schools are majority white, our patients are majority white. I’m glad so many people [who signed the letter] felt we are part of this country and have a right to be heard.”

Universities have generally been quick to put out statements reinforcing their commitment to diversity and racial equality, though some have stopped short of endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement. But like Eze, many students want the recent protests to be a catalyst for action.

Osaro Otobo, a recent president of Hull University students’ union, tweeted: “Universities have been rightly called out this week for their hypocrisy of releasing supportive statements for Black Lives Matter, when many have done little to support us before now.”

Otobo says as president she felt “powerless” to stop racist incidents. In a Twitter thread she describes being grabbed by a male student who called her a “black bitch” at a ball. She says she was “advised by a senior staff member who tried to help that there was not much they could do” and that CCTV footage of her shouting at the student would be bad for her image as president.

Prof Susan Lea, vice-chancellor of Hull, says: “We are deeply saddened by any one of our students having experienced racism on campus. Discrimination, in any form and on any basis, has no place here at the University of Hull.” She says Hull will be reviewing how it can improve inclusivity on campus. “We may uncover some uncomfortable truths. However, only with awareness and understanding can we move forward to make real, meaningful change,” she says.

Otobo is now campaigning for a legal requirement forcing universities to have a discrimination policy with clear processes for reporting abuse and for how the institution will respond.

Meanwhile, at the University of the Arts in London, more than 10,000 people have signed a student petition calling on the university to address racism. And there have been more than 80 submissions to a Twitter and Instagram account asking UAL students and staff to tell their stories of racial discrimination anonymously. The university says it is reviewing the submissions.

Anita Waithira Israel, the outgoing education officer at the UAL students’ union, says: “The pattern of racism has simply become normalised and often students and staff are too traumatised or afraid to raise concerns. I’ve had to single-handedly represent each and every black student at UAL. The onus is on black student union officers to work on race-related issues.”

Israel says pursuing this agenda has been an “isolating” experience. “UAL likes to perform its diversity agenda, but black students and staff are really struggling.”

A year ago she wrote a report detailing issues of racism at UAL and the university agreed to enact some of its recommendations. In November the board agreed an enhanced equality and diversity strategy but, Israel says, “since then I feel like nothing has happened”.

A UAL spokesperson says the university acknowledges that “change has been too slow”, and is now working “urgently and intensively” to tackle race issues, with a major anti-racism initiative planned for the new academic year.

The spokesperson says: “We take all reports of racist behaviour very seriously. We ask anyone with complaints or new information about racism at UAL to talk to us directly and in confidence, so we can investigate thoroughly.”

Prof David Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, who is chairing a Universities UK group producing new guidance for institutions on tackling racial harassment, agrees that better “report and support” systems are key. But he warns that one result will probably be the statistics on harassment going up. “That doesn’t mean incidents are going up, it means we are understanding what is actually happening.”

Richardson says UEA has already experienced the fallout of this type of action after making it easier for students to report sexual harassment – and then hitting the headlines for having higher numbers of incidents than its competitors.

Nonetheless, he is prepared for this to happen with racial abuse. “You have to acknowledge there is a problem in order to address it,” he says.

Richardson’s group will publish its guidance in the autumn. He says he understands students’ impatience for action: “I agree with students who say not enough has been done. I think they have been highlighting this particular issue for a long time.”

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Warwick University Students’ Union has been collecting evidence of discrimination from black students since the BLM protests. Tiana Holgate, the union’s welfare officer, says: “Black students have told us they don’t feel like they belong. Racism is passed off as ‘banter’, and students say their concerns aren’t taken seriously. It’s very common for black students to avoid certain spaces and events because they don’t feel welcome.”

Chloe Batten, the union’s education officer, says: “In my first year I definitely remember feeling I hadn’t ever encountered as much racism as I was experiencing at university. That was so disappointing. I thought people at university would be more educated or socially aware and it would be different.”

She says the BLM protests felt like a call to action on campus, but “the momentum fizzled out pretty quickly”. “It felt like the university defaulted to just reiterating what it’s already been doing to address race equality, without talking about any new actions going forward.”

A spokesperson says: “The University of Warwick absolutely condemns racism and fully supports the Black Lives Matter movement. And we want to provide reassurance that our words are backed by action.”

He says this includes a commitment to closing the black attainment gap across the institution by 2025, compulsory workshops on race and equality for senior management, and a race equality taskforce. From July, staff will start new “non-bystander” workshops, which will explore what stops people from confronting and challenging racism in others and themselves.

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