Many were outraged by Nottingham Trent University student Rufaro Chisango’s footage of people chanting “we hate the blacks” and a stream of other racist abuse. This young black woman felt forced to lock herself into her room for safety. Many have also wondered how this vile abuse was possible, in modern Britain, among educated young people. And not only that, but this weekend we heard of another Nottingham Trent student, Amrik Singh, being forced to leave a bar in nearby Mansfield purely for wearing a turban.
It’s 2018! We’re supposed to be a much more tolerant and progressive society than those grim days, decades ago, of abuse and overt racism. And in today’s universities there is a growing number of black and minority-ethnic students and staff.
Sadly, our view of modern Britain is rose-tinted. Though the Nottingham Trent incident is appalling, it is just one of countless stories of racism in higher education. At Bournemouth University, a black student, Telma Rodrigues, uncovered racist comments being said about her in a group chat, where she was described by peers as a “big black ape”, a “cotton-picking fuck” and “gorilla-looking motherfucker”.
Similarly, at Warwick University, another black student, Faramade Ifaturoti, found the words “monkey” and “nigga” written on the skin of bananas she left in her student-hall kitchen.
And just last month, a student at De Montfort University in Leicester complained about being repeatedly called the N-word by her fellow students, who also sang to her about lynching.
There have also been incidents of racist graffiti on some campuses. At the University of Birmingham, “Islam must die” was spray-painted on a wall; “Kill Islam before it kills you” on another.
While it could be argued that these are isolated examples of acts taken by a problematic minority, and that our higher-education system is otherwise an accepting environment for all, the rise of intolerance across the UK and Europe suggests otherwise. Those who hold racist and oppressive views have been emboldened in recent times, with the “alt-right” growing in prominence and the ballooning of online platforms to air abuse. In recent months, the French-inspired “Identitarian” groups, who claim to celebrate “white identity”, have become increasingly active on campuses.
Furthermore, institutional racism – far more covert but no less damaging for staff and students of colour – continues within higher education. Black academics and staff from the University and College Union released Witness, a documentary on their experiences within post-16 education following a survey that showed 90% of black staff faced barriers to promotion. And while almost 80% of respondents were confident about recognising discrimination in their workplace, only 46% declared that they would take it up with their employers.
Chisango herself expressed her shock over the lack of urgency from Nottingham Trent University when she initially complained about the incident she witnessed.
In the same vein, Ifaturoti took to social media to show her disappointment towards Warwick University, saying: “It took a Twitter escalation in order for you to respond.” At times it feels like those who expose racism face an even bigger battle when they report it – especially those who argue that their course content is deeply eurocentric, or question why statues of imperialist heroes should continue to stand proudly on many campuses. Cambridge University student Lola Olufemiknows this all too well, after facing a barrage of abuse on social media simply for campaigning to include writers of colour in an English course.
Unfortunately, UK universities have a long track record of failing to address racism. The institutional issues are clear – whether we look at the national attainment gap which leaves non-white students 15% less likely to achieve the top classifications in their degrees compared with their white counterparts, or the retention crisis which suggests black students are more likely to leave university before completing their studies.
In reality, we shouldn’t be surprised by racism existing in 2018. It lives on in every corner of our society: within our workplaces, justice system and political institutions, to violence on our streets, which spiked following the EU referendum. The outrage over the scenes in Nottingham Trent is important, but it cannot be confined to that; we must translate the anger and upset into action by taking on the structures that have allowed for racist “banter” to exist at all.
• Malia Bouattia is a former president of the National Union of Students
Written By: Malia Bouattia
First Published 11.03.18: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/11/racist-universities-not-tolerant-rugaro-chisango-nottingham-trent