‘I just want to tell you face to face that I don’t like black people’: POC students on racism on campus

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By Saksha Menezes |

Protestors at a Black Lives Matter protest in the summer of 2020 | Koshu Kunii/Unsplash

Racism toward ethnic minority university students in the United Kingdom has received increased press coverage over the last couple of years. In an inquiry spearheaded by the Equality and Human Rights Commision, it has been found that around a quarter of students from an ethnic minority background have experienced racial harassment since starting their course. Surveying more than 1,000 students and conducting interviews with students and staff, it has been found that 20% of students have been physically attacked while 56% of students who have been racially harassed have experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes, physical attacks and racist material.

There has been little research specifically focused on Penryn Campus in Cornwall, housing the University of Exeter Cornwall and Falmouth University, which is one of the least ethnically diverse counties in the country with 98.2% of the population being white. With all of the activity surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer and an increasing focus on experiences of racial harassment, I thought that I would investigate first hand whether students at campus had faced similar issues. Talking to students, it is clear that many students have in fact experienced issues socially, academically and in relation to the wider Cornish community. 

Another interviewee recounts that a mutual friend of hers told her that Indian people only use crisp packets as condoms, which is why there are so many of them

In interviews, students have told me that a lack of diversity and understanding in social settings has led to particularly insensitive and some blatantly racist comments. This academic year, a first-year Exeter student on her first night of freshers’ week, was confronted by another student saying “I just want to tell you face to face that I don’t like black people”. Another interviewee recounts that a mutual friend of hers told her that Indian people only use crisp packets as condoms, which is why there are so many of them. 

In the wider community, students that I spoke to expressed discomfort when talking to locals. One such example is a third-year Politics and International Relations student who perceived hostility when taking public transport, with the bus driver asking to see his student ID every time he took the bus as if he couldn’t believe he was a student there. When he got on the bus, he also felt that people would rather stand or sit in any other seat on the bus rather than sit next to him. Another respondent who studies BA Photography was told by an Exeter student, who is from Cornwall, “you know you’d only get the sh*t crack cocaine from black people, the ‘good stuff’ from white people”.

Academically, a common theme running through all interviews is a need to protect ethnic minority students in academic discussions in seminars and lectures. First of all, the lack of diversity in classes makes it difficult to speak up regarding what could be sensitive issues, given how outnumbered they are. A History and Politics student has said, apart from Afro-Caribbean Society, she has not spotted a single ethnic minority student that she lives with or is in seminars and lectures. A second-year Fine Art student, told me that she is the only brown person in her cohort of the course.

students were saying that the Bengali famine, where 2.1-3 million died in Bengal alone, was unavoidable if Britain and the Allies were to win the Second World War

This often translates to a problem that many ethnic minority students have faced which is staff being unable to differentiate between BAME students and fellow students not making an effort to pronounce names properly. A second-year English student told me that a particular seminar leader continually mixed up the names of the only three ethnic minority students in the seminar despite those three students being different races. Another second-year student told me that first-year flatmates of hers often joked that a different name would be easier to say so they often just called her that, making her very uncomfortable.

This lack of diversity has led to being stared at in seminars and lectures if the topic revolves around ethnic minorities and particularly insensitive views being aired with no checks, in the name of free academic discourse. For instance, a History and Politics student told me that in a recent lecture on the Windrush Scandal, she felt incredibly uncomfortable as she felt relied upon to give some “personal testimony” and she felt stared at by other white classmates. Other such examples include comparing Edward Colston, the prolific slave trader, and Nelson Mandela, the freedom fighter, in a second-year politics seminar and arguing that they both did bad things so their legacies should be “balanced”, or in a History seminar, students were saying that the Bengali famine, where 2.1-3 million died in Bengal alone, was unavoidable if Britain and the Allies were to win the Second World War. 

Another example is when talking to a second-year Fine Arts student, she expressed to me a level of disconnect between her, the other students and the staff, in terms of her work. What she chooses to focus on, which revolves around her culture and traditions, is difficult for them to understand so she finds herself having to explain a lot. 

Are professors and staff receiving adequate training and support to ensure their students of colour are being protected and included?

All of these examples are experiences of current students on our campus. It’s real. It’s happening. What do we do now? This was a question I posed to all my interviewees. All concluded that the problem is institutional, with many arguing that not enough is done to truly include and protect students of colour. 

Is this the appropriate angle to take to address these issues? Are professors and staff receiving adequate training and support to ensure their students of colour are being protected and included? Are students being educated about racial diversity and how to make the university environment more inclusive? Do racial minorities, especially those travelling to the United Kingdom to study from overseas, need additional education and support to help them integrate better within the local community? Do we need to take this up a level to ensure that there are appropriate mechanisms in place across the institution, to ensure that safeguards are in place, the issue is being monitored, inclusiveness is being measured and the results comprehensively reported against key benchmarks?


Response from the Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union:

At the Students’ Union we’re always saddened and outraged by reports of racism on campus or in the local community, or inadequate experiences in the classroom for BAME students. Nonetheless, we acknowledge that these incidences are happening regularly, and the sentiments of the students interviewed for this article are entirely valid. 

Charlotte Agnew, the current President Welfare & Inclusivity, has been working with the new Falmouth & Exeter Speak Out tool to navigate through any reported incidents of racism or other forms of hate crime on a case by case basis. Moreover, EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) sessions have been provided, by both internal and external speakers, available to all FX Plus and SU staff on hate crime, incidents, and how to tackle racism in Cornwall. Despite having had a successful Black History Month, Charlotte is still pushing for conversations on racial diversity to stay consistent in discussions with Falmouth and Exeter (Cornwall) Universities, as well as FX Plus. Moreover, progress is being made to set up a new Liberation Committee with the Student Voice team to establish positions which specifically tackle racial equality, so that student feedback and ideas are always heard and consistently fed through the SU and onto relevant parties for proactive listening and improvement.

Cara Chittenden, the current President Exeter, is pushing work on decolonising the curriculum, which seeks to tackle some of the issues being encountered in classrooms at the Cornwall campuses, by pushing for diversity in teaching spaces, diversity in curriculum material, and critical thinking around the long-lasting influence of colonialism on education. This work should become more visible to students in the coming weeks and months. Cara has also recruited EDI (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) Reps in all departments, who attend SSLC meetings with other Course Reps from the University of Exeter to make sure that EDI is consistently at the forefront of conversations.

The Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union has a zero tolerance policy towards racism and hate incidents. We believe it is incredibly important to continue working with as many students as possible so that all voices are heard and represented. We not only want to raise awareness of student and staff experiences of racism, but to continually find ways to educate staff and students on allyship and how to be actively anti-racist in conversations moving forward. 

Please read the response from the University of Exeter below

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