3 Young Women On Dealing With Racism At British Universities

Photographed by Serena Brown.
Racism is a "common experience" among students at universities across the UK, a new report has found.
The inquiry, spearheaded by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), found that around a quarter (24%) of students from an ethnic minority background and 9% of white students said they had experienced racial harassment since starting their course. This equates to 13% of all students.
The report, Tackling Racial Harassment: Universities Challenged, surveyed more than 1,000 students and conducted in-depth interviews with students and staff. It found that 20% of those students had been physically attacked, while 56% of students who had been racially harassed had experienced racist name-calling, insults and jokes, physical attacks and racist material and displays often linked to student society events.
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20% of students had been physically attacked, while 56% experienced racist name-calling.

In most cases the harasser was another student but a large number said it was their tutor or another academic, the report said.
Others said the harassment affected their grades and mental health, with some quitting university altogether. One anonymous international student told the BBC that her mental health had been affected because of the racial abuse. She said: "I just don't want to be brown anymore. I wish I could boil my skin off or bleach it entirely."
But universities are often unaware of the true extent of the problem on their campuses. The report criticised universities for being "too oblivious" to the racial harassment occurring at an "alarmingly high rate" on their campuses and called for more diversity to create "a more tolerant and inclusive study environment".
The report is a stark reminder of the current racial issues arising out of universities in the UK.
Two universities in Sheffield last year investigated four allegations of racism, including claims a black student was hit with a banana during an ice hockey game.
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To shed some light on the challenges young black women face at British universities, Refinery29 UK asked three young women to describe their experiences with racism on campus, and how it made them feel.
This is what they had to say....
Image Courtesy of Oseta Agboaye.



Oseta Agboaye, 19, is currently studying comparative literature and Spanish at Queen Mary University of London and lives off campus.
Can you describe your experience with racism at university?
"My university isn’t your typical Russell Group – state-educated and BME students are in the majority and consequently, on an interpersonal level, I haven’t perceived the same levels of stress that I did in secondary school. My degree subject is also based upon cultural studies and awareness which means that my lecturers and coursemates are educated on the delicate issue of race. While I sometimes have to grit my teeth through micro-aggressions and jokes about how 'unsafe' (aka black) the area is, there are some wider issues. We have a society for decolonisation at our university (@decoloniseqmul) who discuss issues of institutional racism in academia and recognition is being given to the fact that more needs to be done to make education inclusive. For example, diversity of material and treatment of BME students in order to rectify the issue of the attainment gap."
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Were there any isolated incidents of racism, and if so, can you describe your experience?
"Racism can be quite subtle and covert – I sometimes don’t even notice that I’ve been insulted until after it happens! My first year halls had a courtyard where people hung out most evenings. One time when I went to meet a friend, a boy was making lewd comments to me about black girls on campus and none of his friends were willing to intervene. I laughed it off at the time out of discomfort but later understood that he was completely out of order."

I feel stifled in situations like these because the 'angry black woman' trope is very real and effectively delegitimises a lot of the things we want to say.

Oseta Agboaye
How does it make you feel?
"As a black woman I worry about how I may come across. In the past I’ve been made out to be an aggressor when trying to establish boundaries so I think, in combination with how shy I am, it’s caused me to be less likely to speak up for myself. I feel stifled in situations like these because the 'angry black woman' trope is very real and effectively delegitimises a lot of the things we want to say – we are discouraged from expressing our full range of emotions, which is unhealthy."
Did you report the incident, and if so, what was your university’s response?
"For this specific issue I didn’t report it simply because it didn’t cross my mind to. Which could be an indication of how normal this is for black women in my position."
Refinery29 asked a representative for Queen Mary University of London what steps are taken to deal with racism. A spokesperson said they had launched a new online reporting tool, Report and Support, which lists all the available support on offer. "The idea is that this tool is open to everyone – staff, students and visitors – because we want Queen Mary to be a stimulating, enjoyable and safe environment as the most inclusive university of its kind," the spokesperson commented.
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They added: "Queen Mary University of London is incredibly proud of the diversity of our students and staff. Our 2030 Strategy sets out our ambition to be the most inclusive research-intensive university. We recognise that we have a lot to do to realise that ambition. Truly embedding inclusion is a very real challenge for all universities, as the EHRC report into racial harassment at British universities has made clear. We are in the process of examining this important and sobering report to define the specific actions we will take in response to the report's findings and recommendations.
"We do not tolerate any incidents of racial harassment and we have robust procedures in place to investigate complaints...We have also appointed Sheila Gupta MBE as Vice-Principal for People, Culture and Inclusion to ensure Queen Mary has dedicated strategic leadership of this area across all activities."
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*Amy, 25, is a graduate of the University of Exeter who studied English literature and visual culture between 2013-2016. She has lived both on and off campus.
Can you describe your experience with racism at university?
"It was the first time I fully realised how racist Britain could be outside of London. A certain type of student is drawn to Exeter, and I found those that were highly privileged tended to be the worst perpetrators of both casual and serious racism, as well as micro-aggressions (which were never-ending). There was one professor who wasn’t white at the time at my university, which was ridiculous. When I specialised in racial and gender politics in my final year, my dissertation was marked by a white cis man – and it was evident from his comments that he lacked the experience and understanding to be able to critique my subject."
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Were there any isolated incidents of racism, and if so, can you describe your experience?
"I was waiting for my friend at a bar with two white male friends, who were excited to meet her because they were horny freshers and I'd casually mentioned she was really pretty. "But is she pretty by your standards?" one of them asked. When I asked what he meant, he tried to find out what ethnicity she was, in the roundabout way white people do. When I said she was Pakistani, they both pulled a face before saying they didn't find non-white women attractive. 'There's something there which just puts me off,' said one. 'You're half white so you just about pass – only just,' they laughed.
I got my braids pulled a couple of times on nights out by drunken white boys and girls, and one girl shoved me as I was walking through the dance floor before laughing and hiding among her friends when I turned around."

I got my braids pulled a couple of times on nights out by drunken white boys and girls, and one girl shoved me as I was walking through the dance floor before laughing and hiding among her friends when I turned around.

*Amy
I was harassed by drunk white girls on nights out to help them get with my black male friends because they'd 'never had black cock before' or 'had a thing for black guys'.
The English Defence League (EDL) did a horrible chanting march through the town centre and I saw two boys from my course plus a handful of familiar student faces there. I felt really unsafe after that."
How did it make you feel?
"Like pure shit, and I couldn't fully make sense of it at the time because I was younger. I found solace by delving into racial critical theory and studying black female scholars like bell hooks, and this helped me to not internalise these incidents with time. I'm proud of how I stood up for myself and others each time, but I didn't need to waste energy trying to change the opinions of people who clearly didn't want to listen."
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Did you report the incident, and if so, what was your university’s response at the time?
"I didn't, because I didn't have faith that anything would be done and didn't feel like my experiences could be solved because they were about individuals. So many students at Exeter went through worse and I never saw concrete examples of anything being done. Maybe if more people reported incidents, then it would – but it needs to be expressed that it's a safe place, otherwise people will be put off. It might have changed since I was there, but whenever anyone non-white tells me they're interested in attending, I strongly advise them against it. It completely ruined my experience of university and I don't count myself as an alumni."
Professor Sir Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Exeter said: "Racism will not be tolerated in any form at the University of Exeter. We always act immediately and decisively when incidents of racial harassment occur but we certainly do not underestimate the size of the problem or the distance we still need to travel.
"We have made progress in a number of important areas over the past 18 months including establishing effective reporting tools and faster action on concerns raised, but will take time to study the EHRC report so that we focus on the actions we can take as a university and with partners across the higher education sector to stop all forms of racism and racial prejudice.
"We are a global organisation with students and staff from over 130 countries that takes pride in world-class education and research. I am determined that we work together as one community so that everyone feels welcome and is able to thrive at the University of Exeter."
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The university also said it provides students with an online reporting tool called "Exeter Speaks Out" as well as a Dignity and Respect Policy Statement and Equality and Diversity Policy.
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Photo Courtesy of Aino-Sofia Niklas-Salminen.
Emily, 21, studies politics and international relations at the University of Bath and has lived on and off campus.
Can you describe your experience with racism at university?
"Coming to university was the first time I really felt aware of my ethnicity. Experiences of racism that I have faced have sometimes been outrightly offensive. For example, people casually using slurs like 'chinky' and 'Japs' on a group chat that I was in in my first year and thinking that it was 'just a joke'. When I said that it was unacceptable, no one stood up for me. My boyfriend at the time actually said that I was overreacting and I should make more effort to be friends with his friends.

Things like, people on nights out demanding to know where I’m from, and not being satisfied with my answer: 'Err, Cheltenham.'

Emily,21
"Sometimes the experiences are so normalised that I don’t even feel able to protest, to use Heather Savigny’s term, there is a 'drip drip' effect of small incidents of racism that cumulate and create this culture where racial harassment is a common occurrence for students. Things like, people on nights out demanding to know where I’m from, and not being satisfied with my answer: 'Err, Cheltenham.'"
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Were there any isolated incidents of racism, and if so, can you describe your experience?
"A senior lecturer in my department asked where I was from, and then called me 'exotic'."
Did you report the incident, and if so, what was your university's response at the time?
"The disciplinary process was bureaucratic and draining, I found myself having to repeat the story again and again. I had to have a one hour interview with an investigation panel made up of three people, who were unfriendly and used complicated terminology that I didn’t really understand. I waited months to hear back from the investigation. I finally got the university’s outcome that the evidence heard from my lecturer indicated that he was describing the country of Korea as 'exotic', nothing personal about me, and 'it is therefore found that there was no discrimination based on race'.
"In using the formal disciplinary process, I tried to 'speak in' to the institution – as opposed to 'calling out' the uni publicly – by giving them the opportunity to provide a satisfactory outcome, but it didn’t work. I think that this shows not only the culture of normalising racism on campus, but the structural racism within the institution that needs sorting out."
How did it make you feel?
"It affected my wellbeing quite a lot at the time. I questioned myself all the time, as I was framed as an 'oversensitive' student and it was me that was the problem. Now, I feel proud that I used the complaints process, I think it is a form of slow activism and it demonstrated to my department the importance of staff training and awareness raising. What motivated me was thinking about trying to make changes so that young, female ethnic minority students in years below me won’t have to go through a similar experience.
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"I went on to set up a small project called 'Everyday Racism Bath' which was an online space where, particularly my women of colour friends, could share their experience of racism and micro-aggressions. This turned into the NUS' ‘my racist campus’ campaign last year. I also helped advise the equality, diversity and inclusion team at Bath with their #NeverOK campaign, and on staff training for unconscious bias.
"I went on to do my placement year at the Race Equality Foundation which is a fantastic small charity in London. Now I am in my final undergraduate year, and supporting and taking part in a funded programme at my university on the subject ‘addressing hate crime in higher education’."
A University of Bath spokesperson told us: "The University is fully committed to fostering an inclusive and supportive environment characterised by mutual respect and we take any allegation of inappropriate behaviour extremely seriously. As part of this commitment, the University of Bath and Students Union has launched the #NeverOK campaign to help tackle all forms of harassment and discrimination, which has included hate crime awareness training.
"Under our Dignity and Respect Policy anyone who experiences or witnesses unacceptable behaviour can report it confidentially online or in person via our Report and Support Tool. Help, advice and support is available to all members of the university community who are involved in this process.
"This policy can lead to measures that range from mediation, training and development to an appropriate level of disciplinary action if an allegation is upheld, up to and including summary dismissal or expulsion."
*Some names were changed to protect identities.
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