Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole. Furthermore, the author’s statement is made within their capacity as an individual and is not attributable to their Student Officer role or SUSU as a whole.
UK Universities are not the easiest spaces to navigate for people of colour. Many British academic institutions were built from the wealth of the slave trade; hence the recent light shed on universities such as Glasgow and Cambridge, who are now undergoing the colossal and long-overdue task of determining to what extent they profited from the unjust slave labour of Africans. The white supremacist colonial history cannot be ignored or erased, and historical context cannot be divorced from discussions of race and racism.
But forget the past, some might say. Indeed! We must ‘live in the present’ and ‘keep moving forward’ and ‘celebrate how far we have come’!
That is unless you take into account the fact that our higher education system is interwoven with threads of racism and other forms of discrimination still persistent in our society. The EHRC’s Report last year uncovered a vast collection of all too real experiences of discrimination, harassment and abuse, accompanied with harrowing statistics.
October was a month of happenchance when it comes to the topic of race. Many, including our own Students’ Union, celebrated Black History Month here in the UK; The anti-racism charity Show Racism the Red Card promoted their annual Wear Red Day; the UEFA racism scandal made headlines in international football; and our Mayflower FC was accused of a racism scandal of their own.
For the Black community, it was a roller-coaster; a combination of anger, anxiety and annoyance as our white peers told us how they ‘couldn’t believe this could happen in 2019’ – seemingly ignorant to the very real racism that persists today. For Black students on campus, it reminded us of the whiteness of these institutions and of how we cannot ‘blend in’.
I spoke to fellow people of colour as student leaders asking them what happens now… Of course it was clear! Our Students’ Union would adamantly fight for us! Our University would take swift and decisive action for the sake of its hurt student community! This would be a wake up call!
I couldn’t have been more wrong. A couple of unemotive statements were stitched together (and others, more sincere, were dismantled), and the process of damage control began.
The University issued an investigation. It was out of SUSU’s hands. The days went past, turning into weeks and then months… the incident had been brushed under the rug, reduced to old gossip. It was a random Wednesday evening during the Christmas break, after students had gone home, and after 5pm when staff had signed off for the day that a SUSSED News blog post was published… free to be unnoticed.
‘Conclusion of a University investigation’
An ambiguous title with no reference to the allegations of racism whatsoever. Anyone would assume it was simply a minor non-issue within faculty, or something equally unimportant.
The outcome statement said that the University interviewed Mayflower FC members – the student football club who expelled one of their members over the incident, and whose Social Secretary resigned due to not wanting to be associated with racist company. What does it say when a group of students are more accountable than their academic institution?
The publicly available evidence, released by The Southampton Tab , is unambiguous in the pain caused to Black students. However with the help of specialists, the University was able to determine that ‘the racist word’ was not used – and we must take their word for it.
The investigation has concluded that the racist word was not used, and the students were actually singing the nickname of one of the team members. This conclusion is based on interviews with a number of people who were on the bus, an understanding of the context of the singing, and through independent analysis of the audio of a mobile phone video clip of the incident, conducted by technology and auditory experts.
Since then, no further developments were made. End of story.
Except, for people of colour, be they staff or students, it is not the end of story. Racism still persists at our universities. Racism is still thrown at us in words, actions, microaggressions, social encounters, employment, and many other ways. At least we can be comforted by this lone concluding sentence; ‘We do not tolerate any racist or discriminatory behaviour by anyone, and we will ensure full – and fair – investigations of all incidents.’
No review or updates to harassment and discrimination policy were seemingly made by the University. Students were not reassured that they can report incidents freely. And no actions were taken to dispel any potential racism in the future.
It seems, Black students at the University were not consulted or taken into consideration at any stage of the investigation. We were not asked how this incident affected us. It baffles me to think about how a reputable academic institution can ‘forget’ to involve people of colour when investigating racism.
There is a problem with institutions such as schools and universities and workplaces where management are afraid of accusations of racism more than racism itself. The uncountable number of gagging clauses (also known as Non-Disclosure Agreements) that silence those caught up such disputes doesn’t bear thinking about. There is a severe lack of effort made towards students and staff to make them feel safe in reporting incidents that make them feel uneasy or unsafe. In many cases, people of colour are made to feel guilty about ‘causing an issue’ when they do the right thing by reporting to HR. I fear that this is another example of a university being too scared to stand up to racism in a meaningful way.
Anyone with racist intentions can look at this story and think ‘the University will let me get away from racial slurs, with intimidation, with harassment’ – whether that is the case or not, due to the lack of meaningful action we need to see the administration take.
Regardless of the disproven status of the allegations, we must remember that the incident happened. Racism was perceived. Damage was done. Black students were hurt. These are the facts. And in light of these facts we have received nothing but silence from our University and Student’s Union for two months now. We have been let down.
I wonder if this is another case of prioritising image, or lack of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints on the boards that make momentous decisions. Regardless, institutional racism needs to be abolished immediately. Universities need to be confident in tackling racism, rather than victim-blaming or staying silent.
In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist. ― Angela Davis
Edit: The SUSU President is feeding into a review of the investigation, and has made me aware that SUSU had asked the thoughts and feelings of a handful of Black students – which obviously means they are in the clear – though, given the general lack of interest in Students Union politics and goings on, anyone can see why reaching out to a few engaged students is not enough. I have also been told that SUSU reached out more than once to the BAME Officer, and as we all know it is very good practice to put the responsibility of representing the entire diverse student community of BAME voices on a single student volunteer, or handful of students who just happen to have a stake in the Students’ Union. But remember, Change Starts With You.