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A few months ago on the popular Facebook group, Overheard at Lancaster, a Lancaster student discussed their experience of being subject to a racist attack on campus. The student spoke about how they were told to ‘go back to China’ and that they felt frustration at other students who upon identifying them as a person of colour, assumed they could not speak English. Another student, also of Asian descent, posted on the page that they were followed by a car on campus and were subject to the driver shouting racial slurs at them. Many students poured out support in the comments and expressed their outrage at what had happened to their fellow student.
Many of us were shocked by what had happened and found it hard to imagine that something like racism could exist at our university, but after a little digging I have found that racism has managed to creep into many different parts of our environment at Lancaster. Incidents like those that were discussed on overheard are thankfully rare but more subtle, sneaky forms of discrimination exist that means we need to rethink our shock at this attack and ask what we can do to weed out racism.
First of all we need to identify where the problems may lie, what are the main issues that students of colour feel affect them at university? Main issues brought up in conversations I’ve had about this include campus socials where themes involve dressing up as a nationality, creating stereotypes and stigmas around entire groups of people, others include ‘edgy’ humour that comes across as an excuse to tell a few racist jokes.
Aafiyah Shaikh, president of Amnesty International has said: “The problem is that the racism is subtle, it’s talking over someone or discounting their experience and its a confidence knock especially in first year”. From this we can infer that when students of colour’s experiences aren’t respected they feel disenfranchised. The incident that inspired this article only goes to further establish this as a trend in campus race relations. Looking at British universities as a whole there has been in recent years a number of racism related issues that have sparked controversy, from Exeter to Warwick to Nottingham, across the board we are seeing racism claim a presence on campuses across the UK.
It can even be argued that this issue transcends the student body and exists in the very structures and curriculums of higher education, the proliferation of Eurocentric content on a number of degree schemes across universities excludes the necessary representation of people of colour in academia. In Cambridge this has led to the creation of student organisations specifically focused on decolonising the curriculum.
Across the pond in the United States the situation is only getting worse as schisms between white students and students of colour have created mass protest at universities such as Berkley and at the university of Missouri protests lasted for the duration of a full academic year in 2015-2016. It leaves you asking where exactly has this issue come from? It feels like, to me at least, that subtle racism on campuses is ignored until racism becomes a visible problem, as it did with the Lancaster students who posted about their experiences on overheard. Why is it that we’re only paying attention to this when we have to as it appears on our Facebook newsfeed? Ultimately, if we ourselves aren’t affected, and if the people around us aren’t talking about it, it isn’t going to occur to us to do anything about it.
So where does this leave us as students? We need to collectively acknowledge that this issue is not one of the past – further we need to become active in spotting all forms of discrimination and work to become a more inclusive space for the entirety of the student body. If you feel your department only offers Eurocentric subject matter, discuss this with the staff. When you see casual racism, speak up. Silence and inaction only facilitates the situations that the students who shared their stories online experienced. Complicity is equitable to acceptance.