This article is more than 2 years old

Do students recognise racism as “harassment”?

This article is more than 2 years old

Dani Payne is Senior Researcher at the Social Market Foundation

Initiatives focusing on the retention of marginalised students and staff and anti-racism efforts are under fire.

In May this year Cambridge university came under scrutiny for their Report+Support system. In particular encouraging students to report micro-aggressions through the system was described as fostering an environment “akin to that of a police state”.

In contrast, Universities UK published research last year showing that staff and students regularly experienced micro-aggressions, and recommended that universities increase racial and cultural competence and awareness of the impact of these aggressions.

As well as all of that, decolonisation efforts and bystander training may be curtailed by the proposed Free Speech Bill, and so there is a push and pull between an increasing recognition in the sector of both the prevalence and impact of racial harassment, and an increasingly very real threat to efforts working to tackle this. How should universities respond?

Taking action

At Hertfordshire Students’ Union, over the last year and a half we have been carrying out an in-depth, mixed method research project into the experiences of students from ethnic minority backgrounds at our university.

With 3 surveys garnering 2616 responses and six focus groups with 43 participants, the project concluded that the adversities that BAME students face throughout their university experience are numerous and complex.

From inconsistent academic support and concerns regarding segregation on campus, to financial hardship and inaccessible pastoral care, students disclosed the many barriers to academic success and wellbeing that they faced.

Experiences of harassment and discrimination on campus was a key concern for these students.

Getting in or getting on

A lot of EDI initiatives focus on recruitment – increasing diversity within an institution. And whilst a diverse student and staff population is inarguably important, it is clear that racism does not cease to exist just because the intake of students from a BAME background increased.

With over 55 percent of our students from a BAME background, we still found that 43 percent of students experienced some form of discrimination or harassment at least once on campus, and 18 percent of BAME students experienced racism.

Perhaps two of the most important findings to come from our research was not necessarily about prevalence – but about student knowledge, understanding and empowerment.

We found that whilst only 7 percent of BAME students self-reported as having experienced “harassment” (including sexual harassment), when presented with a list of scenarios that fall under the legal definition of sexual harassment and sexual violence, 23 percent had experienced at least one of the scenarios and 16 percent did not know that they had experienced sexual harassment.

What is harassment anyway

A lack of knowledge regarding what “counts” as different forms of harassment came through in discussions on racism during focus groups, too. Whilst 18 percent self-reported via surveys as having experienced racism on campus, our focus groups revealed that students were extremely hesitant to name their experiences as such.

When discussing negative experiences that were related to or based on the race or ethnicity of the participant, students would anxiously belittle their own experiences, stating that they did not feel the behaviour was done maliciously or with intent, perhaps simply an insensitive “joke”, and were unsure if it “counted” as racism or racial harassment.

Of course, most university procedures (and the Equality Act) do not require perpetrators to have acted with the intent of harming the victim (simply that the action(s) “has the effect of violating dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”), and it is clear that individuals can perpetrate racism both with and without intent.

Taking this into account – the lack of knowledge around what counts as harassment and discrimination, and a lack of confidence in the student population to name their own experiences – it is likely that the prevalence of racism across the sector is higher than that uncovered just in our surveys.

It also means that reports through university procedures likely grossly underestimate the lived experience, and that’s without even taking into account students (lack of) knowledge and the inaccessibility of these procedures, which was also uncovered in our report. It is clear then that 1) students are experiencing racism and racial harassment at unacceptably high levels, and 2) students need support in understanding and naming their experiences, and universities need to empower them to do so.

Under pressure

As well as pressure from the media and ministers, pressures can come from inside universities, too. Lack of knowledge surrounding support services and reporting procedures, inaccessible processes and a lack of trust between students and their institution all contribute to a situation in which we have high prevalence of racial harassment and low reporting.

In our research, more than half of students did not know where to report instances of bullying, harassment or discrimination at the university. This was highest for Black students at 58 percent. When asked who they would inform if they encountered racism or discrimination on campus, “I don’t know” and “No one” featured above any of the official reporting procedures and wellbeing services.

Similarly, when asking if there was any support available at the university, “I don’t know” was the most common response. Whilst reported trust in the university to handle reports sensitively and for the result to be proportionate to the event(s) was highest within BAME students, this was mainly driven by high agreement rates within Asian and Black student populations, whereas students from mixed ethnic backgrounds were less likely to report this.

In open comment questions, BAME students spoke about university security teams “gaslighting” students who reported issues, and the university “brushing off student’s complaints again and again”.

As work continues to deepen our understanding of the experiences of our marginalised student groups, and the extent and impact of racial harassment in Higher Education, universities must work to empower their students and rebuild trust which is currently fraught. This will require institutional courage – an acknowledgement that institutions have historically betrayed victims.

To tackle this, universities will have to take a multi-faceted approach including to cherish whistleblowers and “bear witness, be accountable and apologise”. As Jennifer Freyd wrote, “If institutions want to do the hard work, they can help victims and prevent violence in the first place – by choosing courage instead of betrayal”.

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