New Report Reveals The Extent Of Racism At Universities

A new report from The Equality and Human Rights Commission has not only highlighted the scale of racism at universities, it has — crucially — exposed the complacency of universities in addressing the issue. But for some, aspects of the report detracted from the overall message.

The extent of racism at universities in the UK cannot be understated. Harassment, verbal abuse, and even physical violence is something that far too many students face.

“Racial harassment is a common experience for a wide range of students and staff at universities across England, Scotland, and Wales,” the report explains. “Around a quarter of students from an ethnic minority background (24%), and 9% of White students, said they had experienced racial harassment since starting their course. This equates to 13% of all students. 20% of students had been physically attacked. 56% of students who had been racially harassed had experienced racist name-calling, insults, and jokes.”

Evasive Rhetoric

The report highlighted some important failings of the current system. Pointing out that racism is a systemic issue that affects professors as well as students, explaining that universities are overconfident in their flawed handling of reports of racism, revealing that the problems run so deep and are handled so badly that it can lead to students and professors leaving their universities — these are all salient, vital points. But the language used in places has set off alarm bells for some readers.

“I was struck that the report refused to use the word ‘racism’, plumping instead for the rather more specific ‘racial harassment’,” Priyamvada Gopal, a reader at the faculty of English at Cambridge University, told the Guardian. “It’s deeply inadequate and almost wilfully evasive. It is perfectly possible to experience racism without experiencing direct harassment. It is also perfectly possible for institutions to have a widespread culture of racism without it always taking the form of racial harassment.”

In fact, in the 18-page report, the word “racism” only appeared once. It’s easy to argue that, in a document focused specifically on race, that it would be clear that racism is at the heart of it. But the rhetoric we use matters.

Too often behavior that is, inarguably, racist is described as race-related or watered down in another way, in part due to white fragility and in part due to a squeamishness around facing the true extent of racism. But every time we evade, we avoid, and we water down, we erase the experiences of those who have experienced racism. We lie to ourselves about how much it still shapes our society.

The report is an important step, but tentative language is not good enough. Racism is racism — and it has to stop.