How big, do you think, does an entity have to become before it lays aside all the rules of common sense, practicality and decency by which the individuals of which it is composed might live and starts behaving like an unfeeling behemoth?
It was a point to ponder as the BBC Three/BBC One documentary Is Uni Racist?, presented by the journalist and Nottingham Trent University graduate Linda Adey, unfolded. It delineated a number of incidents and complaints lodged by students of colour at a number of universities and the authorities’ responses to them. None of them exactly covered themselves in glory, with their limited, opaque reactions to allegations of racial harassment.
Last year Zac Adan was stopped and pinned against the wall by University of Manchester campus security guards demanding to see his ID card. He inferred racial profiling – because, he claims, they said it was needed as there had “been a lot of drug dealers on campus”. The university failed to respond to his complaint, despite the diversity officer promising to get it investigated as soon as possible; so a few days later Adan let his friends post the video footage they took of the incident online. When it went viral, the university tweeted that it had spoken to Zac and launched a full investigation – which was the first he had heard about it. Further media attention led the vice chancellor of the institution to go on Newsnight and announce that she had written to apologise to him for the distress he felt. The next day, she apologised again when it turned out the email had never been sent. The guards involved were suspended and the investigation is ongoing.
It was a pattern repeated, with minor variations, in most of the stories showcased by Adey. Most shocking was a story from Natasha Chilambo, a Cardiff University medical student. She and other students of colour complained about the performance of a student-written play, apparently “parodying” one of their lectures. It had a white student in blackface with a black dildo hanging out of his pants, referred to as “a dark chocolate slab”. The group got a “generic email” in response, followed by another that allowed the complainants to be readily identified and led to Natasha dropping out of university.
The common threads seemed to be a reluctance among authorities to engage with complaints and complainants until and unless an incident went viral and hit the headlines; inquiries made without transparency and apparently mostly for show and reputation-protection rather than to address root causes and issues; plus a lack of disclosure about action – if any – taken against the alleged perpetrators of abuse or harassment. And these, we were reminded via interviews with Prof David Richardson, the chair of a Universities UK advisory group on harassment, and the interim chief executive of the European Human Rights Commission, Alastair Pringle, who had the stats to back it all up, were just the testimonies that made it to the level of a formal report. It is estimated that two-thirds of incidents are not reported.
Individual, informal accounts sent directly to Adey from all over the country identified the reasons why students do not speak up: a fear of their grades being affected, and feeling that it is unlikely a complaint would be taken seriously (one man tried and summed up the response he received as: “That’s sad. You move on”). Those accounts also gave a much-needed flavour of the more general atmosphere and experience of life as students of colour in our hallowed halls of learning. “Boys touching my hair”, “I would just be ignored”, “The only one …”. Jocks shouting: “Mohammed, Mohammed!” at a female Muslim student.
The programme might have done better to focus more tightly and drill a bit deeper. There was an overall scattergun feel that left the material undersupported. Of course that material remains powerful, and Prof Richardson’s explicit description of universities as “institutionally racist” was a coup, but a documentary needs to do more than point the camera at what felt, at times, like a random assortment of examples put together in something of a rush. A little more rigour and unity of thought rather than an assemblage of anecdotal evidence, however moving, might have identified underlying, systemic issues more closely, and held those systems and their enforcers to better account.
Meanwhile, let us hope that Natasha and everyone thwarted by others’ bigotry find their ways back to the paths they are meant to be on.