Is Uni Racist?

VP Wellbeing & Diversity Henn Warwick delves into white privilege, the provisions in place at university to ensure students are educated on such matters, systemic racism within universities, and what steps need to be taken to establish and maintain an anti-racist culture.

I recognise, as a white woman, I have been extremely privileged throughout my life. However, I will openly admit for much of my life I was unaware of a particular aspect of that privilege, the aspect I am referring to is ‘white privilege’.

I certainly acknowledged other privileges, for example, having access to running water, a family, a roof over my head, going to school etc. but I was never taught about white privilege. On reflection, I was brought up ‘colour blind’ – and I don’t mean the medical condition. Throughout my primary and secondary education, I was never taught that the colour of my skin put me at an advantage as I was taught that everyone was equal regardless of the colour of their skin. I understood what racism was, and that it was wrong and hurtful to people of colour, but my understanding never extended to notice or acknowledge that one of its corollary aspects was providing me with an inherent advantage at the expense of people of colour. I was taught to see racism at an individual level, essentially only ever being committed by a bad person as an individual act, never as an invisible system conferring dominance to me and people that had white skin.

Racial inequality

Thankfully, I was later taught about racial inequality and its effects in more detail when I opted to study an A-Level in Sociology at college. I began to view the world differently as I broadened my horizons of topics such as Families & Households, Education, Crime & Deviance and so on. Speaking candidly, I came to realise that I had been awarded an unearned free pass to life. I have always been able to see role models that looked like me, I have never been asked where I am really from, and I certainly have never experienced the trauma of racial prejudice and harassment. In my second year of A-Levels, I opted to complete an EPQ (basically a mini-dissertation), I chose to base my project on racial inequality and its effects on young people. My research gave me a detailed understanding and widened my knowledge in this area, meaning when I joined Royal Holloway, I was already aware of my privilege and aimed to use it to confront racial injustices and teach other white folks about the barriers that people of colour face.

So, the point I want to raise here is if I didn’t opt for Sociology at A-Level, would I ever have been taught about my white privilege? Or would I have continued living a life of ignorance?

If so, were there educational provisions in place at university to ensure students are educated on such matters?

I personally would answer no to the above question.

So, is uni racist?

To be frank, yes...

Universities are racist as they perpetuate systemic racism.

Facing up to institutional racism

It is a horrible and uncomfortable fact to acknowledge, but the reality is the quicker we accept the issue at face value, the quicker we can work towards solving it. Institutional racism is when there are systemic issues that disproportionately impact and affect members of a particular community that need to be dismantled. Institutions such as universities will fundamentally fail to rectify institutionalised racism unless they truly accept its existence. I am by no means accusing any individuals of being racist, but the institution itself fails to dismantle the harmful patterns of racial inequality and instead is complicit in its reproduction. A perfect example of this is the “BAME” (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) Awarding Gap. At a national level, “BAME” students are 20% less likely to achieve a 1st / 2:1 degree classification in comparison to their white peers even though they received the same A-level grades.

In the BBC Three documentary ‘Is Uni Racist?, Professor David Richardson, the University of East Anglia’s Vice-Chancellor who leads Universities UK’s advisory group on racial harassment, confirmed a lot of evidence exists that indicates universities are perpetuating systemic racism. He continues to explain that as the leader of the racial harassment advisory group he acknowledges institutional racism on behalf of the whole Higher Education sector. Professor Richardson stated that historically, students who experienced racial harassment have not felt able to or safe enough to report it for various reasons (such as fears it will impact grades/future career) which in turn leads to underreporting of racial harassment. He raised concerns that universities often prioritise their reputation over tackling racial harassment, explaining that it’s only very recently (within the last five years) that leaders of universities have come forward to call this problem out.

To me, the question ‘Is Uni Racist?’ serves no purpose. The important questions we must ask ourselves are

  • How do we transform universities to become anti-racist?
  • What steps do we have to take to establish and maintain an anti-racist culture?

Becoming anti-racist

During Term Two, I led an all-officer presentation titled ‘Becoming Anti-Racist’ at Joint Executive Committee - a meeting with the senior leaders of the College and the Senior Management team of the Students’ Union. In the presentation, each Officer noted different areas for improvement that could create a more inclusive and culturally competent campus. These areas included implementing recommendations from the “BAME” Report, improving the anonymous reporting platform RH BeHeard, improving transparency surrounding the misconduct processes, restoring trust between the College and students, and ensuring that the senior leaders of the College afford top priority to becoming an anti-racist institution.

Next steps

Anti-Racism Training Modules

I used the Joint Executive Committee to lobby the senior leaders of the College to introduce compulsory ‘Anti-Racism’ training modules on Moodle. I have since progressed this conversation and will be working closely with the College to meet this aim. I am currently reviewing the University’s ‘Active Bystander’ training to see what aspects we can keep and alter to ensure that students are provided with the vital information they need.

Decolonising RHUL

As the President-elect 2021/22, one of my main manifesto aims is to decolonise RHUL. A colonised curriculum can have serious psychological, educational, and societal ramifications that can extend far beyond just academic attainment. In fact, a lack of representative teaching and resources has also been linked with feelings of isolation and disconnect amongst staff and student bodies. A genuinely inclusive university allows all students to see themselves and their cultural backgrounds reflected in the curriculum across all departments. Decolonisation will allow students to incorporate their identity into their studies rather than leaving their culture at the door before walking into a lecture.

Conversations about Race

Since the presentation, the College began a piece of work to create a safe space for facilitated Conversations about Race. They aim to gain a greater understanding of the lived experience of the racial identity of students and staff from all ethnic backgrounds. From these conversations, the College can then work to examine and challenge their own processes to combat racism, remove barriers to success and create an inclusive culture and community in which all members – students and staff - are treated with dignity and respect.

Two pilot workshops will be held via MS Teams on the following dates/times:

Friday 4 June:  2pm – 4pm

Tuesday 15 June: 10am – 12pm (midday)

The workshops will be facilitated by colleagues from King’s College and Citizens UK.  We would like to invite 20 students – ten per session – to participate in one of these pilot conversations, to experience what is involved and to help us to shape a similar programme at Royal Holloway for the next academic year.

If you are interested in getting involved, please complete the Doodle poll, and make sure you hold the time in your diary. If you have any further questions, please feel free to drop me a message on social media (@RHSUWellbeing) or via email. Students will be selected and notified by email on Thursday 2 June.

Sign up

LSS Working Group

The School of Law and Social Sciences are looking at ways of listening to and including the voices of students from the school in understanding racism, decolonising the curriculum and the attainment of black and minority students at RHUL. We would welcome thoughts from any LSS students who wish to talk about any of these matters.

We have a small group that meet and students are welcome to join this, or become part of a wider student forum. Please contact Stefan.Brown@rhul.ac.uk for further details.  

Final thoughts

If you would like to ask any questions or discuss any content of this blog further, as always please feel free to send me an email at vpwellbeingdiversity@su.rhul.ac.uk.

To find out more about the work completed by Universities UK, you can access the full report Tackling racial harassment in higher education and a set of case studies which was published alongside annexes on Tuesday 24 November 2020.