Dhaka, Bangladesh
Talk of 'anti-white sentiment' diverts from fight against racism

Talk of 'anti-white sentiment' diverts from fight against racism

By Fope Olaleye

Graduates from Birmingham University, UK, mingle after the graduation ceremony.DO NOT USE this again for General Birmingham University as they are law colours so only for Law graduate stories ! DAAWDD Graduates from Birmingham University, UK, mingle after the graduation ceremony. 'The report couldn't draw the logical conclusion that racial harassment of black students is fundamentally different to the negative experiences of white students.' Photograph: Alamy In March 2019, student officers and activists from varying backgrounds and cities across the UK sat in a room for an important discussion. We were all people of colour. We'd been asked to participate in an Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) consultation into racial harassment on campuses, which is now the subject of a new report. I remember feeling exhausted, either owing to finishing an essay late the night before, or at the prospect that I and other people of colour would be once again detailing and reliving the racial trauma we face - though at least this time it wasn't another student union survey with the promise of a £5 Amazon voucher. This time it was a large legislative body with statutory powers finally taking an interest in the experiences we had all grown used to. So imagine my surprise when one of the facilitators casually mentioned "anti-white prejudice". We had just spent an hour collectively explaining our experiences of institutional racism and, looking across the room, I saw confused faces. We probed and challenged: isn't this a report focused on racial harassment? Haven't we all just been explaining, at length, the larger link between racial harassment and institutional racism? The facilitator's discomfort was palpable, even more so when he hurriedly pushed on with further questions. So when I saw that the report had been published last week with the inclusion of anti-white and anti-English discrimination, it was no surprise to me. The report itself acknowledges that black students face the most racial harassment on campuses (the reported figure is 29%), but it couldn't draw the logical conclusion that it is fundamentally different to the negative experiences of white students. According to the report, 9% of white British students have felt they were victims of racial harassment evidenced by the presence of "anti-English", "anti-Welsh" or "anti-Scottish" sentiment, and by its own admission the definition of "ethnic minority" included anyone who wasn't white British. By conflating xenophobia, anti-English sentiment and prejudice with the racism faced by students and academics of colour, the EHRC has done a disservice to the work currently being done on race equity in the UK. What this all revealed to me is that there is still a widespread fundamental misunderstanding of what racism is, and how it manifests itself in this country - even, or perhaps especially, among the leading voices on equality in the law. Racism isn't just about dislike or prejudice - its structural disadvantage present in our everyday lives, from politics to the public sector, from housing to education. Its discrimination that is fuelled by historical and systemic power, not just isolated events of extreme hatred. It's embedded in the language we use and the faces we see represented - it's the cause of the BAME attainment gap, where BAME students are 13% less likely to receive a 2:1 or a first in comparison to our white counterparts - even though we start at the same entry point. It's the reason why we are only allowed to see ourselves, our heritages and our countries on the curriculum if it is through the lens of colonial violence and genocide. Twenty years ago, the Macpherson report was published in the wake of Stephen Lawrence's murder. This brought the term "institutional racism" into the British lexicon - defined as "the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin". So why can't the EHRC, a public body supposedly responsible for the enforcement of equality, now understand that racism is about power? "Racial harassment", as the EHRC and many universities describe it, is simply a symptom of a larger and deeply institutional problem. It is exhausting that we still cannot have a frank discussion about experiences of structural racism without positioning white people as equal victims of racial discrimination - and it shows the limitations of the language our legislative bodies are using. This approach does nothing to dismantle or disrupt institutional racism, and a broad-brush definition risks hindering efforts to truly change campus culture. We see the ineffectiveness of this approach when safe spaces created by students and academics of colour are branded as segregationist or discriminatory when, in actuality, they are vital support spaces. Although the term "reverse racism" is waning in popularity, its rhetoric is still rife. Many people are still reluctant to truly understand what racism is, confining themselves to dictionary definitions, which speak abstractly about "prejudice" rather than discussing what that looks like in the real world. This is paradoxical considering the ever-changing and evolving nature of language, even more paradoxical if we acknowledge which demographics have historically dictated the definitions of our language. To refuse to acknowledge the power relations and structures inherent in racialised harassment is at best naive, and at worst deliberate. One thing that is glaringly apparent from the EHRC's report is that all language used in race equity needs to be interrogated for its failings, flaws and uses. We urgently need to tackle the institutional racism that is so prevalent on our university campuses and in the lives of people of colour. But to do this in any meaningful way, first we must show we understand the root causes that enable racism to manifest in the first place.

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