A student at King's was told that they may have misinterpreted a racist comment made by a supervisorLouis Ashworth

Content Note: This article contains discussion of racism and racist discrimination

“I will always look to report racism”, said one student, but “if you go in with low expectations you can avoid the disappointment of feeling as if the institution is not handling the harassment seriously”.

“Being questioned to prove that an incident was based on our appearance and [how we] sound means that we never report microaggressions”, said another student.

Varsity spoke to students about their personal experiences of reporting racism to Cambridge’s colleges after an investigation by The Guardian earlier this year found that, with 72 recorded complaints between October 2014 and April 2019, Cambridge received the highest number of formal complaints relating to racism of 131 UK universities.

Despite this figure, testimonies from BME students indicate that the processes of reporting racism, and the attitudes expressed by certain members of staff across colleges, can deter individuals from ever submitting formal complaints. 

Earlier this month, a national report, published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission [EHRC], found that as many as two thirds of students who had experienced racial harassment do not report the incidents to their university.

Seth Daood, a second year Natural Sciences student, formerly a student at Wolfson College, was subjected to a racist slur from another student during a college bop.

Upon reporting the incident to the College, Seth was invited to attend an informal meeting with Wolfson’s Senior Tutor. In this meeting, he was told that the most likely course of action from the College, were he to file a formal complaint, would be for the College to encourage an apology letter from the student in question. He was also told that he would be offered the opportunity of a mediated discussion with the student, in which he would be able to explain how he felt about the experience to the perpetrator.

Seth was disappointed with both suggestions. “It is not up to minorities to explain to the privileged majority why slurs are offensive through mediation, and apology letters are laughable in my opinion. They rarely mean much and have very little substance in terms of actually being regarded as an apology.” Reflecting on the incident, Seth said: “It almost seemed as if one could use racial slurs and then get off lightly, a slap on the wrist if you may, in the form of an apology letter.”

Ultimately, he chose not to submit a formal report relating to the racist incident, explaining: “I did not think it worth my time to report this since all I was going to get was an apology letter and then have to explain to a white man why racial slurs are offensive.”

Seth now vlogs about his time at Cambridge, including his experiences of racism at the University.

While Seth insists that he would “always look to report racism” should further cases arise in the future, he recommends doing so “with low expectations” in order to “avoid the disappointment of feeling as if the institution is not handling the harassment seriously”.

Offering advice to other students looking to report such incidents, he said: “Find out the likely results that your college will put in place, and if dissatisfied, speak up about it. There is power in speech, and the more individuals who feel as if they can speak about racism, the more seriously reports will be taken.”

Wolfson declined to comment on Seth’s complaint specifically, but said that the “College takes any instance of racial harassment very seriously” and that any formal complaint of racial harassment made to the College “would have been handled in accord with the procedures outlined in the College's policy on Harassment and Sexual Misconduct”. 

Wolfson emphasised that “racial harassment of any kind is contrary to the values and ideals that sustain our community”.

Tiwa Adebayo, former JCR BME officer at Sidney Sussex College, was similarly left frustrated by the outcome of discussions with College staff surrounding racism experienced by students.

"After this back-and-forth and not being taken seriously, I gave up trying to pursue the official complaint"

In a meeting with several college officers, Tiwa proposed introducing unconscious bias training for porters. This came after students raised concerns about experiencing microaggressions from certain college porters on a Facebook group chat for BME students at Sidney Sussex.

Tiwa claimed that during the meeting, members of college staff suggested that Cambridge students are of a higher social status than the porters and argued that porters should not be asked to undergo such training. 

Tiwa feels that the responses of certain College staff members were inappropriate. Although Tiwa was supported by a few staff members, she was also told, by others, that she was being “dramatic” about the whole situation.

A spokesperson for Sidney Sussex said that the College is committed “to being a place where there is no place for any form of racial harassment”.

Although some students who spoke to Varsity were able to find support within their colleges during complaint procedures, these students tended to be in the minority. 

One student explained that “being well-supported by my tutor throughout the complaints process really made a big difference”.

However, the student expressed concerns that the process ended up being too much like a “lucky draw”, one which depends largely on whether you happen to have access to supportive members of staff. 

Data gathered by Varsity indicates disparities between colleges in the training provided to staff.

Most colleges provided some form of training, such as dedicated anti-racism training, unconscious bias training, equality and diversity training, harassment and bullying training, institutional racism training and dignity of work training. 

However, such training has not always been mandatory for college staff and is hugely varied in its breadth of coverage.

For example, Trinity provides some forms of non-mandatory online training for certain groups of staff, whereas at Emmanuel all staff receive induction training covering dignity at work, anti-racism and equality and diversity issues. Several colleges claim that anti-racism training is “partly covered” in equality and diversity training.

Fitzwilliam, Girton, Gonville and Caius, Lucy Cavendish, Magdalene, Robinson are the only colleges which do not provide their staff with anti-racism training, explaining that while the training does not take place within their college, such training is instead “provided by the University”.

Another student, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed dissatisfaction with their college’s response to their complaint of racist remarks made by their supervisor. The student, who is mixed-race, was told by their supervisor that they were a “hybrid” and “find it difficult to form an identity”.

When the student approached a staff member at their college, King’s, about this incident, they say that they were told that they could have misinterpreted the initial comment. 

“After this back-and-forth and not being taken seriously, I gave up trying to pursue the official complaint”.

King’s College did not respond to Varsity’s request for comment regarding this issue.

One first-year PhD student told Varsity that he considers reporting racist incidents to college to be “pointless”. 

He said that he does not perceive “anything being done about the few racist incidents which are reported”, and also expressed concerns relating to the structure of the reporting process. 

He explained that there is a lack of a “a feeling of proper representation”. “I don't think I know many black people will report a racism case to a panel or group made up mainly of people who share the same race with the people who attacked them.”

Other students spoke of a perception that certain incidents of racism may not be deemed to be significant enough by college authorities.

Several students told Varsity that they worry that racist microaggressions, although significant and upsetting experiences to them, would not be deemed ‘significant enough’ incidences by colleges. 

“Being questioned to prove that an incident was based on our appearance and sound means that we never report microaggressions such as these” said one student.

"It almost seemed as if one could use racial slurs and then get off lightly"

CUSU’s Big Cambridge Survey 2017-2018 found that 52% of BME students in Cambridge had experienced “racially prejudiced attitudes”, and 26% had directly experienced racist harassment. 

Seth said that in his experience, microaggressions – including “people asking where you are really from, only having white lecturers, porters asking BME students to prove they are members of college, not tourists, while their white counterparts walk through with ease” – are common in Cambridge.

However, he explained that he personally would not report such incidences, worrying that complainants would “just be told that the microaggression 'isn’t that bad', by individuals who have no experience of microaggressions”.

Despite these concerns, many students remain hopeful that reporting procedures will improve in the future. “Cambridge is working towards solutions but there is so much need for improvement and improvement should be quick”, said one PhD student, who asked to remain anonymous.

A University of Cambridge spokesperson said: “there is no place for racism or racial harassment of any kind at collegiate Cambridge, and while we have renewed our focus on tackling racism robustly and normalising conversations about race to support this, we know we need to do more, and will continue to work closely with students and staff on how we can enhance these efforts to make Cambridge a truly inclusive place.”

The spokesperson cited the University’s anonymous reporting tool, suggesting that this can provide information which “is vital to enable Cambridge to understand the scale and nature of race-related incidents”.