By Tom Watling
Several Hatfield students were recently reprimanded for singing the ‘N-word’ while performing a karaoke rendition of Kanye West’s ‘Gold Digger’ at a ball last month. Most shocking for me, however, was not the fact that they had used the slur, but that the vast majority of people I spoke to about it were quick to shift the culpability to the college, to defend the “innocent kids” who got caught in the crossfire of political correctness.
It is for this reason that I feel no need to name the culprits. To do so would be to simply scapegoat them for an issue far more ingrained than this singular “slip-up”. It would also permit fellow students and university staff alike to sweep this accusation of racism under the rug to prevent inconvenient publicity. Instead, this incident can act as a window into the racist attitudes that are so common in Durham, and which have implicated the University in the discourse surrounding the Exeter scandal.
People were quick to defend the “innocent kids” who got caught in the crossfire of political correctness
In a University criticised for its extortionately high accommodation fees, and a subsequent abundance of privately-educated students, of which I am one, the nuances of racism can often go unexamined. In simple terms, this is because, in societies where poverty can manifest as a racialised phenomenon, richer societies tend to be less cosmopolitan. The more homogenous and white such societies are, the more room there is for micro-aggressive, subtly prejudiced conceptions of a different race.
This problem is compounded by the reports of “actual racism” across the pond: it presents the opportunity for people to hold up such extreme forms of racial prejudice as a means of downplaying their own ‘minor’ ones. Similarly, the well-intentioned yet counterintuitive tendency of liberal societies to fervently attack racism has fostered a culture of fear, where to admit one’s own micro-aggressions is akin to admitting that you are a racist. So, the context in which Durham exists is one in which it is far easier to scapegoat issues of racism than to actually address the far more widespread problem, since to do so would be to succumb to inevitable comparison with the likes of Donald Trump and more extreme versions of prejudice.
Reports of “actual racism” across the pond allow people to downplay their ‘minor’ prejudices
However, while it is imperative that everyone, from those who are more innocently unaware of the connotations of their words to the KKK, are not subject to the same accusation of racism, for the complete eradication of racism it is far more important to acknowledge one’s own problem than to excuse it. And Durham, in particular, is one university that must address this.
The fact that the University responded to The Guardian‘s article, in which Durham was outed as having serious issues with racism, with a brief email to say that racism is not tolerated, epitomises this standpoint. Better to tick the box than to actually fix the problem. It is this flippant, hollow message of “we do not tolerate racism” that has allowed many Durham students to go on with their beliefs unchallenged, and for casual racism and micro-aggressive behaviour to be excused by the notion that political correctness “has gone too far”.
This is an institution unconcerned with its social pitfalls, and more concerned with safety in numbers and sticking to its roots
As Durham becomes increasingly more expensive, the student body will inevitably grow less diverse, and the University’s need to become receptive to real change less likely. That is not to say that these issues will be solved by lowering rent; rather, that this is a symptom of an institution worryingly unconcerned with its social pitfalls, and more concerned with safety in numbers and sticking to its roots. In order for Durham to begin to fix a problem far greater than itself, education to promote better awareness must come from the top, and an honest conversation must be initiated in which nothing is swept under the rug, and everything from blatant to casual to nuanced racism is addressed.
Racism is increasingly multi-faceted in this epoch, and until the University reproaches itself, it will continue to exist.
Photograph: dun_deagh via Flickr and Creative Commons.