“No one wants to be called racist”: Durham’s need for change

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At the time of writing this up, I have posted a Twitter thread that has now over 150,000 views and some of you will have seen what I’ve already said. If you have yet to, in my thread I breakdown how racism, misogyny, and classism, amongst other issues, are prevalent at Durham but outside of the ‘Durham bubble’, no one hears of these issues, and that there is no accountability or support – I include evidence and personal examples of this all in my thread. Since posting that, I have also seen a number of people start talking about their experiences and concerns – both publicly and privately to me. As a final year student I am not writing this for myself, as my time at Durham is almost over, but for the students continuing their studies at Durham who I hope will have better systems of support in place for them. 

I have struggled throughout my time at Durham, and I know that I am not alone in this. If one other student reads this and finds comfort in that, then that in itself is important. My time has been littered with too many moments where I have been forced to justify my actions in ways I shouldn’t have to. I have had another student tell me that BME internship schemes are not fair because they have worked just as hard as I have, and therefore should be equally as entitled to the opportunity, all the while failing to recognise that in certain industries, BME internships are an antidote to a lack of diversity. On another occasion, I was listening to a song from ‘Hamilton’ where the line ‘rich folks love slumming it with the poor’, when another student responded: “you would just need to visit where Nichola lives”. Even after calling this out and expressing my upset, I was just simply told that it was true and that was that. 

Friends from County Durham tell me that, in Durham University, they feel out of place

University is presented to be the best time of peoples’ lives but this is not the case for certain groups of students who don’t particularly fit, or adapt to, the traditional mould that is the ‘Durham Type’. There are people who do not believe that the problems of racism, classism and more are not part of a daily struggle for Durham students, but I wonder if these same individuals have taken the time to listen or understand the experience of others who might not be as lucky as themselves.

My experience will always be my own. I’m sure that there are other working class students and students of colour who will have had an amazing time at Durham and found no issues. Yet, we must recognise that Durham can also be a place where these same groups of students have felt the most out of place and uncomfortable.I have made friends with people who come from County Durham itself, and yet they tell me that in Durham University, they feel so out of place. These issues go beyond my own personal experience and affect many other working-class, students of colour and mature students to name just a few.

Furthermore since sharing my experiences, I have had conversations with people from all kinds of backgrounds; from freshers, to PhD students, and even staff. They each expressed their problems with the way the university operates. This just goes to show that the issues here are beyond individuals and that there needs to be a better system in place for students and staff to both report and access the support they need when they feel unwelcome and discriminated against. 

The problem we have at our hands is difficult to describe because the anecdotes people share are so often full of off-handed comments, and microagressions which cannot always be seen and taken as ‘hard evidence’. This makes it even more difficult for some to recognise why people might feel out of place, when they cannot understand the nature of why others might feel like this.

Off-handed comments cannot always be seen and taken as ‘hard evidence’

I understand that there will be two kinds of people who read this. However, I feel like something needs to be said. When I put out the thread over the weekend, I did so because of my own personal frustrations towards what has been happening over the last week in Durham. Yet, the underlying nature of these problems have been at play for months and if not, years. What frustrated me the most was that no one was addressing the problem we had. It was going back and forth with many unnacceptable comments being made, and every single piece that was being published was only revealing one side of the narrative. This was, and is, not fair. Furthermore, it shows exactly how these problems exist and operate within Durham University.

I recognise that the University already has measures in place, but given that in recent weeks there have been many students who have come forward with their struggles in accessing the right support, this shows that it is not working. Durham doesn’t face the same level of public attention by the media for its BME or state-school statistics compared to Oxbridge, yet the issues are pretty much the same, if not worse. This has clearly played a hand in the level of accountability and pressure towards how Durham has taken in responding to these issues. I personally believe that there needs to be a system introduced in Durham for students of colour and working-class backgrounds because a lot of the structures that already exist unfortunately have proven themselves to repeatedly fail the majority of these groups. 

Durham doesn’t face the same level of media attention for its BME or state-school statistics compared to Oxbridge

There will have been people who voted Re-Open Nominations in the recent Student Union elections, but are also upset with the behaviour that’s taken place who now stand alongside successful candidates. I know that this has become a complicated matter to deal with, but, in spite of intentions, it has given way to harmful, racist, classist, homophobic and misogynistic behaviour. Students need to recognise this and acknowledge that even though they could not have foreseen what would happen, that all the same, they had a role to play in facilitating it. We all need to do better and need to call out this behaviour when it happens, and when we can. It is not okay for this sort of behaviour to be platformed in a public way where other students will feel uncomfortable and unsafe, especially when the problems that already exist at the University go largely unrecognised by the institution. 

At present, no student has had to face the repercussions of this or been able to adequately file a report on the matter. Even though the page ‘Overheard at Durham Uni’ has now been archived, which many students had access to, we must acknowledge that over the last week that the platform existed without moderators and becoming an increasingly hostile space. So whilst freedom of speech is important, the platform itself wasn’t sustainable.

I had to read countless comments talking about how safe spaces are not needed; racism needs to be validated by white individuals; the mocking of students of colour expressing upset to people defending extremely hurtful screenshots. I understand that the student body of Durham will never have a unanimous opinion on this matter. However, there is a place and time to express these views that do not make others feel uncomfortable.

Once students have drawn attention to the underlying issue of racism, misogyny, racism or other exclusionary and discriminatory attitudes, that exist behind the actions of others, people should start thinking about their own role and why this is, rather than quickly denying and defending against the issues at hand. Too often, I have seen in these moments of defence against such labels, this is where others provide further proof of the problems raised. Not only this, students need to start showing more empathy with each other, and seek to understand the reactions on these sensitives matter instead. We all need to start having these conversations productively with both sides listening and understanding each other. 

No one wants to be called racist, and few deliberately align themselves with racist behaviour. Equally, no one also wants to call out this sort of behaviour, as to do so is an admission that they have faced discrimination. Yet, the failure in not recognising how these sorts of underlying attitudes emerge, when others have tried to repeatedly call it out as a concern, has led us up to this point.

The problem we need to unpack at this point is how a space has been created which allows such nastiness and hostility, making students feel unsafe and uncomfortable. This space was a product of a whole range of different groups. Sadly, I have not seen the people behind any of these platforms speak up publicly, or even personally and acknowledge the consequences of their actions properly, in this situation which has failed students from minority backgrounds. I have seen the candidates show empathy and take their time to address concerns of others; yet, heard of no one taking the time to do the same to them. Instead, what I’ve seen is countless attacks on select individuals or too-little, too-late attempts to condone behaviour from JCRs, without even recognising their hand in the matter.

No one wants to call out racist behaviour, as to do so would be an admission that they have faced discrimination

I know that there are many people unhappy with the way that the SU is run. I also know there are people who are unhappy with how colleges and the wider university is run. However, the way to resolve these problems will not come from targeting select individuals. The problems extends beyond them; people need to start recognising this, and the fact that the student-elects that we have are all trying to bring in positive change for the student body as they have expressed. I personally saw countless attempts from them all to speak for themselves in showing that they were representing what was being asked for in the demands. 

I would like to reiterate and place emphasis on the unacceptable kinds of behaviour I’ve seen specifically in the last week should not be tolerated in any form across the university, especially in public spaces, even if this is online.  

The problems that we are dealing with are institutional; yet, the targets of abuse and hate are individuals. Why have students not written or taken the issues of their SU to the NUS, and the university? If it has been concerns over a lack of funding, why have colleges not sought for more from the university collectively as a committee of college exec members? Where was the proof that the elections were undemocratic before the results had even been released? 

I won’t recommend that prospective students from a similar background to mine go to Durham

I feel that every single person who voted at all, and saw what took place on ‘Overheard’, or even engaged with Durfess, should look to understand and evaluate both their privileges and accountability, because we all let it get this far. Whether it was actively engaging, or being a bystander, we all know we could have done something differently or something more. 

Beyond this, there is a much wider underlying problem that exists in Durham, as I’ve described, where students cannot access the help that they need to and struggle at Durham because of this. We only need to see the drop-out rates to prove this further. The student body of Durham will always mostly come from a certain background, and some of these people will hold prejudiced views towards others. However, what this entire situation has done is highlight the need for the university to introduce new support systems that actually work for the people that feel discriminated and uncomfortable, in the past few months more than ever. Until I see change and hear about it, I won’t be recommending prospective students from a similar background to mine, or even backgrounds similar to my friends who I know have struggled here, to go to Durham. 

Image: kaysgeog via Flickr

16 thoughts on ““No one wants to be called racist”: Durham’s need for change

  • I am genuinely sorry to hear of such reports of racism at Durham University – having read your own and several other of the Twitter threads, it is shameful that such behaviour is rife at Durham, and that the adequate support networks are not in place to help combat them. However, I find the conflation of these accounts with the arguments surrounding the Students’ Union Elect on ‘Overheard in Durham’ – and the subsequent celebration of Overheard in Durham’s closure – problematic.

    The seeming celebration at Overheard in Durham’s closure as a platform is problematic to me – whether comments were out of proportion or not, the shutting down of platforms is never the answer. In this instance, people have taken to Twitter to air their views instead, where they are seemingly contained in an echo chamber. But the point stands that there was a debate to be had over the SU Elect’s initial comments, and whether the sharing of them and the subsequent reaction was indeed racist. Had there not have been, the comments wouldn’t have blown as out of proportion as they did. Whether one side of this debate was ‘more correct’, or whether some people are more qualified to speak from experience than others, is irrelevant. By shutting down free speech, you only push these ideologies further underground, where they can often thrive. While some of you may feel virtuous in no longer having to engage with the opinions you disagree with, these opinions are often flourishing in the same sort of group chats we’ve seen exposed in the last few weeks. Let such comments be voiced, and by hearing them we can proceed to challenge them and dismantle them. We achieve nothing by refusing to hear them or denouncing them as inherently ‘wrong’ and not worthy of our ears – however offensive they might be.

    “It is not okay for this sort of behaviour to be platformed in a public way where other students will feel uncomfortable and unsafe, especially when the problems that already exist at the University go largely unrecognised by the institution” – again, I do not doubt that issues with racism are rife within this institution. Nor do I support some of the comments which have been made over the past week. But the point remains that Seun’s initial comments also undoubtedly made some students feel deeply uncomfortable. To assert that this matters less for students who are lucky enough to come from fortunate backgrounds sets the precedent that some have a right to ‘safe spaces’ more than others, that some are inherently ‘more right’ than others based on their background or identity. We don’t dismantle the sort of racist views in question by hiding away from them in ‘safe spaces’ – let them be heard, and by hearing them, we can expose them as wrong.

    Please do not take this comment as an attack on these attempts to shed light on racism at Durham – this article, in fact, is a positive step in revealing where there are clearly issues in need of addressing, and I hope that the article is spread far and wide as it deserves. However, I can’t help but feel as though by celebrating the closure of discussion forums such as Overheard in Durham, and by asserting that some of us have less of a right to voice our opinions on this issue (no matter how problematic some of them are!) we are only shying away from the issue, instead of confronting it.

    Reply
    • This is very well said indeed. Free speech is a hugely important part of a free and democratic society. It’s important to remember that, when living in the left-wing echo chamber that is much of student politics, free speech is not just for the morally righteous. If you disagree with someone, say so – do not attempt to shield yourself from opinions that differ from your own; debate and discussion are important ways of educating people. Obviously I do not condone the racist viewpoints put forth on Overheard, but if we want to work towards improving issues like racism and classism then we need to combat them at their root, rather than simply removing the public platform for these comments to be made.

      Reply
  • We can’t seem to ignore ‘other’ matters in our lives due to to COVID-19. This gritty article reminds us that we must not lose sight of the ongoing issues of struggle as we struggle now to overcome the current crisis. The central issue in this article is a much bigger threat than that of COVID-19.

    Reply
    • Obviously these issues are very important, but I would say it’s highly obtuse to claim they are a “bigger threat” than COVID-19, which is simultaneously killing hundreds on a daily basis and causing huge economic damage. Be careful with your hyperbole.

      Reply
      • My use of the words ‘bigger threat’ arises from these factors.

        First, the underlying issues of indifference and practices of disregard that Nichola Vo have underscored in her essay can be translated to describe problematic symbols of moral decay, death, and violence within any society incurred by the actions of those who are indifferent, morally and ethically, towards others. Let’s cast our memory back to 1943 to highlight the Bengal Famine in India that killed up to 3 million people, a number that eclipsed the current number of deaths of (app) 126,000 from COVID-19 worldwide. Now, I am only comparing these deaths to argue that the biggest threat to human lives can emerge from our indifference and ignorance. Churchill’s policy decision led to the death of such a large number of people. The policy decision might have emerged from his dislike towards India and his irrational view of the Indian people.

        Second, what Vo is arguing is the danger of Durham being (becoming) an unwelcoming place for students who do not belong to a ‘certain background’. This could turn Durham University into an institution that no longer could be able to provide ‘support systems that actually work for the people that feel discriminated and uncomfortable’. And that could be a threat to the history and prestige of this great institution.

        Third, in light of Vo’s final sentiment about her not recommending students from her similar background to come to Durham University represents a threat that could potentially jeopardise the very foundation that this university stands for — that her ‘foundations are set upon the holy hills’. The heavy burden of indifference could be too much too bear for the morale of this university. And that is a threat that could mutate on its own.

        Fourth, I agree to some extent that my words ‘bigger threat’ are used as metaphors. But I have also discussed the logic of using these words as metaphors.

        Finally, I point out your comment: ‘Be careful with your hyperbole’. The first two words imply a subtle threat.

        Reply
        • I apologise if you inferred a ‘subtle threat’ from my comment, none was implied. As it stands, I understand what you are saying but none of these things are happening right now, and coronavirus is. Yes, points two and three ‘could’ arise in the future and that is why it is important to combat these issues now, but they are still not a ‘bigger threat’ currently than coronavirus is. I amend my earlier statement: Please be careful with your hyperbole.

          Reply
  • To suggest that many independent advocates of RON were responsible for enabling or legitimising the abusers, when we’ve been extremely vocal in opposing them long before the SU campaigning period started, just makes it seem that there is a slight issue in the analysis here.

    We did not create these abusers, we have been trying to combat them for a long time, now, and prior to any SU campaigning. It’d be much more effective, instead of blaming RON for their platform, actually for you to blame the organisations and culture of Durham that actually give these people the power to hijack a movement as they did.

    RON, as has been pointed out many times, was democratically necessary, and may need to exist not only in the present but also in the future. If you want to help prevent this from happening again, you could help us by targeting the ability of the abusers to hijack it instead of claiming we are all accomplices to their behaviour.

    This ISN’T about RON advocates refusing to acknowledge where they’ve facilitated institutional racism – we all have internal prejudices we need to work on, and I absolutely agree that I am by no means of completely perfect virtue. Please don’t present this as wounded pride because that’s simply disingenuous.

    (Aside from this point, this was a very well-written article.)

    Reply
    • Hi Alk,
      If a scenario was placed where the author did not conduct this article in an eloquent manner would you have still written that half hearted compliment used to mask the atrocious gaslighting you displayed in response to the racism the author is explaining she experienced? Genuine question by the way I actually want to know. Your whole response was not comforting but just mirrored the privilege society allows you to capitalise on on a daily basis. Not once did the author blame RON for facilitating institutional racism but actually was attempting to challenge a perspective. The perspective that when it comes to racism blame can be shifted elsewhere and in your case the whole university foundation. Your refusal to listen is why you read to respond rather than read to understand. If you did however you would see how any form of silence in racism does equate to the continuation of injustices faced by POC on a daily. I would also like you analyse the part of your response where you decided to convert this experience into a but we ALL play a part not Just the privileged. (Emphasis on the all) this led you to say “we all have internal prejudices we need to work on” I want to ask what relevance does this have? Can you now see how one can take this whole response as gaslighting now? Genuine questions again I want to know. You then went on to say (I won’t quote, honestly quite frankly found that line despicable) overall (I will translate this is how that sounded like) the author victimised herself in a non genuine way to seem noble and humble at the forefront. That line alone was absolutely disrespectful. You are never in no means allowed to tell another POC how to feel about racism and especially not how to speak out about it. Again display of your privilege you thought that entitled you to explain how you believe racism should be spoken about by POC. In that instance if you didn’t know you did the very thing the author explained about in this article. To gaslight someone’s experience on racism as disingenuous is outright not only disrespectful but just portrays the amount work needed to be done combatting racism. To end I hope you can now go back and read the article again this time with empathy read to understand and hopefully you can respond in a more comforting manner. If not I genuinely would like to hear responses from my questions I honestly want to know. Thanks Alk

      Reply
      • “You are never in no means allowed to tell another POC how to feel about racism and especially not how to speak out about it” – Firstly, at no point did Alk tell anyone how to do anything, but simply offered an opinion. And yes, they are allowed to offer an opinion. That’s called free speech – the same free speech which afforded you the interpretation of the original comment outlined here. If we all ‘listened to understand’ all the time we would have no independent thoughts and no ability to critically engage at all. Unfortunately, your own experience doesn’t always afford you the right to disregard anyone else’s opinion but your own. Moreover, it’s nonsensical that you keep mentioning this individual’s ‘privilege’ when you know nothing about them, who they are, or what their privileges are. Is a viewpoint which differs from your own always inherently wrong on account of the author’s privilege?

        Reply
      • Hi – I posted the comment to which you refer.

        I apologise for posting it, as it was not well phrased, and was posted out of an immediate frustration that should have been better controlled on my part.

        However I am appalled to hear that the comment implications were interpreted as you did, I am very sorry about this. What I meant was not that the experiences of abuse were not genuine or to be ignored. What I meant by the misinterpreted line was that opposition from the RON camp to the analysis that RON is an inherently large part of the issue (as opposed to those hijacking it) is not about “not wanting to be called racist”. Saying that we don’t want to admit to our own prejudice was what I meant to say seemed disingenuous.

        You are absolutely right, the privileged have far more to address than anyone. “All” was not meant to absolve the privileged here, it was a poor choice of words on my part. For this too I apologise. The reason I mentioned it was to emphasise that many people such as myself acknowledge we are not infallibly virtuous, but don’t necessarily tie our shortcomings to the prospect of RON specifically.

        Anyhow if you want to contact me privately about why I was immediately frustrated and defensive, I can explain but do not feel fully comfortable addressing this in a public comment. Again, I’m really sorry for my ambiguity and I wish I had been able to communicate my thoughts more productively.

        Reply
  • Thank you for your response. It helps in my study of covert racism in the university institution and Britain 🙂

    Reply
    • Thank you for your response. It helps my study of the decline in the ability to debate in the university institution and Britain 🙂

      Reply
  • I’m sorry to hear of your experiences, Nichola. This isn’t limited to students, Durham is a toxic environment for academic staff from “non-traditional” backgrounds as well. The exclusion and discrimination we face comes from both sides – senior management and university structures, and undergraduate student behaviours and attitudes.

    Reply
    • I completely agree that one of the biggest and most under-discussed problems about racism at Durham is that it does have the same level of publicity as Oxbridge. I am a POC student who grew up in a non-diverse area. Before beginning first year, I was excited to go to University where I might meet more people from a similar background and have experiences in common that I couldn’t share with many people from my hometown. It didn’t even cross my mind that the racism that I had experienced growing up could be worse at University, which would undoubtedly be more diverse, and with the concentration of young students, more liberal.

      And I was right, in part. I have made a lot of amazing POC and white friends at Durham that I am so grateful to know. Yet simultaneously, the racism at Durham has been so much worse. Aside from the actual racist abuse that has been literally been shouted at me or mentioned casually as if it meant nothing, the general feeling of exclusion is so engrained that it feels palpable. However, as you say, as extremely difficult to communicate in writing or present as ‘hard evidence.’ (although you would hope the testimony from numerous students would mean something) Each time I returned to Durham for a new year pulling up into the city centre also meant a constant low-level feeling of dred that meant putting up a barrier and trying to get through. There are so many times that I doubted myself over whether I was being ‘too sensitive’ because some of the comments and actions that seemed so clearly unacceptable and racist to me were shrugged off by the majority of those around me. Even in seminars, when the issue of race seemed to be so glaringly missing from the discussion or the evidence of racism within a text so obvious yet uncommented on, I have been met with blank stares from the other students on multiple occasions and the conversation ends up being shut down. I also am definitely pro-access and believe that access programmes are a really important way to ensure social mobility against systematic discrimination and begin to dismantle the exclusionary culture at institutions like Durham. It makes me really upset that, like you Nichola, I couldn’t in good conscience recommend a student from a similar background to me to go to Durham, or at least warn them of my experience before they make their decision, if they asked. Hearing that some staff are facing similar problems is not something I was aware of, and only speaks to the extent of the problem.

      Reply
  • I completely agree that one of the biggest and most under-discussed problems about racism at Durham is that it does have the same level of publicity as Oxbridge. I am a POC student who grew up in a non-diverse area. Before beginning first year, I was excited to go to University where I might meet more people from a similar background and have experiences in common that I couldn’t share with many people from my hometown. It didn’t even cross my mind that the racism that I had experienced growing up could be worse at University, which would undoubtedly be more diverse, and with the concentration of young students, more liberal.

    And I was right, in part. I have made a lot of amazing POC and white friends at Durham that I am so grateful to know. Yet simultaneously, the racism at Durham has been so much worse. Aside from the actual racist abuse that has been literally been shouted at me or mentioned casually as if it meant nothing, the general feeling of exclusion is so engrained that it feels palpable. However, as you say, as extremely difficult to communicate in writing or present as ‘hard evidence.’ (although you would hope the testimony from numerous students would mean something) Each time I returned to Durham for a new year pulling up into the city centre also meant a constant low-level feeling of dread that meant putting up a barrier and trying to get through. There are so many times that I doubted myself over whether I was being ‘too sensitive’ because some of the comments and actions that seemed so clearly unacceptable and racist to me were shrugged off by the majority of those around me. Even in seminars, when the issue of race seemed to be so glaringly missing from the discussion or the evidence of racism within a text so obvious yet uncommented on, I have been met with blank stares from the other students on multiple occasions and the conversation ends up being shut down. I also am definitely pro-access and believe that access programmes are a really important way to ensure social mobility against systematic discrimination and begin to dismantle the exclusionary culture at institutions like Durham. It makes me really upset that, like you Nichola, I couldn’t in good conscience recommend a student from a similar background to me to go to Durham, or at least warn them of my experience before they make their decision, if they asked. Hearing that some staff are facing similar problems is not something I was aware of, and only speaks to the extent of the problem.

    Reply
  • I completely agree that one of the biggest and most under-discussed problems about racism at Durham is that it does have the same level of publicity as Oxbridge. I am a POC student who grew up in a non-diverse area. Before beginning first year, I was excited to go to University where I might meet more people from a similar background and have experiences in common that I couldn’t share with many people from my hometown. It didn’t even cross my mind that the racism that I had experienced growing up could be worse at University, which would undoubtedly be more diverse, and with the concentration of young students, more liberal.

    And I was right, in part. I have made a lot of amazing POC and white friends at Durham that I am so grateful to know. Yet simultaneously, the racism at Durham has been so much worse. Aside from the actual racist abuse that has been literally been shouted at me or mentioned casually as if it meant nothing, the general feeling of exclusion is so engrained that it feels palpable. However, as you say, as extremely difficult to communicate in writing or present as ‘hard evidence.’ (although you would hope the testimony from numerous students would mean something) Each time I returned to Durham for a new year pulling up into the city centre also meant a constant low-level feeling of dred that meant putting up a barrier and trying to get through. There are so many times that I doubted myself over whether I was being ‘too sensitive’ because some of the comments and actions that seemed so clearly unacceptable and racist to me were shrugged off by the majority of those around me. Even in seminars, when the issue of race seemed to be so glaringly missing from the discussion or the evidence of racism within a text so obvious yet uncommented on, I have been met with blank stares from the other students on multiple occasions and the conversation ends up being shut down. I also am definitely pro-access and believe that access programmes are a really important way to ensure social mobility against systematic discrimination and begin to dismantle the exclusionary culture at institutions like Durham. It makes me really upset that, like you Nichola, I couldn’t in good conscience recommend a student from a similar background to me to go to Durham, or at least warn them of my experience before they make their decision, if they asked. Hearing that some staff are facing similar problems is not something I was aware of, and only speaks to the extent of the problem.

    Reply

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