The Durham People of Colour Association (DPOCA) has released a critical response to the University’s Respect Commission Report, which was published last week.
The University report, which took two years to produce, was published by the Durham Commission of n Respect, Values and Behaviour on 24th July. The 53-page report resolved that the University must “do better” to challenge “rude, unacceptable and disrespectful behaviour” in Durham. Among other issues, the report identified cases of bullying and harassment, instances of sexism and racist microaggressions, a lack of faith in reporting mechanisms, a “status-oriented culture”, and mistreatment of professional (non-academic) staff members.
Founded in 2016, DPOCA is part of Durham Students’ Union and aims to provide representation and support for students of Durham University who identify as a person of colour.
DPOCA’s response, published as a document via their Facebook page, is nearly 6,000 words long and addresses each issue within the Respect Commission Report in the order in which they appear.
Primarily, DPOCA’s reponse criticises the University’s timing, having delayed the release of the report from March to July due to Covid-19. DPOCA argued that this means there have been a few months in which the report was ready, but not implemented, allowing the issues highlighted to continue unchecked. “If the report truly shouldn’t be read as a response to ‘the Black Lives Matter social movement or the experiences of racism in our community and beyond shared in the recent weeks’ then it should have been published months ago regardless of what was going on, and secondly, this means no action has been taken on it and we are still waiting for something of means.”
They also commented that the slow pace of the report, taking two years to compile, has allowed two years of complacency: “Many of us from DPOCA face the intersections of multiple forms of oppression, we are fighting a battle on many fronts and the University has shown us again and again, that they do not care about our complaints. Otherwise a lot of things in this report, which took two years to compile, would have been addressed already.”
The response also laments that the University has not spent more time consulting DPOCA on issues of racism at Durham. In particular, it cites the success of DPOCA’s ‘Recognise and Resist’ initiative, which received more reports of racism than the University’s own ‘Report and Support’ tool, which DPOCA has called ‘reinventing the wheel’.
This consultation could involve giving DPOCA a budget: “Give DPOCA a budget, collaborate with us, fund our events- there was a £50,000 budget for anti-hate crimes in 2018 but the main student group behind your work saw none of it?”
The response also criticised the University report’s resolutions, which included training for staff, and a Vice-Chancellor’s welcome which focuses on respect. “Do not demean our struggle into an online course that frames racism as a quiz which you can pass after multiple attempts or can be condensed into 15 minutes of buzzwords.”
It also commented that welfare resources are not designed to help minorities in the same way that they assist a majority of students: “how are we trained in spotting racial situations? Where would you begin in dealing with a student fed up of racial microaggressions?”
Many of these resolutions, DPOCA suggested, were“performative”: “Hiring an EDI representative, specifically a Vice-Provost for EDI being introduced, sounds like yet another way the University can pawn off tackling exclusion and elitism into a corner rather than being at the heart of each role, but if this is a step to be taken, it must be adequately resourced.”
Linked to this, the response criticised the University’s “disingenuous” and “deceptive” use of diversity in publicising the University, to the neglect of structural issues.
Part of the response also details how the new DPOCA President, Dan Takyi, initially had no contact with the University upon assuming his role. “Since becoming DPOCA President, I was contacted by 0 staff. None. It was almost a month in that I have had to reach out.”
The final section of DPOCA’s response, like the final section of the report itself, addresses issues of BAME experiences at Durham. “Let me make this clear. This report was not commissioned to look into racism. It was detailed to look into respect and it just happened to stumble across some racism.”
While DPOCA endorsed the University’s suggestion of specialist counselling services for BAME issues, they argue that “One counsellor would not be enough to deal with the huge levels of trauma,” and risks reducing a number of diverse BAME experiences to a single set of issues.
However, according to the response, the most alarming issue was the fact that Durham had the smallest EDI team of all Russell Group Universities: “Why in an EDI meeting to discuss racism consisting of 26 people were there only 7 non-white people? And only one black woman? Only one international representative? It is insulting to think we can’t do it ourselves.”
DPOCA also argued that student leaders who raise legitimate concerns feel that their presence is only tolerated as a token, a concern which was picked up on in the University’s report. The response cited the example of the all-black summer school, which DPOCA had spoken out against, but went ahead nonetheless.
The response also addressed the University report’s findings on microaggressions, and the daunting and inadequate means by which students can report incidents: “The interface is jarring, if you want to report anonymously, it feels like you are used for data and statistics with no space to actually type out your incident… after going through a traumatic experience, reporting it forces you to relive the trauma, so why would anyone struggle through to the end of it? It is of no benefit other than to make you a statistic. This is why only 13% of those who experience hate crimes report it.”
In its conclusion, the response addressed the University directly: “You have made a positive first step in having this addressed, now hear our voices in how you respond to it. Do not try and shoehorn these changes in. Fix your culture and take the proactive steps to do so and then we can address fixing your admission numbers. If you are introducing BAME members to a violent environment, protect them.”
Takyi, a PPE finalist at St Cuthbert’s Society, said: “I would love nothing more to be able to wholeheartedly endorse this University to all minority students as a place of true tolerance and acceptance. Work with us to make it possible.”
Speaking to Palatinate this month following the publication of the report, Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge said: “All parts of the University have to have a conversation over the next year, and then take action over the next three years – every college, every department, every professional service and every committee must look at this report, hold up the mirror, and see what they can do better”.
“This report asks us to take a look at ourselves, what we can do differently and what we can do better, what are we observing, how do we listen to each other? As a University, we are absolutely clear: intolerance, discrimination and disrespect are not acceptable and we have a strong will to improve.”
Image: Maddie Flisher