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Tackling racism on campus: Raising awareness and creating the conditions for confident conversations project – Blog by Ibtihal Ramadan, AFHEA, CARA Postdoc Fellow, University of Edinburgh

Several reasons underpinned my interest in being part of this steering group. My personal experience is crucial here. Following a few years of being an English language educator at university level, I came to the UK back in 2012 to do my MSc in TESOL at the University of Edinburgh. Being an international student who received a prestigious FCO scholarship, it never occurred to me that subtle racism, in the form of microaggression and patronising from both staff and students, would be part of my experience. While it was easy for someone like myself, being vocal and assertive, to challenge misconceptions of fellow students, it proved difficult to challenge staff. You just feel completely disempowered. To give an example, during the induction week, we were invited to an informal introductory session for MSc TESOL students and staff. I remember then speaking with a senior academic about my plans to proceed for a PhD after this master’s degree, and whether they were happy to offer some advice on how to achieve this goal. He responded by saying “this programme is too demanding for someone like you, forget about getting distinction or pursuing a PhD, you would be lucky if you pass”. I was completely appalled and was unable to engage with anyone then, so I left, questioning his uncritical superior attitude, when I have had earned this scholarship based on absolute merit.

Being well aware of how such incidents affect one’s well-being and sense of self, I have been able to navigate the institution and was fortunate to have a very supportive network within the university and beyond that mitigated the effect of these encounters with staff. This is the primary reason that catalyses my interest in this project. And although the good will and sincere efforts of anti-racist white allies is fundamental to the success of this steering group, it is the first-hand experiences of those who encounter(ed) racism that will form the skeleton to shape and inform the steering group mission.

These experiences have catalysed my decision to shift my interest for my PhD from language teaching to examine the experiences of Muslim academics in UK academia. I have started educating myself about racism, and landed on Critical Race Theory, as a theoretical lens that interrogates structural and institutional racism. The findings showed that religious microaggressions were not uncommon across the experiences of participants, including those who have progressed in their careers. Therefore, the findings of the EHRC recent projects chime with my findings. And what also strikes me across the experiences of the participants in my research is that most of them chose not to report experiences of racism for several reasons. The most cited reason was that they had little faith that universities are serious in challenging the status quo of inequality and racism. This underpinned the second reason for my interest in joining this steering group. Participating in this steering group is important to me as it will immerse me in how universities respond, on practical levels, to such issues that have long been highlighted by research and that continue to affect individuals’ well-being and hinder fulfilment of their potential. Third, obviously my research interests and expertise on issues of racism generally and anti-Muslim racism particularly, in higher education will academically inform my contribution to the steering group.

Being part of the Creative Brief, Campaign and Evaluation is crucial in directing the emerging of the campaign but also making sure that the recommendations of the EHRC report are embedded in the work of Morton Ward, who have so far been highly professional in developing a powerful foundation for the campaign. I think this campaign could have more potential success and be qualitatively influential than other previous initiatives within the sector, but only if we can: 1) develop the right evaluation tools to measure the success of the campaign at several institutions, and 2) get senior management at these institutions to be committed to monitoring the success of the campaign based on these evaluative tools. There are already ample equality, diversity and inclusion policies and measurement in the sector, yet, racism is rife! I think it is the lack of monitoring that has kept the racism problem unchecked for decades.

The current pandemic shows a rise in racism against Asians in the UK, especially, Chinese, including university students. The brutal racist murder of George Floyd in the US reveals structural and systemic racism, which is not categorically different from its most recent British twin sister: The Windrush scandal. Racism is not anti-Blackness or anti-Muslim or anti-Asian… Racism is a cultural construct through which certain groups are structurally inferiorised to maintain a status quo of superiority and dominance of white people. The goodwill of anti-racists, white allies and all BME people is not enough to undo racism if we can’t implement real change. At the end of the day, it takes a village to eradicate racism. This cannot be more substantial than it is in these trying moments and universities are the very institutions that should take the wheel of a nation-wide move towards indivisible justice.

Find out more about the project.

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