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Tackling racism on campus: Raising awareness and creating the conditions for confident conversations project – Blog by Sharan Virdee, Equality and Diversity Partner, Heriot-Watt University

  1. Why did you put yourself forward for the steering group?

In late 2019 I found the narrative around racism intolerable. At the EHRC inquiry seminar the litany of establishment tropes in response to the EHRC report just boosted my frustrations and I became really angry. There weren’t many of ‘us’ in the room – because there very rarely is. Those that were felt a level of connection I don’t think we’d felt before even though most of us had been professional colleagues for years. That’s certainly how I felt when it seemed that one by one we began to contribute to the forum. I remember my voice shaking because I was so angry at hearing what felt like mock outrage and flimsy empathy from the assembled. An event to demonstrate that the sector wanted to do something was sparsely populated by decision-makers. The powerful in the room hoped they were the humbled and the brave. But no one really wanted to say the word racism. It was curiously absent.

Over the years ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ have become opaque terms. They are somehow hidden in phrases which characterise an action with intent – ‘racial harassment’; legalistic and bound to lead to disconnection and arguably creates two hurdles to get over before you get to the core of it … ‘racism’.

How on earth did ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ lose the power in their meaning? At what point did it become necessary to create an ‘anti-racism’ banner? Or were we naive to think there was no need for the prefix? Is it because we stopped saying it and calling it? It’s confronting, awkward, embarrassing. That’s what seems to come first before hurtful and wrong – how on earth is that right? Some people don’t want to acknowledge it. Some people think they’re superior to it. There’s nothing humble in a defensive response, all it demonstrates is a lack of listening and denial; imagine someone telling you that the cut on your finger that’s bleeding isn’t bleeding, isn’t a cut and isn’t even on your finger.

If we took the time to really see we’d be horrified at the embedded racism in our everyday language, culture and interactions. And if you aren’t horrified you’re part of the problem. That’s the reason I got involved – to make sure I wasn’t part of the problem through by-standing.

To me this is incredibly simple. Racism exists everywhere. EVERYWHERE. If we need to show it to people so they can see it, this group will be the magnifying glass.


  1. What are your thoughts about how the project is commencing so far?

I think it’s fair to say that most of the people involved in the project have experience of racism and it’s mainly attached to being on the receiving end of it. We are alongside active allies who are also personally impacted – so that can be a pretty heavy load to carry and I think there have been some moments where it’s a little overwhelming. Writing about why we’re involved when we have these kinds of experiences is uncomfortable and it can feel like we are the subjects of voyeurism – that’s quite challenging. However – and it’s a big however – I’ve never been in a professional setting where I’m surrounded by BAME individuals, who are ridiculously impressive. I’ve certainly found I’ve laughed and smiled and found kinship with this group that I hadn’t anticipated at the beginning. That’s been a joy.

Let’s be honest, given what’s been happening across the globe this is a most timely project. We’re navigating our way through some pretty tricky circumstances and so where we started from when we were looking ahead to the outcomes we wanted changed completely within the first month! But we’re raising to the challenge.


  1. In current times of the pandemic and the increase in racist incidents, why do you think this project is important?

This is a toughie. We are in a situation where working and learning spaces are less structured. It’s a huge change and campus life – at any education setting – has changed in the present and no doubt in the future. We need, more than ever, to breakdown echo chambers and effect change within peoples’ private space. That means we have more potential to be transformative … it also means it’s going to be that bit harder because we need to get behind closed doors.

This does however mean we’re going to have to get more creative and make sure we are leading in how we create support materials for HE and FE.

Find out more about the project.