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Racism is an age-old virus

21 Jan 2021 | Dr Yujun Xu With an increasing number of cases relating to xenophobia, discrimination, and racial harassment, Dr Yujun Xu calls for more effort "to sustain an inclusive, safe, harmonious, and diverse environment in higher education, both online and offline."

“I have locked myself in the small flat for more than six weeks. Six weeks without stepping out of my room, even once.” A Chinese friend of mine, who’s pursuing a PhD programme at a Scottish university, has been terrified by an incident in which she was shouted at as ‘Coronavirus!’ outside a supermarket in May 2020.

Her case does not stand alone. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increasing number of cases relating to xenophobia, discrimination, and racial harassment. Since COVID-19 was reported to be originated from China, many of these cases were directly against people of Asian descent and/or appearance. By late April 2020, the New York City Commission on Human Rights received 248 reports of harassment and discrimination, with over half of the victims being of Asian descent (1). A poll into racism in the UK also suggests that 76 per cent of ethnic Chinese have experienced a direct racial slur (2). Statistics also suggest that the use of anti-Chinese hashtags has increased substantially; research analysing more than 600 million tweets identified a 300% increase in hashtags that support or encourage violence against China during a single week in March 2020 (3). The BAME community, including ethnic Chinese, are demanding that racial harassment is addressed and projects such as ‘Tackling Racism On Campus’ and its associated sub-projects are of critical importance. These anti-racist projects aim at ensuring learning and teaching processes and curriculum content acknowledge diversities and give those diversities both place and value.

Unlike the pandemic, racism resulted from structural inequalities, colonialism and imperialism. In tackling racial harassment, there is a need to understand power relations and the intersectionality of oppressions (4) as well as addressing issues at a personal, cultural and institutional level. 

Although our understanding of race and racism should not be reduced to micro-aggression alone, micro-aggressions are precisely the way that it most frequently happens in educational institutions. Higher education institutes, such as the University of Edinburgh (5), are raising awareness and producing educational resources to help recognise and counteract racial micro-aggressions. Anti-racist academics and students are now calling for the Academy to engage in 'decolonising the curriculum' to encourage engagement with the histories and knowledge that do not originate from the West and to assist students to think critically about why these have been marginalised and de-centred (6).

In relation to racial harassment, it is probably still the case that some people may not be aware enough to understand what this concept covers. For example, all too often, offensive comments are justified as ‘jokes’ or ‘banter’, but psychological damage has been caused by conscious or unconscious ‘micro-aggressions’ or simply a lack of empathy and understanding. For instance, students and staff members who have experienced racial harassment reveal that they have had to hide or play down the negative impact of such experiences. Racism can also include religious micro-aggressions and where they intersect, as in the case of Islamophobia (7), colleagues and students report having to hide some of their symbolic forms or features that may have religious underpinnings.

Against this worrying backdrop, more efforts need to be taken to sustain an inclusive, safe, harmonious, and diverse environment in higher education, both online and offline. More attention should be paid to embedding anti-racism within the curriculum and to enabling students to discuss core concepts including assimilation, race, racism, power, and privilege. There is a need to go beyond the apolitical and ahistorical celebration of diversity (8). Both students and staff need to live, study, work and collaborate while fostering a sense of community.

Racial harassment is as dangerous as coronavirus. Racism can and does kill. We live with hope that with the vaccines now available we will be able to overcome COVID, but how confident can we be that racism and racial harassment can be eliminated?  What role can the Academy play towards achieving such an outcome?

Dr Yujun Xu

With acknowledgements to Sophie Dodds at Advance HE and to Professor Rowena Arshad for giving me advice on developing and editing this blog

Dr Yujun Xu is a PhD student from Moray House School of Education and Sport, at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on Intercultural Experiential Learning. She is passionate about intercultural learning, equality, inclusive environments and wellbeing in higher education. She is a member of the steering groups for the SFC-funded projects ‘Tackling Racism on Campus’ and ‘Tackling Underrepresentation of Ethnic Diversity in the Workplace’, which are led by Advance HE.


Find out more about the support we can offer institutions to tackle racism and race inequalities in HE.

As part of Tackling Racism on Campus funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the new joint research project was announced recently [12 January 2021] by Advance HE and the Quality Assurance Agency Scotland (QAAS) to capitalises on the sector-wide commitment to tackle racism in Scottish further and higher education.

The Anti-Racist Curriculum (ARC) project sees Advance HE and QAAS working together with the tertiary sector to identify and curate existing resources, learn from current practice and recognise best practice both in Scotland and beyond.

The ARC project is an important addition to the new sector-wide Enhancement Theme, Resilient Learning Communities (2020-23), which focuses on meeting the changing needs and values of an increasingly diverse student community and a rapidly changing external environment.


1. Noble, A. (2020). With Anti-Asian harassment on the rise, New York City forms COVID-19 response team. Route Fifty.

2. CGTN. (2020). Ethnic Chinese are the most common victims of racism in the UK according to a YouGov poll.

3. The New Statesman. (2020) Covid-19 has caused a major spike in anti-Chinese and anti-Semitic hate speech.

4. Arshad, R. (2012). Shaping practice: the impact of personal values and experiences. In R. Arshad, T. Wrigley, & L. Pratt (Eds.), Social justice re-examined: dilemmas and solutions for the classroom teacher (pp. 3–17). London: Trentham.

5. The University of Edinburgh (2020) Student EDI Learning Resources – Microaggressions:

6. Arshad, R. (2020) Decolonising and Initial Teacher Education. CERES blog:

7. Considine, C. (2017). The racialization of Islam in the United States: Islamophobia, hate crimes, and “flying while brown”. Religions, 8(9), 165. Doi: 10.3390/rel8090165.

8. St Clair, D., & Kishimoto, K. (2010). Decolonising Teaching: A Cross-Curricular and Collaborative Model for Teaching about Race in the University. Multicultural Education, 18(1), 18-24.


Find out about Advance HE's support in tackling racism and race inequality in higher education.

Leading Race Equality in HE workshops Explore the history, context and current race equality challenges that universities need to address, as well as approaches that have been employed to tackle racial inequalities in HE on one of our Leading Race Equality in HE workshops.


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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