“It was obvious that this was someone that has never had to be around black people their entire life”
In early November, employees at Mully’s Bar discovered Swastikas drawn onto the walls of its bathroom with a caulk gun. This is the most recent example of a rise in racial hostility at UCL.
Earlier this year, the Bartlett School of Architecture, ranked second best in the world, received multiple allegations of sexism and racism from staff, along with former and current students. One victim recalled how “students at the Bartlett, who came from all-boys public schools in London, called me the ‘whitest’ black person they had met. To them, studying architecture at a top school like UCL was a white and middle-class thing, not a place for a mixed-race, British, Black Caribbean woman with a working-class heritage.”
Subsequently, Professor Sasha Roseneil, UCL Pro-Provost for Equity and Inclusion, responded with an ambiguous statement. She acknowledged the prevalence of racism and sexism within the institution and detailed UCL’s genuine efforts towards gender equality. However, the statement compounded racism under “bullying and harassment” and neglected to highlight any targeted measures against racial discrimination.
The lack of decisive action regarding racism at the Bartlett is just one example. In late 2019, UCL pledged to combat anti-semitism, promising to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition in full. Yet, in December 2020, its Academic Board rejected this decision, deciding to seek an alternative definition due to concerns that it suppressed criticisms of Israel. While criticisms over the definition are justified, this highlights yet another instance of the university offering a weak response to racism. Instead of taking decisive action to combat record levels of hate against Jewish students, it promised a policy that it could not enact.
In a similar case, students at the Slade School of Art launched a campaign this month decrying institutional racism in their department and the administration’s failure to combat it. They demand transparency, calling for information regarding what action was taken since the School promised to combat systemic racism in July 2020. The movement “occupied” Slade, plastering slogans around campus with messages such as ‘150 Years of Racism’ and ‘Your Silence is Violence.’ It seems that in numerous areas of the University, UCL has used empty rhetoric to appease concerns over racism, but failed to take substantial action to prevent the perpetuation of such discrimination and hate.
Moreover, UCL was notably late in creating a comprehensive, university-wide response system regarding racism in the community. The first initiative from the university that can be described as such is ‘Report + Support’, an online platform that was launched as part of ‘Full Stop ’– the university’s anti-bullying and sexual misconduct campaign — in February 2019. The platform is described as an online tool where students can report “issues of bullying, harassment, or sexual misconduct” either anonymously or by personally contacting an advisor.
However, the system is marked by a serious flaw. According to the Report + Support website, the university’s decision to take action after receiving a report depends on “how you choose to report it.” This refers to the vastly differing outcomes between reports that are filed anonymously versus those that include the victim’s contact details; interestingly, reports which include identifying details such as name, UCL ID, and email address have a higher probability of being turned into formal cases. Though the website claims that patterns that emerge across anonymous reports will lead HR staff to “initiate conversations” within the departments in question, it also plainly states that “no further action can be taken” in the individual cases.
Therefore, if anonymous reports lead to no substantial action being taken, it is important to determine why students may choose to report anonymously at all. In UCL’s 2020-2021 Annual Report on Bullying, Harassment, and Sexual Misconduct, it was revealed that 17% of all anonymous victims were “worried about retaliation,” 16% were concerned that this incident “might affect [their] current/future career” and 15% believed that “nothing would be done”. These discouraging numbers allude to students’ lack of trust in the institution’s ability to protect them and their identities.
This mistrust may also lead to underreporting of incidents in the first place, especially in the case of microaggressions, which can be defined as “the everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalised experience in their day-to-day interactions with people”.
A victim of microaggression, wishing to remain anonymous, shared their story with The Cheese Grater. While in their room, their flatmate repeatedly asked them to put on rap songs they described as “proper ghetto”, insisting that the student would recognize them because of their ethnicity; the flatmate proceeded to ask questions about the student’s familial and financial background, while mocking them with a stereotypical accent from Nigeria, the student’s home country. They decided against reporting it, as that flatmate was someone they would “live with and see every day”.
Such instances illustrate a collective shift in student attitudes regarding reporting microaggressions towards dismissal — as a result, many of these behaviours go unchallenged. The Annual Report substantiates this, as most reports received highlighted “more overt behaviour,” with microaggressions named directly “only a few times,” suggesting that subtle behaviours are not regarded as “serious enough to be reported.”
The current failings of UCL in preventing and punishing racially motivated incidents are made all the more disgraceful by its historic and current ties to racists. Despite efforts to ‘Decolonise the Curriculum’, the university is still haunted by its colonial ties in its insufficiently diverse academic curriculum and negligence in renaming the Petrie Museum. Furthermore, just this year, UCL apologised for its historic role in the “development, propagation and legitimisation of eugenics.”
While these historic issues are problematic enough, the administration continues to be embroiled in a racist scandal. Most recently, in November, it was reported that UCL has been the beneficiary of funding from the Alexander Mosley Trust, whose funds largely stem from the personal fortune of Oswald Mosley, the late leader of the British Fascists. Mosley was infamous for presiding over anti-semitic attacks against Jewish people in the UK. How UCL accepted these donations and whether it even detected their problematic nature is yet to be seen. But, it is evident that this fits into a pattern of the administration making empty promises to appease students of colour but failing to take decisive action to protect them. Thus, it is perhaps no wonder that many victims of racially-aggravated incidents do not trust their university to protect them, opting to remain anonymous or not report at all, which, in turn, may empower racists on campus to act out and go unpunished.
While the new Provost’s administration may seek to wipe its hands of this pattern of racial collaboration, its ardent free speech policy leaves little hope for the future. In light of rising anti-semitism at universities across the UK, Michael Spence’s commitment to defending free speech, including Holocaust denial, as long as it does not break the law, is disturbing. While he clarified that he would not himself invite a denier to speak, he also contended that “I’m just not in the business of censorship. And I don’t think the university should be in the business of censorship.”
Such a dogmatic commitment to freedom of speech hardly aids in combating a culture of racism, and may indeed have the opposite effect.
The anti-semitic defacing of a bathroom at UCL is just the latest reported incident of racism at the university. It reflects the administration’s persistent failure to adequately diagnose and treat an endemic culture of racism. Not only have responses to complaints about institutional racism been myopic and misinformed, but the measures in place for reporting them are insufficient. The preference for anonymous reports suggests a fundamental mistrust in the university by victims of hate crimes, possibly informed by its persistent ties with racists and blind faith in free speech.
Anna Maria, Lily Peng, Neil Majithia and Tony Yang