Hide! The word police are out to get you, apparently.
Recently, the University announced its newest bid to tackle racism on campus with its ‘Race Equality Champions’ initiative. Starting later this year, the University will pay a group of 20 students to lead “healthy conversations”, covering perceptions of racism and how to tackle microaggressions on campus and in University residences. In reaction, the University has faced fierce criticism, even being dubbed a ‘microaggression monitor’. So is this really a violation of free speech, or an attempt to address racism at university?
Last October, a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (ECHR) revealed that 24 percent of ethnic minority students experience racial harassment at university, most often by other students. It stated microaggressions were a common experience of students who suffered from racial abuse.
The Race Equality Champions will encourage discussions around the Windrush scandal, perceptions of racism in British society and microaggressions. In response to ongoing criticisms, SU Women’s Officer, Rosa Tully, told Forge “microaggressions simply represent one way in which students and staff of colour are racialised and worn down, not a means to trivialise the more serious instances of racism experienced by many…
…the training has never been about silencing people, nor has it been to encourage students to ‘police each other’ but instead to acknowledge the role we all have in challenging racism.”
Whilst seemingly ambiguous, microaggressions can be defined as “subtle yet offensive comments directed at black, Asian and minority ethnic people.” Examples of this may include remarks based on racial stereotypical assumptions. Yet the common misconception is that everything has become offensive, blowing out of proportion the potentially cumulative and demeaning insults, which are then dismissed as ‘sensitive’.
But the precise reasoning for such an initiative is reflected in student experiences. Simply, if racial harassment was not so prevalent at universities then this would not be necessary. It should not be seen as an attack on students, nor does it assume that individuals are inherently racist but instead acts as a point of guidance to cultural sensitivities. Whilst all students are encouraged to take part in the classes, they will not be compulsory, a detail remaining absent from many media reports.
There are undoubtedly many questions to be asked, like how these conversations will be guided, but the notion that this is a draconian crackdown on freedom of speech is simply not true.
The student-led approach instead seeks to stimulate more honest conversations about racism. It nurtures a safe environment, particularly for those who have experienced racism, to share their thoughts. To neglect this seems somewhat hypocritical and essentially discourages the very open debates which free speech champions.
To overlook this as a form of victim culture sets a dangerous precedent of complacency to racism and ignores the very real experiences which so many students face at university.
Olive Enokido- Lineham is an Opinion Contributor.
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