Responding to racial harassment

It was not just my own experience of harassment within the University that influenced my decision to join the RETF’s Responding to Racial Harassment working group, I joined primarily because it was the first statement of the eleven in the BME Staff Network open letter to the Vice Chancellor last June. It is a priority because trust was lost, accountability was not generally seen to matter,  careers, study and most importantly people were being harmed for want of addressing either unconscious or conscious discriminating behaviour towards staff, students and/or visitors racialised as non-white.

The Reporting of Racist Harassment should be made possible through a clear, widely publicised and easily accessible mechanism. This would also enable the monitoring and collection of data on racial harassment within the University. Additionally, BME staff members should have a space in which to discuss issues of race and racism safely.

BME Staff Network Open Letter to the Vice Chancellor, June 2020

Universities are seen internally and externally as bastions of progressive and liberal ideas. Historian, David Olugosa observed recently, this makes them very difficult places to discuss the racism that takes place within them because the assumption is that liberalism and progressive ideas preclude such backward ideology as racial prejudice and white supremacy. Still last Summer, as the slow execution of George Floyd in the United States lit a match across the world, the members of the BME Staff Network met and drew up a list of things the University of Oxford could do to improve the racial climate here where it seemed, strangely, least expected. The Vice-Chancellor gathered up the lists from different groups and proposed a task force to look into the issues raised over that Covid Summer.

The Racial Equality Task Force provided an opportunity for internal reflection on what this University could do to be anti-racists rather than non-racist. As a non-racist University, Oxford has been unsuccessful at halting the racial harassment that has mentally and physically harmed staff and students, diverted them from their purpose for being at the University, and moved them out the University as through a revolving door. As anti-racist University, Oxford will make every effort to communicate, from the top,  its intolerance of racially discriminating behaviour, educate its staff, students, and guests about the behaviour expected, provide clear and assessable ways for reporting adverse behaviour, and hold people visibly accountable for their behaviour so the community can learn and the culture can change and fully develop, use, and celebrate the talents of all.

Nothing has taught us more that leadership matters than the recent Covid pandemic so it is important that senior management across the collegiate University sing from the same hymnal when it comes to tackling racial harassment. This is why the recommendations has a section entitled “create a harassment-free culture” that highlights training, zero tolerance campaign, and implementing strategies to address common incidents of microaggressions and subtle discrimination that creates a toxic environment for BME staff and students (and doubtlessly other visibly marginalised groups within the University). Before we can have accountability, we must “fund a programme to improve reporting and accountability.” As chair of the working group, I heard from witnesses, harassment advisors, and victims of harassment and learned what damage reporting under the current system does to the victims when there is no accountability or worse, the victim is made to pay the cost of reporting by being revictimized. We know there has been an underreporting of harassment and, anecdotally, I have spoken to colleagues who moved on rather than face the prospect of going through the current reporting system.  We have called for an online reporting tool for open and transparent way of reporting concerns and a robust process for record-keeping and reporting to stakeholders held accountable for dealing with racial harassment so they can monitor overtime any repeated incidents of racial harassment among staff, students or visitors. We also want to determine what are the barriers to reporting so we can further improve the data gathering needed to reduce unfortunate incidents of racial harassment and chilling discriminating behaviour.

Being the victim of harassment, any kind of harassment, is a shock to the system and individuals who may never have come across this behaviour may find it mentally and emotionally difficult to deal with on their own. They require support. While there are harassment advisors trained through the Equality and Diversity Unit, we found there was a need to “put in place resources to improve capacity and capability of harassment support.” Increasing the resources needed to provide specialist investigators in areas such as racial harassment and homophobia, review and improve the advisor role through further guidance, training and support networks, and provide a full-time permanent harassment partner to oversee implementation of an enhanced service.

But ultimately, everything comes back to the type of community we want to see and be at Oxford. We are asking everyone to not assume someone else is taking care that anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-sexist environment exists at Oxford. We are asking everyone to educate themselves and act in a way that does not cause harm to their colleagues and students from marginalised communities by being consciously or unconsciously discriminatory towards them. It’s the very least an institution of Oxford’s global reputation can do to retain its world-class staff and students.

Take part in the Race Equality Task Force consultation

All staff and students can contribute to the Race Equality Task Force consultation, giving you the chance to feedback on proposed measures for tackling the under-representation of racial minorities at Oxford.  You can either give your views on the overall priorities (which only takes a few minutes); or complete the full survey to provide more detailed input. You have until 1 December to take part.

The views in this blog are those of the individual and do not represent the unanimous view of all members of the Race Equality Task Force.