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Students demand UK universities take urgent action against racism

Exeter University students who say they were subject to racist abuse call for systemic change in handling of prejudice

Sharon Hendry

Mon 2 Apr 2018

Students at the University of Exeter are calling for urgent changes after a spate of racist incidents, which they say are happening on campus and within student societies.

Chris Omanyondo, Arsalan Motavali and Roman Ibra, all 21, have come forward to the Guardian to describe incidents of racism, including one in which they allege Ibra was called a “nigger” by a group of fellow students, who also allegedly used the word “Paki” and made offensive comments about burqas and 9/11.

Five students from the university were suspended in March after complaints that , including “if you ain’t English, go home”, “bomb the mosques” and “we need a race war”.

In response, hundreds of students reportedly attended an anti–racism rally on campus to express their concerns over the “recent vile racist and misogynistic comments” and the “systemic issues” behind them.

In a joint statement to the Guardian, Omanyondo, Motavali and Ibra said: “These incidents are happening all the time but they are not all visible. There will be other group chats and other incidents of intimidation but we will not always see the prejudice.”

In February 2017, Exeter launched an investigation after a “Rights for Whites” sign was found in a hall of residence. It followed a separate incident at freshers’ week in 2016 when swastikas were carved on doors at a hall of residence and photographs were shared on Facebook of students wearing T–shirts with the phrases: “Don’t speak to me if you’re not white” and “The Holocaust was a good time”. A spokesperson said at the time: “The university believes any form of racist or discriminatory behaviour is unacceptable and the actions of those involved are in contrast to the vast majority of students, who help to build our tolerant and inclusive university community.”

The three men said: “There needs to be a big systemic change in the way academic institutions deal with racism. Someone needs to stand up urgently and say publicly to all students: ‘Whether you believe something is a joke or not, it will not be tolerated.’ Universities need to let all students know what the stance on racism is. We need to say racism in any form is not OK.”

Omanyondo said he had had no experience of overt prejudice or racial slurs while growing up in London and studying biomedical science at King’s College, London.

“I didn’t appreciate the diversity of London until I got to Exeter and immediately sensed a different vibe – but I just carried on and attempted to make friends,” he said.

“We haven’t chosen to put ourselves in the spotlight, but when racism happened to us we felt like we had to take up the mantle. We know there are others out there suffering with no one to talk to, nowhere to go, and we speak on behalf of them too. Now, surely, it’s up to the UK’s chancellors, who are shaping future leaders, to do the same.”

Omanyondo, a second year law student, played football on the Law Society team alongside the students who were suspended over the WhatsApp messages.

He said he had no idea about the content of the WhatsApp conversations, which he says referred to him as a “monkey” and a “nigger”.

“The team was a good way of making friends … On the pitch, it felt equal, like a family even. Most people would describe it as a laddish culture and there were a lot of jokes but not racist jokes. There was nothing to indicate what was in the WhatsApp messages.” He said the group chat was called Dodgy Blokes Soc.

Five students have been suspended from the university, its societies and all pending employment positions during a “major investigation” into the incidents. Some have had their work placements at law firms cancelled.

Omanyondo said he and his friends felt compelled to go public because the university had swept a previous racial incident under the carpet.

“A year ago, Roman was writing an essay in his halls of residence in the early hours when a group of four students came back drunk and began chanting ‘Roman is a nigger’ when he asked them to be quiet.

“We took the incident to the appropriate university channels but it was five months before we received an email saying the incident had been dealt with ‘appropriately’ – but we weren’t given any details and the students remain at the university.

Ibra, who is of Nigerian descent and was raised in London, said he was shocked but not surprised by the WhatsApp messages because of his earlier experience.

“I had never felt disadvantaged or been called a ‘nigger’ before I came to Exeter. I went to their flat and immediately confronted them, which eventually ended in the caveat that they ‘meant it only as a joke’. Their dismissiveness was as concerning as the racism itself.”

However, he said: “The real issue now is how the University of Exeter responds to racism.” After the incident in the halls last June, Ibra said, the university did not consult him about how the evidence was being handled. “I put my trust in the university and it let me down.”

The University of Exeter said racism and offensive behaviour in any form was not tolerated and should be reported. The university said it took “all claims of discrimination extremely seriously”. The allegation of racial abuse in the hall of residence had been investigated, including listening to audio recordings and interviewing those involved.

“Based on this investigation, it was found that the evidence did not substantiate the claim of racial abuse, and therefore that there was no case to answer. This thorough process took time. At the conclusion – as in all such cases, regardless of the outcome – the information provided to the complainant was necessarily limited due to issues of privacy and data protection.”

Omanyondo was first shown the WhatsApp messages by his friend and teammate Motavali on 19 February. Motavali, a law student, said he had unwittingly been left in the Dodgy Blokes Soc chat, which quickly deteriorated into racism.

Motavali, who was born in Iran and grew up in London, wrote in a Facebook post, which was removed by the social media site: “Repeated racial slurs, a call for a race war and racially insulting peers would be enough to get individuals severely disciplined, fired and shunned in any other workplace – the university should act no differently.

“I refuse to stand by and let such people who speak in these terms go on to recruit at future law firms or be a part of university culture, whilst cowering behind their phones and talking like this about people that are part of the society they represent.

“I came to this university to learn, better myself and be a part of a community I was led to believe were tolerant and welcoming to all students, regardless of background. The University of Exeter has a serious racism problem that they need to deal with urgently and by setting a precedent.”

He wrote that he had spoken out because of an incident at Nottingham Trent University where two men were arrested after a video of racist slurs being shouted at a young woman in student accommodation emerged earlier this month.

Rufaro Chisango tweeted the video of the abuse, which is said to have included shouts of “we hate the blacks”, “sign the Brexit papers” and “Brexit, Brexit, Brexit”, while locked in her room.

Last week, it emerged that the Oxford University student Benedict Aldous, 20, had been selected for the university boat race despite being banned from social events at Christ Church College for wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume to a party.

A spokesman for the University of Exeter said: “The number of reports from students of alleged racism is extremely low, with less than five alleged incidents reported for each of the last five years. However, even one incident is one too many. Racism and offensive behaviour in any form is not tolerated and should be reported.

“The university will be working with the students’ guild and [the students’ union] FXU to build on existing cross–university campaigns and to develop new initiatives to ensure that discrimination and harassment of any kind is not tolerated on our campuses.”

Tuesday 3rd April 2018



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