Complaints about racism must be heard and acted upon

Too many students still feel calling racism out will only get them in trouble, writes Harinder Randhawa

Too many students still feel calling racism out will only get them in trouble, writes Harinder Randhawa

27 Jun 2023, 5:00

The Student Commission on Racial Justice will soon publish its 2023 Manifesto for Action. Over five weeks, its commissioners will set out its five key priorities and recommendations exclusively for FE Week.

Since becoming a commissioner on the student commission for racial justice last year, I have been working to bring about change in the way colleges address and tackle racism. One of the key ways they can either support or hinder that work is in how they manage and resolve complaints. Accordingly, a key recommendation in our manifesto for action is for colleges to review their complaints structures and processes and to involve students to increase trust in their effectiveness.

As part of our work for the commission, our research found that students from minoritised ethnic groups are less likely than white students to report the race-related incidents they experience or witness. Some say it’s because they don’t feel safe, and only 58 per cent believe appropriate action would be taken.

When I spoke with students about the changes they want to see in their settings, it was clear to see the reality behind those statistics. A great number told me about the biases they experience. This included a number of instances, for example, of security guards not letting students onto campus, which they felt could only be due to their ethnic background as they weren’t causing problems or being rude. 

Sadly, I also had to witness unfair treatment first-hand when a student tried to speak out about racism. With courage, they decided to give the voiceless students in the room a voice. They put their foot down and called out someone in the room who, during an assembly, who had boldly used a stereotype to slander Indian people. 

The student who spoke out was reprimanded and told they should leave the perpetrator alone. Meanwhile, the perpetrator got away with it. The student who had spoken on behalf of the South Asian community felt publicly shamed for doing so, and the perpetrator faced no consequences, let alone any expectation that they should take responsibility for their actions.

In this context, is it any surprise students believe it’s easier to ignore race-related incidents? Speaking out about racism is just as important as asking for help when you don’t understand your assignment. Every individual should be treated with dignity, respect and have the right to feel safe.

When a student speaks out, they should be listened to

Students spoke to us about how there should be more diverse ways to raise concerns when it comes to race-related incidents. They said they would benefit from having an anonymous drop-box or an email form. They want to be able to speak about their concerns and get a response that is quick and effective.

An example of a positive response is to have a mediation session where both parties involved explain themselves and show understanding. The mediator can then see whether the perpetrator is genuinely remorseful, whether the victim needs further support, and bring the situation to an end that satisfies everyone.

In cases where perpetrators don’t take responsibility for their actions, students in our research suggested the reasonable second step of requiring the perpetrator to complete an awareness course on the impact of racism, with a threshold pass mark for returning to college. Students should be supported to learn and understand, but safeguarding must surely require some proof that their potential victims are safe from further harm.

It speaks highly of the student body that, while some felt strongly that racism should be severely punished, most want to see a response focused on education to break cycles of behaviour.

And in the end, that willingness to learn must apply to teachers too. When a student speaks out about racially motivated unfair treatment, they should be listened to. There should be a clear process to follow that re-builds that student’s confidence and trust.

If we really mean to deliver racial justice in education, then we must break the vicious cycle of complaints being ignored. That means all teachers must be appropriately and adequately trained to fight racism as an integral part of their important role in shaping the next generation.

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