In February 2018, an anonymous letter circulated social media encouraging violence against Muslims on what would be known as ‘Punish a Muslim Day’. The letter allocated ‘points’ as a reward for varying levels of abuse, including 25 points to pull a hijab off a Muslim woman, and 100 points for a physical attack. On the 9th April, five Muslim students were racially abused whilst waiting for a bus in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, including one who was head butted and her hijab ripped from her head.
Hate-based prejudice is a growing problem we need to face in our universities. Unfortunately, the NUS report ‘No Place for Hate’, based on a national survey of 9,229 students, found 18% had experienced at least one incident of verbal abuse or threats of violence, and 15% had experienced one or more forms of physical abuse whilst studying at their current institution.
"However, with critically low reporting rates, institutions have not been able to gain a comprehensive insight into the experiences of their own students, not least to understand why they aren’t coming forward."
This research has been commissioned by Keele Students’ Union, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (now Office for Students). Our research reveals the complex reasons behind the low reporting rates, and highlight significant barriers that continue to restrict reporting rates.
Barriers to reporting hate-based prejudice
The terms ‘hate crime’ and ‘hate incident’ continue to be poorly understood by the student population. The characterisation of incidents as ‘hate’ is highly problematic, and overlooks the more subtle and nuanced issues of bias and discrimination in everyday life. It is precisely this that misleads students to believe incidents can only be reported if they are ‘very obvious’, ‘very serious’, or ‘very severe’: incidents that are deemed ‘too trivial’ to report often slip through the proverbial net. However, it is precisely these smaller incidents left unchecked by academic and professional staff that lay the foundations for more severe forms of abuse.
Our students often arrive at university having experienced abuse and prejudice, which are a normative feature in their daily lives. Burt, Simmons and Gibbons, in their 2012 study of African American youths, discuss the process of preparation minority adolescents go through to help them cope through the bias they will invariably face in a white, heteronormative society. This often starts at an early age, as families and community members warn young people about discrimination, and equip them with the strategic tools they need to cope with prejudice. This practice can help build resilience and arguably act as a psychological ‘buffer’ enabling students to ‘brush off’, ‘laugh off’ or ignore incidents. Reporting is viewed as a long, arduous process, in which the student must internally re-examine trauma, increasing their psychological vulnerability. It is perhaps unsurprising that students felt it was a better option to utilise their long developed coping strategies to deal with it themselves, rather than speak to us about it.
When they do speak out, students often choose to talk to peers as way of making sense these experiences. Meyer (2010) highlights the role others take in structuring how people interpret their trauma, and peers can offer crucial validation to their experiences. Friends provide valuable advice on how the victim should perceive, and subsequently respond, to abuse as well as providing some light-hearted relief. We found that student societies are absolutely instrumental in providing this peer support, nurturing a sense of belonging for the victim amidst an environment which actively ‘others’ them.
"However, peer support is a double –edged sword. Students often feared ostricisation from their friendship circles, or becoming social outcasts if they were ‘found out’ to have reported. Similarly, students were anxious about being constructed as a ‘trouble maker’, or worse, the aggressor."
Furthermore, we need to recognise the cultural positionality of marginalised communities. Fear of the police and authority within marginal communities is well documented, however we need to understand how community fear plays out within an institutional setting. The concerns of parents, grandparents and siblings all shape perceptions of authority, including professional support services, influencing a student’s decision whether or not to access them. This also means breaking down the preconceived white perpetrator and marginalised victim dichotomy. Relationships within and between marginalised groups are highly fluid, and influenced by a myriad of factors. Bias was frequently reported between groups: for example BAME perpetrators to LGBT+ victims, Muslim students to Jewish students, and vice versa.
Finally, students do not have faith in their universities to adequately deal with hate. I understand that acknowledging a lack of trust in your university is a difficult pill to swallow. However, if students don’t believe we will take their claims seriously, and offer them adequate support they will not tell us; in the words of one student, ‘what is the point in reporting if nothing will get solved?’. Students look for the examples we set through our treatment of sexual violence, how we respond to bullying, and how we are encouraging diversity through initiatives through the Race Equality Charter, and the push to decolonise the curriculum.
What can we do to change?
If we are serious about tackling hate-based prejudice in universities, we need to do more to support our students, who are often away from home and their communities. We must talk to our students and listen to what they have to say. Good policy can only arise from solid research.
We need to rethink the language we are using to make these discussions more accessible to the wider student body. What do we mean by ‘hate’? What can (and should) be reported? And fundamentally, how can we explain this to students who may not have English as their first language?
Universities need to dramatically improve their reporting mechanisms: reporting should be as accessible as possible, fully transparent and anonymous, if the student wishes. In addition, the process needs to be streamlined; too many students complain of having to undergo a long, arduous process which not only takes time away from their studies, but can have a detrimental impact on their mental health.
Whilst Keele was one of the 45 HE and FE institutions in receipt of HEFCE funding, this money is short term. The issues of hate will be present long after the funding has ceased; what measures be put in place by universities to ensure staff carry on the legacy of these projects. #Me too spurred a revolution in fighting sexual violence on our campuses. We need to do the same for hate.
Dr. Diane Atherton-Blenkiron is a Student Safeguarding Project Officer at Keele Students' Union, and managing a HEFCE-funded catalyst project tackling hate crime and online harassment.
The Harassment and Sexual Assault instrument of the ProtectED Code of Practice requires member universities to have a range of policies and procedures in place to support students, including running events to celebrate cultural diversity, and providing accessible, anonymous reporting options.
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