Racism in Edinburgh and the plight of PoC to ensure an adequate response

On Friday 11th December at 7pm, Michael Nio, a British student at the University of Edinburgh was attacked by a group of teenagers outside of the University’s George Square library. This article, however, is not a news article and will not talk about this event from an impartial perspective. Racism does not deserve impartiality.

On Friday 11th December at 7pm, Michael Nio, a British student at the University of Edinburgh was attacked by a group of teenagers outside of the University’s George Square library. This article, however, is not a news article and will not talk about this event from an impartial perspective. Racism does not deserve impartiality. 

Nor shall this article pretend that racism acts in one-time events or stand-alone situations. Instead, this article will make Friday’s attack the point of projection of an onslaught of reactions and events that demonstrate: the continued institutional racism at the University of Edinburgh and the wider Edinburgh community, the lack of support offered to students of colour who experience racism, the lateness/complete inefficiency of the University to take action against racist perpetrators, which burdens students of colour to force an adequate response to racial abuse alone.

Since Friday’s attack, Michael Nio took it upon himself to tell the wider Edinburgh community of this incident by posting a description of the attack on the Edinburgh community Facebook Group, “The Meadows Share.” The fact that the victim must first suffer this abuse and then feel like it is his responsibility to alert others highlights a (rightful) lack of faith in positions of authority (the University and the police) to notify others of this event and take action efficiently. This should not have been his responsibility. 

Further lack of sensitivity and respect shown for the victim was then demonstrated by The Edinburgh Evening News, who reported the event after Michael offered his time and emotional labour to them through an interview. Their headline described Michael as 17 year old, when he is in fact 22. Racism is bad regardless of what age you are, and the newspaper’s decision to headline that he was a minor suggests that the emotional response to racism should vary with the age of the victim. The headline acts more like a form of clickbait rather than giving the incident the sensitivity it deserves. 

Since this, Michael yet again took the burden upon himself to contact the newspaper to change this detail, stating in a Meadows Share post that the article also contained “a few factual inaccuracies.” This displays a lazy attitude on behalf of The Edinburgh Evening News and indicates an absence of respect for the victim who did not have to give his time or energy to an interview. 

In response to this event, one meadows sharer commented that events like this cannot be policed since the University cannot simply increase security presence when the campus is based all over the city. This is not only wrong to the incident at hand, since it happened on library grounds and within the University owned George Square campus; but also suggests that outside of university buildings racism cannot be controlled, and in a sense should be expected. This dangerously falls into justifying racist events which should not be tolerated anywhere in Edinburgh.

Police Scotland has since stated that they will increase patrols in the George Square area and that they are working closely with the University to investigate the incident. This is acceptable.

The University of Edinburgh has also issued a statement in light of the attack. Its brevity enables me to include it in the article without fear of it straining my word count. It follows:

On Friday 11 December 2020, one of our students was the victim of a racist attack outside the Main Library. This was an appalling incident, which we wholeheartedly condemn.

All of our University community should feel safe on campus, and we will not tolerate violence, racism or any other form of discrimination.

We are working closely with Police Scotland to support their investigations into the incident, and to increase the presence of security and police in the area. We have conducted a swift review into our response on the night and continue to work with the student community to address their concerns.

A range of help has been offered to the victim to support them after their ordeal. However, this will of course be upsetting and concerning for our whole community. We want to reassure our students and staff that we will do everything in our power to ensure that people have a safe and happy experience on campus.

Anyone affected by the incident should contact our Advice Place on advice@eusa.ed.ac.uk, or visit the following links to access support:

This is not acceptable. There was no apology for the inadequacy of security during the attack, which has since been revealed that there were only three security guards on campus. Furthermore, how will the University not tolerate violence, and ensure that the community feels safe?

PoC who experience racial attacks and then go to University for support are constantly dismissed with links to EUSA and The Advice Place. Tumi Akeke (co-founder of BlackED) highlighted that not a single BME person works at The Advice Place. Likewise, counselling at this University is already highly criticised and underfunded, with the waiting list for a counsellor leaving a student without professional support for months when they require immediate help. There is also only one BME counsellor at this University, which often leaves students of colour who would prefer a BME counsellor (much like female students would prefer a female counsellor) worried that a white counsellor runs the risk of ignorance through lack of personal experiences of racism. 

Disclaimer: this does not mean that white people should stop trying to educate themselves on racism and leave PoC to support each other alone; rather it is an incentive to actively learn more so that PoC can approach white people about racial issues without fear of reproach or worry that they have to educate white people about racism when it is not their responsibility.

While the University does not provide statistics for its total BME population, there are over 6,000 students from China alone, and the number of reported offenses against East/South East Asians in the first three months of 2020 in the UK has tripled compared to 2018 and 2019 figures of the same time frame.  We cannot assume that the spike in racial abuse due to Covid has not taken an emotional toll on the East/South East Asian community, both international and UK-born. There are not enough counsellors as it is, and the number of students seeking help is only rising. 

A University Counselling representative has stated that the University is currently advertising new posts for BME counsellors specifically, as well as a general advert for counsellors regardless of their ethnicity; something which the counselling service has been asking for “some time”. In addition, all counsellors have been trained in cultural competence in accordance to BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) framework. While this has been a long time coming, this offers a hopeful incentive for reform.

Adding to the general sentiment of distrust in the University to alone handle this event, Mukai Cleopatra Chigumba (co-founder of BlackED) took it upon herself to create the Facebook Group “Edinburgh University PoC Walking Group”. Since it was set up, the University has offered no support to this group, nor has it offered its own plan for immediately increasing its support to PoC to make sure they feel safe on campus. 

Likewise, the Instagram page “Racism Unmasked Edinburgh” has also been created to tackle the lack of representation East/South East Asian people face in Edinburgh. On 15th December at 7pm the group organised a stationary show of solidarity outside Gordon Aikman Theatre, at which speeches were made, stories were shared, and poetry was recited. The massive turn out demonstrates the strong discontent felt towards the overt institutional racism at the University, and its inability to take the issue as seriously and definitively as it claims to do.

It seems that the University only reacts to racism once a racial hate crime has happened, for which there is always one to follow. 

The racist incident to follow this time: on Sunday 13th December, Dhruti Chakravarthi and Niharika Pandya took to the University library and staged a protest to highlight the University’s “ineffective” and “bureaucratic” measures it puts racial victims through and demand that it University take more action to ensure that students of colour feel safe on campus. Again, students of colour taking the burden of action against racism unto themselves. 

Sadly proving the very necessity of this anti-racism protest, a protestor tied against a pillar was then racially abused by her former co-Editor in Chief of The Student Newspaper. She was called a “manipulator, liar, and a coward” among other vile words all while she was tied up to a pillar protesting about how she does not feel safe at this University as a PoC. This is not the first time this person has verbally assaulted her in such a manner. After spouting their abuse, other protestors proceeded to reprimand them for such words, to which they denied their racist behaviour and continued to victimise themselves; demonstrating the lack of education the University has providing in assuring this kind of ignorance does not go unnoticed. 

Alongside this, this person has written articles in defence of the right wing’s misunderstanding of “free speech” in the face of university newspapers’ leftist “censorship,” why the words of Martin Luther King indicate that they should not be cancelled, and why the climate crisis is not a corporate issue. 

Furthermore, during the protest a security guard came up to Dhruti and informed her that she should untie herself from the pillar for if she were attacked she would not be able to escape. This is not only a form of victim blaming in anticipation of an attack, but also presents an inability for the security on campus to protect their students. The security guard later informed the protesters that because there are only three security guards on campus, in the case of a racist attack, the procedure follows that: the victim would have to suffer the attack, go to the library to report it, then the library would call central security, who would have to call someone on duty to go to the scene of the attack (which would have already happened due to this incredibly long procedure). 

Another protestor, Kantoh Ohara Maéda, notably compared this procedure to the University’s fire safety procedure. In the case of a fire, University personnel act immediately to ensure the safety of students, are trained vigorously for what to do in the case of this emergency, and “cover every legal measure needed to prevent the risk” of it happening in the first place. In terms of racial attacks, however, action (if any happens at all) does not happen with the same efficiency or level of immediate concern, which reveals the degrading nature in which students of colour are treated. 

Kantoh also states, “Being attacked is not a reasonable risk any student should have to take to go to the library, and this sadly disproportionately endangers people of colour.”

At the library protest outside the following Monday, one University official also told the protesters that they had to remove their signs… The University underfunds their security and counselling services but then builds a vacant student village in front of the Grade A listed McEwan Hall, and then tells protestors they are not allowed to put signs about anti-racism in front of a library littered by cigarette butts?

When the issues of Sunday’s protest were highlighted to the University, they proceeded to send a copy of their statement about Friday’s library attack. When told that this was a separate event, it must have surprised them that their statement did not eliminate racism at the University entirely. Unsurprisingly, upon understanding that racism is a perpetual issue on campus, links to The Advice Place were sent as they proceeded sit back with content in the full knowledge that they have let down another student of colour with aloof and sweeping statements of “zero tolerance” followed by zero action. 

Students are not asking to be told about the facilities already on offer because we are already aware of such sparse resources. We are asking for active reform in the way that the University deals with racism, tackling the issue actively and consistently rather than sporadically and half-heartedly. Their current system neglects unreported events and the everyday racism every student of colour faces, and puts the responsibility of racial justice onto students. They must be held accountable for this.

The University must be more proactive in tackling racism. This includes: providing continued educational resources on anti-racism (not just when the topic of racism “blows up”), visually and consistently promoting anti-racism on campus, responding to racist acts with immediate effect and immediate disciplinary action to practice the “zero tolerance” policy they preach, and providing adequate support to victims of racism. None of these are new ideas: they were demanded in the summer when BLM gained traction, and by many students before. 

It is reassuring to know that members of the Student Association are now said to be in talks with University heads about improving measures against racism. I do, however, wonder how many of these talks in the past also happened after racial attacks and came to little or no end once the “hype” went away. 

I hope the very best for these talks, but also believe that continued pressure, publicity, and vigilance is what will ultimately guarantee that material change is made on an administrative level. This should not be the case, but is also why students (particularly students of colour) continue to act: not because they want to, but because they consistently feel the need to hold the University to account. 

Organisations like BlackED and Racism Unmasked Edinburgh should not have to do the University’s dirty work when it comes to fighting racism. The University constantly goes to such organisations and PoC asking what they should do to reform, and when told exactly what they must do, little comes to fruition. The University needs to take the initiative for once. Students of colour should not have to bear the emotional labour of first of all experiencing racism, looking after themselves and the wider BME community, and then enacting change on behalf of the University.

The University’s students of colour are not just here to fill a diversity quota. The diverse international community is not just here to help put the University on a top spot in academic leader boards. The least the University can do is protect its students. 

Manvir Dobb, Arts and Culture Editor

cover image by Manvir Dobb