Students at one of the UK’s leading higher-education institutions are calling for greater accountability from university leaders following a series of racist incidents.
Warwick University, consistently ranked among the top 10 in the country, recently made headlines after a student found the word "n*gga" scrawled on bananas in the shared kitchen of her halls of residence.
A tweet about the incident went viral and reignited concerns students of colour at Warwick have long held about the prevalence of racism they say exists on campus.
BuzzFeed News spoke to students of colour about their experiences. Examples included a charity "slave auction" that had a Django Unchained theme, white students donning blackface at parties, and messages including "I need thousands of big dark men's bananas" written on a fridge.
In another case, a picture of a person wrapped in a net was posted to a Warwick University community page, alongside the caption: "I caught me a n**ger!"
It was accounts like these that led to the establishment of the Anti-Racism Society in 2013, run voluntarily by a group of around 30 undergraduates. It offers students advice or someone to talk to through discussions on race-related issues, as well as sleepovers and movie nights.
Though a positive measure in one respect, co-president Mems Ayinla said it was set up in part because of a lack of response from the university in tackling racism.
Ayinla told BuzzFeed News that despite “racial abuse happening year after year” there was concern the university had no useful procedures to protect ethnic-minority students.
And instead of reporting incidents of racial abuse through the university’s online system, Dignity at Warwick, which is designed to let people report harassment and bullying on campus, Ayinla said many students of colour turned to the Anti-Racism Society.
However, the strain of dealing with racism, as well as coursework and exams, has begun to affect the mental health and wellbeing of the volunteers who help run it, Ayinla said.
She believes the frequency of racial abuse on campus is something the university should handle, not students.
“It’s not our responsibility to be cleaning up the mess of bigots," she said. "We want to focus on events, and work out ways to make things better for students of colour at Warwick… but we’re always being bogged down and side-tracked by racist issues."
When asked about the effectiveness of Dignity at Warwick, a university spokesperson said it was a “very detailed and carefully considered process” for students to report racial abuse.
“The university is always open to any constructive suggestion on how any service or process can be improved,” he added.
Ayinla claimed no one used Dignity at Warwick to report racist abuse, because “it’s not an appropriate way of expressing your feelings after an incident that’s often hurtful”.
“It was probably set up by people who don’t really understand what it feels like,” she added.
As a result, she said, many victims of racial abuse over the past three years have simply chosen to stay silent.
Now a petition, which has 1,757 signatures to date, is demanding a new zero-tolerance policy on racism as well as a commitment to develop the curriculum, which the campaigners say is Eurocentric, and address issues surrounding representation, including among faculty.
“It’s about getting the university to acknowledge the casual racism that goes on on campus,” Ayinla said. “But, most importantly, it’s about having a clear procedure for what happens if a student is racially abused.”
In a statement on diversity published online, Warwick’s vice chancellor, Stuart Croft, said the university wants to create an “inclusive environment” for all students.
Figures sent to BuzzFeed News showed that in 2015 approximately 61% of students identified as white, 25% Asian, 5% black, 4% mixed, 0.3% Arab, and 0.7% other. The remaining 4% chose “unknown” or declined to share that information.
However, Ayinla said “an honest conversation” was needed about how Warwick may be failing ethnic-minority students. “It seems as though the university doesn’t care about people like me and [other people of colour]," she said. "They only seem to care about the perception of a diverse student body."
Safrina Ahmed, a 21-year-old sociology undergraduate, told BuzzFeed News racism was "rampant” on campus.
In the three years she has been a student at Warwick, Ahmed said, she has experienced both subtle and more open forms of racism.
“I have been called a Paki, seen students in blackface, [and] been told by a multitude of white men they’d like to sleep with an Asian,” she said. “The covert racism is a lot harder to detail, but I think it can only be summed up as institutional racism – the idea that you have to work twice as hard as your white peers, or that the university thinks racism doesn’t even exist. I think that is why it is so sorely underreported at Warwick.”
Ahmed said she joined the Anti-Racism Society after growing “increasingly frustrated” with the lack of dialogue about race at the university.
“I was also craving a support space as a racialised, Muslim woman,” she said. “I felt the Anti-Racism Society could understand all of these identities, and I could connect to people of similar positions to myself.”
She told BuzzFeed News racism made it “exhausting” being a student: “I have seen plenty of staff and students mentally exhausted from trying to work twice as hard, twice as fast, as well as protect themselves from the dehumanising nature of racism.”
Another student recalled a “disgusting incident” that took place in February in which some of his flatmates arranged word magnets on their fridge to read: “I need thousands of big dark men’s bananas.”
Faustino McCalla St Luce, a first-year studying politics, international studies, and French, said, “Whilst many would brush it away as a harmless joke, it was anything but.”
“Black men have consistently been reduced to, and dehumanised as, a muscle-clad walking penis, whose achievements are often undermined by their perceived physical prowess and manhood,” he added.
St Luce did not feel comfortable reporting the incident to the university as he believed he would be met with “bureaucracy and indifference”.
Instead the 19-year-old shared his experience with Warwick’s Anti-Racism Society during an event, which he said he found helpful. “The point generated good discussion and debate, which was far more productive than being dragged through a fruitless process,” he said.
Warwick graduate Pam Nnajiuba, 25, said that while she’d had a great time at the university, it became “exasperating constantly calling people out for racism”.
One year, she said, the university’s cheerleading club decided to give its annual “slave auction” a Django Unchained theme. “It was the fact that it was alluding to the transatlantic slave trade and making light of it that was not OK,” she said. “Lots of ethnic-minority students thought it was absolutely ridiculous that in this day and age they thought they could get away with calling their slave auction a Django slave auction.”
Nnajiuba was also part of the Warwick rowing society, and described it as “one of the most discriminating, elitist, and non-welcoming clubs of campus”. “It felt like a public schoolboy’s club,” she said.
In another incident, in 2014, she recalled one of its members uploaded a Snapchat photo to a Warwick University community page on Facebook with a racist caption that was not deleted.
A spokesperson for the university told BuzzFeed News that the page was not controlled by the university or the student union.
Nnajiuba said she believes the intention was never to be racially abusive, and it had more to do with “ignorance, entitlement, and a lack of sensitivity”. “They never question what they do,” she said. “For them, everything is a joke.”
Following the banana incident in April, Warwick acted swiftly in launching an investigation. A spokesperson told BuzzFeed News the student involved, Faramade Ifaturoti, has been offered alternative on-campus accommodation while the matter is being investigated. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the university told BuzzFeed News the police are examining the matter.
Ifaturoti, a 19-year-old biomedical-science student, told BuzzFeed News she felt targeted, and that it wasn’t the first time something like this had happened at her university.
Ayinla was sceptical of the university’s response, arguing that the publicity had spurred leaders into action. “When the retweets stop, the media outlets stop caring because they have other stories to follow," she said, "then it’s just back to normal [because] the university hasn’t institutionalised anything.”
The furore comes as university campuses across Britain grapple with similar issues of racial discrimination and anti-Semitism.
Adam Elliott-Cooper, a PhD student in human geography at Oxford University, told BuzzFeed News universities are not always the places of “enlightenment and worldliness” society perceives them to be.
Instead, he said, the type of racism at UK universities is among “the crudest forms of bigotry imaginable that usually people associate with football stands and the tabloid press, but they are actually here in our educational institutions.”
Elliott-Cooper has supported the Rhodes Must Fall Oxford campaign, a student-led movement which called for the removal of a 19th-century statue of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, as well as a diversification of the curriculum.
He first became involved in anti-racism campaigning while an undergraduate at Nottingham University, after the student union’s education officer held up a placard saying “Bring Back Slavery” during a training event, The Guardian reported at the time.
The officer in question apologised for his “mistake” after the incident was reported to the National Union of Students (NUS), the student union, and the university.
“The way in which universities are structured – from the curriculum that’s provided for students, to the way faculties view students as commodities rather than human beings – is symptomatic of the crude forms of racial bigotry we’re seeing displayed in the wider issues that Warwick students are talking about,” Elliot-Cooper said.
Welcoming the call for a more diverse curriculum, he added: “It’s through understanding the intellectual and moral standing of people of colour from across the world that we can humanise these people, and therefore undermine the very logic of the kind of crude racism that we continue to see and the more institutionalised forms of racism that structure these kinds of higher educational institutions as well.”
The new NUS president, Malia Bouattia, who was formerly the union's black students' officer and has had to defend herself against allegations of anti-Semitism, said in her experience “many universities either flat-out refuse to acknowledge there are issues of racism on their campuses, or are too concerned with maintaining good PR to engage with students who raise concerns.
“This creates a culture where covert racism can thrive unchallenged and can slide into overt incidents.”