Last month, the BBC published an article about racial harassment being a “common experience” for staff and students at Scottish universities. Citing a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the article said some institutions were “oblivious” to the severity of the problem. Notably, the report also indicated that incidences of racial harassment were lower among students at Scottish universities compared to institutions in England. However, this was attributed to the fact that England has a more ethnically-diverse student population.
Let me be honest: I initially doubted my decision to take on writing this article. Considering that I’ve only just arrived in Glasgow a little over a month ago, I felt unqualified to provide a well-rounded commentary on what may be considered a sensitive or emotionally-charged topic to some. Personally, I haven’t had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of racial harassment during my short time here. Compared to some cities I’ve lived in or visited, I find Glasgow generally more open and welcoming towards international students such as myself. I don’t think this is all that surprising seeing Glasgow has been consistently named as one of the world’s friendliest cities in the last few years.
I started asking my fellow international students – some of whom had been studying here for years – if they’ve encountered racial harassment in their respective institutions. Almost all of them answered saying they hadn’t.
“Come to think of it, the people in Glasgow have been very nice. I’ve never been a victim of racial stuff,” said one student to me. “I have tried to be mindful of anything that might be perceived as “racism”, but I haven’t encountered anything, to be honest,” another student told me.
A student who arrived in Glasgow around the same time as me said she has never experienced racist harassment because her classes have been “pretty diverse” so far. However, she noticed there was a tendency for “Asians to flock towards other Asians, and Europeans towards other Europeans” when forming discussion groups. A postgraduate student I spoke to also observed a similar pattern in his classes.
“Based on my observation, international students tend to stick to their own nationalities or other racial groups that speak their language. So there doesn’t seem to be much multiracial integration or feeling of inclusiveness. Whether this is a form of unconscious racist behaviour, I don’t know,” he related.
While my conversations with these students did not necessarily result in the exposure of blatant or outright incidences of racism in their various institutions, they did open a larger conversation about “self-segregation” in Scottish universities.
I completed my undergraduate degree as an international student in Vancouver, Canada – a city widely known for its cultural diversity. I worked for a few years in my home country Malaysia before moving to Glasgow in September for my postgraduate education. Returning to academia after a long break, I was not surprised to see that students still primarily associate themselves with peers who belong to the same race or culture. After all, it is human nature to gravitate towards that which is familiar and comfortable when you are in a new environment. In some ways, it helps students cope with the loneliness of being far away from their families.
However, it is important to note that “being ignored or excluded from conversations or group activities” was also listed in the EHRC report as a common experience faced by students in universities across Scotland, England, and Wales. While it may be true that cases of racial harassment were lower among students in Scottish institutions, this does not mean that there is no room for improvement in terms of creating a more inclusive environment.
A postgraduate student told me that it was crucial for instructors to take a stand against self-segregation in class. Similarly, it was necessary for educators to be mindful of the minority voices. “In one of my classes, the instructor’s teaching method meets the standard of only the ethnic majority. I feel like even if there is this one percent of other ethnic groups in the class, they would get ignored. Shall we call the University of Glasgow an international university then?” questioned the student.
That said, I could imagine how difficult it might be for educators to raise the subject of self-segregation in classes without it coming off as a personal attack against students. Nevertheless, one way in which universities can overcome this issue is by facilitating regular intercultural dialogue between students and incentivising them to participate in such efforts. Perhaps the incentives can come in the form of extra participation marks or certificates.
For now, University of Glasgow students seeking help for harassment or bullying can reach out to the Students’ Representative Council advice centre located at the McIntyre Building. Alternatively, they can also contact Counselling and Psychological Services at 0141 330 4528. More information can be found in the “Dignity at Work and Study Policy” section of the university website.