University of Reading: Racism goes unchallenged as students ‘emotionally detach’

Minority ethnic students are reporting a trend of emotional detachment from racism experienced during their university experience, new research has found.


The findings from in-depth interviews with minority ethnic students at the University of Reading have been published in the Cambridge Journal of Education today (Monday 4th April).

Students who took part suggested that a culture of implicit acceptance of racism continued, and that they did not feel able to speak out against racist behaviour that they experienced or witnessed.

Dr Billy Wong, Associate Professor in Widening Participation at the University of Reading’s Institute of Education, said:

“The sad reality of life for minority ethnic students sees them experiencing racism in the form of explicitly and implicitly racist language, microaggressions and inequality in their student experience. Students navigate a culture in which racist behaviour is not being challenged or addressed and is leading to minority ethnic students having to emotionally detach themselves from these aggressions.

“We don’t yet fully know the long-term impact on students, but there are concerning signs that students are likely to lose the energy to challenge or speak out about their own racialised experiences. Students may lose their ability to feel or recognise everyday racism as their minds and emotions are no longer reactive to these experiences. More worrying still, there is a risk of emotional harm and trauma that comes from being in a culture where racial injustice and aggression goes unchallenged.

“Our study focused on students at the University of Reading, but other evidence and anecdote suggests that the experiences of those participants mirrors that of students at other institutions across the UK. The university experience is one that is very formative for students, and yet our insights into the lives of minority ethnic students suggests that many are becoming less, rather than more, likely to speak up about racism where they see and experience it.”

The study further warns that minority ethnic students may be facing ‘racial gaslighting’, where they feel a personal responsibility for other people’s racist behaviour. The authors note concern that minority ethnic students feel unable to identify, evidence or validate their lived experience of racism due to being detached from it.

The study drew on interviews conducted at the University of Reading over a period of two years, prior to the murder of George Floyd in the United States, which led to the widespread awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Dr Allan Laville, Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Reading said:

“This research highlights the need for action across this and every university to address racial injustice and racism. The onus should not nor ever be on those experiencing racial abuse to have the responsibility for challenging it.

“In 2020, the University of Reading committed to carry out a review about racial equality for staff, students and the wider community, and we published a report detailing actions that the institution is committed to carrying out to address injustice and racism. This study is a salient reminder of the impact that racism has on our students, and the need to act to address it.”

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