Report dons for micro-aggressions, Cambridge students told in new anti-racism drive

A Cambridge college is encouraging students to report dons for “micro-aggressions”, despite the university’s vice-chancellor saying this was a “mistake”.

Downing College has been accused of promoting “highly contestable” and “pernicious” ideas in its new guidance on how to report racism.

The college, which was founded in 1800, counts the actor John Cleese and the illustrator Quentin Blake among its alumni.

Dons fear the guidance will lead to a “culture of fear” within the college, which is “antithetical to free speech”.

‘Divisive and inflammatory’

The guidance defines racism as “an ideology and a set of practices based on ideas of inherited white ‘racial’ superiority that normalises control, domination and exclusion over people of colour, while legitimating privilege and oppression”.

It goes on to say that: “One of the ways in which racism is perpetuated as a system of oppression is through everyday manifestations and micro-aggressions.

“Micro-aggressions are everyday acts that serve to subjugate people of colour in more or less covert ways."

The document cites the question: "Where are you really from?" as an example of a "micro-aggression", saying there are many other instances where "apparently building inclusivity" only serves to "reinforce racialised differences".

But dons have pointed out that this definition of racism is itself racist, because it implies that it is impossible for anyone who is white – including Jewish, Polish and Irish people, for example – to be a victim of racism.

“The main concern is the definition of racism and the inclusion of micro-aggressions,” one Cambridge academic told The Telegraph. 

“These are highly contestable, pernicious ideas about racism and they will generate a horrendous culture of fear within the college.”

Dr Arif Ahmed, a philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University, said the racism definition used by Downing College is "divisive and inflammatory".

He added: "The encouragement to report ‘inappropriate’ or ‘offensive’ behaviour amounts to a snitches’s charter.

"Any risk-averse white person will simply not engage with anyone from an ethnic minority, in case an innocent or well-meaning remark is overheard, misunderstood and reported. 

"Whatever Downing College may think, being offensive is not an offence."

Row over ‘micro-aggressions’ list

Earlier this year, Cambridge University’s vice-chancellor issued an apology and said its publication of a “micro-aggressions” list was a mistake.

Professor Stephen Toope wrote to the entire staff body to explain that aspects of its new reporting website – which was launched earlier this year but then taken offline days later, following its exposure in The Telegraph – had been included “in error”.

His intervention came after 25 Cambridge dons openly rebelled over the website, signing a joint letter to this newspaper warning that academics must have “unfettered freedom of speech”.

A list of potential offences had been published by Cambridge on a new website on which academics and students could anonymously report “inappropriate” behaviour.

It stated that academics could be committing a “micro-aggression” if they raise an eyebrow, give backhanded compliments, turn their backs on certain people, or refer to a woman as a girl.

‘Disappointed’ at new guidance

Toby Young, general secretary of the Free Speech Union, has written to Alan Bookbinder, master of Downing College, to raise concerns about their policy.

He said that considering the similarities with the university-wide policy, which was published in May and then swiftly removed, “I can only assume there was some governance failure within Downing College that allowed this guidance to slip through”.

His letter said: “We were disappointed to find that Downing’s new guidance – in what it asserts and promotes – appears to be a thinly-veiled attempt to reintroduce the same potentially unlawful policy through the back door.”

Mr Bookbinder said their policy on racism covers all forms of discrimination and includes all races. 

He said that the “actual victims of racism in college are all from ethnic minorities”, adding: “None of them are or have ever been white. Should that change, we would consider changing the guidance.

“Free speech does not apply to hate crime. Racist micro-aggressions are unacceptable in Downing and are not justified by free speech.”

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