A Cambridge college has amended its guidance following accusations that it implied white people could not be victims of racism.
As part of an anti-discrimination drive, Downing College published advice on how to report incidences of racism and “micro-aggressions”.
But it was met with a backlash from dons who feared the guidance would lead to a “culture of fear” which is “antithetical to free speech”.
The college, which was founded in 1800, counts John Cleese, the actor, and Quentin Blake, the illustrator, among its alumni.
The guidance defined 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”.
Academics pointed out that this definition of racism was itself racist, because it implied that it was impossible for anyone who was white – including Jewish, Polish and Irish people, for example – to be a victim of racism.
The College has now changed its definition of racism, and says it is “an ideology and a set of practices based on ideas of racial superiority that normalise control, domination and exclusion on the basis of racial difference, while legitimating privilege and oppression”.
‘Common sense thing to do’
Dr Arif Ahmed, a philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University, said it is “important that the definition is about race rather than about colour”, while another academic said the change was the “common sense thing to do”.
One don explained that following the publication of the guidance, “a number of academics from a number of different departments, on their own or in groups were reaching out to the Master or other contacts high up in Downing College, to express concern or ask for a meeting”.
But he said that the change to the racism definition is “by no means total victory” adding: “They have given some way but they haven’t given all the way.”
The guidance still maintains that “micro-aggressions” are a form of racism and as such should be reported via an anonymous reporting tool.
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”.
Toby Young, general secretary of the Free Speech Union, which wrote to Downing College last week to raise concerns over the guidance, said he welcomed the changes.
“The College shouldn’t be encouraging students to complain to the authorities just because someone says something they find offensive, provided it’s not unlawful,” he said.
‘Micro-aggressions list was a mistake’
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”.
Alan Bookbinder, the Master of Downing College, has maintained that the anti-racism guidance has always covered all forms of discrimination and includes all races.
Previously 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.
On Friday he added: “Our guidance makes clear that all forms of discrimination based on racial difference – in colour, nationality or ethnic or national origin – are unacceptable at Downing.”