Preventing racism before it gets to the workplace

The students of today are the workforce of tomorrow. How can we influence them now to prevent racism and misogyny in the future?


Last month, a spotlight was shone on the University of Exeter where a group of students were suspended after a series of racist and misogynistic messages from a private WhatsApp group were published online. As a black student at the university, it saddens me to say that these incidents are not rare, nor surprising. Dealing with racial insensitivity and ignorance has been part and parcel of my university experience. However, this incident revealed a much darker side of the effects of such ignorance.

The messages exchanged in the group chat made light of issues such as slavery, rape and race relations. Personally, I do not believe the perpetrators were racist, meaning they didn’t actually believe what they were saying or say them with the intent of degrading another race. The fact that they felt comfortable joking about such issues, even in a private setting, highlights a big problem. Before I continue, it is worth noting that I knew one of the perpetrators personally, he was a person of colour, who played an active part participating in and encouraged the vile messages exchanged in the group chat.

Martin Luther King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” I didn’t realise how true these words were until this incident. Seeing someone I knew, involved in such a harmful environment and even contributing to it was, much more painful than the words of any stranger with no understanding of the struggle people of colour go through. Reading his comments, I recoiled in horror, at several points having to take breaks and think to myself, “What are you doing?!” This could have been a clear opportunity to use his close relationship with the other boys in the group chat, to teach them why their comments were so problematic, in a way only a friend could. Instead, he took the easy route and joined in. Did he do this to seek their approval or because he saw nothing wrong with what was being said? Both suggestions are equally wrong. Silence or complicity in such situations, especially as a person who is well aware of the effects of such comments, do nothing but encourage the behaviours to carry on. 

What does this mean for the future of work?

I firmly believe that what someone does behind closed doors, speaks volumes about their character and their values. In order to ensure that the future of work is better and brighter, these issues of racism and misogyny, which I am certain are not novel or unique to universities (but can also be found in the workplace), need to have a sense of gravitas re-attached to them. It seems as though people have suffered amnesia and forgotten the seriousness of words; casually dropping the “n” word and joking about rape is seen as acceptable, so as long as it is done in private (which some of the commenters of the BBC article regarding the incident at my university seem to believe). Some things are just not acceptable to make light of.

Punishment may be one solution – however, I do not believe it to be an effective one. Having seen the effects of punishment at my university, where one of the perpetrators lost a lucrative job offer after the incident and another was subject to a witch-hunt on social media due to his involvement (as a person of colour), I do not believe punishment changed the student’s attitudes toward what was done and said in the group chat. Unfortunately, in my view, all that the punishment did was make those involved feel remorse not for their actions or out of a sense of morality, instead, they felt bad because they were caught. Rather than showing them why this was wrong and giving them a chance to understand for themselves, the only way to deal with them was through severe punishment. Prevention rather than punishment would certainly have avoided this issue to begin with.

These situations can be prevented through the facilitation of open and honest conversations about race in these institutions. Universities are fantastic in their campaigns highlighting issues such as consent and rape through campaigns such as Never OK. These are a brilliant start and facilitate a safe place for education about such issues. There is still a long way to go for these campaigns to have the desired effect but what they do allow is a starting point. 

Why does my university not have a campaign similar to Never OK but based on race? It clearly needs it. There may not be one solution that will fit all, but it is time that institutions such as universities take action. The influence university has on a young person lasts a lifetime. Imagine the difference which could be made by influencing the mind-set and attitude of students toward these issues before they enter the workplace. Whilst there is still a lot of work to be done within the workplace to discuss racism and misogyny, it is important to note the impact that could be had by creating good habits and attitudes in students, who ultimately will end up in the workplace.