A scholar who withdrew from a PhD at the University of Cambridge alleging “structural racism” has accused UK higher education institutions of focusing on gender equality at the expense of racial justice.
Indiana Seresin, a white researcher whose work draws heavily on black studies, quit her doctorate in literature and cultural studies after witnessing what she described as a series of “racist incidents”.
Outlining her reasoning in a blogpost, she expressed concern that academics at Cambridge failed to recognise the “widely accepted principle” that different rules applied to white and black scholars when it came to using the N-word.
She also raised concerns about how a lecture by a visiting Ghanaian scholar that she characterised as “a lucid and straightforward analysis of the way racism…function[s] in academia” was described as “controversial and provocative” by a senior Cambridge academic who said “he couldn’t quite wrap his head around it”, an approach Ms Seresin said was “foolish” and “undermine[d]” the speaker.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Ms Seresin accused Cambridge and other institutions of filling their halls with “what you call ambassadors for diversity and inclusivity, who contribute nothing to – or even prohibit – racial justice and usually focus on improving the situation of white women”.
Her decision to leave came from a place of privilege, she added. “It allowed me to share details of what I had witnessed…an option not available to current students and staff as well as alumni, who would probably feel unsafe doing so.”
While Ms Seresin urged people to focus their attention on these institutional problems rather than her quitting, she acknowledged that the publicity surrounding her “possibly…might help shame the university into taking this issue more seriously”.
In terms of how Cambridge should change, this should be decided by those directly affected by racism, she said.
“As a white researcher whose scholarship draws significantly on black studies, I believe that I need to earn the right to do this work,” said Ms Seresin. “I also believe that the ethical and intellectual integrity of my research was compromised by the fact that it was situated at Cambridge. This is particularly true because, as a white student, I benefited from the structural racism of the university.”
In response, Cambridge said that it “strives to create a culture free from racism, discrimination, prejudice and harassment” and that it had “introduced a number of prevention initiatives and anonymous, informal and formal reporting options to make it easier for staff and students to call out and report any form of harassment or discrimination”.
Print headline: PhD student quits over ‘structural racism’