Sunday longread: The chaos of reporting racism in Trinity

Analysing Trinity’s system of reporting racism in the midst of a global focus on race relations

The murder of 46-year-old African-American George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis shook the world this summer. Hundreds of thousands of protesters across the globe showed their support for Floyd and joined the fight against systemic racism. From sharing online educational material on race, to pursuing a campaign for a Black Studies module and societies rewriting their constitutions to include anti-racism mandates, Trinity students have mobilized themselves against racism like never before.

College administration has been pushed to wake up. On June 5, Provost Patrick Prendergast and Vice Provost for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Clodagh Brook sent a college-wide email stating their intention “to bring about real structural change” with regards to racism in College. Since then, College has implemented concrete actions to address racism on campus, such as carrying out a data analysis of the representation of ethnic minorities in College positions and “decolonizing” Trinity’s curriculums. 

Many students have praised these efforts, including the president of the Indian Society, Shantanu Gupta, who told Trinity News: “The steps taken by College are really positive and I’m happy about that.”

However, some past and present Trinity students from ethnic minorities and students’ union officers have raised concerns about the disjointed process of reporting racism in Trinity.

There are currently 14 different offices or support groups where students and staff can go to seek help if they have experienced racism. Many students are unaware of these resources, or confused about which ones to go to. Data on racism is not collated by these different offices, which means College authorities have no big picture and no way of monitoring racist incidents happening in Trinity. 

Confusion on where to report

Unfortunately, not knowing where to report racism is a far too familiar experience for ethnic minority students. Trinity News spoke to eight ethnic minority students and graduates – six of whom said they “don’t know where to go” or have the impression that “there’s nowhere to report to”.

At the moment, the Equality Office website is the only place that publicly displays the 14 different resources students and staff can go to seek help, but there’s little mention of this information anywhere on campus. 

Moreover, most students don’t even know about the existence of the Equality Office. As Gupta said, his society was “not really aware of the Equality Office” last year. Similarly, the 2017 Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) ethnic minorities officer Aghogho Atiyota said: “I didn’t hear about [the Equality Office] until I was in the students’ union”.

This is partly due to the fact that there hasn’t been an Equality Office building on campus until this year. And also because for 13 months, there has been no equality officer running the office. 

In January 2019, the previous Equality Officer, Aoife Crawford, left her job for a post in the Secretary’s Office. Not until February 2020 was Claire Marshall hired as the new Equality Officer. 

“The current confusion of who to report to and how, quickly leads to a persisting narrative of ‘there’s no racism on campus’, when the reality for some students is otherwise.”

“The current confusion of who to report to and how, quickly leads to a persisting narrative of ‘there’s no racism on campus’, when the reality for some students is otherwise,” says David Ola, who graduated from Trinity in Human Genetics last year. Indeed, the lack of communication between the 14 different resources, including the Equality Office, and students means that racist incidents often go unreported. 

No centralised reporting and recording system in Trinity

“There are many ways in which hate crimes can be reported in the College,” the Junior Dean told Trinity News in an email. Their reports “are taken very seriously, and there are established channels and disciplinary procedures for such incidents”.

But while some of these offices record the reports they receive, others don’t. 

This is the case with the students’ union, for example. As the 2018 Ethnic Minorities Officer, Navika Mehta, said: “I didn’t know where to take all the reports I had received”. 

Senior Tutor, Dr. Aidan Seery, and the Equality Officer, Claire Marshall, each keep records of reports of racism, but these are scarce compared to the number of unrecorded reports the TCDSU Ethnic Minorities Officer receives.

The Senior Tutor has “just had one [case] this year [2019/2020]” while the Equality Officer said she’s “received under 10 reports of racist incidents” since she took on her role in February this year. 

In contrast, the number of unrecorded reports to last year’s TCDSU Ethnic Minorities Officer, Sé Ó hEidhin, was roughly “15 cases that were directly from people, and in terms of racist graffiti written around campus, that would be around 10 in the last year”. 

The result, again: many reports of racism go unrecorded, and students’ union officers can’t give the proper support that ethnic minorities seek. “Even if they don’t want action to be taken then and there, they want someone to know that this has happened,” Mehta emphasized.

“I don’t know to what extent we have a problem… I suspect that racist incidents are happening outside central college activity.”

More crucially, most College offices don’t share the contents of their records with one another. Because of the “sensitive nature” of the reports, the Equality Officer stated: “[my] records are not normally shared with other areas in college”, nor with members of the Equality Office. The Senior Tutor confirmed: “I alone would hold this [record]”. 

“It’s always these different parts [of College] working on their own, which is never going to be as good,” remarked Atiyota.

The absence of centralised records of racist incidents in Trinity fails ethnic minority students because, as Ó hEidhin highlights, “it means we cannot tackle the root of the problem at all, it means we are only helping the people who have dealt with it”.

And it also fails the College administration. As a result of the disconnected data management of racism, College authorities get a distorted picture of the extent racism happens on campus, and the failure to quantify the total amount of racist incidents means that the evidence College has to try to tackle the problem is limited.

Over a Zoom call to Trinity News this summer, Dr Seery said: “I don’t know to what extent we have a problem… I suspect that racist incidents are happening outside central college activity”. 

Similarly, the director of culture and diversity in the Equality Office, Tony McMahon, said he “ha[s]n’t heard of [racist] incidents on campus for quite some time”. Mr. McMahon offers trainings on culture and diversity to College staff and chairpersons of student societies.

“Reporting is the main thing.”

“Reporting is the main thing,” repeated Mehta. Former TCDSU President Laura Beston, who served in 2019/2020, agreed. “Not being able to pass on information about incidents of racism – that’s a huge problem in and of itself,” Beston said. She would like to see a centralised reporting system. “If that could happen in the next year alone, I would be very happy.”

Reporting and accusing someone of racism is hard enough as it is. But to have to search at length where to go, not even in the absolute confidence that your case will be recorded, or acknowledged across the College, makes it that much harder. 

Commenting on the Equality Office’s past handling of racism in Trinity, Vice-Provost for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Clodagh Brook, told Trinity News that it “wasn’t always right”. But, she said: “I think we’ve got everything we need now to go forward and make changes.”

“The world is committing to change but we’ll see the organizations which truly have plans in the immediate future,” Ola stated. “I have hope for Trinity, if there is a clear reporting system in place.”

Eliza Meller

Eliza Meller is the Head Photographer at Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister of English Studies.