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University students are naïve about racism – not ‘woke’ – University of Reading

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University students are naïve about racism – not ‘woke’

Release Date 27 October 2020

Man in silhouette in a university library


Students at UK universities are still naïve about racism and racial inequality experienced in Higher Education, new research finds.

In a paper published in the Cambridge Journal of Education, a team from the University of Reading conducted in depth interviews with 42 undergraduate students about their perceptions of racism in a university context.

The researchers grouped responses into three categories:

  • Some students expressed naïve comments about ongoing issues of racism directed at staff and students, as well as structural issues that disproportionately affect minority ethnic groups.
  • Other students’ responses were categorised as bystander language, where students both from White UK and minority ethnic backgrounds are aware of racism and racial inequalities but do not actively challenge them.
  • The final grouping is of victim discourse where students have actively talked about their experiences as the target of racism.

Dr Billy Wong, Associate Professor in Widening Participation at the University of Reading who led the study said:

“The study shows how overlapping ideas about racism and racial inequality exist among the student population. What we observed is that these three discourses are not necessarily entirely mutually exclusive, and in some cases we saw that minority ethnic groups expressed what can be described as victim bystander statements. In these examples, the students we spoke to have been subject to comments that they have brushed aside due to the complexity of challenging it, both in the initial experience and in the retelling.

“Indeed, quite apart from the idea that all students are entirely ‘woke’, there are still significant issues in this part of society as a whole that need to be challenged. We know that racial inequality is experienced across the span of a career including entry into higher education, and it seems that we have more to do to ensure that everyone is aware of how biases and refusal to challenge prejudices can be deeply harmful.”

BAME students’ experiences of racism are recorded in the paper, ranging from so-called ‘micro-aggressions’ to overt racism. One female BAME student’s experience of micro-aggression was frequently being asked ‘where are you from?’ more than once, when her initial answer was not accepted. She said the questions were: “...not necessarily offensive but they’re not nice [and] they’re not a racial insult”.

Other students reported experiences that made them feel silenced and disempowered. Another BAME female respondent said:

 “When people talk to me, I feel like they always used to see my skin colour, or they just assumed things about me before actually knowing me… They’d make comments and you’d just be like, well, that’s not okay…. [People] came up to me with these weird assumptions of how my parents should be, of how I should be living… I feel like they wanted me to fit inside a box, and I didn’t really fit their definition of who they thought I was.”

The researchers carried out unstructured interviews with students from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) courses that lasted one hour on average. 67% of the participants were from a range of BAME backgrounds, and the majority (75%) were female.

Full citation:

Wong, B., ElMorally, R., Copsey-Blake, M., Highwood, E., & Singarayer, J. (2020). Is race still relevant? Student perceptions and experiences of racism in higher education. Cambridge Journal of Education.


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