A PhD student has accused the University of Cambridge of failing to properly address an alleged incident of racism at Trinity College.
Gregory Serapio-García, 23, says he was “racially antagonised” by a porter while volunteering as a Covid-19 mutual aid supporter for students in September.
The college has denied any discrimination, but Serapio-García says the fact the investigation was conducted by an all-white team is a real problem and that such experiences are common for minority ethnic students.
“Everyday, ‘unprovable’ discrimination continues to be an unfortunate but not unsurprising reality for so many students of colour in Cambridge and beyond,” he told HuffPost UK.
The Filipino-American student was delivering care packages to his self-isolating peers across Cambridge’s colleges when he was allegedly stopped by a white male porter who was “hostile” towards him and insisted he “couldn’t understand a word” of what he was saying when he tried to explain himself in English – his first language.
“I was understandably hurt and confused as to why I was being treated so poorly. It wasn’t the first time I had been treated brusquely by a Trinity porter, but I couldn’t help but feel particularly antagonised,” Serapio-García said.
“I felt looked down upon. Above all, as a Brown person at a predominantly white college, I felt like I didn’t belong.”
This experience was compounded by the university’s “undignified” complaints process, as described by the student, in which Trinity failed to pre-emptively apologise and commissioned an investigation that took nearly five weeks.
On top of that, through a Freedom of Information request, Serapio-García discovered college management had said in internal emails that he needed to “understand that customer service/how people interact in the UK is different from the US; that, unless you are a fellow, porters can be and often are rude to anyone and that sensitivities/tension is heightened in Cambridge with the start of the academic year in the Covid era”.
“What else could explain this comment, if not deep-seated xenophobia?” Serapio-García continued. “To boil down my experience of perceived racial antagonism to a primitive misunderstanding of customer service culture in the UK is deeply hurtful and offensive to me.
“It’s also implying that I should expect, as a Brown person, to be treated this way by UK customer service?”
Trinity said its investigation found no evidence of racism or any other discrimination, but admits there are lessons to be learnt around how people are treated.
Serapio-García says when he arrived in the foyer, the porter approached him – not wearing a face covering – and asked: “What do you want?”
The student explained his business and asked if it was possible to leave packages in pigeonholes for the students as per standard procedure. If the packages are too big to fit, they are usually left with porters.
“The porter proceeded to squint his eyes and shake his head clearly in disgust, and said something along the lines of: ‘What do you mean? I don’t understand a word you’re saying,’” Serapio-García explained.
“His hostile facial expression and hands on his hips made me feel I was somehow a foreign tourist who couldn’t speak English. In actuality, though, American English is my first and pretty much only language.
“I attempted to repeat my explanation, remaining calm, but the porter interrupted me in a raised voice: ‘Trinity College do not have pigeonholes. Who exactly are you? Who authorised this?’
“I felt so denigrated, publicly embarrassed, and upset.”
Trinity does have pigeonholes.
Serapio-García also says another student – a white woman – then arrived and was treated with more respect by the porter.
The college declined to give a reason as to why the investigation had taken so long, or the reason behind its failure to do as the student had asked: publicly apologise and change its implicit bias training.
A spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “An independent investigation did not find any evidence of racism, or any other form of discrimination.
“It did, however, identify aspects of how we engage with visitors that could be improved within the college. The college is committed to taking on board these findings and is taking steps to improve the visitor experience.
“Trinity College is committed to protecting the dignity of students, fellows and staff as members of its community in their work, their study, and their interactions with each other, and to protecting the dignity of all those who visit or interact with the college.”
Serapio-García, who moved to Cambridge from the US to start his degree in September 2019, added: “In my experiences of overcoming obstacles to racial equity and equality – particularly as a queer, disabled Brown person in academia – I emphatically believe the impact on victims of racial trauma when evaluating institutional responses to racism must be unquestionably prioritised over white intent.”
Serapio-García says Trinity’s junior bursar told him the institution was seeking “bulletproof facts”. The investigation was conducted with the assistance of barristers appointed by the university and the college has refused to give Serapio-García copies of its findings.
Every Trinity administrator put in charge of handling the student’s complaint was white, which he described as “perplexing”.
“White people throughout this process have attempted to determine for me what is and is not racist,” Serapio-García said. “And so when I read their investigation outcome letter all I could think of was that white people, including the barrister team that was hired, were tasked with trying to tell me, a Brown person who lives with racism every day, what is and is not racist.”
The Trinity spokesperson added: “The college fully accepted the findings of the independent investigation, and offered its sincere apologies to the complainant that they did not receive the standard of service that Trinity expects and for the length of time this process took.
“As a result of the investigation findings and lessons learnt from the process, the college is taking immediate steps to improve its visitor experience and is reviewing its procedures with regard to complaints. We stand by the importance of an independent approach and recognise the need to ensure the timely conclusion of such processes.”
By going public about his experience, Serapio-García hopes other students subjected to discriminatory encounters will know “they are not alone”.
“Every fellow Brown and Black student I’ve spoken with has relayed this same discrepant experience,” he said, citing his friend Collin Edouard, who was “grabbed” by a Porter at St Catherine’s last year and had regular supervisions at Trinity.
“Every time, he would be stopped and questioned whether or not he was a Cambridge student while his white classmates entered without pause,” he continued. “Students like Collin and I simply grew used to these negative experiences.”
He added: “And when these experiences of racism are denied, taking literally hundreds of days to investigate but zero to address the immediate pain, suffering students are indeed racially gaslit and a deeply-rooted culture of inequality in higher education is emboldened to continue and thrive.
“Higher education institutions like Trinity are charged with uplifting the marginalised of society, not silencing them. They must change. I want to also send a message to Oxbridge colleges that the fragmentation and obscurity processes to report harassment at individual colleges, be it racial, sexual, physical, is profoundly harmful and problematic.”
The university is improving its record when it comes to admitting underrepresented students. In October it announced record numbers of Black students were admitted and for the first time, 70% of its UK undergraduate intake came from state schools.
Responding to this, Serapio-García said: “This is good. But what happens to these students after they are admitted? When they first arrive in Cambridge, and experience racism, will they be able to endure 130 days of diversion and delay?
“The lack of process for reporting, as it stands in my case, actively discourages minority students from speaking up. With enough attention and open conversation about the lived experiences and realities of BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of colour) at Cambridge and elsewhere, I do have hope that things can change.”