My eye was caught by a news piece on the Telegraph’s website. It told me that a body called the Oxford University Equality and Diversity Unit had produced a newsletter telling undergraduates that, if they didn’t make eye contact when talking to others, they were guilty, though unintentionally, of racism.
This struck me as being a bizarre statement. It brought back memories of a conversation I had with a High Court Judge about thirty years ago. He was telling me about the training the judiciary were undergoing on how to be fair to racial minorities. One piece of advice they were given was that it would be wrong to assume that black witnesses were lying just because they wouldn’t look their questioners in the eye. Many ethnic minorities considered it rude to make eye contact with people. Judges should be aware of that and should not draw adverse inferences from the fact that a witness refused to look at his or her questioner.
Thirty years later, according to the Telegraph, a body devoted to equality and diversity was declaring that a failure to make eye contact amounted to racism.
I decided to investigate further. One or two of my readers are convinced that every news story in the Telegraph is false. I thought it would be prudent to track down the source of the story in order to see whether it was really true. I found the newsletter and, unintelligible though most of it was, I read it all.
I am determined to be fair. I will set out the whole of the newsletter’s introduction before I attempt to translate it into understandable English. Here goes:
“As we work on our Race Equality Charter application, we are seeking to articulate
what we mean by ‘working to advance race equality’. Especially if we are white, it
can be difficult to understand why race equality needs to be advanced, other than
in a wider socio-economic sense. If we do not hear overtly racist remarks, we see
fair recruitment, and we see international and UK Black and Minority Ethnic (BME)
colleagues, the reasons for talking about race may seem obscure. Some see Oxford as
a meritocracy where everyone is treated equally; others consider that real equality is
not ‘seeing’ colour. But to truly advance race equality we need to take a different
approach and tackle issues originating in the structures of society and its discourse.
And while they are harder to identify and challenge, doing so is key to ensuring
that the University is genuinely an equal environment for all.”
Don’t you love that sort of gobbledygook?
Let me attempt a translation. I won’t do it word for word because some passages (especially the last two sentences) are beyond translation. But I think I get the general drift.
What is being said is that the fact that Oxford University is totally devoid of “overt” racism, the fact that everyone is treated equally, the fact that undergraduates do not “see colour” does not mean that there is nothing left for the, no doubt, highly expensive Equality and Diversity Unit to do. White people, in particular, may think they are not racist, but, of course, they are, even if ethnic minorities are being treated equally.
That brings us on to the strange contention that a failure to make eye contact is racist. Yes, let us be fair to the Telegraph, that contention is made. The failure is described as “micro-aggression”. It is “tiring and alienating (and can lead to mental ill-health)”. The authors of the newsletter, very decently, accept that the villains, the people who don’t look you in the eye when talking to you, “may be entirely well-meaning, and would be
mortified to realise that they had caused offence. But this is of little consequence if
a possible effect of their words or actions is to suggest to people that they may fulfil
a negative stereotype, or do not belong.”
Why do some people not look you in the eye when talking to you? There are many possible reasons. They may, going back to my High Court Judge friend, come from a culture which considers eye contact to be offensive. But I accept that Oxford University does not consider it possible for non-whites to be racist, so we must rule that out immediately. There are, however, other, entirely innocent, explanations. It is known, for instance, that those who suffer from autism often find it impossible to make eye contact. Those of a particularly nervous disposition can have difficulty in looking others in the eye. Shyness can also lead to a reluctance to make eye contact. I am sure you can think of other examples. But this preposterous Equality and Diversity Unit, desperate to keep its funding despite the eradication of racism from Oxford University, is adamant that the only reason anyone might not make eye contact is what it calls “subtle racism”.
Is it just age that makes me despair? Is it possible that, befuddled as my elderly brain is, I can’t understand entirely reasonable theories put forward by much brighter younger minds? Or is there just an outside chance that I am right to think Oxford’s Equality and Diversity Unit is spouting nonsense? You must be the judges.