CW: anti-east asian racism, racial slurs, graphic descriptions and photos of racist violence
On Friday 11th December 7pm, Michael Nio, a 22-year old fourth year History undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh and committee member for the student-led mental health charity Conscious Edinburgh, was racially abused by a group of seven white people outside of the Main Library, an incident which gained traction after he had published about it on the Facebook groups ‘Meadows Share’ and ‘Main Library Share.’
Details of the incident
Nio was sitting down outside the Main Library to have a break from a long library shift, listening to music through his airpods and eating his dinner, when he was approached by young people nearby who asked to try his food. On refusal, one of them racially abused him verbally. Nio identified the group as six 14-16 year old white boys and a white girl. One of them then punched Nio in the face, which led to the airpods dropping, which the group then pocketed. When Nio asked to have the airpods back, they refused and the violence continued – he was ‘attacked from every angle’, and one attempted to smash Nio with a bottle of vodka. During this time, he was down on the ground where he was kicked a few times in the head. Then he got up on his feet to protect himself. He was forced back onto a metal railing when one of them said “I’m going to f-cking kill you, you f-cking ch*nk.” At one point he was also hit by a metal No Smoking sign.
Nio said “at that point I’m thinking where’s the security? I was stressed, I was trying to stall, to keep moving… trying to block what’s coming towards me.”
Bystanders managed to call the police, and escorted him away, and he called them very ‘supportive.’ “One of the boys was in the middle of his 24-hour exam and he was really helpful.”
The ambulance arrived, and the security guards became involved. “It was very helpful at the time, but I thought then that if the guards helped ten minutes earlier, all of this could’ve been avoided.” The only de-escalation attempt made during the incident was by the white girl who was with the boys. However, she ran off when the boys did.
“I made eye contact with the bystanders who looked as terrified as I was and I’d imagine it was distressing to see these boys circling me, I felt like they were hyenas trying to circle their prey, egging each other on, shouting abuse, and just generally almost perpetuating this toxic masculine melee.”
Nio’s feelings as a PoC student at the university
Nio explained: “At the time, I felt a lot of fear, I didn’t take them seriously until they tried to bottle me, and I thought surely it wouldn’t last longer than 30 seconds, I’ll just stall it until then. I was scared and at some point I was trying to shout ‘Where the f-ck is security and is anyone calling the police,’ just trying to circuit around, trying to get some distance on them and hope that in a few minutes someone would call the police.
“I didn’t expect someone to step in, it was quite a scary situation and it wasn’t clear from the start I was a university student – however, being part of the uni or not shouldn’t be a moral boundary. I felt like I was hunted like an animal and these boys were using terms implying I was subhuman.”
Questions raised towards university support systems
Nio continued: “What terrifies me the most is that it happened in a place where I thought I should be safe. This whole incident made me question a lot of things – how do I feel as a person of colour just walking around the university campus, because right now I feel like I’m going to avoid the library at night, and leave before sundown because being there at night might trigger some bad memories.
“I want to use this negative experience to do something positive. That’s why I talk about the positive changes at the macrolevel that the university can implement to help us students feel safe, but also on a microlevel, to help recognise racism in all its forms, to educate people. I want people to feel like they have the support to speak out and stand up against all sorts of racism they see in a less performative way.
“It does raise a lot of questions about ‘what’s the role of the security and the university staff to stop this, have they been trained?’ In fact, someone copied me into an email sent to Peter Matthieson, and they talked about how ‘this was an unambiguous case of a PoC student feeling let down by the university… and hopes that the incident can shed light on the lived reality of PoC students at Edinburgh. This is the worst case scenario for many students, and they walk the campuses in fear of such a thing occurring again.’
“The fact that this happens is out of the university’s control, but I did feel unsupported at the time and the question of safety is raised. ‘How can I feel safe on university campus again? How can I feel safe using the library?’ These are questions for the university to answer and provide concrete assurances for. The university can’t say it will never happen again because they can’t control that but there are definitely preventative measures that can be put in place. Perhaps clearer policies or training for security guards. I don’t know what those will be, I can offer some suggestions and people can petition about it, but it is something to definitely work towards. Now that we’ve identified this problem, we need to change the way things are done which can be terrifying for a lot of people – but at the same time, the expectation is that studying at the university should make you feel safe, supported and that your peers see you as equals. I think these are reasonable expectations to have at this university.
“So it wasn’t the boys or what they were doing to me, but how this was happening to me here at this place, and it dawned upon me just how messed up it was. I just felt panic – at the time I thought, ‘holy shit, when is someone going to step in – when will they turn up or when will this end? This helplessness, especially when I like being in control and waiting for a hero just isn’t my character – I’d rather face my problems head-on – but in that moment, I couldn’t fight back. There are lines I wasn’t going to cross – I’m not going to hit a minor, I won’t kick them like they kicked me.”
Support for Nio
A flurry of support has been sent to Nio since his Facebook posts, including UCU Edinburgh, the union for University of Edinburgh staff, who tweeted that they ‘stand in solidarity with the student who was the subject of a violent racist attack on our campus on Friday evening. Our campus must be safe for staff, students and everyone else,’ clarifying that they are ‘doing much more than tweeting about this, [they] have been in touch with the student and work is ongoing to address the structural issues that made this hate crime possible.’
The University of Edinburgh has also released a statement regarding the incident, calling it an ‘appalling incident which we wholeheartedly condemn.’
The university’s African and Carribean Society (ACS) have also released a statement showing solidarity with Nio.
Aerin Lai, vice chair of East and Southeast Asian Scotland (ESA Scotland), an Edinburgh-based volunteer-run group that lobbies for racial equality for East and Southeast Asian people in Scotland explained that: “For many students, the campus is seen as a safe space for learning and community-building. What happened to Michael on Friday undermines this very understanding of what a university is for students, and reveals the deep-seatedness of racism and the lack of recognition and response from institutions, such as the University of Edinburgh. It is unacceptable, for the simple reason that this attack is racially incited, and that a student was assaulted on campus makes it an issue for the university, but necessarily, an issue for Edinburgh as a city, and Scotland as a country.”
New groups have also formed in the wake of the incident, such as PoC Walking Group and Racism Unmasked Edinburgh.
Allie Haddlesey, co-founder of Racism Unmasked Edinburgh, an anti-racist group for East/Southeast Asians, who are planning a protest tomorrow at 7pm said: “Racism Unmasked was born out of a growing need to create a support network for East/South East Asians and their supportive allies. Our ultimate goal is to campaign against racism, normalise the narrative of this demographic and educate people on our lived experience within an oppressive system. Our long term goal is to create this space for our community whilst also pressing organisations such as the University of Edinburgh and Scottish government to implement more effective anti-racism policies headed by people of colour. This will benefit members of our community by campaigning for paid positions as much of the work in activism relies heavily on voluntary work for those who are already emotionally drained. We want to establish measurements to protect people of colour being exploited through unpaid labour and improve the level and quality of training for professionals who so often mistreat us. This campaign will benefit people by building such a community and a space to share experiences and empower them to take a stand, so that we can create a more equal world.”
PoC Walking Group was formed to ensure that PoC students who feel unsafe around the library following the incident can walk safely to and from the library. Mukai Chigumba, ACS president and spokesperson for PoC Walking Group, said that: “The University has not made an official statement on the incident or told us of any measures being put in place to keep students safe. The group was created as a temporary measure to protect students who don’t feel safe walking to and from the library because of the incident. I think that it’s important that we stick together in times like these and I’ve been impressed by how students and members of the Edinburgh community have come together. We had members of the Edinburgh community offer to walk students home and we’ve even received support from Edinburgh Nightline.”
Protestors have also been standing outside the library to raise awareness. Two of the protestors, Niharika Pandya and Dhruti Chakrvarthi, who are women of colour, have said: “we’re hoping the university takes POC students and their safety more seriously. They need to fund more security at the university and ensure some level of racial sensitivity training. Students should not have to feel unsafe on their own campus. No student should have to choose between their safety and their education, especially POC. Many of us are international students, we pay a lot of money to be here, and we don’t deserve to be treated like 2nd class citizens. We want for there to be better lighting, more security presence, and better monitoring. CCTVs should be monitored at all times. POC students need these protests because we need to raise our voices and be heard. It’s important that racial equality issues are openly discussed on campus. Seeing POC protesting will also send a message to the BAME community that people are here to support them, and we will not be harassed and sit there in silence.”
When asked about the support Nio was currently receiving, he said: “I appreciate all these messages of support. I think at this point in time, we all need to unite to support each other. An investigation needs mutual trust in our community – in this case, it is to get witness testimonies of these boys. And justice will be served if the university changes and we change as a community.”
Asked about his likelihood of using the support resources that were offered to him such as the PoC walking group, Nio responded, “I am so grateful that people have reached out to me although in the meantime I might not be able to respond to everyone personally given the quantity of messages, but I want to thank every individual who has reached out to me. It’s not easy to talk to someone you might not know well – there isn’t one single ‘right’ way to message someone. It’s heartwarming to see support from the community, and from people I don’t know and hope to know better. I’d love to see the university unite with us, even student alumni who want to stand together against racism. This having a lasting impact, not just a temporary reaction, means more to me than seeing the boys get arrested or put in jail. The spotlight is now on us to act as a community, not just the university, but as a collective, which I think should be the focus.
“I won’t commit to any particular support group at this time because I don’t know – a lot of it depends on how I feel. I have my own support network of friends and family, so I think that’s my first port of call. If I want to speak to someone outside of my positive feedback loop, then I know that these are available to me and I’m thankful that people have messaged me and shown me that these services exist.
“In the future perhaps we can do something to collaborate and promote these services so people know where to go if something happens. Have a list of services that they can call on, so the onus isn’t on everybody messaging one person, but the person themselves making the decision in their own time. Maybe we can set up a page on EUSA or the university website for this, or it can be a link sent around the students’ emails, for people to acknowledge that these services exist.
“Right now, there’s just a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of different channels to go through that aren’t very clear- even I don’t know exactly what to do next. It feels like I have a lot to sort out, I need to speak to lots of different people to find out what’s the craic, and what the next step forward is.”
Next steps forward and words of advice
Expanding on his next step forward, he encouraged people with similar experiences to speak out as “it’s not a competition, it’s not about how badly you got beat up, and any sort of negative racist experience should be something that you should feel comfortable talking about. By normalising this, that’s how we eradicate it. Whilst still processing what happened, I’ll speak to my personal tutor, student support, use university resources and go through those channels and see what the university’s reaction is and we can have promising discussions with them. I don’t want to work against them but together with the university. If being public about who I am and what I’ve gone through helps to achieve that, then I’ll do it.”
When asked about having to talk about the incident over and over, he replied: “I’m ok to relive the trauma. At this point in time, I’m not really desensitised but have acknowledged that this has happened to me. What happened happened, and I can’t do anything to change that. Only thing I have some sort of control, or agency over, is how I act in the future – how I present myself, how I choose to trust in the official channels to not seek vigilantism but taking the firmer stance to reinforce my own morals and integrity in this fight against racism. Those would be my next steps. The means to how this would happen is TBD.”
Nio has however expressed that he wants to take control of the narrative and does not want photos of himself used without his consent, and does not want slogans or hashtags of his name to be used.
He also had some advice for people going through a similar experience: “In sharing my experience, I hope to empower other people to share theirs. Take as much time as you want to process it. It’s not a competition, there’s no expectation for you to immediately get onto social media and tell the world. Work through it yourself, process it, take your time even if it’s tomorrow, next week, that’s fine. That’s ok. It’s important to speak to other people about it, but have that balance where you have that conversation with yourself and work out what you are and aren’t comfortable doing. Then you can realise that there’s nothing to be afraid of when sharing your experience with other people – they aren’t going to look down at you and see you as any less of a person. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is ask for help, so even if you don’t want to speak to your friends or family about it, just know that there are support groups out there to help. I’m glad that for me, people have offered an ear to listen and lent a shoulder for me to cry on. And crying should be normalised. If we normalise speaking out about racism, we’ll be able to push out these racists, so the onus isn’t on just those who went through the experience but on everybody.”
Conscious Edinburgh – a student-led mental health charity which holds BAME Support Group sessions every Thursday at 6pm.
East and Southeast Asian Scotland – Edinburgh-based group to help combat racism against East and Southeast Asian people in Scotland
Edinburgh Nightline – a student-run confidential support and information service, open 8pm to 8am everyday on 01315574444. For more specifically BPoC support, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
PoC Walking Group – a group for PoC students to walk each other to and from the library.
Racism Unmasked Edinburgh – a movement to combat racism towards East Asians/ South East Asian-presenting people in Edinburgh and the U.K who have experienced racism. They are holding a protest at 7pm tomorrow.