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Glasgow London art schools racism
illustration Callum Abbott

The art school students exposing university racism on Instagram

As British education institutions are shown to have failed their student populations, ‘Truth pages’ are exposing lecturers’ microaggressions, racist interactions with white students, and ignored complaints

From Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall movement to the fight against colonial curriculums, British universities are facing a reckoning for their racist roots and toxic cultures for BAME students and staff. Amid the current Black Lives Matter movement and said reckoning, a unique cluster of ‘truth’ pages on Instagram are exposing the particularly insidious systemic racism at art institutions in the UK. @UALtruth (University of the Arts London) and @GSAtruth (Glasgow School of Art) were set up last month by current and ex-students of those institutions. They post anonymous messages from Black students and students of colour which detail the racism they’ve experienced while at art school. The two accounts, which are independent of each other, have attracted thousands of followers.

‘Uni truth’ pages aren’t new – they’ve existed for years in the shape of GlasKnow, LeedsFess, and countless others. Most of these pages featured a plethora of crush confessions and memes, and some with more honest conversations about mental health and general bullying. The UAL Truth and GSA Truth pages though appear to be the first ‘truth’ networks that specifically focus on students’ experiences of racism.

The posts, all screenshots of anonymous messages, include descriptions of incidents varying from being mistaken for another Black student, to a white tutor using a racial slur in a discussion about discrimination. A deeply shocking post on GSA Truth describes a student being physically assaulted by a GSA security guard in a racially motivated attack that left them unconscious and suffering with “tinnitus and PTSD”. 

UAL Truth admins tell Dazed how the idea for the page was ignited after they saw a “performative” photo that UAL had posted in solidarity with the George Floyd uprising. “Their statements did in no way align with our experiences, and we felt it would be unfair to allow others to be deceived, as we once were, by UAL’s infamous ‘accepting and diverse’ facade.” 

Since launching the page three weeks ago, UAL Truth has received “at least 300” individual messages, which has left the admins feeling “overwhelmed by the amount of injustices coming from a single institution”. The only response UAL made to the page was to ask the admins to post a “problematic apology statement” from the university to UAL Truth. “When we denied their request, we received an email instructing us to stop posting or calling out their staff,” the admins say. “Unfortunately we continue to be disregarded and we’ve even been labelled by staff as a ‘defamatory’ and ‘nasty’ campaign to be ignored.”

The negative interaction with the university doesn’t faze the UAL Truth admins: “We understand that accountability could feel like an attack when you are not ready to acknowledge how your behaviour has affected others. Nonetheless, when claiming complaints are defamatory, you are disregarding the experience of POC and are denying the existence of racism. This is precisely the problem we are trying so hard to tackle.”

“Unfortunately we continue to be disregarded and we’ve even been labelled by staff as a ‘defamatory’ and ‘nasty’ campaign to be ignored” – @UALTruth

“Because it’s an anonymous platform, I can say how I honestly feel and not be silenced or have white people police my tone,” Naomie*, a GSA Fine Art and Photography student, tells Dazed. “While it’s nice to see loads of people liking my post, it’s weird in a way because a lot of the people liking it are white, and it’s like, are they only aware of how racist GSA is now or did they always know and just keep quiet?”. 

Naomie never reported the racist incident that they submitted to @GSAtruth, after witnessing their friends’ experience of navigating the “useless” complaint procedure. “They (GSA) will try and placate you, and if it gets escalated it just doesn’t go anywhere. They will exhaust you and set up meeting after meeting about it. My friend had her complaint about a racist member of staff dragged out for eight months, and then basically nothing happened.”

Moni Rosa Serneabat, a third year Film and Television student at Glasgow University, follows both pages, and has used truth pages like GlasKnow in the past. “It’s great that you can see other people who have gone through the same thing so you don’t feel alone in your experience, and also not alone in not reporting your experience.” She admits that she has some worries at how messages are only anonymised when posted, which means that admins are aware of who is sending the messages. “On other truth pages, messages are posted through an external server so it’s anonymous from A to B, but with these pages though it’s not like that,” she tells Dazed. “Who’s to say that the moderator might not slip up and tell their friends that so-and-so posted this? It can spread like wildfire.”

GSA Truth’s admins acknowledge that the concern posed by Moni is “valid”, though stress that using Instagram as a platform is necessary to create the pressure on the institution to change. The group says there are safeguards for people that message in. “If it’s a really violent post, or one that’s particularly upsetting and heavy to deal with, we ask them if it’s OK to post,” the admins reveal. “We give them the opportunity to have time to reflect on what they’ve submitted, so that what’s posted is 100 per cent what they want to make public.” 

Between 2014-2019 only six formal complaints of racism were processed at UAL, with just one being upheld, showing how very few students report racist incidents. In December last year, several students walked out of a GSA lecture by photographer Peter Harnett due to racist and transphobic comments which the Art School initially defended as being reflective of its “commitment to encouraging robust debate”. Following uproar, a member of staff later emailed students to apologise, saying Harnett’s words were “hurtful, outdated and offensive”.Meanwhile, last year Central Saint Martins’ (part of UAL) was forced to apologise after showcasing anti-Chinese student artwork on its Instagram pages.

“Because it’s an anonymous platform, I can say how I honestly feel and not be silenced or have white people police my tone” – Naomie*, GSA student

Dazed reached out to GSA and UAL for comment. GSA said: “We would always strongly encourage any student who has personally experienced any form of racism to raise this with their programme leader and student support.” 

UAL said: “UAL is committed to promoting a safe and inclusive environment for all students. We take all reports of racist behaviour very seriously, including the recent anonymous allegations on social media. We ask anyone with complaints or new information about racism at UAL to talk to us directly and in confidence, so that we can investigate thoroughly.”

GSA Truth tells Dazed that while the page has been empowering for students of colour, certain revelations have been shocking and disappointing. “What’s been really disheartening is getting messages from alumni who graduated in 2005 and they’re complaining about the same tutors, so clearly nothing has changed in 15 years.”