Trinity College said a student reporting racism needs to ‘understand UK customer service’

‘As a Brown person at a predominantly white college, I felt like I didn’t belong’

Trinity College said that a student who reported being “racially antagonised” by a porter needed to “understand that customer service/how people interact in the UK is different from the US.”

Greg Serapio-García, a PhD student, was delivering parcels to self-isolating international students when he was stopped and questioned by a “hostile” porter who allegedly said “I don’t understand a word you’re saying”. 

The student has been left feeling disappointed by Trinity’s investigation, which was led by an all-white team. Trinity College said the independent investigation found no evidence of racism or other discrimination, but identified areas of improvement of how the college engages with visitors.

(Image credit: Greg Serapio-García)

Greg was a volunteer, delivering packages to self-isolating students at Trinity College when was questioned by a porter as to why he was there. He explained his reasoning for being in Trinity and asking to leave the parcels either in students’ pigeonholes or at the porter’s lodge. 

The porter allegedly responded by saying “What do you mean? I don’t understand a word you’re saying”, despite Greg’s first language being American-English.

Upon repeating his explanation, the porter interrupted him and allegedly said in a raised voice: “Trinity College do not have pigeonholes. Who exactly are you? Who authorised this?” 

However, students at Trinity have confirmed that the college does, in fact, have pigeonholes.

Moreover, Greg claimed that when a fellow visitor, who was a white female entered, the porter was significantly more civil. 

He told HuffPost UK the experience left him feeling “denigrated, publicly embarrassed, and upset.”

“I was understandably hurt and confused as to why I was being treated so poorly”, Greg told HuffPost UK. “It wasn’t the first time I had been treated brusquely by a Trinity porter, but I couldn’t help but feel particularly antagonised.

“I felt looked down upon. Above all, as a Brown person at a predominantly white college, I felt like I didn’t belong.”

Greg complained to Trinity College, and said the college took five weeks to complete their internal investigation of the incident. 

Greg also gained access to an internal email between staff, where one email said he needed to understand that “customer service/how people interact in the UK is different from the US. Unless you are a fellow, porters can be and often are rude to anyone.”

Greg told HuffPost UK: “What else could explain this comment, if not deep-seated xenophobia?

“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.”

Still, Greg claims the college failed to apologise for the incident or change its implicit bias training, as he had requested, and instead hired lawyers to conduct an independent investigation. 

When approached for comment, a spokesperson from Trinity said: “Trinity’s commitment to treating complaints seriously was reflected in its decision to commission an independent investigation to ensure a bias-free and fair process for all. An external investigator, with no previous connection to the college, was appointed to conduct this independent investigation, which included detailed interviews with witnesses to the incident as well as with the complainant and the member of staff against whom the allegation was made.”

The college closed the investigation in late January, allegedly without allowing Greg to finish providing his input, nor sharing the independent report with him.

Responding to this, Trinity college said: “Details about what would be expected of interviewees (participation was optional; those concerned voluntarily agreed to take part) were communicated clearly beforehand, including arrangements for viewing the CCTV footage taken on the day of the incident. The need to accommodate the schedules of those involved extended the anticipated length of the process.

“Throughout the process the college sought to accommodate the individual’s requests for viewing the CCTV as far as possible given the college’s duties to others under data protection legislation.”

In a summary letter to Greg, Trinity College claimed that they found no evidence of racism or other discrimination from both of its investigations, which were led by an all-white team.

A spokesperson from Trinity College told the Tab Cambridge: “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.”

Greg told HuffPost UK: “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.

“White people throughout this process have attempted to determine for me what is and is not racist.”

Yet, Greg believes these are not merely isolated incidents, saying: Every fellow Brown and Black student I’ve spoken with has relayed this same discrepant experience”, including a Black student being “physically prevented” from entering St Catharine’s College by a porter last year

Greg told HuffPost UK that such experiences are common for students from minority ethnic backgrounds, saying “everyday, ‘unprovable’ discrimination continues to be an unfortunate but not unsurprising reality for so many students of colour in Cambridge and beyond.

“I emphatically believe the impact on victims of racial trauma when evaluating institutional responses to racism must be unquestionably prioritised over white intent.”

“Higher education institutions like Trinity are charged with uplifting the marginalised of society, not silencing them. They must change.”

The Trinity spokesperson added: “The college expects all members of its community to treat each other, as well as members of the University and the wider community, with dignity, respect, courtesy and consideration at all times. Trinity has Dignity and Respect policies in place and a programme of annual, mandatory training on equality, diversity and inclusion for all staff. 

“There is a zero tolerance approach to any form of discrimination at the college. Trinity has a duty of care to both members of its community and visitors to the college. Any complaints are treated seriously from the perspectives of all those involved and we recognise the importance of investigating any such thoroughly.

“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.”

In a statement, the Cambridge SU said: “We are deeply dismayed by the treatment of a BME student by Trinity College, which has been covered in a recent article by HuffPost. We stand in solidarity with Greg Serapio-García and all other BME students who have been failed by Cambridge Colleges.

“We urge all Cambridge Colleges to take concrete steps to tackle the institutional cultures of silence and shame that stop students from reporting and perpetuate deep-seated racism.”

Feature image credits: Greg Serapio-García and  Rafa Esteve via Creative Commons License

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