‘They’ve exposed the toxic atmosphere’: Durham support groups on the Freshers’ chat

We spoke to Durham Survivors, Dismantling The Culture at Durham University and the Intersectional Feminism Society about the group chat screenshots

Screenshots of messages surfacing online from Freshers’ chats over the past few days contain triggering misogynistic, homophobic, racist and classist language. Although these messages appear as isolated incidents, the content of these messages is the reality many minority students say they face at Durham daily.

The Tab Durham have spoken to three key Durham support and activism groups who are here to support and campaign for change with our university community so that every student feels safe on campus. All spoke of how Durham has a wider problem that needs to be dealt with.

The group Durham Survivors is a community group, set up by students to offer support and a safe space to survivors of sexual assault. A spokesperson for Durham Survivors told The Tab Durham: “The comments are deeply worrying and prove how vital a page like ours is while a culture like this still exists in Durham. We’re appalled and frankly terrified for the future and safety of Durham students if people think like this: These comments are racist, misogynistic and classist. Nothing of this sort should even begin to be tolerated by our community”.

Durham Survivors, like many others, believe that it is our duty “to drown out and silence ‘lad culture'”. It simply isn’t enough to just be ‘not sexist’ or ‘not racist’, we have to be active bystanders who don’t allow our friends or acquaintances to engage in offensive discourse which ultimately perpetuates rape culture at Durham.

Durham Survivors urge Durham University students to silence any derogatory and triggering language of this sort if they hear it. They said: “If anything like this is remotely legitimised and not immediately shut down when uttered, those who speak in this way, even if in private, will believe that their actions can follow these conversations. For freshers already experiencing overwhelming newness, comments like this have the power to terrify, impression and perform”.

The comments that have been exposed this week have the potential to and undoubtedly already have scared incoming and returning students. Durham Survivors told The Tab Durham: “We will not stand for this in Durham, and Durham will not let people like this define the experiences of those who have worked so hard to have the opportunity to study at a place like Durham. For anyone worried by these comments, we are here for you. Durham is here for you, and you will thrive here regardless of these ignorant cowards”.

They finished with an important message asking everyone at Durham to educate themselves and their friends: “Speak about sexual assault in your everyday conversations – we have laid out the resources for you, you have no excuses. Stay extra vigilant. You are all potential bystanders, perpetrators and survivors”.

The second support group we spoke to is a Facebook group set up following the Freshers’ chats being exposed, called Dismantling The Culture at Durham University. The group comprises of members of executive committees from various different Durham University societies and aims to bring students together to campaign for real change at Durham, set up to push for change within the university in order to create a safer environment for minority groups

The Tab Durham spoke to the admins behind the newly formed Facebook group. They said: “These messages have exposed the toxic atmosphere of Durham University, a reality that minority students have been subjected to for their entire time at Durham. Minority students have been drawing attention to the toxic culture at Durham University for years, and these issues continue to occur as the University has not taken enough action, be it around sexual violence, racism, transphobia, classism, ableism, homophobia or misogyny”.

If you’re a fresher who feels even more apprehensive than would be expected about coming to Uni because of these messages being exposed, new additions to the university community such as groups like Dismantling The Culture at Durham University serve as proof there are people here who are calling for change, people are here to support you help will feel safe at Durham. The Dismantling team said they “will be using this group to help coordinate on pushing to change the culture on campus and for institutional change to support students, especially those from underrepresented and minority communities”.

Lastly, The Tab Durham spoke to Durham Intersectional Feminism Society who offer a safe space for members to engage openly in discussion about a range of feminist issues at Durham and on a wider scale.

Durham’s Intersectional Feminism Society said there is an existing problem at Durham, echoing the “existing structural and cultural problems in Durham (and gendered, classist and racist society at large)”. They added: “The feminist statement that ‘the personal is political’ captures how our personal attitudes, behaviours and discussions are inherently linked to our rights and entitlements in political and social situations, even where these ‘private’ conversations and actions are not incriminating”.

Again, the presence of societies like the Intersectional Feminism Society should show how there are networks at Durham who are there to openly discuss the things that the university as a whole may fail to do so. “The University must work to create a culture in which these kind of attitudes are not only condemned, but prevented from reoccurring. Durham is an institution highly concerned with being ‘world-leading’, but if it truly wants to appear exciting and interesting to the majority of young people, it must take issues of equality and violence much more seriously”.

Jeremy Cook, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) at Durham University, said: “Following our statement on Monday, many people have taken the time to share their experiences of their time at Durham University, both good and bad. We are grateful for these contributions. They help us understand what it is like to study and work here, and will help us to create positive change.

“We are continuing to investigate the utterly abhorrent social media comments shared earlier this week, as a matter of urgency. As we have said, if these posts are found to be genuine and attributable, we will take action to ensure those involved will have no place at Durham University.

“If you are a student, we have a wider network of support available, both centrally and through our Colleges. For more information, please visit www.durham.ac.uk/experience/support. Staff and students can also report bullying, harassment and other unwanted behaviour and access support through our online Report and Support tool: reportandsupport.durham.ac.uk”

Do you know anything about the group chats, or others? Email [email protected] in confidence. 

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