SOAS SU condemns uni director’s ‘disgusting’ use of the n-word at a student meeting

A petition is calling for Adam Habib’s ‘dismissal’ as SOAS director


TW: Racism and racial slur

SOAS Students’ Union has condemned the use of the n-word by the university’s director in a meeting for students.

Recordings of yesterday’s SOAS All Student Meeting, seen by The London Tab, show SOAS director Adam Habib using the n-word to a group of students. When students told him this was not acceptable, he attempted to justify its use.

SOAS SU said the incident is “unacceptable, disgusting” and “SOAS is systemically racist”. Habib said he doesn’t think it is “fair” to “describe SOAS as institutionally racist”.

He has since written to all SOAS staff and students to “apologise unreservedly” for the incident, saying: “I do now recognise the hurt and distress that has been caused and will continue to listen.”

A petition entitled #FireHabib has been created, with SOAS students calling for “the removal, resignation and/or dismissal of Adam Habib within the next 31 days”.

The slur was used in response to a question about structural issues at the university: “How can SOAS issue statements about Black Lives Matter while underfunding the Africa department, removing the BA in African studies and allowing lecturers to say the n-word in class?”

Mr Habib then verbalised the word, saying that if someone at the university used it against someone else, “then obviously it violates our policy and it needs to be taken up as an issue”, saying it would be a “disciplinary offence”.

SOAS director Adam Habib at the meeting

This was met with immediate shock and backlash from the students at the meeting, who said the remark was both “unacceptable” and “traumatic”.

In the video, one tells Habib she thinks “it is not acceptable to be saying that in a meeting”, to which he replies: “Well I don’t, actually. I come from a part of the world where we do use the word.”

Another says: “You cannot say the n-word. That is traumatic… You’re not a Black man, you cannot use that word, you do not have the lived experience. You have not faced the trauma and the oppression of Black bodies, what we go through 24/7 for the last 500 years.

“You do not embody our history, so therefore you cannot use the word.

“Many writers, even our even our own alumni, have written as to why people, non-Black POCs and white bodies should not use the n-word because when it comes from that perspective then it means a whole different story than when it comes from our own perspective which is the autonomy, agency and reclamation of our own history.”

In response Habib says: “I’m sorry I offended you”, once again saying the word is used where he comes from, and said he used the word for “context matters”.

SOAS SU Anti-Racism Officers have spoken out condemning the incident, saying: “SOAS is systemically racist” and as an institution it has “continued to fail Black students when it comes to issues of race, race relations, representation, and accountability for what has continued to happen” with incidents such as this.

The petition calling for Habib’s dismissal says the incident is “emblematic of the experience that Black students go through at SOAS”, citing similar incidents and “SOAS’ historical failure to deal with” them.

This morning Habib took to Twitter, saying the incident has been “misrepresented”. In the thread he spelled out the n-word in full.

He said context is important in his use of the slur, saying he doesn’t think it’s “problematic” to use the word he did, and that he doesn’t believe only Black people can use the slur.

He went on to say: “Did I use the word: Yes”, but “Do I think I did something wrong? No”, citing his reasoning of the context of the incident.

He has since apologised for the incident and said “no offence had been intended”, but he recognises students were “offended and hurt”.

In his statement, Adam Habib said: “As many of you are aware there has been a controversy that emanated from the all-student meeting yesterday in which I mentioned the n-word after a student query on a case in this regard. I want to apologise unreservedly for having done so. I do now recognise the hurt and distress that has been caused and will continue to listen.

“It may be helpful to explain the context in which the statement was made. During the meeting, a student questioned SOAS’s responsiveness to anti-black racism and suggested that a staff member had used the word without consequences. I responded that: “If someone used the word [n-word] against another staff member, then it would violate our policy and action would be taken.”

“I apologised, saying no offence had been intended, and reiterated that if the word was used against another person, it would be a disciplinary offence as it would violate our policies. Nevertheless I recognize that despite the context, many in our community were offended and hurt by the term. And for this I apologise unreservedly.

“I am sorry to have caused this controversy, and I am keen to work with the whole School on addressing the issues which will enable SOAS to achieve its mission in both the national and global community.”

Regarding the incident, SOAS SU said: “What happened in today’s All Student Meeting with SOAS director Adam Habib, on the 11th of March 2021, was unacceptable, disgusting and to be unequivocally rejected. SOAS is systemically racist. Students and workers in our community have been saying this for years and at the forefront have always been Black students and Staff. There has been enormous labour from students and staff to address SOAS’ institutional racism. Today’s meeting indicates that these students and staff have been met with resistance at best and been delegitimized, gas-lighted, had their labour erased and met with violence, at worst.

“We wanted to be very clear that as the Student Union we are formally rejecting, opposing and resisting SOAS’ systemic racism that was personified in Adam’s use of the racist slur, we are calling into question his legitimacy and ability to lead this institution. We are exploring avenues and options of collective action with students to address this incident and SOAS’ racism more widely. We will hold the institution accountable and we are willing to support our student community and take action on their calls for the resignation of the director.

“We are meeting ASAP as the Student Union Executive committee to discuss further actions. We will be holding a student only meeting which will be a space safe to further discuss what actions we should take. Our anti-racism officers are also currently working on organising a group therapy session reserved for black students in order to heal from the collective trauma that occurred this afternoon. We will share details as soon as they are confirmed.”

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