By Maliha Shoaib, BA English and World Philosophies; Louisa Johnson, MA Global Creative and Cultural Industries; Frances Howe, LLB
Content warning: anti-Black racism and racial slurs
SOAS Director Adam Habib said the N-word slur in the All-Students Meeting on 11 March. Chaired by the Students’ Union (SU), the meeting was organised to allow students the opportunity to give feedback to Habib regarding SOAS’ strategic plan.
During the meeting, the following question was read aloud by the SU: ‘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?’
Habib clarified that he was to answer the question, and then replied: ‘So the issue around that is, I personally, on the n*****, somebody making that allegation, then just bring it to me. I don’t know the case, this is the first I’ve heard of it.’
The director was interrupted by a member of the SU: ‘Adam, that’s actually not acceptable to be saying that in the meeting.’
A student spoke up: ‘I’m sorry but you cannot say the N-word. That in itself is traumatic.’
Habib responded: ‘Well somebody said the N-word and I was saying that if there is a, somebody said that word, and it is a problem, then bring it to me. This is the first I’ve heard of it. If there is somebody who I’m… who I think you’re suggesting said this in a way that made… and used the word against somebody else then obviously it violates our policy and it needs to be taken up as an issue, and I’m happy to address this…’
The SU reiterated that they believed this language was unacceptable, to which Habib interrupted, ‘Well you do, I don’t actually. I come from a part of the world where we actually do, say, use the word.’
The same student who explained the use of the slur was traumatic elaborated: ‘I’m sorry, but you’re not a Black man, you cannot use that word. That is not your lived experience. You do not face 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 own alumni, Sir Walter Rodney, have written as to why people, non-Black POCs and white bodies, should not use the N-word…’
Habib answered: ‘I’m sorry I offended you. I come from a part of the world where, when somebody uses it [the way] I’m using it, the context matters. And what I was trying to simply say is, if you find it offensive, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I come from South Africa where I’ve said this and it’s not created a problem…’
BSc Economics student, Lornelle Gayle-Harris, attended the All-Students Meeting, and described the incident to The SOAS Spirit on 11 March: ‘It was horrific. As someone who has had that word used against me in racial attacks…I didn’t even know if I wanted to break down a door or start crying.’ Gayle-Harris went on: ‘This is a man who’s a director of a university. This is a man who’s a person of colour himself, who possibly experiences racism in this country. And his immediate response was to get defensive and start raising his voice, and to double down and try to justify what he said. That was not someone who felt remorse.’
Since the incident, Habib’s responses have varied. On 12 March at 08:49, Habib posted a 17-part Twitter thread addressing the incident. In the second tweet of this thread Habib restated the N-word slur in full. This tweet has since been deleted. In the eighth tweet Habib said: ‘So why don’t I think it was problematic to use the word when I did. Well, because context matters and I was arguing for taking punitive action. You cannot impute maligned intention without understanding context. Do I believe that only blacks can verbalize the word. No, I don’t.’ One Twitter user protested, ‘it’s him being an Indian man and calling us “blacks” and saying he doesn’t believe only “blacks” should use the n word.’
The SU emailed a statement of solidarity with the Black community condemning Habib’s use of the slur at around 21:48 on 11 March. This statement was circulated around Instagram by the SOAS Dead Philosophers Society, who also issued a statement of solidarity. Many other SOAS societies issued statements in solidarity including, but not limited to, the Law Society, Islamic Society, Bangla Society and the MENA Society. The MENA Society also posted an analysis of Habib’s final statement titled: ‘Why we don’t accept Adam Habib’s so called “apology.”’
The SU also shared that students seeking welfare support could reach out to Lucia, Black Students Support Coordinator, or the Sabbatical officers. Lucia made a statement which was shared in the SU email: ‘This incident, and many others like this one reaffirm the fractured culture that is present at SOAS, the institutional problems of anti-Blackness that continue to poke their head in this community. There is a lack of acknowledgement of how this affects Black students in terms of their experience, their engagement with their studies, and their progression. This shows that there is still a lot of work to be done within this institution to address institutional structures of racism which continue to cause harm and dismiss the reality of Blackness at SOAS and how this is represented. Be it curriculum, be it culture at SOAS, we cannot ignore what is at hand; the need to refocus the work on decolonising to address and dismantle these structures of oppression.’
In an interview with the SOAS Spirit at 13:00 on 12 March, we asked whether Habib was sorry he offended people, or sorry he said the N-word slur. Habib replied: ‘I am sorry that people feel offended. I really am sorry about that. I think that there’s a distinction between using the word and mentioning the word in the way I did. There is a difference and I think it’s important to acknowledge that. I recognise that others do not make that distinction and believe it doesn’t matter whether you mentioned it or use the term; somebody who’s not Black should not even mention it and should actually use ‘the N-word’ instead of verbalising the word. I recognise that and they feel offended. They feel aggrieved, even at the mention of the word rather than the usage of the term. The point I’m making is their hurt is their real hurt. And so I must accept that. And I apologise because that’s what I mean. It’s the right thing to do because they hurt. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a distinction, and I can explain the distinction. They still feel hurt. And I apologise for the hurt because it was never intended.’
Similarly, in an email titled ‘Statement from Adam Habib on all-student meeting’ at around 17:33 on 12 March, Habib’s response included his distinction between ‘use’ and ‘mention’ of the slur. This is omitted from a statement Habib later posted to his Twitter at 10:02 on 13 March.
During the interview with the Spirit, Habib was asked about his use of the term ‘blacks’ in the plural. Habib responded that this terminology comes from the Black Consciousness tradition in South Africa. He claimed he used the term ‘blacks’ to ‘straddle the divide’ with his South African followers who were engaging with his tweets. The Spirit highlighted the common criticism that Blackness and the terminology associated with it has evolved since Apartheid. Habib commented that there was ‘a legitimacy to the critique’ and that ‘how you approach [the term] has to be carefully crafted.’ The Spirit also highlighted the Twitter responses from South Africans claiming the way Habib had used the term was no longer commonly used. Habib admitted this was a generational issue but that he was ‘aware’ that ‘the experiences in the post-Apartheid era have evolved’ and that he ‘think[s] persons of Indian ancestry have had it far better in the post-Apartheid era in ways and that has to be taken into account.’
In the ‘SOAS Dignity and Respect’ policy reviewed and published in December 2020, it is stated that ‘derogatory name calling, insults and racist remarks’ can be considered ‘harassment.’ This policy applies to ‘all students, staff and lay governors of the School’ and it does not delineate any specific contexts in which a racial slur may be acceptable. In the interview with the Spirit, Habib stated that he ‘didn’t think at the time’ that he was breaking the policy.’ In SOAS’ ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy (2016-2020)’ it is stated that there is ‘mandatory equality and diversity training for all new staff.’ Habib said that he had not yet undertaken such training and was scheduled for sessions ‘tomorrow’ [March 13]. On 14 March we received confirmation that this training went ahead. We also received confirmation that the rest of Habib’s mandatory training is scheduled for Term 3, within the first six months of his employment, as is the standard expectation.
Gayle-Harris shared her thoughts on the incident overall: ‘It’s so demoralising…If this is happening here, what’s happening at the other universities? What’s happening elsewhere?’ Gayle-Harris concluded by saying she feels ‘let down’ by the institution.
On 12 March at 10:16 the SU shared a petition from SOAS’ Black Student body calling for Habib to be fired. Another petition calling for his resignation, not restricted to members of the SOAS community, has circulated on Change.org and has over 4,000 signatures as of 15 March. The SOAS Spirit conducted a poll asking students whether Habib should be removed from his position as Director of SOAS following the incident. Over 200 students responded and 89% voted ‘yes.’
Student Welfare Resources:
Lucia (Black Students Support Coordinator) at [email protected]
Lucia is also dedicating her drop-in hours this week to students who would like to come and discuss this. Lucia’s drop-in hours are Wednesdays 12:00 – 14:00pm.
Black Minds Matter for free mental health services: https://www.blackmindsmatteruk.com/faq
Samaritans: 116 123 or email [email protected]
Featured photo caption: The recent controversy has caused students to call for Habib’s dismissal as SOAS Director. (Credit: The World University Rankings)