Black lecturer taking Bristol University to tribunal over racial discrimination claims

A lecturer at the University of Bristol has claimed she endured a ‘demeaning and hostile’ environment with staff ‘colluding or collaborating’ against her, and industrial tribunal has been told.

Dr Christabelle Peters, a lecturer in Latin American Cultural History, has begun what could be a seven-day hearing at Bristol Civil Court, taking the university to a tribunal on the grounds that it discriminated against her on the grounds of her race. She claimed that one senior lecturer told her ‘no one gives a sh** about Africa’ when she pitched a research project to him, and her mentor went behind her back when she complained to her about it.

The lecturer’s lengthy evidence said she was repeatedly subject to micro-aggressions and different treatment because she is Black, and her colleagues undermined her. The University of Bristol is contesting the claim and denies any wrongdoing at all.

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Dr Peters, who is representing herself at the tribunal at the Bristol Civil Court this week, began giving evidence on Monday afternoon (January 9), and was cross-examined by barrister Darren Stewart, representing the University of Bristol.

In a lengthy statement detailing what she said has been years of incidents, some relatively minor, Dr Peters said the cumulative effect of them all was to create a ‘hostile and demeaning environment’ for her to work in, where she was ‘no longer able to trust’ her colleagues, including people she had previously relied on and confided in.

In evidence this morning (Tuesday), Mr Stewart continued to cross-examine Dr Peters about her statement to the tribunal, beginning with Dr Peters pointing out that she had ‘repeatedly’ not been given a payslip by the admin department at the university. Other incidents included one where she asked the administration team in her department to book a taxi to pick up a visiting lecturer from Cardiff Airport, but that failed to happen as planned, and one particular member of staff did not respond to her emails unless she included other members of staff in the recipients.

Representing the university, Mr Stewart challenged Dr Peters and suggested the issues were just things that happen to go wrong in a busy and large organisation. “There is nothing in this report to show that staff were colluding or collaborating against you, nothing of substance to anything that you felt was demeaning or hostile.

“You are saying this was entirely rampant through the university, this hostile and demeaning environment. There is nothing that points to this gross injustice, as you put it. While all this was going on, you didn’t lodge any kind of complaint, and you didn’t leave,” he said.

Dr Peters said she wanted to keep her job, she ‘wanted to stay in work’. “At the beginning I’m seeing the incidents separately, but after a while it began to add together,” she told the tribunal.

“I thought to myself ‘yes, you have to take off your rosy spectacles that Bristol is this ‘woke’ university. I did understand that I’m in higher education, where no one is actually going to call me the N-word, but instead will have very, very subtle ways of making me feel like one.

“I went to a staff counsellor in the end, that’s where I say ‘I can’t cope with it anymore’,” she added.

Mr Stewart challenged Dr Peters over the missing pay slips and taxis that were ordered but did not arrive as planned, saying these were the kind of issues of human error that ‘could and does happen to anyone in a large organisation’. Statements were read out that had been given by staff at the university’s admin team, including one which said: “I did not agree with Christabelle’s comments that her white colleagues did not experience this from time to time.”

Mr Stewart said that there was ‘nothing in the email correspondences between you and the administrators to suggest anything’, but Dr Peters said: “There was a pattern of behaviour in reality, that does not come through on emails which have their own tone of collegiate support. There was hostility in conversation and it didn’t seem professional.”

The tribunal is due to sit all week as Dr Peters’ claims and evidence is heard in full. On Tuesday morning, much of it concentrated on the role of Dr Jo Crow, an associate professor in Latin American Studies, who was Dr Peters’ de-facto mentor and boss in the first years of her work as a lecturer.

University of Bristol
(Image: University of Bristol)

The tribunal heard that late in 2017, Dr Peters was teaching final year students for the first time, and some began to complain about her marking, saying it was too harsh. Dr Crow met with the students and promised to look into it, and went to observe one of Dr Peters’ lectures.

The conclusion was that Dr Peters was doing nothing wrong, the students’ claims were not justified, and Dr Crow and another senior lecturer discussed how to respond with Dr Peters, the tribunal heard.

“In these emails, everyone seems to be very supportive of you, don’t they, Dr Peters,” asked Mr Stewart. “They are clearly supportive of me,” acknowledged Dr Peters in court, “But the most important thing for me was that the anxiety of the students comes first.”

Dr Crow said she would join Dr Peters in meeting the students who had been complaining, something which Dr Peters said she objected to. “If she was by my side, that says to the students ‘don’t worry, I’m here to handle this’ and that ‘she can’t handle this herself’.

“That undermined me. I found it very hard to stomach. When racial discrimination happens it can be direct and overt, but also it can be from someone with the best of intentions. Someone saying ‘can I come with you?’ it infantilised me. Is she the adult here and I’m the child that needs her to come along with me? Undoubtedly that can have a very dangerous impact on a person of colour,” said Dr Peters.

The final incident that was part of the evidence heard on Tuesday morning happened when Dr Peters pitched a research project to another senior lecturer in her department, Dr Paco Salvado, who is currently a reader in Modern Spanish History.

University of Bristol
Dr Christabelle Peters
(Image: University of Bristol)

During that meeting, the tribunal heard Dr Salvado said: “No one gives a sh** about Africa”, after Dr Peters pitched about a research project that involved Africa and African people for a BA Fellowship. Mr Stewart, representing the university, challenged Dr Peters that this was about the research, and wasn’t racially motivated. Dr Peters strongly denied this, and challenged the tribunal.

“You can say this is a shorthand for racism. It’s not about my fellowship research. He said ‘nobody gives a sh** about Africa, not my research fellowship. He was basically saying what you’re researching isn’t worth looking at because you’re looking at Black people,” she added.

Dr Peters later told Dr Crow about what had happened and said she had been upset about it. The tribunal heard that Dr Crow, without asking or telling Dr Peters, went directly to Dr Salvado and raised what he’d said with him. He then became upset that he’d upset Dr Peters, the tribunal heard.

Dr Peters told the tribunal that was another case of discrimination. “We’re seeing a pattern here, where someone who is trying to resolve a situation, but adds to my anxiety. She went behind my back, like she’s the adult and what am I, the child?” she told the tribunal.

Evelyn Welch is the University of Bristol's first ever female Vice Chancellor and also mother of Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine
Evelyn Welch is the University of Bristol’s first ever female Vice Chancellor and also mother of Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine
(Image: University of Bristol)

Mr Stewart said that, later, Dr Salvado helped Dr Peters develop her proposal, and that Dr Peters had accepted that help so could not have been too upset by his earlier words. Dr Peters responded: “One has to understand that I have to survive and survive in an environment where I’m dealing with racist behaviour every day.

“I have to decide how to deal with each thing, I would not have been there very long at all if I had gone off at every thing,” she added.

The hearing continues this week.

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