Racial harassment guidance for medical students

What to do if you witness or experience racial harassment at medical school

Location: International UK
Audience: Medical students
Updated: Tuesday 14 June 2022
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Seek support

If you have or are experiencing racial harassment, an important first step is to speak with someone. This will help give you clarity, and start to build confidence to deal with the issue.

If you speak to someone, the person should be someone you trust and feel comfortable with, who will actively and patiently listen to you and not rush to judgement.

It could be a bullying or harassment adviser, student counsellor or a BMA medical student representative.

You could also call the BMA or access our wellbeing support services, where you will be able to speak to someone confidentially 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


Keep a record

It is worth starting to keep a record of incidents as this will help if you do get to the stage of reporting or formally complaining.

It might be difficult to find time to write things down while in and out of class or on a placement, so consider writing or recording voice notes on your phone to remind yourself, while ensuring these are protected and secure.

Keep things simple and stick to the facts too. Take note of:

  • date
  • time
  • place
  • who was there
  • what happened
  • how you felt


Challenge behaviour (if possible)

If you feel able to challenge the behaviour, a calm and non-confrontational approach often works best. This gives the other person a chance to apologise, reflect and learn.

Focus on the behaviour rather than the person and use ‘I…’ rather than ‘you…’ statements. For example, saying something like ‘When you said… I felt…’ rather than ‘you’re a racist’ or ‘you’re a bully’ which may make them feel immediately defensive, close down the conversation and escalate conflict.

Consider escalating the issue if your attempt to challenge behaviour is not effective and the person’s behaviour continues to harm you or others. You can do this by speaking to someone with authority in the medical school or your Educational Supervisor on a work placement.

You can also formally report it or complain about it through your school’s or university’s complaints procedure.


Report behaviour and complain

Familiarise yourself with your medical school’s formal policies and procedures for reporting and dealing with harassment or similar behaviour. Some may set out what early stage support is available such as confidential support and advice and help with seeking to resolve a situation informally.

If your school has a mechanism for anonymous reporting, you may wish to consider this option. However, your school will not be able to formally investigate an anonymous report.

If things escalate to a formal complaint, this normally involves setting out in writing what has happened. Your written record of events will be useful for this, as well as for any subsequent investigation that may follow.

You should expect to be kept updated and supported throughout the process and for the complaint to be responded to in a timely way.

If you are in England and Wales and are not happy with how the medical school has resolved your complaint, you can contact the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.

If you are in Scotland, you can contact the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, and in Northern Ireland, you can contact the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman


What to do if you witness racial harassment

Active bystanders show that certain types of behaviours are not widely accepted by others and break the silence that has previously allowed them to thrive. Active bystanding to address behaviour targeted at minority or marginalized groups like BAME students is also very important in demonstrating support and inclusion.

Check if your medical school provides training on active by standing. If they don’t, you can ask for it to be provided. You could do this directly or through your BMA student representative.

There are multiple ways you can step in and provide support. It may mean giving a disapproving look when racist jokes or comments are made. You might feel confident enough to say something like ‘that’s not okay’. Or you could help the person targeted to a safe place and report it to someone in authority. It’s okay if you don’t feel safe or comfortable to step in.

The ABC approach is useful to remember:

A - Assess for safety: if you see someone in trouble, ask yourself if you can help safely in any way.

B - Be in a group: it is safer to call out behaviour or intervene in a group. Where this is not possible, report the behaviour to others who can act.

C - Care for the person who needs help, and ask them if they are okay.



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