by Graham Pierrepoint
For many people, making eye contact can be difficult. Self-confidence, self-esteem and a number of social anxieties people struggle with on a daily basis can prevent them from connecting easily with others around them. A lack of eye contact is particularly prevalent in those considered to be on the Autistic spectrum – and while avoiding contact may be seen as either awkward or even rude to some, millions of people genuinely can’t help it. However, Oxford University, UK, has had to make a public apology this week after an internal newsletter made something of an ill-advised claim regarding eye contact – and ‘everyday racism’.
The university’s equality and diversity unit distributed a newsletter which made the claim that avoiding direct eye contact could be assumed to be ‘everyday racism’, in the sense that it may stimulate alienation. The act of avoiding eye contact was termed by the memo as being a potential ‘racial micro-aggression’ – and, it’s safe to say, circulation of the notice online – particular via Twitter – was met by understandable outrage. Many people pointed out that the circular failed to take into account social anxiety and disability such as autism which can affect a person’s ability to connect directly with others.
The university were quick to apologize for not having taken into account disabilities when compiling the newsletter, stating that the circular in question was ‘too brief’ to ‘deal adequately and sensibly with the issue’ – going on to advise that the university continues to support disabled students and faculty members. It is interesting, however, that claims of ‘everyday racism’ backfired to the extent that they resulted in discriminating against an entirely different group of people. Claims made against the university are valid – and it is calming to see that they have quickly sought to remedy the situation.
Millions of people worldwide suffer with social anxiety, or could be considered autistic – meaning that large organisations such as Oxford University need to ensure that they are at least aware of some of the problems they may face. For many people, making and maintaining eye contact is never a problem – but for millions more, simply talking to people directly can be extremely difficult. Many hope, therefore, that the university continues to support their disabled attendees and to keep an open mind with regard to elements they regard as ‘everyday racism’ in future.