The Oscar-winner said her adopted son, Rwandan-born Tindyebwa Agaba, known to the family as ‘Tindy’, had a “rough” time as a student at Exeter University and was subjected to racist taunts.
His experiences prompted Thompson to instigate a cultural awareness campaign on campus, aimed at promoting racial equality.
In a lecture on Thursday night, titled All Africans Now, she reflected on Griffin’s complaint that the audience for his recent appearance on Question Time was drawn from “ethnically cleansed” London, a city “that is no longer British”.
Thompson said: “He’d love Exeter. He would feel very comfortable here.”
Asked by one student: “What can we do to change the whiteness of Devon and Cornwall? How can we expand our university?” Thompson replied: “This is how we’re doing it. Tindy had his experience and now we’re having a big week of educational events to try and help it.
“We don’t have to enthuse the entire student body, just as we are not going to eradicate racism in Cornwall this month.”
She added: “You’re not going to get hundreds and hundreds of black students here overnight, but what you can do is make them more comfortable.”
Her remarks elicited a baffled response from locals. Jeff Coates, a Conservative councillor for Exeter, said: “Frankly, I find it extraordinary that she has these perceptions. It simply doesn’t reflect my own perceptions of Exeter at all.
“To say that Exeter is a very white city–it can hardly be blamed for being a provincial city, away from the major conurbations where many immigrants like to live. It’s a very strange accusation to make. For heaven’s sake, this is a country on the north-west fringes of Europe.
“I do sympathise with her son and find it wholly deplorable that he was treated that way. You can’t avoid the fact that there are bigots out there, but I doubt if that is any more common in Exeter than anywhere else.
“I am a former teacher at the university and I was teaching predominantly Chinese and overseas students. It has to be said that the number of African students is relatively low and I can’t understand why. Perhaps they don’t find going to university in Exeter a particularly tempting prospect.”
An Exeter City Council spokesman said: “Whilst there will always be some people in our city who are not as racially tolerant as we would wish, there is no doubt that the economic, social and cultural life of Exeter benefits hugely from the rich ethnic diversity of the city, for which the University is a vital catalyst.
“There are an estimated 40 different languages being spoken in the city, including Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Mandarin, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, Punjabi and Urdu. The University, Exeter’s many language schools and the Institute of Arabic & Islamic Studies also attract students from over 100 different countries every year.
“Exeter’s popularity as a tourist destination and as a location for large international companies also emphasises the growing diversity of the city–a diversity which we hope will continue to develop alongside the city’s dynamic economic growth.
“All the key organisations in Exeter, across all sectors, are working hard to promote a positive response to ethnic diversity and to create a community which is tolerant and welcoming to all. We know there is work still to be done and that unacceptable experiences of the kind described by Emma Thompson do arise, but we are all determined to challenge them at every opportunity.”
Tindy, 22, graduated this summer with a 2:1 in politics and is now studying for a master’s degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He brought the issue of racism in the Devon city to the foreground last year, when he wrote in an essay: “I find it incredible that I am the only African student in the entire politics department.” He described two incidents of racist abuse, one by a group of “nerds” and another by “three or four tattooed and macho-looking bouncers” outside a nightclub.
Thompson and her husband, actor Greg Wise, informally adopted Tindy, a former child soldier, after meeting him at a Refugee Council Christmas party seven years ago. She told her audience that she hoped he would become Britain’s first black prime minister.
“What can we do to change the whiteness of Devon and Cornwall?” That pertinent question was posed by a student to actress Emma Thompson during her recent lecture entitled “All Africans Now”, delivered as part of her “cultural awareness campaign” at Exeter University.
The problem of the whiteness of Devon and Cornwall is certainly a challenging one. It seems strange that there should be pockets of pallid Caucasians still, in a country on the north-west fringe of Europe. Perhaps it is something to do with all that Devon cream they guzzle. Or more likely we are suffering the natural consequences of the Draconian restrictions on immigration so deplored by every Guardian reader.
Anyway, it is reassuring to know that La Thompson is on the case: it is a universal axiom that, if you want your cultural awareness raised–send for a luvvie [an affected, artsy type –AR editor]. Stephen Fry is engaged on similar work and even commands his own unit of Thought Police, capable of being mobilised at a moment’s notice by a mere 140 characters on Twitter.
Thompson instigated her campaign in reaction to alleged racist abuse of her Rwandan-born adopted son while he was studying at Exeter; but his own account identified the abuse as coming not from dons or fellow undergraduates but from “three or four tattooed and macho-looking bouncers” outside a nightclub. Many people might think such behaviour was more a characteristic of nightclub bouncers anywhere than of Devonians.
This problematic situation is reminiscent of the famous complaint by Greg Dyke, while director-general of the BBC: “I think the BBC is hideously white.” Of course, this provoked the usual reactionary suspects–retired brigadiers in bath-chairs in Torquay and members of the lumpen Caucasian proletariat to pose the loaded question: would he have described Brixton as “hideously black”? No doubt they will now ask similarly inane questions, such as: what would happen if someone enquired “What can we do about the blackness of London and the West Midlands?”
They just don’t get it. That kind of speculation would be racist. To understand why, you need to be educated on issues of discrimination. Here again, we have a luvvie to the rescue. Only last month Jo Brand spelled it out on Radio Five Live: “You can’t be racist towards white people.” Is nobody listening? It seems there is still a mountain of work to be done by Common Purpose, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the three main political parties.
Meanwhile, though, that nasty, hideously white splodge at the bottom left-hand corner of the map of Britain is continuing cause for concern. Nor does even Emma Thompson imagine the problem can be sorted overnight. As she told her Exeter audience: “You’re not going to get hundreds and hundreds of black students here overnight. . . .” But it’s not just the students that are the problem, is it? The wider challenge is implied in the question posed: “What can we do to change the whiteness of Devon and Cornwall?” Answers, please, on a postcard. . . .