As a Nigerian, I grew up in a country where everyone looked like me, spoke like me and had the same cultural baseline. Like any group of people, we may have been divided by our gender, our socio-economic status or our religion, but beyond that there remained the bond of our shared experience as Nigerians. While I had grown up contemplating what it meant to be Nigerian in a country with so many different tribal identities, I had never had to consider my blackness because that was my norm.
All that changed when I moved to England at the arguably tender age of 15. It was a new landscape, yet many things remained the same, my gender still came with baggage, however now I was an ‘ethnic minority’. Before I was a woman, an avid reader and a Nigerian, I was black. It was the easiest aspect of my identity that could be used to distinguish me.
Now in the final year of university, that feeling of ‘otherness’ is my new norm. I’ve grown used to people touching my hair, being surprised at my eloquence and assuming I know how to dance.
However, with age has come an increased social consciousness on my part, of race and its systems of institutionalised oppression. As I delve below the surface, I’ve gained an understanding of the intricacies and history of why and how these prejudices exist. An understanding that has opened my eyes to the fact that movements like the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign, while admirable, attempts to combat a problem that has existed for centuries.
Before I was a woman, an avid reader and a nigerian, i was black.
Being one of a handful of black people in any given place or at any given time at Exeter (excluding of course events aimed specifically at ethnic minorities) is accompanied by a pressure to ‘represent’. The pressure and knowledge that in these spaces I am no longer just me, but a sole representative of my race, my culture and my country.
My loudness, my love of food, my energy are no longer the traits that make me who I am but instead further cannon fodder for those who see me only through the lens of my skin colour to pigeon hole me as a stereotypical ‘black person’. When I shoot down a well meaning but ignorant comment I become not an impassioned protestor but the ‘angry black woman’. While I understand that stereotypes are part and parcel of almost any group of people – women are emotional, young black boys are thugs and black women are mammy’s or jezebels – they are born out of our need to classify and identify people who are different to us.
When it came to picking a university, Exeter was at the top of my list. Most of my friends were surprised by my choice, Exeter and diversity did not seem synonymous, and they did not hesitate to echo their negative opinions of what I should expect. These were all valid issues but I refused to be deterred. As I enter my final year I have seen many of their concerns reflected in the unequal racial makeup of my lectures and sometimes the thinly veiled offensive comments and behaviour of students and locals.
I was asked to write about diversity, its importance and my personal feelings on it, but what I think is just as important as establishing spaces of diversity is how we react when we are faced with such diversity. How we react to and relate with people who exhibit obvious or minute diff erences from ourselves. Diverse spaces are the goal because that is how we combat the ignorance that fosters institutional oppression. How we act in the interim on our way to this egalitarian society is crucial. This means listening when a person of a diff erent race, culture, or religion tells you about their experience. Not talking, but listening and absorbing that commentary and perhaps adjusting your world view accordingly.
I am no longer just me but a sole representative of my race, my culture and my country
The lens of privilege is inherently hard, if not impossible to recognise and see through. I am privileged by being a cisgendered, heterosexual, able bodied, and educated person. I fulfil those norms that society has built their laws and institutions around. But at the same time I have disadvantages as a woman and as a person of colour. So when I speak to a white friend about my experiences (of being catcalled, or having racial slurs hurled at me, or how it feels to be the only person in a room who looks like me, only to then go home and read yet another article about how the bodies of people of colour are violated against), I appreciate it when they pause for a moment in contemplation, as opposed to trotting out the tired old “racism is not that big a problem anymore”. To be quite frank, racism is something that must be addressed daily.