With current debates surrounding racial equality at universities and whether the media’s portrayal of race affects this, I want to share my own experiences with being mixed-race at the University of Exeter.
I have a Caribbean mother and an English Father. Coming from the largely diverse City of London to the predominantly white Exeter was not exactly a shock, however it brought about many interesting encounters.
In my first week of University, my flat mates seemed fascinated by my ethnic background, least to say they had coincidentally come from all-white private schools. They ventured through all possible stereotypes, attempting a Jamaican accent, telling me to twerk and asking me if I eat a lot of chicken. Despite this not seeming extremely racist, it made me confused and if anything, I felt like a spectacle, like a magician performing tricks.
I was even referred to as ‘exotic’. What they don’t realize is that when you ‘other’ a mixed race individual you are not just temporarily othering them in that moment amongst that group of people, you are contributing to a more permanent othering. You are perpetuating their alienation from all communities.
I felt like a spectacle, like a magician performing tricks
When they realised I was not what they considered a ‘typical black person’ or that I put myself across as one, for their own personal entertainment they moved onto my other flat-mate, of Ghanaian origin.
After this odd first week, it was interesting to me that I was referred to as ‘black’ more so than ‘white’ and that it became my label. As I had never seen myself more white or black, but equal on either side, it was bizarre that my Caribbean identity has suddenly become more prevalent in others eyes.
One Nigerian student last year had even said: “‘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.”
My second week of University was not much different, yet my colour actually brought me positive opportunities. Auditioning for one of the drama societies’ shows, I was offered a call back for the black character ‘Gary Coleman’ in Avenue Q.
Although this character was not exactly suited to my acting abilities, they saw my colour and immediately thought I would be able to play it. As it so happened, the other girl who had a callback for the same role was much better suited- with a lower range fitting for the character and a better ‘black’ persona with the snappy disposition perfect for Gary Coleman. Not a surprise there.
Later on that week I was called out of a drama workshop by the director of education for Drama and asked to take part in a rehearsed reading of a new play at the Bike Shed Theatre.
At first I thought I had genuinely been hand picked out of everyone to play this role. On the contrary, there were only two people of colour in first year drama, one of which was absent. This left me to play a West Indian girl with an attitude, who often quotes her Jamaican Grandmother. I was honoured to take part in this fantastic opportunity but couldn’t help feeling like I wouldn’t get as many of these favourable circumstances if I was white, and perhaps people would see me for my potential talent and not just an ethnicity.
[I] couldn’t help feeling like I wouldn’t get as many of these favourable circumstances if I was white
Despite my experiences since I got to Exeter, I am aware that there are people who have experienced racism far worse than I. From Airbnb owners not allowing a person of colour into their houses, to shop owners hearing about a local crime and immediately asking ‘Was he black?’.
This has been brought back to the forefront following David Cameron’s revelation that there are more black people in prison than at a top university. From this debate, universities will now be forced by law to disclose what proportion of ethnic minority applicants get places, David Cameron has announced as part of a concerted government anti-discrimination drive.
Yet, is asking top universities like Oxford, for example, to increase their intake of ethnic minorities considered positive discrimination? And if so, is this really what we should be promoting? Or maybe it is what universities like Exeter really need to push forward.
What I think is just as important as establishing spaces of diversity within Universities is how we react to people who exhibit minute differences from ourselves. Diverse spaces are the goal because that is how we fight the ignorance that fosters institutional oppression.
The media creates meanings about race and ethnicity, and plays an important role in shaping the way we understand race and ethnicity as part of our identity, our history, our social institutions, and our everyday lives. Often used interchangeably, race is a way of classifying individuals and groups. It delineates one’s place of origin or nationality, one’s cultural background or ancestry, one’s language and by extension, one’s belief system.
Personally I feel it’s a shame that the orchestrator of change, Mr. Cameron is discussing why these ethnic minorities exist with education chiefs who have an external, biased view of such a matter. Many people wonder if bringing this issue to the forefront of media is helping ethnic minorities gain better opportunities or is it actually alienating them even more? The media’s intrinsic Islamaphobia, the portrayal of African-American men on TV or even subtle racism that is engrained into every day news bulletins are all signs that the media are part of the problem and are in fact reproducing racism in direct discourses of denial.
The issue is being addressed by those in the film industry. Following an overwhelmingly white nominee list for this year’s ceremony. prominent film stars like Jada Pinckett Smith, Will Smith and Spike Lee are boycotting the Oscars Awards 2016 in protest.
More recently, Beyonce’s new song, ‘Formation’, is a fierce celebration of her African-American roots (“You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texan bama”), and for her performance at the Superbowl she payed homage to Michael Jackson and the Black Panthers, the militant political movement that formed 50 years ago this October. Her performance was a tribute to the Black Lives Matter campaign.
Bottom line is, I am a challenger to everything you thought you knew about race, culture and ethnic identity. I am an adversary to your ideas of segregation. I am a challenger to years of historical divides and to present day racial tensions. I am an opponent to your definitions, your prescriptions and your perspectives. It is time to unlearn racial identity, and start portraying it in a way that makes us all unique individuals.
It is time to unlearn racial identity
The fight for black rights would be all the more effective if peoples’ ignorance would stop refraining them to the phrase ‘But racism doesn’t really exist anymore’.
Only one in ten of the poorest black boys go into higher education at all. What does this say about modern Britain? Are these just symptoms of class divisions or lack of equal opportunity? Or is it something more engrained, institutional and insidious? It may be overt and unconscious, but this inequality needs to be stamped out.
So Exeter… It’s not enough to simply say you are open to all. Ask yourselves: are you going that extra mile to really show people that this University can be a place for everyone?