A Racial Identity Crisis
Zoë Wilkinson explains her displacement upon arrival at Exeter and the spark of a racial identity crisis.
When I moved to Exeter just under two years ago, I was blissfully unaware of the identity crisis that would soon engulf me. In the past two years that I have spent studying Philosophy here I have become used to being one of (if not the only) person of colour in the room. Despite, this I usually enjoy most of my seminars. However, the one thing I hate discussing in seminars is race. This is not because I find the discussion unimportant but because of the othering nature of these discussions.
There is an awkward silence when anything vaguely to do with race comes up in a seminar. All of the invariably white people in the room furtively glance in my direction. Despite not being Black, when discussing literature by Black academics like Angela Davis or Frantz Fanon, there is a certain expectation that I should offer something to the conversation because I ‘understand’ such things. I normally sit resolutely in silence, in contrast to my usual talkativeness in seminars. I hate the feeling of speaking in such moments. If I do speak, there is always a tense quiet which is punctuated by the condescending smirks from the white people who demand more evidence and statistics to make sure I am not lying.
This overarching belief from white people that people of colour are a homogeneous group who experience racism in all the same ways is what often leads me to avoid these seminars all together.
‘I always forget you’re brown’ and ‘I just see you as white’.
In my social life I am frequently confronted with confusing statements about my own race like ‘I always forget you’re brown’ and ‘I just see you as white’. In the aftermath of such comments, which usually come from my own friends, I am left wondering what I have done to forfeit my brownness and how to get it back. These frequent experiences affirm the notion that being anything other than white operates as a deficiency in Exeter.
I was lucky enough that when I came to Exeter, I was able to quickly make a group of close friends who I still regard as such to this day. Beyond this, however, I found making friends a tricky process in first year. This was not because I had any problems socialising but rather because many of the social circles I encountered were awash with racism. Some groups had a few loud members who would crack racist ‘jokes’ at dinnertime to some laughter and awkward silence, whilst others where almost entirely constructed of racists.
As a brown person I knew I had to avoid such people.
If they said those things in front of me, what did, they say behind my back? My white friends, however, had no problem associating with them and even befriending them. It was then that I realised the privilege of white people to ignore racism in potential friends and partners. My white friends observed racism as a ‘character flaw’ or an attribute to be ‘condemned’ rather than something to inspire fear and unease as it did in me.
I felt my identity slip away from me in first year. At school I had been vocal and assertive when I witnessed racism. At university it was so plentiful and ingrained that I had neither the time nor the energy to disperse every racist belief I was confronted with. My activist nature seemed subsumed by the constant unease I felt towards the racism and sexism I encountered. This was something that I was unable to combat in my first year. There seemed to be no one there to listen and no one who understood. However, in my second year I joined feminist society. Things like discussion groups and committee meetings allowed me to meet people who were equally outraged and confused about the racism in Exeter. I finally felt my passion for activism return, along with my confidence to challenge the racism and sexism I was so frequently presented with. If anyone is feeling as I did, I wholeheartedly recommend getting involved with Femsoc or any other societies fighting for equality.