By Tobi Dada
Since the establishment of Higher Education institutions, their primary function has been to educate the offspring of white elites. It is no wonder that working class students, as well as students from ethnic minority backgrounds, are at greater risk of being excluded from social life at university. This disposition is reflected in the black attainment gap, the racist abuse endured by ethnic minorities, and the under representation of minorities in award winning.
As a Black student who grew up in one of the poorest areas in south east London, I can share my first-hand experience of the everyday microaggressions I have become accustomed to.
The first, which is my favourite, is being mistaken for another black student by peers and lecturers. You would think that with there being five black people in my cohort it would be easy to tell us apart. But, apparently not. Despite being elected Course Rep and standing out with an extroverted personality, my black classmates and I have been misidentified more times than we can count.
This behaviour has become such a normality I do not bother to correct people for calling me Paul, Khalil or whatever black person they think I look the most like. This trivial action has an immense impact on the willingness of black students to engage with university institutions. Would you want to engage with a community that couldn’t even be bothered to learn your name?
The second microaggression is exhibited by a minority of students, but nevertheless, the implications on black students’ morale and engagement is immeasurable. This microaggression has left many black students unwilling to participate in Surrey Decides as candidates, and even in voting.
That microaggression is of course racial abuse. As someone who grew up in an area that was disproportionately black, hearing the n-word from black peers was a distinct normality. However, never in all by life did I hear someone white use the word; that was until I arrived at the University of Surrey.
Against my better judgement, my friends and I had decided to attend the infamous Rubix RnB night. An hour into the party, a Cardi B song came on, one of the verses contained the n-word. The trauma caused from hearing white people scream the n-word without hesitation or impunity remains with me until this very day. So as quickly as we arrived my friends and I left, feeling like we were no longer welcomed, and vowing never to return to such a place.
To many who come to Surrey, Rubix is a cultural relic to be enjoyed by all inhabitants of the University, but to black students, Rubix is just another institution where racism goes unpunished.
The second time I witnessed racism at the University was during SurreyDecides, when two candidates from the black community were running for positions. The Facebook chat below was broadcasted in all ACS WhatsApp groupchats, with over 1500 black students in it.
This alone would have been enough to deter other black candidates from running in Surrey Decides. But combined with the fact that the posters of black candidates would often be ripped down, while the posters of their white counterparts would remain intact, further enhanced the racial segregation felt by many within the black community.
Ironically, these incidents boosted support for Ajay and Amina within the black community, who felt angered by the unfair treatment of their black comrades.
There are many more examples I can give about the racial biases experienced by black candidates when running for positions of power but I will leave that for another day. What I will say is that until the Union is ready to confront the racist attitudes and bias that operate against black students, engagement will continue to decline.
The final microaggression I will discuss is the lack of appreciation and acknowledgement given to black students of merit. Simply put, it is one thing to be represented and another to be appreciated. Despite societies like ACS and #WOKESurrey helping to improve the university experience for many black students, they are yet to even be considered for awards such as society of the year. With this being said, there is now a strong argument to change the criteria of the awards at the Union ball such that cultural societies have more of a chance of winning an award. This would go a long way in increasing engagement and participation as it would incentivise black students to participate in student life.
My hope is that through discussion and understanding the University of Surrey will become a more enjoyable place for black students. Until then I will continue to voice my concern when necessary and do my part to improve student life for all students.