The stereotypical university experience is often understood as learning the balance between partying, procrastination and deadlines. However, the experiences of ethnic minorities in education can often go unnoticed.
After reading Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, I wasn’t exactly surprised to learn of the statistics relating to Black people in academic admissions and achievements. Structural racism has much to answer for.
" Access to Britain's prestigious universities is unequal, with Black students less likely to be accepted into a high-ranking, research-intensive Russell Group university than their White counterparts" (Eddo- Lodge, 2017).
A very uneasy statistic.
In September 2015, my university experience began. I had looked forward to moving to Greater Manchester, largely because of its renowned 'cultural diversity'. However, Salford (where I actually stayed) was far different from what I had imagined. Unlike other areas in Manchester, Salford was predominantly white and I always felt somewhat unwelcome around the locals. As a result, I used the University campus as a safe space, where I believed i wouldn't be seen as an outcast.
In attempts at making University feel like 'home', I would cook traditional Jamaican dishes like ackee & salt fish with boiled dumplings, fried plantain and green banana, or curry goat with rice and peas for a scent of familiarity. As the only person of colour in my flat; it wasn't easy dealing with the ignorance of my flat mates. 'Why are you frying a Banana, Kayla?' 'How do you wash your hair with braids?' And my all-time favourite: 'oh my, you're so sassy!' The transition of moving into an environment away from my family and friends was stressful,l to say the least. I still felt like an outcast and somewhat inclined to prove myself to people who didn't 'get' me. I wanted to be amongst people I could relate to.
In order to feel a deeper sense of belonging, I joined the African-Caribbean Society (ACS). The demographics of the society were predominantly West African, though there were rare occasions of countries outside of West Africa would be acknowledged. It was somewhat disappointing to see recognition of Caribbean culture being confined to Dancehall/ Bashment music. As a Caribbean descendant; I know that there is more to our culture besides music: our food, work ethic and history - more than Windrush - being prime examples of this. Yet, the ACS didn’t feel like a safe space reflecting the nuances within our diversity.
Being one of 8 (Black and Asian) ethnic minorities on a Media and Performance degree course, my difference from the majority often felt like a disadvantage. Lecturers frequently emailed casting calls from agents, directors and producers with specific requirements. I.e- 'Brand new coming-of-age film for students looking for experience'. The casting requirements never accommodated people of colour. I remember receiving emails that would require white male/females to play the role but to seem inclusive the email would resemble something like this: ‘Sally- long hair & tall in her early 20s’. I never felt comfortable in fitting that description.
Despite the lack of diversity and some meagre attempts at inclusivity within the institution, the biggest obstacle of my university experience was during my final dissertation. After landing some work experience with the BBC, I decided no matter where I ended up in my career; It would be in the media. The busy atmosphere, the creativity, I was so inspired, I decided to create my own blog site. The day after my debut, I sent a link to everyone on the BBC team and everybody seemed to love it except one woman, a Black woman, the only Black woman working on the project. She reminded me that as Black women we must work 10 times harder than our counterparts and that I needed to step my game up if i wanted to be seen in the media industry. “You are a Black woman in a white man’s world”. Her words from our conversation clung to me, and changed my perception of what it’s like for a Black woman to ‘make it’. I wanted to explore further.
I realised that writing a dissertation on the misrepresentation of black women can be tough when all of your lecturers are white. The concept of my dissertation was not to 'bash' white people but to highlight the injustices Black women face in the media. After carefully planning my initial pitch, 'To what extent are Black women misrepresented in the media?' I was criticised for my “negative connotations”, by my lecturers. Unsurprised, I decided to head to the library and conduct research surrounding Black women, to which the librarian noticed and argued she didn't feel my question was necessary.
However, I refused to be disheartened and discovered through work and in conversation with successful Black women that as a Black woman, we are expected to learn the language to express our frustrations, without being stereotyped as an angry Black woman. As a result, I sugarcoated my question to How are Black women represented in the media?' Having to tread carefully around mentors who didn’t see the value or importance of my dissertation did admittedly at times knock my confidence (once I realised that the same people who were offended by my question would also be grading my work) but it also reminded me of my conversation and that there’s potential to educate my mentors/lecturers on being a Black woman.
University has shaped who I am as a woman of colour. I’ve learnt to co-exist amongst people I appear to have nothing in common with. I began to understand the parallels between people of African and Caribbean heritage and had a taste of what it’s like to be a Black woman in the media. Without these experiences, I would be blissfully ignorant concerning the arts and media industry and how I may, or may not be perceived as a Black woman. Naive, I would have taken my work experience with the BBC and expected everybody to see me for who I am as an individual. Not realising how my gender or race affects those perceptions.
My university experience taught me that not all institutions will support all of your creative ideas. I feel the University should have had a duty of care to students challenging issues around race. It should have paid less attention to the tokenistic “language shifts” of the institution and more to actually target equality in race for the arts. Now that I have graduated with a 1st class degree; my life has only just begun. I look back at my University experience as a mock exam for my career as a woman of colour in the arts and media industry.