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How Not To Be Racist At Uni 101 (for Students)

25 Sep 2015

I interviewed five women of colour studying undergraduate degrees in arts and social sciences at different universities across the UK to see if there were things which united our experiences. We discussed everything from dynamics in da club and awkward race-based seminars to themed nights out which scream cultural appropriation. It seems the most efficient way to offer a critical insight into our experiences was to take real life scenarios and turn them into a How Not to be Racist at Uni 101. This may be useful for our peers, lecturers and anyone who, after a few drinks, might be known to quiz the nearest black girl on her twerking abilities.

The guides have been split into two. The first is a How Not to be Racist at Uni 101 for Students and the second is an article centred around the machinery: lecturers, seminars and unit guides.

1. When race comes up in a seminar, refrain from turning and staring at the one person of colour in the room.

Many of us have packed up and moved from fairly diverse cities into university settings which don’t contain people who look like us. So, we often find ourselves being either the only or one of a few in a seminar. This in itself can be awkward, but gets even more awkward during race week. And do you know what makes this ten times worse? When everyone in that seminar turns to look at you.

“So we talked about 9/11… and every white face turned around and looked at me, it was really awkward.” – Safrina, Warwick

2. Yes I am a person of colour, but no this doesn’t mean that I can speak for everyone who looks like me.

Once everyone has turned to look at you, an agonisingly awkward dynamic is set up for the rest of the seminar. In which that person is seen to be the representative for every person of colour. Black and brown become character traits in themselves, completely erasing the diverse body of experience when it comes to race-based relations. Whether it is seminar tutors themselves, putting that person on the spot, probing them for answers or our peers, who make points and constantly seek our validation. It gets tiring and perpetuates stereotypes about what it means to be a person of colour.

“…we did critical race theory as one of our modules and that was probably the most uncomfortable I’ve been in my entire life… It was like I was the spokesperson for black people…” – Deejah, UCL

3. When people are critical of white privilege, this is not a personal dig at you. No need to get so offended.

One of the reasons it seems people are reluctant to critically engage with race is that it makes them feel uncomfortable. That’s normal – structural inequalities are uncomfortable, even more so for those who not only discuss them within a seminar but face them day in, day out.  Rather than switching off and shutting down, use these uncomfortable moments as a chance to delve deeper. When these conversations emerge, the thing which is the least important is how you (a privileged person) feel in that moment. A viewpoint which has been expressed by the privileged is that the  ‘aggressive’ manner adopted by people of colour in discussions of race puts them off. If you have a problem with this, you are a tone policer; these things aren’t intended to be said in a way which makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. We want to break down superficial engagements with race and come up with some interesting solutions.

“When asked to think critically about race, they completely divert it… meander around it because it feels uncomfortable.”

“When we did our critical race theory I was going round looking at all the white identity markers; the fragility thing, the guilt thing, the deniers… it was really interesting watching it all play out!” – Deejah, UCL

4. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but, just because you have a black friend, it doesn’t mean you are free from criticism and it certainly doesn’t mean you can use the n word for ‘bants’.

It is still possible for you to offend people, regardless of the fact that one of your mates or your girlfriend or boyfriend is black. Having a black friend doesn’t serve as your insurance policy against racist jokes and comments. I’ve been around white people in halls who referred to their one black mate as a ‘black c**t’. Naturally, I left and can say that my white friends would never say such a thing, even in jest. But having spoken to other women of colour it seems that many of their friends or acquaintances at uni have been known to develop a case of Tourettes when they’ve had one too many.

“…when ‘Niggas In Paris’ comes on… they will start screaming it in my face, as if it’s really hilarious. It’s like: it’s not on…” – Victoria, Leeds

5. Liking Erykah Badu doesn’t buy you an entry pass into our pants. 

It is no secret that as women of colour we are fetishised; from the submissive asian stereotype to the feisty caribbean, I hate to break it to you – but these are not accurate. Black and brown vaginas do not possess powers unknown to every other. However should you be trying to make a move on a woman of colour in the club, which isn’t contingent on a warped perception of pussy power, opening with how much you like Erykah Badu isn’t the way forward. I would also advise that you steer clear of the ‘I love brown girls’, or ‘I’ve never been with a brown girl before’ lines.

“…This guy was like telling me how much he liked Erykah Badu and mixed raced girls…” – Victoria, Leeds

6. Blackface at a uni or any other partay isn’t okay. You might think that this is an obvious point, but it isn’t obvious enough for people to stop doing it. 

It’s worrying that this point still needs explanation, but come on people – you can be more creative than that. To put it simply; fancy dress is supposed to be a laugh right? Well, historically minstrel shows were a laugh at the expense of black people: do not be complicit. And do not be surprised if people don’t you mocking people of colour funny or if you end up with a black eye or two by the end of the night. Telling people to ‘relax.. its only a joke’ or my personal favourite ‘I didn’t realise racism was really a thing anymore’ suggests that you need to go brush up on history and come back again another time.

“I’ve seen people blacked up in my students’ union… After the war in Gaza, this guy dressed up as a dead Arab.” – Safrina, Warwick

“I once saw a blacked-up Usain bolt… that was a high point…” Victoria, Leeds

7. Now that you’ve made it to uni, it’s time for you to ditch your bindi and other items which scream cultural appropriation.

Ditch your Dashiki, bindis and anything else which may cause offence. I must admit I was a problematic teen, whacking on a bindi or, if I was feeling particularly dubious I might go for two. Having spoken to people from the cultures or communities affected, I’ve managed to remedy my ways (although the Facebook pictures will never fade). Cultural appropriation in a nutshell means stealing elements of one’s culture whilst oppressing them through exclusion and other means. While it may not be as explicit as calling someone the n word, these forms of ‘subtle’ racism can be just as damaging.

“I play netball… every week we dress up, and one week it was Native Americans… I was like I’m not doing this, this is so not okay. But you try and explain it to them and they’re like ‘it’s just fun’. Which I find quite isolating.” – Victoria, Leeds

8. It’s insulting when you support campaigns for social justice, but insist on speaking for the affected.

It is great to support the causes of others, everybody needs an ally. But not just any sort of ally, the good kind – the kind who knows when it is time to step out of the spotlight and let others speak. The most important thing which people can do is listen to the affected because they are more often than not willing to tell you what sort of support is necessary; be it legal, financial or whatever. I spoke to Sanaz about her experience; campaigning against discriminatory practices within the University of Leeds (more here) and student Kelechi’s battle with the British immigration system. Both cases serve as perfect examples of the performative forms of activism often adopted by students.

“Look at the NUS; these are all British students (some people of colour) who have no experience of immigration issues and the particular issues which people of colour face in the immigration system… setting up a demonstration isn’t what that person needs… it’s legal aid… It’s a cosmetic level of activism, ‘lets do something that is like a performance’. It’s not like they understand the immediacy of the issue.” – Sanaz, Leeds

I hope that this guide has offered an opportunity for you to kick back, think and decide to ditch your ‘I love black girls’ chat up line. If you are a woman of colour and  have any suggestions or would like to get involved and be interviewed about your university experience, email