Dealing with racism at university
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Dealing with Racism at University: My experience

Domenica Smithies January 12, 2022

Speak Up. Reach Out is Freshered's mental health initiative.

When I moved away to University from my small town to a bigger one, I thought it was exactly what I needed. A chance to get away from everything I was ready to let go of. And a chance to be independent. As a mixed black woman, I was so excited to move to a city and meet other black, Asian and multi-ethnic students.

In high school I was the only mixed/black girl in my entire year, and I suffered a number of racially motivated incidents and comments. Many of which I dealt with on my own. When I got to Sixth Form, one other black girl joined my year, which I was thrilled about, especially because we became, and still are, great friends.

It would have been wishful thinking to assume I wasn’t going to experience any racism at University.

My first few months there were deeply dark and lonely. I made the mistake of moving into private accommodation with 2nd and 3rd year students as a fresher. That meant going out and meeting new people would have to be done by myself…or not at all. Luckily, I had a friend from sixth form who was also a fresher. So I was able to spend time with her, as well as meeting her new friends.

Unprovoked and unjustified

One night I was invited to the pub with her and some of her housemates. I was so happy to have plans. So I got ready and met her on campus. One of our mutual friends, who was in some of my lectures, was stood beside me while she was getting cash out just before we walked into town.

“You’re not really a n*gger, are you? You’re more like a n*g, because you’re half!”

Unprovoked, unjustified and completely out of the blue, I stared at him in silence, trying to figure out what had just happened. In the end, I did nothing about this, and told nobody, which I deeply regret.

Once we arrived at the pub, I tried to have a good time and put it to the back of my mind. However, I noticed one of the attendees, who was also in some of my lectures, was staring at me. I turned to him and, before I could say a word, he said “You’re not really black, are you?”

Yet another unprovoked comment, I was caught off guard, and a little confused. I can’t really remember my exact response, but it was something along the lines of ‘okay’.

After this night, I began to distance myself from all of these people, begrudgingly, because it meant I wasn’t going to have any friends…again.

Third and last

By second year, I had made a whole new set of friends, and first year was nothing but a distant memory. My third and last instance of racism at University happened to me one night outside a pub.

A large group of male students walked past us. One of them said “My mate thinks you’re fit” and, assuming it was harmless fun, I replied “Thanks”. The same person then shouted back “Not you. He thinks you’re a p*ki.” I stopped dead in the street, turned around, and this time, I had a response: “I’m not from Pakistan you f*cking idiot”.

They all walked away, laughing. Me and my friends then went inside. None of us spoke about it, like it never even happened. I reported this incident to a counsellor at the University. But, because there was no way to determine who these boys were or if they even attended the University, it was left.

Hear my voice

What I learnt from these experiences was pretty simple. One was to never assume people are not racist or have micro-aggressive tendencies. In the first two instances, I had barely known these boys. But they still felt so comfortable saying what they said to me, effectively scarring my first few weeks at Uni.

The second is to speak up. I kick myself every day for not making a bigger deal about being called a n*g, and being told I’m not actually black. Sometimes, educating people isn’t about helping them, but rather telling them that the way they think and behave is fundamentally wrong. These people didn’t deserve to be educated, or even acknowledged. But I wish I did tell them to f*ck themselves.

I look back on that night outside Wetherspoons and feel a strange sense of pride in the way I conducted myself. I am happy they got to hear my voice.

Speak up

My advice to BAME students: If someone says something racist to you, whether they are supposedly a good friend, a housemate, or someone you sit next to in lectures, tell them.

“What you just said was very racist, did you know that?” “You should never say something like that, it’s racist.” “I find that very offensive, that is wrong.”

Their response will be one of two; apologetic, or counter-argumentative. If someone counters your statement, the best thing to do is to cut them off, even if you aren’t close. Offering someone the chance to better themselves by explaining what they have said is racist is one thing. But, if they then refuse to acknowledge the voice of a marginalised person, there is no hope for them.

Vital support

Talk to your friends, family, partners etc. about it too. Loved ones are often the most supportive, and perhaps they will suggest you come home for a weekend to clear your head, spend some time with them and refresh your mind. For a lot of BAME people, racism can cause a lot of complex emotions, including trauma, and a more homely environment may be more suitable until some time has passed.

I would also consider telling someone at the University, depending entirely on how you want it to be dealt with. University advisors, counsellors and even lecturers are there to help you in more than one way. Any establishment would be embarrassed to know that the type of people they represent have such disturbing views.

It can be incredibly difficult to talk about things like this. But people will listen to you, offer their support, investigate what happened, and do anything to prevent it happening to you, or anyone else, again.

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Domenica just completed a Master's Degree in Global Media and Culture at Keele University, after finishing a BA in Journalism at the University of Chester. She writes and produces social content for Freshered. Her interests include animals, equality, social media, music, food and fashion.