Being black in white spaces


Alexis Itu discusses the pressure and loneliness of being the only black student in the room

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Image by Rajmund Dabrowski/ANN

By Alexis Itu

My blackness was a marker I became aware of as early as primary school. The other girls would run away from me screaming in the playground or stick things in my hair when we sat on the carpet. The only other children in the year who looked like me shared similar experiences and frustrations and so we stuck together – our humour was the same, the foods we ate at home were the same, the features on our faces and the texture of our hair were so similar that we forged some sort of alliance, which turned to a friendship, which turned to a sisterhood. This sisterhood proved to be a refuge not only then, but all the way through my education.

The education system has not changed much since I was in primary school – my schooling has been underpinned by instances of racism both implicit and explicit to constantly remind me of my position as the black girl of the class. 50 percent of young black people in the UK feel that race poses the largest hurdle to academic attainment. Statistics show that an average of 8 percent of BAME students make up non-Russell group institutions, and this falls to 4 percent at Russell group institutions. The lack of transparent statistics made available by the University of York seems to paint a tragically similar image.

In coming to university, I had the triple burden of figuring out what I wanted to make of my life, what it means to be an adult and navigating this through the lens of systemic mistreatment. For the first time ever, I found myself desperately searching for, and failing to find, a haven of people who looked like myself – the only coping mechanism I knew I could rely upon throughout my primary and secondary education. On an almost routine basis at university, I have been subject to micro-aggressions dressed as innocent comments or to being the designated black friend, so much so that I felt completely isolated, and equally disheartened. This is an experience that is not exclusive to me but seems to be a shared experience of black people accessing higher education. 95 percent of young Black British people have experienced racist language in education, with a further two-thirds expressing that they hear it ‘all the time’. Looking at the disparities between the demographic of BAME children in primary education (30 percent) to BAME students in higher education (4-8 percent), one could argue that racism must pose a significant barrier to accessing higher education, making higher education an inherently white space.

Institutional racism has been a media buzzword, and it is easy to throw it around without truly understanding what it means and what its real-life implications are. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, institutional racism is “a form of racism that is embedded in the laws and regulations of a society or an organisation. It manifests as discrimination in areas such as criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, education, and political representation.” Obvious examples of this within education would be the lack of black history within the curriculum, discriminatory rules on hair, the hugely disproportionate punishment and exclusion of black students and so on. However, subconsciously held stereotypes and biases (for example black students being disruptive or aggressive) also uphold the fundamentally racist nature of education in the UK. The consequence of this is a complete lack of support for black students in pursuing their academic goals, as they are victims of a system set up not to serve them.

Looking more broadly, racism permeates every component of our societal structure. From over-policing leading to disproportionate arrest rates of black adults, comparative over-sentencing of minor offences, to the gentrification, pricing out and destruction of predominantly ethnic communities, to medical racism, and the negligence of black mothers (meaning that they are over three times more likely to die at childbirth) and so on, black children are often put at a huge disadvantage when accessing education in the first place. This combined with the racist nature of education means that it becomes incredibly difficult for black students to achieve academically, and then go on to receive a university education. Our schools and universities are institutionally racist as a by-product of our society.

This all leads me to reflect on those who do make it to university, those like myself who are grappling with the extent of isolation that it can bring about. I am finding myself having to justify my blackness more and more, explaining my cultural references and my humour, never making traditional foods anymore and conforming to norms that I don’t identify with, all while navigating my first real glimpse of adulthood and responsibility. The pressure and loneliness of being the only black student in the room can only make an already difficult experience harder. While there has been a start in making room for black students, there is so much more that academic institutions can do, including at York, so that one day higher education and education in general will be an equal opportunity for all.