Diversity and White Privilege at Durham University

Image cred: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

With the #BlackLivesMatter movement breaking the internet and protests ongoing across the country, I have witnessed a somewhat performative activism taking over my social media feeds, from many who have stayed silent at the microaggressions, ignorance, and dare-I-say-it open racism, that students of colour face at the University of Durham.

According to Durham statistics from the most recent academic year, 35% of the student population were people of colour. That’s 3725 postgraduates and undergraduates, those researching and learning, out of 10721 white people. Approximately 10% of those in 3725 were Chinese. If we break those stats down even further, the decreasing numbers of minorities stand out even more. Only 143 Arab students. Only 250 Black students. That’s a shocking 1.3%.

Coming to Durham from diverse North London was a massive change to my cultural system, to say the least. Being surrounded by the safety of a variety of ethnicities, fitting into the cultural norms, and seeing diverse faces on the streets was replaced with the feeling of being an outsider, not quite fitting into the status quo and a heavy sense of not belonging to the place I had a right to call my home as much as any other student.

I was incredibly lucky growing up, I went to a school where I would never stand out for my race. Where my confidence grew, I learnt to never be afraid to speak in a room full of people, and I was taught my worth. This came crashing down around me when I entered the university world. When I stepped into a seminar and immediately felt uncomfortable speaking out, as I stood out from the others in the room, or subconsciously sought out people of colour to befriend during the first week of Freshers’.

The typical statements any new student will repeat mindlessly during their first few weeks of university consist of answering their name, what they study and where they’re from. For me, this seemed simple enough. Until the question of where I’m from was further scrutinised. I’d heard all the possibilities: “Where are you from ethnically?”; “So where are your parents born then?”; “But where are your family from?” And the worst by far was “No, really, where are you from?”

London. That’s where I’m really from, I would reply, with the resilience I’d grown over time. At first, I thought nothing of these questions. I was somewhat amused that strangers took an interest. However, it did not take long for me to realise that this amusement was an unsettling feeling in disguise, a feeling that would grow to replace my ambition of education in Durham, with an outsider status.

It did not stop after Freshers’ week, after the countless questions where I would assert my identity and my sense of belonging. I grew numb to feeling like an outsider during lectures and seminars, where I would look around a room of fresh white faces, feeling myself uncomfortably stand out even further.

I knew I was just assumed to be an international student, as the stereotype of Durham students, unfortunately, includes one specific race alongside the signet rings, flairs, and Chilly water bottles.

The confidence to address a room diminished into trying to fade into the background. The references to my culture that I could joke about with my friends from home were met by blank stares and puzzled faces at university.

The further I tried to immerse myself into Durham culture, the more I distanced myself from my real culture. My socialised identity turned from diverse to isolated in a matter of weeks, as I sought out a sense of belonging.

I look back on moments when I chose Durham as my home for the next three years. I had considered race and cultural diversity as a factor when making the decision. In fact, I had dragged my family to Exeter for the weekend, only to decide on arrival that I would not see myself living there at all, simply because there were no people of colour on the open day. Not a single family that stood out as much as mine.

Yet, for some reason or another, I fell so in love when visiting Durham, that I could ignore the race factor. I can’t say I regret the decision. I love Durham and I always will. The small town has become my second home, the academic opportunities are like no other, and I even appreciate my friends that are so different from those back home.

Perhaps it was living in Durham, as an outsider, that changed my opinion. Not just of the town, or the students themselves, but of all white people there – all those who maintain white privilege, uphold microaggression in ignorance and perpetuate the image of the Durham stereotype.

It wasn’t simply my encounters with other ignorant students, nor standing out in lecture halls. It was the fact that as much as I tried to resist the white influence (like chastising friends who ordered gravy and chips from the local Indian takeaway, continuing to watch Bollywood films and listen to Bollywood songs) as much as I could by seeking out cultural factors within the community of Durham.

I joined a Bollywood class, a small group of five or six people of colour, only one subset of the many dance classes of the Durham society. I dragged my friends to club nights where the typical white music, played in Europe’s officially worst night club, Klute, was completely replaced with some RnB, even though I knew from the outset how much they would hate it.

In fact, that night was perhaps one of my best nights out. Not only for the music, but the presence of the African and Caribbean Society, for the fact that for once, I was not standing out, but rather immersed in the crowd. No wonder my friends didn’t have a good time.

It’s hard not fitting in. I slowly became used to friends of mine introducing me to their other friends of colour. I was delighted to meet people in the same situation as me. To share survival stories, reminisce on our cultures, form an exclusive group where we weren’t just outsiders.

None of this is to say I don’t thoroughly love my university experience. I can’t wait to return in October, and, like so many others, I am grieving the loss of the final term due to the pandemic. Yet, whilst my love for Durham has grown over time, so has my opinion on white privilege and my activism in the face of microaggression from ignorant students.

This may just take the form of asserting my identity in a club to a stranger. But it can also take the form of pushing the boundaries of Durham’s diversity. As part of my college’s fashions show, when picking the models, I continued to remind the team of the quotas that needed to be filled.

We needed to present the limited students of colour in our college and to boast the difference our college could make. To acknowledge the fact that Durham students were not just white faces in flairs and signet rings.

Perhaps the greatest achievement that came from voicing and showcasing the students of colour was the election of a Black, female SU president this year. But, the backlash and heavy criticism she personally faced just proves how ignorant the majority of the student body is. How ashamed I feel when being associated with these students has almost reached an equal level to my love for Durham.

With one year left of my Durham university experience, I’m keen to make a lasting impact, as great as the impact Durham (and its students) have left on me. With the university having recently announced a campaign to decolonise Durham, as well as supposedly implement harsher implications of racism prevalent within the student community, I can only hope that future students will not face the outsider status I was forced to endure.

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