Author: Ebunlomo Azeez, VP Student Experience, University of Brighton

Ebunlomo Azeez is the current Vice President Academic Experience at the Brighton Student’s Union. She graduated with a first class law degree in 2017 at the age of 19. She is passionate about diversity, access to education and amplifying the voices of the youth. Ebunlomo is one of the University of Brighton’s representatives on the student panel at the Changing Mindsets Conference.

Race is everywhere. From the pictures of the notable alumni that line the walls that you walk through daily, to the lecturer that stands in front of you ironically delivering a session on the Victorian era’s view of race. It is the sad but undeniable truth that the first BME member of staff you see that day may be the person who clears your lunch table. You receive a text in a group chat from your society members whose jokes have no boundaries and say ‘oh you cannot be offended, you’re one of us and you know that I am not racist!’ So, you don’t feel like going to the society meeting because of how uncomfortable they have made you feel and head home. Later in the evening in your halls of residence, you are startled by the loud and growing noise from the corridor. With dismay and horror, you can now hear the chants clearly from your housemates ‘We hate the Blacks…F*** the Blacks!’ These may sound like extreme dystopian nightmares of university days that are supposed to be filled with fun, friendship and long days in the library but these are just some of the experiences of students in Higher Education Institutions that have shocked us recently. The intersectionality of race in everything higher education can therefore not be overemphasized. It is inextricably linked with other factors such as socio-economic background. However, in this blog, I focus mainly focus on the significance of alienation and the role-model factor.

Over the years, I have realised that HEI’s are not overtly racist nor intend to alienate BME students. I believe that the alienation that BME students experience results from the covert intended and unintended acts. I have to say that I had no overt racist experience whilst at university but the shocking stories that we hear are becoming scarily familiar. With an accusation of racism, you can expect the immediate ‘NO!’ and expression of shock is bound to follow. But the covert ways say otherwise- the praises of students that you sing or those that you give the opportunity to talk in class.

There is a need for HEI’s to go beyond an unconscious bias test showing us a video of a monkey so we can recognise our own bias. I think the discussions have to permeate every level from the lecturers to the student societies. Alienation explains to an extent the reason for student ‘clogging’ up as groups. We must be careful to avoid alphabetical groupings for seminars because this is only likely to lead for students with similar surnames being in the same group. One can argue that this should lead to the opposite of alienation as it gives students the opportunity to interact with persons from similar backgrounds. I argue not- these groups alienate students from the rest of the student body. I recall my seminar group was a table of white students and a table of ethnic minority students. We need full integration and confidence by seeing a reflection of ourselves in our academics.

To address alienation in different forms, it is also important to have clear conversations on racism. With the recent Exeter Guilde case, we must recognise that student societies contribute to the feeling of belonging or otherwise. Students’ Union have a role to play in this by ensuring that the societies are trained and there are clear and effective processes to follow when there is a breach. The absurdity of events such as Slave Auction Event show very clearly that the system is failing to address race issues. When your lecturer makes a racially insensitive joke where do you go? There has to be a clear route to report racially aggravated incidents at universities. Although in some institutions, there are clear guidelines on how to report racist behaviours, the question remains how do you ensure that the affected students have faith in the system. Many of their fears like ‘it will affect my grades’ or ‘I don’t want to be seen as causing trouble’ must be addressed too.

I am an advocate for effective mentoring and buddying systems. In fact- I benefitted from a mentoring scheme at my university called Momentum. However, we must not ignore one of the causes of the elephant in most rooms- the attainment gap. The student cycle as we know extends beyond the recruitment and retention into progression. At the back of a student’s mind is life after university with many considering opportunities such as internships and graduate positions. I believe that lecturers are exemplar and remind a student of their potential. It is unfortunate that some students go through their university experience without being taught by a BME lecturer. This cannot be ok- we should see a reflection of ourselves in our lecturers to remind us as we walk through the doors of our lecture hall that we can do it.

HEI’s must do more than just engaging external role models, it is imperative that we think of innovative ways to make the institutions more inclusive. Effective buddying systems and role-modelling are the first steps but we must not forget the connotations of things such as artefacts or even posters. For example, when we look at the wall which recognises alumni or students who have achieved impressive feats, I want to see more than one tokenistic BME person. It is also important to take into consideration things like guest lectures or panel events. I do not propose that we halt events nor cancel because of a lack of racial diversity. However, it can be very easily forgotten that these guest speakers are external reminders to the students of what they can do post-graduation or even achieve in life.

In conclusion, we must not be colour blind when looking at the higher education and the obstacles posed to the ethnic minorities. The reflection of our race in universities have to be beyond those that serve our meals at lunch.  There will be difficult conversations. It is about awareness, reflection and support. To say that racist incidents will never happen again will be the highest height of naivety anyone can possess. But when it does happen, we need trust the system to provide justice for these students? In my opinion, little acts will go a long way.

I look forward to attending the Changing Mindsets Conference on the 28th June 2018 to discuss these issues in detail. For further details, please visit the website.

Disclaimer:  the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog post belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the values of the University of Portsmouth or the extended Partnership.

What do you see: The Intersectionality of Race in Higher Education?
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