The Black Feminist Society: What It’s Like To Be A Women-Of-Colour at University
Society Members George Riley, Axelle Nasah, Makeda Krish
The transition from a home space to the wider unknown of University is always a momentous shift if to say pretty daunting. Suddenly confronted with new spaces, places, and people to navigate through, finding your rhythm is often a more gradual process than many like to admit. Now add in the fact that, as a person of colour, you are also arriving in an environment where the faces you see around you are disproportionately different to you.
It is no secret that University is more often than not another space where white people are a majority. While friends will be made all around, whether through your course, accommodation or in the haze of Leeds’ eclectic nightlife, there are still some aspects of your everyday experience that are not understood or reflected, and yet remain so important.
This is where Black Feminist society aims to locate itself. At its most fundamental, Black Feminist Society strives to be a space where shared elements of daily life as a person-of-colour (PoC) on a white-dominated campus can be talked about and affirmed, crucially, without the need for in-depth explanations. It’s just understood.
Makeda Krish, Fourth-Year English Literature student
Black people navigating spaces dominated by whiteness often speak of the duality of their experiences. One of the subtler ways that white privilege operates is that it gives white people the opportunity to view themselves outside of their race. Instead, they can see themselves simply as individuals because they are not the only person with the same skin tone in the room; and quite frankly no wonder.
Society, institutions, government, media and of course this University validates white racial identity everywhere you look. Upon leaving my private school where I had been the only black student in my year, I looked to University as a liberating opportunity to validate my own identity in meeting more students of colour. I hoped maybe in a space such as this I too could exist as an individual as opposed to whichever black stereotype my white counterparts found applicable to me that day.
However, it quickly dawned on me that this would be far from my reality. I was instead one of just two black people in my wider social circle and so followed a continuation of this dual experience. You have to choose whether to assimilate as the model minority or fulfill the road, rebellious stereotype that was to be expected anyway. Note an option C: be yourself does not exist as a category.
Earlier this year an article in The Independent highlighted that black students were 21% more likely to have their applications investigated for fraud than their white counterparts showing that even at the highest level, pervasive institutional racism still plays a huge role in unequal university admissions. I increasingly began asking myself, why me? What is so special about me above the majority of other black people around the world that should mean I am deserving of higher education?
A report published by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) made headlines last summer after reporting that black students across the UK were 50% more likely to drop out of University within their first year than their white and Asian counterparts. To me, this makes perfect sense. When a white person finishes University, it is not a triumph for the white race as a whole but a triumph for the individual. Yet for me, every triumph for black individuals including my own seems intertwined with our liberation as a whole. This pressure and weight on the shoulders of black students is a heavy load to carry.
Black Feminist Society aims to provide a space where we really can just be our individual selves, no pressure. I mean ask yourself honestly, would we even be getting the airtime in this University paper had we not also been flavour of the month? Since joining the Black Feminist Society Committee, we have been inundated with emails throughout Black History Month (that runs through October) from persons and groups demanding to know and understand the black opinion. Quite frankly I don’t know because I don’t speak for all black people.
So, if you are interested, hopefully at times that don’t contractually oblige you to care, go and do your own research.
George Riley, Third-Year Philosophy and Politics student
University is already a difficult experience for a number of reasons. There is the adjustment of moving away from home, being thrown into a new environment with total strangers, suddenly having to keep up with a heavy workload in a fast-paced academic environment… Just to name a few! Throw being a person of colour into the mix and things can become even more complicated and challenging. It was only after I moved away from my home in London to study here in Leeds that I developed a heightened awareness of the colour of my skin. It had never crossed my mind prior to moving out that this could be a factor in my University experience.
For most of my life, nobody looked at me strangely when I wore my hair out in an afro. No one would plunge their hands into my hair without asking. No one would ask me how long I had been in the country. No one would certainly make inappropriate remarks about their love (read: fetish) of mixed-race girls upon meeting me for the first time. All of the above managed to occur by Semester one of first year. It immediately became apparent to me that University was predominantly a “white space”, and whilst I felt suddenly too visible to the students around me, I was paradoxically invisible as a student of colour within the curriculum.
Black Feminist Society is a space for us to feel represented in. A healthy amount of visibility is necessary, but too much can be overwhelming. As a result, it can get really tiring having to deal with ignorant questions and remarks, otherwise known as micro-aggressions, and having to exercise patience in rebutting these in order to resist the oppressive “Angry Black Girl” narrative that plagues any Black woman expressing an argument with a passion.
My hopes for the society this year is that Black women on campus will feel like they have somewhere to retreat to on those long and trying days. Somewhere we can celebrate ourselves and discuss issues that may feel awkward to bring up within the wider university space. It is our way of saying, we earned our place here like everybody else. It is our way of saying if we are under-acknowledged or underrepresented in the existing spaces here, we will just create our own!
Aida Abdul-Raheem, Fourth-Year Arabic and English student.
(Original Photography by Daniel Pipe. Instagram: shotbypipe_)