Being BME at Durham: a potential minefield

By Victoria Lincoln

95% of the time I do not feel that different from my friends or other students at Durham. However, being a British-Asian in a very white university does have some rather annoying pitfalls now and again.

One of the main issues is that many people stereotype BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students, and expect them to act a certain way or to fit a certain personality type, which is pretty ignorant in itself. One of the other issues is that often BME students feel pressured to ‘fit in’ with their white peers.

Personally, I haven’t experienced the latter, but I have definitely experienced the former more often since moving to a less diverse part of the UK. This pressure is something a number of my Black-British friends have voiced their concern with. Their experiences have been invaluable to me in approaching the issue of BME people feeling pressured to either wear a ‘white’ mask or to play up to their stereotype in Durham.

Every BME person’s experience of racism or even just plain ignorance in Durham is unique and it’s important not to generalise. For that reason I am just going to focus on the experiences of me and the friends aforementioned. However, I am sure many BME people can relate to these incidents and I hope it makes you think twice judging people too quickly based on their outward appearance.

BME students can feel pressured to play up to stereotypes in Durham

I do get hit with the ‘Where are you originally from?’ question more often than I’d like in Durham. The answer is Kent. I am from Kent.

Such ignorant snap-assumptions also affect my academic life and the societies I am a part of. My first tutorial in my first year, a politics tutor asked a question about Indian nationalism. He then asked me to answer it, obviously because I was the only brown person in the room. But how would I know? I’m British.

Such stereotyping had not happened to me before I came to university. However, here this kind of thing happens whenever we discuss colonialism, global development, or other topics related to ‘brown people.’ This is irksome because BME people are not a collective and we shouldn’t be treated as such. Just because I am the only BME person at hand does not mean that I can or should represent every British-Asian ever.

However, this annoying stereotyping is not permanent and I do not think it is malicious. It comes from a place of misunderstanding and a lack of exposure to other classes and ethnicities.

In my time at university I have had the positive experience of introducing people to my background and hopefully breaking down their assumptions regarding, in my case, British-Asian women.

They thought I was from the South-East version of Slumdog Millionaire

I am involved in politics on campus, but none of the groups here have a significant BME presence, if any. I didn’t join my party for over a year because I didn’t feel I had anything in common with them, and at first they didn’t know how to talk to me. It was another case of awkward stereotyping, where I thought they were posh idiots and they thought I was from the South-East London version of Slumdog Millionaire. However, after getting to know each other, I regret not joining sooner.

I think for a lot of people I am the only one, or one of a couple of, BME friends they have. This lack of exposure to BME people can lead to some pretty cringe assumptions, but by engaging with each other, after a while the stereotypes become chiselled away.

Even though I have had a positive experience of breaking down such barriers, there are clear challenges for BME people in Durham. There are few BME role models available in academia, colleges, sports, and societies, which keeps BME students’ voices often unheard or feeling pressured to blend in. This can lead to ‘imposter syndrome’ where people hide part of their personality, which is not healthy at all.

There have been some improvements in recent years, such as the ACS fashion show last year, which showcased some incredible African and Black-British talent and debunked some unfounded stereotypes in the process. It was a celebration of diversity done in an inclusive way.

Events like this show students that it is a good thing that we don’t all come from the same cultural background. As a student community we should be doing more to make everyone feel that they can be themselves here. Perhaps then Durham would stop losing talented young BME people to Warwick!

Photograph: Zoë Boothby

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