Durham: A racially homogenous university? The set up of the DPOCA

By Holly Bancroft

The year is 2016 and for the first time ever Durham University has got a Durham People of Colour Association. Despite an intake of around 4000 Black, Minority, Ethic students each year, Durham has continuously lacked any form of representation for this group.

Representation which is so important in a University community which is known, comparatively to other British universities, for not being very diverse.

Palatinate had the fantastic chance of talking to the founders behind this student association and discuss how finally a safe space has been created for people of colour in Durham to gather together, promote their cultures but also uniquely discuss a in many cases tough, shared experience.

The founders of Durham People of Colour Association are Iris Lang, Tra My Hickin and Nancy Huang. They are all second years from either Van Mildert or Cuths and the association was borne out of an idea they had in June, “Our first years were coming to an end and we felt like there was a big absence of racial dialogue”.

Because Durham is so racially homogenous Race often gets over-looked because it is assumed it’s not really a problem here. The three recognised that the issues of BME students were not being discussed or represented and created the association as a place where people could turn to if they faced issues of racism.

The great majority of Durham’s faculty are also white and so, as they point out, it is hard to report racially motivated incidents to University staff.

Iris talking about the plans of the association said, “We are going to start weekly socials, a place where you can share experiences and discuss. When people have been on the receiving end of racism they need a safe space where they can kind of vent. We aim to create a real life space, holding discussion around topics of sensitivity, for example cultural privilege.”

Currently the group are running an number of Black History Month events which the Durham Student’s Union had actually asked them to plan.

The girls’ main point of contact at the DSU is Jo Gower, the communities and welfare officer, who like many, on hearing about the DPOCA expressed the view that this society is something Durham has been needing for a long time. In fact the DSU seems to be really positively behind the set up of the association.

Although the DSU saw that there was a gap of BME student voice it has been hard to do anything about that without an up-surgence of student will behind it.

It is hard to set up an association representing people of Colour if you yourself are not a person of colour. The emergence of this association is exactly what many have been wishing for, and it’s finally here.

So what does ‘association’ mean? It is not very common for an association to be set up because unlike a society which comes together to celebrate common interest or culture, an association is a representative body.

As Iris said when talking to Palatinate, “They exist to represent a community of people, liase with the DSU and affect change”.

Other associations in Durham include: LGBT, International Students and Mature Students. The DPOCA has crafter their own constitution and alongside support from the DSU have developed plans for sustainability and long-term, as well as short-term, aims.

Their first big aim is to develop an equality and diversity code of conduct because the University doesn’t actually have one.

This code of conduct Tra My Hickin said, “Outlines a procedure for dealing with racially motivated incidents, equality not just in terms of race but every facet of someone’s identity.”

Although most London universities have something like this, it would be something new to Durham.

Their other aims include getting more BME students working as Open day ambassadors. “When people evaluate Durham they also look at the social make-up of the University.”

Prospective students choose where to go based on how welcoming the community feels and whether you can identify with people already there. When speaking to Palatinate, Iris said, “It is incredibly important to see people from the same background as you that you can look up to, who are similar to you.”

A lot of interest in the DPOCA has come from older students. It seems that 3rd and 4th years, having been in Durham for a few years, recognise that Durham profoundly needs more representation from people of colour and that a homogenous student make-up is not a good thing.

Their first AGM was held at the Empty Shop and was run as an open mic event where people came and performed. There was a variety of music in different languages from their own cultures, and some performance poetry. The event went down really well with the venue being full to bursting.

Their plans are not limited to their own association either. They are currently liaising with the Feminist society and the Documentary and Film society to create original content for Black History Month.

In fact there are other people in the process of setting up an African and Caribbean Society which is still in the fledgling stages.

This seems to be part of a promising beginnings of a new movement to recognise the minorities that Durham does have in it’s student base and not only rejoice in the rich contirbutions they can make but also to have their views represented.

That is what makes the DPOCA so unique. “We are more politicised in a way, we deal with more serious issues.

We are not just focussing on celebrating our cultural heritage but also discussing the issues that being from a unique cultural heritage brings us. There are a lot of people who don’t fit into separate societies.”

The DPOCA aims to be an all-encompassing place where people can mutually encourage each other and see their views change the university in which they live and study.

Palatinate asked the University for comment on racist incidents in it’s reporting last academic year.

They said, “We understand that racist incidents in society are under-reported. Where such incidents are reported to the University it is likely that they would be categorised as hate crimes.” Hopefully the DPOCA will be a more accessible platform in which people can give support to each other as these issues are tackled.

The survey run by Palatinate in May found that 70.2% of the students who took part felt that colleges and the Students’ Union should improve BME representation. The want and will is now here, hopefully this means a new awakening of the BME student voice.

Palatinate really care about these issues and want to be a platform for all voices from varying backgrounds. Click to the Comment section for personal accounts of being a BME student in Durham and if you want to write for us please email news.features@palatinate.org.uk with any ideas.

Photograph by Sankirtana Soc

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