By Lynn Ng Yu Ling
Durham University belongs to the class of ‘elite’ universities which have regularly faced accusations regarding a lack of both class and racial diversity. Indeed, this is a problem which cannot be tackled overnight. In this respect, I urge readers not to devalue or dismiss little changes, for where something as large as classism or racism is concerned, it is the incremental and banal interactions that matter.
Durham University’s international students make up 17.3% of the student body, compared to the London School of Economics, which has an impressive 44.3%. Whilst such a statistical comparison is shocking, perhaps we should focus more on the level of racist experience, rather than just the numbers.
London universities may face greater pressure to keep a higher international cohort, given their global city status and ‘cosmopolitan’ outlook. Meanwhile, Durham University occupies an ambiguous position in the chart of elitism and diversity: clearly it is ‘elite’ in academic terms, but unlike Oxbridge, it somehow does not face the same level of pressure to enrol a significant proportion of international students.
It is unhealthy to compare Durham to London using these figures, as one ends up with a mistaken hierarchy of racial diversity amongst universities. Based on personal experience and stories from friends, the experience of racism in a highly multiethnic city like London, is perhaps even more acute and unpleasant than in Durham. Such statistics are dangerously misleading.
An absolute measure of diversity is definitely not reflective of the actual experience of diversity; it is the people who inhabit the space, not enrolment rules, which contribute more to the level of discrimination. While it is important to aim for a higher percentage of multinational students, letting a numerical target be an end in itself, without thinking deeper about qualitative encounters around discrimination, would defeat the purpose.
Diversity in terms of race is not as simple as British versus non-British, which is an overused dichotomy in popular culture. Such a division reinforces static binaries, which frame the current situation of racism as white British against all other ethnic minorities. This is a drastic reduction of both groups of people. Those facing the sharp end of racism do not always experience it in the violent and oppressive ways that are commonly assumed. People do not always realise that an experience of racism need not manifest itself in cruel ways: often it is through informal and perhaps well-meaning jokes that show one’s narrow racial consciousness.
Speaking from personal experience as a Singaporean Chinese student in Durham, even among non-British people, there seems to be a social hierarchy, where qualities such as the stereotypical ‘hardworking Asian’ are somehow ‘preferred’ over other ethnicities and their associated stereotypes. Although such insensitivity is fortunately not a common experience, it does surface now and then among not just British, but also international acquaintances. As such, there is no way to clearly identify the perpetrator and victim of racism, as doing so would not be acknowledging that the two can be enmeshed.
Let us not underestimate everyday behaviour: we may think nothing of it, yet it reflects some very strongly ingrained class or racial attitudes. Students in elite universities, who write about their experiences, tell us a lot about an unconscious class bias that many inhabit. Durham student Mei Leng Yew, who comes from a working-class background, wrote an article in The Guardian describing her experiences at college formals. She ended with a rather strong statement: “I must be honest. I chose Durham University because it offered me an excellent education in English literature. If I could choose again, I’d choose to be happy.” It is woeful that, those whom society regard as the ‘elite’, do not really have the tools to accommodate alternative preferences to British culture, and by this I refer to very small and specific things such as cutlery choices at formal, as this student mentioned.
Based on personal experience, I would like to add another, namely the ‘drinking culture’ in university nightlife. Social pressure to drink may be a fairly unspectacular occurrence to many British students, but can actually be rather disturbing to those who do not come from a culture of what I like to call ‘experimenting with alcohol on an almost everyday basis’. With such phrases, it is not my intention to degrade British culture, as we have many different things to learn from each other, and singling out alcohol to critique and generalise about is not healthy. But such concepts as attitudes surrounding ‘drinking culture’ are also examples of how racism can unintentionally be inflicted with offhand remarks, which those on the receiving end may find offensive.
With human relationships, it is the little things that matter. Perhaps we should apply this to issues of racial and class diversity in our institutions too. Although practices we take for granted, such as college formals, are almost invisible in formal documentation, these basics are what constitute our experience and life-worlds in institutional settings.
Illustration by Faye Chua