An unpleasant scenario to kick start an unpleasant topic: I’m at 24’s with some friends for their annual pub quiz. I’m just standing up to leave when a guy approaches me, followed by his friend.
“Your hair is really cool,” he says.
“It’s the kind of hair you want to touch. Can I touch it?”
I hesitate. This guy’s hand is already creeping towards my curls. I know exactly what I ought to say, but awkwardness makes the words linger in my throat. I don’t want to appear rude.
“I’m really sorry, but I wouldn’t be comfortable with that.”
When I finally tease the answer out, it is most obviously the wrong one. His eyes slit, his mouth sets like concrete. His facial expression looks like I just called the plague of Moses down upon him, not like I exercised my right to say no.
“Come on.” His hand moves faster, and I duck.
“I said, I’m not comfortable.”
He slinks past, attempting one final swipe at my hair as he does so.
Manoeuvring the topic of micro-aggressions is never fun. It’s like tiptoeing through a racially-charged mine field, pirouetting past linguistic technicalities and praying you don’t stick your foot in the wrong place. It seems like one mistimed step and you’re going to be blasted out of the stratosphere, in a blaze of fury, or at the very least, high enough to touch an aeroplane.
What’s even less fun than talking about micro-aggressions, however, is experiencing them. And if you’re a person of colour at Durham, the chances are you encounter them an awful lot. As a non-white student, you quickly come to realise that micro-aggressions are a constant presence within university life.Whether it’s becoming a case study for affirmative action or the butt of ‘jokes’ which fuel harmful stereotypes, racial difference becomes something to which you are almost permanently wedded.
You find yourself and your heritage increasingly labelled with phrases like ‘ghetto,’ ‘exotic,’ ‘wild,’ and ‘oriental.’ People refuse to pronounce your name or demand you anglicise it for their benefit. God forbid you ever try to explain why these make you feel uncomfortable. The student body are by no means the exclusive source of race-related anxiety either; perhaps what is even more difficult to swallow is its presence in the education we invest so much in.
As an English student, I’ve sat through tutorials which have questioned the relevance of race within the field of literary theory — something that would never be done to feminist or socialist commentary. I have flinched at the repeated use of the ‘N’ word in lectures from my elective module. A legitimate piece of feedback from one friend’s formative read “your essay assumes racism is a bad thing.” Although the department in question handled his following complaint both swiftly and empathetically, the question still remains why the complaint needed ever exist in the first place.
But when you experience a constant trickle of messages — signs that, although non-explicit, mark you as Other, less, different, ultra-visible — you start to feel alienated.
It’s like a bio-accumulation of toxicity in your brain, starting in mild annoyance and ending with you feeling genuinely un- comfortable in your own skin. It ends with you simmering with disappointment in the back of lecture theatres, becoming bitter at the mention of any race-related subject, ducking your head and biting your tongue because you don’t want to be the ‘social justice warrior’ or ‘militant black person’ of the tutorial.
Because on top of all this is the knowledge that what I’m saying is only the tip of the iceberg: as a mixed white and black, relatively light-skinned girl, there are areas of racial marginalisation that I will never experience, and countless issues I have undoubtedly failed to address. I can never do justice to the feelings experienced by a dark skinned man who’s branded as a thug, or an Asian woman who’s constantly fetishised.
But what I, and everyone else can do, is provide a platform on which their experiences can be shared. This is exactly what DPOCA’s #RecogniseAndResist campaign aims to do. It aims to highlight the problematic modes of thought which litter our everyday actions, and by doing so takes the first steps to correcting them. Every single poster is a first- hand account of student experience, so if you see one about, please give it a read. Resisting racism starts with all of us.
Photograph: Durham People of Colour Association