Why I fell out of love with Durham

By Kate McIntosh

As I get ready to leave Durham, I’ve been thinking about all the things here I’ll miss. I can’t help it – it’s an unavoidable reaction to being told constantly that a lot is about to change. I think a lot about friends and flatmates, and nights in Bailey bars. A side effect of going somewhere new.

For all the comfort of familiarity, there’s plenty about Durham I’ll be happy to shrug off. It’s expensive, it’s small, and whilst I’ve been here I’ve met people who make me think everything my Dad told me about posh people is true. And I’m not alone – it’s an unspoken truth, but Durham is full of people who aren’t so fond of it.

We have a university which acts against the best interests of students, either ignorantly or vindictively, a persistent problem with sexual violence and endemic ‘lad culture’ that leaves many students isolated and uneasy.  How many times have you heard someone explain away incompetence or elitism with a casual ‘that’s Durham for you’?

My particular gripe in this instance, says nothing of originality or insight. I’m no Columbus discovering the Americas or Edison detecting electricity. My inspiration is only my day-to-day experience of Durham. It’s tutorials, time spent on the river, nights out, arguments with housemates and days in the library.

The common theme? Endemic, naturalised sexism. And what’s worse, we pretend it isn’t there. If you don’t believe me, here’s something to think about. Female friends and I expect to be spoken over in seminars or debates. We see fewer women in prominent academic positions. Go to a Union Society debate and a tiny majority of those who ask questions are women, even fewer are BME women.

Time after time I have experienced visiting speakers pass me by to introduce themselves to male friends. But those same friends I’ve known cast off their pretence of progressivism as soon as they’re a few drinks in.

When I mention getting heckled in a rowing boat of eight women, by men in their forties in a pub garden, to my male friends who row the same stretch of river all the time, they’re bemused and surprised. When I try to convey my uneasiness to let a drunk friend walk home along, or be walked home by a stranger, they can be ignorant and vapid. When I talk about feminism, they are sheepish, defensive or even accusatory.

As Politics Editor of this paper I have experienced more talking down and harassment than I ever expected, and more than my male predecessor. Among friends who are more politically minded I have seen a skewed feminist agenda referenced to tick boxes, but cast away in reality. After all it’s easier to excuse sexism if you see it as a fault of political ideology rather than a personal attack on the value of your existence.

Durham’s fierce academic environment, culture of affluence and elitism, and intense social calendar contribute to a unique brand of Durham sexism, characterised by ignorance and apathy. These problems might be widespread, but we’ve got to recognise what it is about Durham that fuels their persistence here.

Particularly, why do they seem worse here? At the intersection of whiteness and maleness – Durham’s speciality – there’s something peculiar going on.  A lot of it has to do with lack of understanding and disbelief. That naivety fuels the idea that women who vocally denounce the treatment they get have a vendetta against men, instead of just to remedy their own situation.

Not all is lost. We’ve got some of the most vibrant liberation campaigns and associations in the country. We have a welfare system which supports survivors of sexual abuse or harassment on home turf. But overwhelmingly, my feeling of Durham is one of a place stuck in the past. At least I hope the world outside the bubble will turn out to be a little different.

Photograph: Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrie via Flickr and Creative Commons

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