By Nichola Vo
At the time of writing this up, I have posted a Twitter thread that has now over 150,000 views and some of you will have seen what I’ve already said. If you have yet to, in my thread I breakdown how racism, misogyny, and classism, amongst other issues, are prevalent at Durham but outside of the ‘Durham bubble’, no one hears of these issues, and that there is no accountability or support – I include evidence and personal examples of this all in my thread. Since posting that, I have also seen a number of people start talking about their experiences and concerns – both publicly and privately to me. As a final year student I am not writing this for myself, as my time at Durham is almost over, but for the students continuing their studies at Durham who I hope will have better systems of support in place for them.
I have struggled throughout my time at Durham, and I know that I am not alone in this. If one other student reads this and finds comfort in that, then that in itself is important. My time has been littered with too many moments where I have been forced to justify my actions in ways I shouldn’t have to. I have had another student tell me that BME internship schemes are not fair because they have worked just as hard as I have, and therefore should be equally as entitled to the opportunity, all the while failing to recognise that in certain industries, BME internships are an antidote to a lack of diversity. On another occasion, I was listening to a song from ‘Hamilton’ where the line ‘rich folks love slumming it with the poor’, when another student responded: “you would just need to visit where Nichola lives”. Even after calling this out and expressing my upset, I was just simply told that it was true and that was that.
University is presented to be the best time of peoples’ lives but this is not the case for certain groups of students who don’t particularly fit, or adapt to, the traditional mould that is the ‘Durham Type’. There are people who do not believe that the problems of racism, classism and more are not part of a daily struggle for Durham students, but I wonder if these same individuals have taken the time to listen or understand the experience of others who might not be as lucky as themselves.
My experience will always be my own. I’m sure that there are other working class students and students of colour who will have had an amazing time at Durham and found no issues. Yet, we must recognise that Durham can also be a place where these same groups of students have felt the most out of place and uncomfortable.I have made friends with people who come from County Durham itself, and yet they tell me that in Durham University, they feel so out of place. These issues go beyond my own personal experience and affect many other working-class, students of colour and mature students to name just a few.
Furthermore since sharing my experiences, I have had conversations with people from all kinds of backgrounds; from freshers, to PhD students, and even staff. They each expressed their problems with the way the university operates. This just goes to show that the issues here are beyond individuals and that there needs to be a better system in place for students and staff to both report and access the support they need when they feel unwelcome and discriminated against.
The problem we have at our hands is difficult to describe because the anecdotes people share are so often full of off-handed comments, and microagressions which cannot always be seen and taken as ‘hard evidence’. This makes it even more difficult for some to recognise why people might feel out of place, when they cannot understand the nature of why others might feel like this.
I understand that there will be two kinds of people who read this. However, I feel like something needs to be said. When I put out the thread over the weekend, I did so because of my own personal frustrations towards what has been happening over the last week in Durham. Yet, the underlying nature of these problems have been at play for months and if not, years. What frustrated me the most was that no one was addressing the problem we had. It was going back and forth with many unnacceptable comments being made, and every single piece that was being published was only revealing one side of the narrative. This was, and is, not fair. Furthermore, it shows exactly how these problems exist and operate within Durham University.
I recognise that the University already has measures in place, but given that in recent weeks there have been many students who have come forward with their struggles in accessing the right support, this shows that it is not working. Durham doesn’t face the same level of public attention by the media for its BME or state-school statistics compared to Oxbridge, yet the issues are pretty much the same, if not worse. This has clearly played a hand in the level of accountability and pressure towards how Durham has taken in responding to these issues. I personally believe that there needs to be a system introduced in Durham for students of colour and working-class backgrounds because a lot of the structures that already exist unfortunately have proven themselves to repeatedly fail the majority of these groups.
There will have been people who voted Re-Open Nominations in the recent Student Union elections, but are also upset with the behaviour that’s taken place who now stand alongside successful candidates. I know that this has become a complicated matter to deal with, but, in spite of intentions, it has given way to harmful, racist, classist, homophobic and misogynistic behaviour. Students need to recognise this and acknowledge that even though they could not have foreseen what would happen, that all the same, they had a role to play in facilitating it. We all need to do better and need to call out this behaviour when it happens, and when we can. It is not okay for this sort of behaviour to be platformed in a public way where other students will feel uncomfortable and unsafe, especially when the problems that already exist at the University go largely unrecognised by the institution.
At present, no student has had to face the repercussions of this or been able to adequately file a report on the matter. Even though the page ‘Overheard at Durham Uni’ has now been archived, which many students had access to, we must acknowledge that over the last week that the platform existed without moderators and becoming an increasingly hostile space. So whilst freedom of speech is important, the platform itself wasn’t sustainable.
I had to read countless comments talking about how safe spaces are not needed; racism needs to be validated by white individuals; the mocking of students of colour expressing upset to people defending extremely hurtful screenshots. I understand that the student body of Durham will never have a unanimous opinion on this matter. However, there is a place and time to express these views that do not make others feel uncomfortable.
Once students have drawn attention to the underlying issue of racism, misogyny, racism or other exclusionary and discriminatory attitudes, that exist behind the actions of others, people should start thinking about their own role and why this is, rather than quickly denying and defending against the issues at hand. Too often, I have seen in these moments of defence against such labels, this is where others provide further proof of the problems raised. Not only this, students need to start showing more empathy with each other, and seek to understand the reactions on these sensitives matter instead. We all need to start having these conversations productively with both sides listening and understanding each other.
No one wants to be called racist, and few deliberately align themselves with racist behaviour. Equally, no one also wants to call out this sort of behaviour, as to do so is an admission that they have faced discrimination. Yet, the failure in not recognising how these sorts of underlying attitudes emerge, when others have tried to repeatedly call it out as a concern, has led us up to this point.
The problem we need to unpack at this point is how a space has been created which allows such nastiness and hostility, making students feel unsafe and uncomfortable. This space was a product of a whole range of different groups. Sadly, I have not seen the people behind any of these platforms speak up publicly, or even personally and acknowledge the consequences of their actions properly, in this situation which has failed students from minority backgrounds. I have seen the candidates show empathy and take their time to address concerns of others; yet, heard of no one taking the time to do the same to them. Instead, what I’ve seen is countless attacks on select individuals or too-little, too-late attempts to condone behaviour from JCRs, without even recognising their hand in the matter.
I know that there are many people unhappy with the way that the SU is run. I also know there are people who are unhappy with how colleges and the wider university is run. However, the way to resolve these problems will not come from targeting select individuals. The problems extends beyond them; people need to start recognising this, and the fact that the student-elects that we have are all trying to bring in positive change for the student body as they have expressed. I personally saw countless attempts from them all to speak for themselves in showing that they were representing what was being asked for in the demands.
I would like to reiterate and place emphasis on the unacceptable kinds of behaviour I’ve seen specifically in the last week should not be tolerated in any form across the university, especially in public spaces, even if this is online.
The problems that we are dealing with are institutional; yet, the targets of abuse and hate are individuals. Why have students not written or taken the issues of their SU to the NUS, and the university? If it has been concerns over a lack of funding, why have colleges not sought for more from the university collectively as a committee of college exec members? Where was the proof that the elections were undemocratic before the results had even been released?
I feel that every single person who voted at all, and saw what took place on ‘Overheard’, or even engaged with Durfess, should look to understand and evaluate both their privileges and accountability, because we all let it get this far. Whether it was actively engaging, or being a bystander, we all know we could have done something differently or something more.
Beyond this, there is a much wider underlying problem that exists in Durham, as I’ve described, where students cannot access the help that they need to and struggle at Durham because of this. We only need to see the drop-out rates to prove this further. The student body of Durham will always mostly come from a certain background, and some of these people will hold prejudiced views towards others. However, what this entire situation has done is highlight the need for the university to introduce new support systems that actually work for the people that feel discriminated and uncomfortable, in the past few months more than ever. Until I see change and hear about it, I won’t be recommending prospective students from a similar background to mine, or even backgrounds similar to my friends who I know have struggled here, to go to Durham.
Image: kaysgeog via Flickr