This interview was conducted and written prior to the announcement that a student has been expelled for making racist remarks on social media.
The internet has regularly proved itself to be an unsafe space for women of colour, where racist and sexist abuse is common. At the end of last year, Mirabelle Otuoze asked black students about their experiences of racism at Durham and published her findings in The Tab. In Durham, a student has just been expelled for making racist remarks on social media. Palatinate spoke to Durham SU President, Seun Twins, and Undergraduate Academic Officer, Nailah Haque, about their recent experiences of racism and misogyny in Durham and online, as well as their plans as student leaders this academic year.
“Facing scrutiny online has become a day-to-day reality for Seun and I,” says Haque. “I’m very aware that as a student representative, I will and should be held accountable for my work. I welcome genuine feedback, because I want to make sure that I do the best job I can possibly do. Yet, the public scrutiny Seun and I have received goes far beyond expected accountability. Instead, it focuses on us as individuals. Because we are women of colour and because we have been, and continue to be, very vocal about the exclusive and often unsafe nature of Durham for us and other people of colour, people seem to think that we deserve belligerent attacks.”
“We’ve had our privacy invaded time and time again. We have had to deal with people twisting our words and using them as an excuse to bully and ultimately dehumanise us. Often, comments seem to be constructed carefully, knowing what kind of reaction they will cause and knowing that it would culminate in some degree of controversy and harassment directed towards me personally, which is very unsettling.
“I am no more politcally vocal than other student representatives from more ‘traditional’ backgrounds, and yet I am the one waking up to DMs calling me a stupid bitch or making assumptions about my character when they know nothing about me. I am expected to be okay with the disproportionate amount of criticism that is thrown my way, which ultimately has nothing to do with my ability to do my job.”
“Online spaces are not safe for me and for many women of colour,” Twins agrees. “I have a major problem with the hyper scrutiny, harassment, slurs, misrepresentation, character assassination, and microaggressions that make up this online toxicity. Time and again, women of colour are the collateral in Durham’s culture wars, and it has gotten out of hand.
“While I encourage vibrant debate, university should be a venue for politicised discussion – not a constant battleground. No one wins this way. Instead, we end up fuelling this artificial war declared by a minority of individuals. Marginalised students should not be the chess pieces as Durham debates its systemic issues, yet this is what I fear is happening.”
When asked how members of Durham University can do better to combat this, Twins responds, “First and foremost – do not make women of colour apologise for their existence. Our history governs our politics. When we ask you to pronounce and spell our names correctly, do not dismiss that as frivolous. When we declare our pronouns, just comply. When we condemn problematic behaviours from our peers, do not demand to be inserted into that conversation.”
Haque adds, “Check your facts. A lot of people don’t feel the need to, especially when it comes to women of colour. This is clearly unfair and incredibly frustrating when a lot of the stuff written about us is either untrue or once again very personal. Members of the university also need to stop the harassment of women of colour becoming a debate or some form of entertainment, especially when we are not given the opportunity to defend ourselves.
“Both students and staff also need to stop treating us as if our race, gender, sexuality et cetera, are all that we are. Just like the rest of the human race we are multi-dimensional and have many different things to offer the world. I know personally I’m incredibly tired of being seen as the ‘Google’ for race or gender politics. It is not my role or responsibility to educate everyone around me. And I’m tired of people using my race and gender to delegitimise or undermine what I am trying to communicate. It is such a bare minimum that I must ask people to simply listen and understand what I am actually saying.”
“See us for more than the surface,” says Twins. “People can be more than one thing at a time. I am an International Relations graduate, and proud ally to the LGBTQ+ community, and the daughter of immigrants, but in many ways I actually fit the Durham mould – I’m opinionated, outspoken and confident in the intellectual rigour of my ideas and I know they deserve to be taken seriously. A lot of Durham really respect those traits when demonstrated by particular people in defense of particular beliefs. That annoys me.”
This year’s SU officer team is one of its most diverse ever, and Twins and Haque have ambitions for their respective roles this year. “Hopefully the visibility of myself and Seun as women of colour in student representative roles will mean that we can have more open and honest discussions,” Haque says. “I hope we can bring more attention to how students and staff from marginalised backgrounds are treated and move towards making Durham a safer space for all.
“But, it’s about more than just that. Everyone who comes to Durham has different experiences and different learning opportunities. I want to make sure that a Durham education is truly accessible and reflective of the range of students who choose to study at Durham. This includes building on the work Sam [Johnson-Audini, 2019-20 Undergraduate Academic Officer] started last year with the Decolonise Durham Network, and making sure that departments have the support and resources that they need in order to change our curriculum.
“Lots of different departments are working with their students to do fantastic work on decolonising already, so I want to make sure that we can share ideas and work together better to transform our education. I think that this work is a crucial part of the discussion around changing the culture of Durham and hopefully will provide a more critical outlook on how the University treats students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds.
“I also want to make sure that, especially this year, students have the best academic support possible – the lack of face-to-face interaction with our academics and other members of staff might make students feel that they can’t reach out to their departments for help, and I do not want that to be the case.”
Twins furthers this: “For many, visibility is enough. But in light of recent events, it is evident that just getting a seat at the table does not remove racism, classism, homophobia, and misogyny from the room. So, my main goal is to commission a report about Durham’s culture from a student perspective.
“This will be shaped and informed by student stakeholders and resolve some of the shortcomings of the Respect Commission. This report will be an authentic and honest reflection on the good and bad values, and the norms that make up Durham’s culture. It will act as a ‘terms of reference’ which the incoming Vice-Chancellor must commit to.”
When asked what they’d like to achieve during this unusual year, Haque and Twins express their commitment to supporting students. “Durham SU’s focus over the past year has been making sure that student assessment is fair in exceptional Covid circumstances, housing contracts and prices don’t take advantage of vulnerable students, access to Durham is fair after the A level crisis, and thousands of students coming to Durham have the best chance of a fantastic University experience. These are real and pressing issues for students, and we’re all over them.
“The Officer team changes every year and is elected by thousands of students. Students who don’t take part in our democracy wouldn’t see leaders who prioritise their interests – that’s how democracy works – but every elected Officer in every students’ union in the country tries their absolute best to make sure they stand up for every single students’ rights in teaching, housing, value for money, social opportunities, mental health support, whether they voted for them or not at all. We care about making University experiences amazing for more people, and spend a year facing horrific abuse to do it.
“A good students’ union and Officer team takes time to make sure we’re responding to what students need in today’s world.”
Image: Seun Twins and Nailah Haque