The reality of being black in Durham: a diversity deficit

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467. That is how many Black students there are, including those of a mixed background, who attend Durham University as of the 2020/2021 academic year. What’s more, that is 467 students out of roughly 22,000. Whilst, as a Black student myself, I am not shocked to see that only 2.3% of Durham is Black, this may seem low to others when considering that this is well below the national university average of around 8%, and the Russell Group average of 4%. What then is causing this? In conversation for a second time with the newfound community for Black women in Durham, Notes From Forgotten Women (NFFW), we have gone further into sharing the experiences of what it is like to be Black in Durham, delving to the root cause of the problem.

Co-founders of NFFW, and gave their opening remarks on what their experiences have been like as Black women in Durham. Subomi discusses coming from a largely white background having studied in Bath, and how “I got to Durham and it seemed like that same cycle was going to continue where I barely had any black friends”. Subomi then goes on to describe her experience as “disheartening” being one of the only Black people in her History and Classics modules. “Even within my college, if I wasn’t placed with black people, I would not have spoken to them because the majority of my other friends and the people I’ve met within my college have been either people of colour, broadly or White.” Chloe echoes much of Subomi’s sentiment, describing her experiences growing up in Switzerland. “I would say that my experience in Durham has actually been arguably a big improvement from what I’m used to.”

…we ARE still here

One of the key points our discussion led us to was the difficulty of Black people coming together and finding one another at Durham. Chloe describes struggling in having to reach out to others of a similar background during her early time at the University. Whilst there is a general experience shared by all university students of having to reach out to others in your new environment, Chloe emphasises how other White students have the luxury of not needing to further search for people that look like them. “I actually really had to go and branch out on my own to find other Nigerian people… which is something that, you know, white people don’t necessarily have to do.” Sara Taha, NFFW’s social media manager, added her remarks on what she believes the key issues to be. Firstly, Sara highlights that “a lot of black people feel pressured to assimilate into a traditionally English culture”. Whilst Sara emphasises that this is not to say there is no place for Black people in a traditionally English culture, “the assimilation that a lot of black individuals feel they must do is at the expense of ever talking about their culture, heritage or race again”. Secondly, the discussion led us to the opposing point that in creating Black communities within Durham, with the hopes of bringing people together to share cultural experiences, this may in fact only help perpetuate stereotypes within the Black community. Sara adds, “ACS is a crucial society in many universities, just as it is in Durham…But, ACS does cater to certain people. It is usually led by a certain demographic.” What then is Durham not getting right about diversity at  university, and perhaps more importantly what is going on within the student community that leads to these two polarising cultures?

Many readers might be familiar with a recent ranking that the University received via The Times, where we placed last out of 115 other institutions on the measure of social inclusion. Whilst this is an internal factor that many students may be aware of, it feels as though Durham aren’t doing enough about it. Chloe explains that “this reputation it has for not being socially inclusive, hasn’t affected them in the slightest. And if it hasn’t really affected them in the slightest, why would they care about changing?” As Sara would put it, “Durham has a certain aesthetic it has garnered over the years.” She explained that she believes that, “rather than try to seem integrated and diverse (like so many other universities), Durham values its inherent whiteness above all else.” So, with a socially exclusive culture that evidently does not prioritise Black students, what is Durham left with?

… Durham values its inherent whiteness above all else

To address the ever-metaphorical elephant in the room, it wouldn’t be fair to discuss diversity at Durham University without talking about the diversity in County Durham, and the North East as a whole. The Office for National Statistics has revealed that County Durham is 0.3% Black as of 2021. Nonetheless, the University isn’t made up entirely of students from the North East; in fact “Durham’s recruitment has not traditionally focussed on the local area, with large numbers instead coming from outside the North East”. So why is this University continuing to fall below the national average for Black students who attend university?

Durham University published their Access and Participation Plan, a 5 year plan set to conclude in the 2024/25 academic year. Within this plan, their section dedicated to all Black Asian and Ethnic Minority (BAME) students explains that Durham’s BAME proportion of all domiciled UK students remains below the UK national average because “there are geographical factors at work. Durham’s position is consistent with its regional context. The population of the North East Region is not very ethnically diverse, and this is reflected in the ethnic diversity of the NE universities…”. Furthermore, they raise the issue of having “a particular issue around the proportion of black students, which we have begun to address…” and this is a point we will return to later. For now, this is what the response has been. Sara comments that, “as a northerner, I know that there is a significant lack of black people here than down south. However we ARE still here.” Subomi added her remarks on the wider experience of what it means to be a student in higher education. “The very stereotype of what it means to be a student in the first place is to be white and to be of a certain privilege standing… we’re going to have to seek out these places to actually create a space for ourselves.” This is why, as Subomi remarks, there are no societies dedicated for white people. It is acknowledged that black students are in a minority, and hence communities are set up to facilitate a sense of belonging that doesn’t automatically exist like it does for white students. The sentiment may be there, yes, however it perpetuates a system where Black students are put in a space of being reminded they will always be disadvantaged. Afterall, you are perceived Black before you’re a student.

When asked for a comment, A Durham University spokesperson said: “We’re building a diverse, safe, respectful and inclusive environment where people feel comfortable to be themselves and flourish – no matter what their race, background, gender, or sexual orientation. “We recognise we have more progress to make in attracting black and other under-represented student groups to Durham, to ensure they feel welcome and to support their development while they are here.  

“In making progress, it’s important to identify and develop solutions with our students, drawing on their lived experiences, as well as working with partners and specialist advisers. As part of this, we are consulting with student groups on the development of our new Access and Participation Plan. “We are also hoping to get a deeper understanding of the lived experiences of our racially minoritised students through our upcoming Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Survey which will open on 5 February. We encourage our students to respond so we can build as accurate a picture as possible – further details of how to get involved will be shared very shortly.”

Whilst statistics are great, and plans towards diversifying the University community may be well-intended, one can’t help but get a feeling that this isn’t an active priority for Durham University. For instance, their five year action plan “intends to add 100 UK domiciled black students by 2024/25”. That would be less than 0.5% of the student community. Sara expressed her disdain of the wording of a following paragraph which reads “Durham is not based in an area of the UK with a great deal of ethnic diversity and students with low aspirations are often unwilling to move significantly from their local area.” Sara explains that “I find the label ‘low aspirational’ to be offensive and based in racist stereotypes that black people ‘are not trying for a better future the way white people and other races are’.” What’s more, she calls for more compassion from the University in acknowledging the intersectionality of this issue.

I now call each and every reader to a point of reflection. As a Black student, would you find yourself recommending Durham University as an institution? The differing responses I have had perhaps speaks to the complexity of the issue. Chloe explains that, “I hate that we have to feel like we need to downplay ourselves simply because we’re afraid of stepping into white spaces. I don’t think that’s fair on us. And so I would 100% recommend the University to other Black students…but not without its warnings.” On the other hand Sara notes, “I am not likely to recommend Durham to fellow black students/friends, if they are used to a certain standard of diversity. First year, first term, was one of the most isolating periods in my life because my college was not diverse in any sense of the word.” What then are we left with considering the space, or lack thereof, there seems to be for Black students in Durham?

The very stereotype of what it means to be a student in the first place is to be white and to be of a certain privilege standing…

The University may have a lot to answer for in terms of tokenised efforts to add a mere 100 Black students by 2025, but the issue goes beyond that. We are immersed daily in a culture at this University where Black people are invisible. And in efforts to make us more visible, we are confined to our black spaces that very much have their own shortcomings. What might there be for us? The answer is simple: plenty. There is as much at this University for a Black student as there is for a White student, and every other ethnic background in between. Although it may not look like it, because the diversity is not fairly representative at all, we are still here and calling for the University to make more substantial efforts at diversity, beginning with tearing down the harmful association with Black students and low aspirations. So, the next time Durham University ranks comically low in what are extremely important areas of social inclusion, ask yourself who that benefits, and think of the number 467.

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One thought on “The reality of being black in Durham: a diversity deficit

  • This article is highly disappointing, and reflective of the tribal thinking that is currently tearing multicultural societies apart in the West. I’m not suggesting there is ZERO common experiences that go hand and hand with being black, but equally, I reject the notion that you need to have someone that looks like you in order to share a human experience, common bond, love or friendship. And so what if Durham has 2.3% blacks? As you point out yourself, County Durham is 0.3% black, which means that Durham University is actually punching significantly above its weight regionally. So would your experience and commentary be so different is there were an additional 413 black students at the University to achieve your magical ratio of 4%? Why is the 4% necessarily appropriate to Durham? Surely the 4% is inflated is inflated because of London. And do you not think that all ethnic groups can make a similar claim? It appears to me that we can all quickly fall down a statistical rabbit hole that adds nothing but conflict and detracts from the more relevant objective of getting to know people that may not necessarily look like you?

    While at university, a precious times in life, is the plan to meet people based on group affiliation or content of character and interests? We seem to be departing from the thesis of the great Martin Luther King Jr once more. There is also a perpetual insistence by those who proclaim to be interested in diversity and inclusion, that any departure from a statistical representation (based on cosmetic characteristics) leads to a non-inclusive environment, which demands “more work”.

    And what is this articl really about? Did you not have an opportunity to conduct your due diligence prior to enrolling in the university? Is the Durham demographic really that shocking, given it is after all, in the UK?

    Moreover, the comment that you have to downplay yourself when entering a”white space”is rather puzzling. I really don’t know what a “white space” is? In fact, I would have thought that there are simply spaces, and people. If you enter into any space, you should not believe that you need to be the center of attention. And I would have thought that if Durham University maintains “whites only” spaces that this would be illegal and discriminatory? Surely the university is not allowing such an odeous thing to take place?

    I am further perplexed by the comment of the Nigerian student who would like to see more Nigerians at Durham University. So why not study in Nigeria in that case? Why come to Durham if you’d rather hang out with your kinfolk?

    Further, the comment that “Durham…values its inherent whiteness”. Again, I really don’t know what that means. Durham is a very old university and has upheld its traditions, from the Colleges to maintainig a Norman cathedral and even a castle. The standards are high and the results outstanding: Durham graduates are sought after by employers. All of them, irrespective of race, creed, gender, or any other immutable characteristics. So please define what you mean by “whiteness”.

    The fact that this article mentions “white spaces” and “whiteness” is testament to the recent and relentless Leftist neo Marxist indoctrination of young people, that is in fact leading to a retribalisation and distrust between ethnic groups (Critical theory anyone?).

    I lament and reject the narrative. Let’s stop focusing obsessively onimmutable characteristics before it’s too late. Let’s revert to simply striving for welcoming spaces, where everyone gets to be judged on ideas and personality, not immutable characteristics?

    Typical of British culture, many people will be too polite to comment on this article. I read it and just couldn’t help stating that I reject several of the premises of the article, from equating statistical representation to inclusion, and let alone a positive University experience. Or that we’d be better off by forming relationships based on whether we look like the other person. Or the notion of “white spaces” or “whiteness”to name a few.

    Could you reverse the same arguments for Europeans studying in Africa or the Caribbean?

    Let’s re-underwrite values that are conducive to social cohesion, including tolerance, openness, content of character, colour blindness (or at the very least colour-minimisation), merit, symmetry and recoprocity.

    Reply

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