Churchill College’s motto is ‘forward’. It’s one that, as a black woman at the college, I can only interpret to be ironic. When it comes to BME representation on the JCR, we lag painfully behind. We are one of eight undergraduate colleges of the 29 across the university not to offer the role. It was generously suggested that maybe BME students should fall under the bracket of ‘international’. But I am not, despite appearances, an international student. I’m just black. Need I say more?
A number of students at the college have been pressing for the implementation of the role. Something that many would assume to be a given. We were unrealistically optimistic. The resistance comes not only from some white students at the college who will insist that race issues are not ‘widespread’, but some BME students have argued the same; they also appear to have problems with being yoked together with other minority groups. And whilst I understand that non-white people aren’t a monolithic entity, I think there are far worse things than identifying with those who make up different parts of B, M and E.
The insistence that racism isn’t a ‘widespread issue’ is problematic. The point shouldn’t be how pervasive it is, but that it occurs at all. I imagine that at a college where a student has blacked up to go to a swap as Muhammad Ali, and another defended the act, that the issue is not only present, but in need of urgent attention. How much racism, then, is enough to necessitate a BME officer? I would say any. I would say none. The problem goes beyond individual counts of racism. When elements of the institution negate your existence and consistently fail to reflect your experience, then a single, solitary, BME representative can be a comforting thing. An acknowledgement that you exist.
The problem I have is not explicitly with the College, although I do struggle to understand this oversight. I was assured by my Senior Tutor that the college was anxious to rectify the condition. The resistance comes from students, who are so convinced that racism is not a problem, that they wilfully ignore others’ experiences, in the interests of denying us necessary support. I expected it to be the other way round.
Ironically, what some fail to recognize is that their staunch opposition is partly what constitutes the problem. Why would anyone reject the creation of a position, there to support students who have voiced a need for it? What could motivate a white student to so adamantly resist a change that would have no implications for them? Unless, of course, they want to be racist.
So much for “Forward”
Although I don’t understand the reasoning of oppositional BME students, they too are entitled to their opinion. And yet, these students may also choose not to engage with the services being offered to them. If they don’t identify with the title, so be it; but they shouldn’t bar the way for those of us that do. It seems obscene then, to suggest that a majority of BME students should suffer before they are granted representation.
After a shambolic open meeting, it was decided, to my disgust, to conduct a survey of students at Churchill. I couldn’t overcome the sensation that I was being asked to quantify my oppression, only for other people to decide whether it was sufficient enough to warrant the support I felt was necessary. As a result of it, a motion was proposed to “include a statement in the responsibilities of the welfare officers regarding representing the interests of BME members.”
Again, not good enough Churchill! I’d prefer not to have the interests of BME students tacked on to the pre-existing ‘job titles’. In so doing, Churchill JCR sends the clear message that such issues do not require the same attention as those of, say, LGBT+ or female students.
Consequently, it was revealed that roughly 2/3 of BME students did not support the introduction of an officer. This equates to 11 students. Interestingly, similar numbers of people who had heard of or experienced racism, felt the need for representation. I have little time, however, for a survey that numerates my experiences. If students still actively challenge representation for the 1/3 that require it, I’ll call it what it is. Racism.
I can almost hear you say – “but what about the BME students that object?” As I have mentioned, they have the choice not to engage. The students who require this support however, if rejected, are left without the luxury of that choice. Moreover, by suggesting that if a majority of BME students object, it should be abandoned, one is actively denying us the nuance and difference that exists within a diverse group. Oh, the irony.
There was some Facebook beef where students were hotly debating the issue. One (white) student, who I presume saw no need for BME representation, asserted that opposing views “smacked of colonialist and racist, patronising assumptions…” (Blah). I was impressed by his imaginative use of what appeared to be a progressive argument. What this misguided student failed to recognize was that rather than “telling BME students what was good for them”, his opponents were merely voicing their support for people like myself, and reiterating the very same arguments that, when I audaciously voiced them, were literally scoffed at. Nice try, but you didn’t think that argument all the way through.
The debates have in my experience been toxic and upsetting. In the most recent meeting I remained silent, I didn’t trust myself to speak. I have to mentally prepare myself for what is yet to come. Fix up Churchill. No one wants to look racist…
A condensed version of this article was originally published in Varsity.