The Newnham x Robinson BME Open Mic Night held at the Robinson College Bar on February 11, 2018 was forcibly shut down by the Bar staff upon receiving complaints by white students that they didn’t enjoy the BME performances. The evening had been organized by the BME Officers of Newnham College and Robinson College.
Rewind to the beginning: upon entering the bar space that we booked for 8pm, we were shocked to find that several BME students took up a small table in an large bar filled with drunken white people dancing and singing. We knew that the Robinson Beer Festival was also scheduled to run all day, but there was no indication to us that at 8pm, BME students and performers would be pushed aside to occupy a small fragment of the bar room. Despite the uncomfortableness of the situation, we started the performances. Ada’s lovely rendition of “I Love You Porgy” by Nina Simone was followed by Hasan’s stand-up set about whiteness and the racism he’s faced, and Kritarth’s set about Economics and Technology. We then took a short 30 minute break in the JCR to deal with technical difficulties and to allow everyone to socialize.
However, the Bar manager then told us that we needed to leave, saying that because the Bar is a business we could not leave it empty, and that other students were complaining that “the performers in the first half weren’t good and people said they didn’t like it so were leaving”. He proposed to reschedule our event for another night — which was possible, but which we also felt was completely disrespectful to the BME performers who had gathered the courage to perform and shed light on meaningful issues in front of an audience for that night.
This was infuriating – some white students took offence at the stand-up comedies, and the Bar Manager found these complaints legitimate and so used the break as an excuse to kick us out. We recognize that the Bar has an interest in doing business, but the Bar Manager never told the BME officers that breaks were not allowed when we met them prior to the event to confirm all the details; in any event, we had announced that we would be returning shortly. This explanation fails to aknoweldge positions of power in this white-dominated institution. But more importantly, our music and performances are not here to be trivialised and purely for their entertainment; we are not a “show” that they can just watch. BME students were there to express their voices and daily struggles through our performances, and this in and of itself deserve their respect.
The BME Officers desperately looked for alternative locations; luckily, the nearby JCR was an available option, and so we powered through. We did not take no for an answer, and still made it OUR night – despite the booming Taylor Swift and Nickelback from the Bar, where those who watched as we were kicked out continued to have a good time. Jamming to hip hop music while kicking BME students out of the bar space is the epitome of racist ignorance and disrespect. White people are happy to appropriate the “cool” aspects of ‘BME cultures’ when it suits their own enjoyment, but completely fail to stand up for BME people when they most need support.
Literally and metaphorically, the BME open mic night was created as a space for BME students to be heard – to give them an opportunity to vent about the everyday and celebrate the talent in our community. However, the message that was sent was clear – white comfort is more important than BME voices. This move to the JCR was not only a physical move, but it projected the larger notion of BME voices being marginalised and cast aside. While BME students have to take the explicit and implicit racist comments and actions from white people every day, white people benefit from so many privileges by merely being born into a racial structure that is dominated by whiteness – the least one can do is to have the decency and respect to give the BME community space to express their views, frustrations and suggestions.
“White fragility”, a term coined by Robin DiAngelo, refers to the idea that white people often grow up without having to think about race in a meaningful way, so when directly confronted about racial issues and their privileges, they are fearful, guilty and aggressive so they resort to lashing out and withdrawing from the situation. This insulation and lack of tolerance of discussions about race just emphasizes the need for white people to shatter this fragile shell of theirs and take on the responsibility of educating themselves on these pertinent issues. Last night, BME students extended a hand to white students to learn about important issues such as racial profiling and the racialized and Islamophobic Prevent legislation through their performances. Instead, a platform for education was willfully ignored, and BME people’s labour was demeaned as a side-show.
We are not trying to segregate white and BME people any further; in fact, the BME community appreciates and needs white allies in our struggle for equal opportunities and recognition (we express our gratitude to the white students who joined and supported the BME performers in the JCR last night). Rather, the point is that white people in this institution and beyond MUST start acknowledging their privileges of being white, confronting their discomfort.
Lastly, we would like to thank the BME community for standing together in solidarity. We would like to especially thank FLY for saving the night, showing solidarity, and agreeing to do impromptu performances to make this Open Mic Night what it’s about – celebrating the power of the BME community and solidarity.
Last updated on 12 February, 4:38.