Self-preservation is ‘the protection of oneself from ham, especially regarded as a basic instinct in human beings’, as defined by Google. Now, you may be thinking what this has to do with being at university. Here’s why the social aspect of university can be difficult for some students, and why carefully selecting who you spend your time with can help you survive.
University is often described as a microcosm of white, middle-class, British society. Although most people opt out of discussions on racism, a few too many people don’t believe racism is a thing anymore. Even in some activist groups/circles, ‘race’ is not seen as a concept or a real reason for the differential treatment between students.
It can often feel like talking about race is not socially acceptable, least of all because it makes people feel uncomfortable. A casual conversation can quickly become awkward when there is mention of race. For many people, it seems that racism is only ever explicit, racism is only the N-word and, racism is loud and overt. The racism exhibited onto Black and Brown bodies on a daily basis goes largely unnoticed, or ignored, especially at university. Coming from a majority BAME college, coming to university was a bit of a culture shock. Suddenly I found myself avoiding conversations about race and racism for two reasons. One was that people often don’t understand racism and it can be exhausting explaining to someone what it means. The second reason was that people tend to get offended if you talk about racism, even if the conversation had nothing to do with them. This reaction to a discussion on racism isn’t exclusive to university, Laurence Fox recently said that calling him a White Man was racist. Fox’s remarks that racism was ‘starting to get boring’ received widespread backlash, however, it speaks to the fringe groups that have gained momentum in post-Brexit Britain.
He went one step further by concluding that a woman calling out racism was, in fact, the racist and that he was bored of racism. This is why I believe that joining anti-racist movements that allow you to talk to people who understand your experiences as a Black or Brown person is vital for your survival at university.
For many people, student activism is a big part of the university experience. There are many different activist groups on campus; from environmentalism to human rights and political activism. Throughout history student activism has been responsible for positive social and policy changes both at universities and in wider society.
Anti-racism is a particular type of activism that focuses on the active dismantling of racist structures, as opposed to the passive act of being a non-racist. At Queen Mary, there are a couple of groups that will fall into the anti-racism category, however, there are many off-campus groups based in London. Speaking to members from a range of different groups, each person has a different reason for joining. From the general election results, the need to bring about radical social change, to understanding the effects of racial discourse in the UK, there was no one reason and often a combination of different factors. However, there was common reasoning for remaining active members; community. Whether that community were fellow researchers, students, or colleagues, most people said that they felt that this space was providing them with a safe space to talk about common experiences.
University is stressful, from looming deadlines to difficult exam periods, it is important to find spaces that help you destress. For some students who feel the effects of racism (especially if this happens on campus), the everyday stresses of university life can feel amplified. If it sounds like something you would benefit from, I would strongly suggest joining a group where you feel safe and heard. My favourite on-campus space is the Women’s Cafe, a monthly forum for WoC run by BreakthroughQM to discuss a particular topic each month. If you would like to find out more about anti-racism I would recommend reading “To Exist is to Resist: Black Feminism in Europe”, a book edited by Akwugo Emejulu and Francesca Sobande.