Voices and Ears Open Forum
By Emily Bollington
On Wednesday 7th October, the students’ union facilitated an online forum led by Theresa Ogbekhiulu, education officer, and Charlotte Ajomale-Evans, Chair of the BAME network in engineering. The event, ‘Voices and Ears’ is one of many being held in celebration of Black History Month. Black History Month is not just about celebrating the central role of black people in culture and history, but also creating space for discussion and education.
The forum was advocated to be an ’empowering, encouraging, open and honest space. Students were encouraged to share their own experiences at university in a positive atmosphere in which each shared experience is rewarded with an applause on Zoom.
Theresa explained, “Racism and racial issues are rarely discussed in Swansea University and in Welsh universities generally. The Voices and Ears event stemmed from the need to create a safe space for black students to share their experiences of discrimination, however subtle, racism, racial profiling etc. But more importantly, it was also an avenue for non-black students to really listen to these lived experiences, and ask whatever burning questions they had.”
Many black students participating in the forum who had travelled to university from within the UK found that they had shared similar experiences. Some of these students voiced that they felt a disconnect from their culture because they were living in the UK, and consequently felt they didn’t quite fit in with their black friends who perhaps had stronger ties to their roots. However, they felt equally disconnected from their white British friends as they were more obviously visually different from that group. As this experience was voiced on the forum, many people were nodding in agreement when it was described as being ‘stuck in the gap’; half accepted by both groups, but fully accepted by neither. This can feel very isolating, particularly when you are a new student trying to become yourself and find your people.
All new students come to university with the expectation that they will need to adapt to new people and experiences. The discussion in the forum highlighted that many black international students have not only found they needed to adapt to a new academic setting, but also adapt to their social surroundings in the context of representation. These students are moving from areas where they had previously been represented by someone that looks like themselves in every aspect of life, to Swansea. Going from majority to minority makes for quite a stark comparison and this lack of representation left many students feeling like something was missing.
In contrast to this, some students who had come from white majority areas, had come to university and found it to be diverse, with people coming from all over the world, and the students’ union offering a variety of BAME societies. However, a striking statistic that was brought up in the forum was that; in February 2020 less than 1% of the professors employed at UK universities were black, and within 21,000 academic staff at professorial level only 140 identified as black*. This massively highlights the change that needs to be made. Representation within staff members is vital as not only would it inspire more diversity within the student body and build on Swansea’s BAME communities and create more black academic role models. Universities need to do better to proportionally reflect race diversity. This starts with more job opportunities and less close-minded interviewing processes.
One experience that seemed to unite all black participants of the forum was the pronunciation of their names. Some students mentioned that they would stop lecturers before they even attempted to pronounce their surnames, and others told anecdotes of their given names being white-washed by fellow students or flatmates who ‘just found it easier’. On an individual level, one tiny thing everybody should be doing is learning to pronounce people’s names correctly. Make an effort, do not white-wash other people’s names for your own convenience. It takes seconds to get it right, and is just respectful.
The forum concluded on what to do if someone is being racist; report it to the university. Alternatively, directly confront them. As an ally, this is your duty, because unfortunately, as a participant in the forum mentioned, ‘as a black person, I cannot afford to be considered aggressive’.
*according to Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) February 2020 https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/staff/working-in-he