Rachel: Making university safe and inclusive for women of colour
Rachel is a postgraduate neuroscientist, and was the Vice President for Welfare and Community at King’s College London in 2015-16. She has a background in student activism and has previously held positions as a women’s
Rachel is a postgraduate neuroscientist, and was the Vice President for Welfare and Community at King’s College London in 2015-16. She has a background in student activism and has previously held positions as a women’s officer at university.
This year, we held an open forum with the principal and students of Kings, so everyone could come on out and talk about what it’s like to be a BME student at the university.
It was really, really powerful. There were some tears, but I think a lot of things had been held back, and were finally being aired in this space that was so open and supportive. People were talking about incidents between them and their peers in seminars where they’re expected to be the voice of ‘their people’, whoever that was.
Alternatively they’d just not get picked to answer questions or ignored like they’re not even in the room, compared to their white counterparts. It was really distressing to hear that.
I did feel excluded at times from studying. It’s the little things like, are you reflected in the curriculum? There are BME scientists, there are women scientists, like all of these people exist. But the way academia is set up, it puts them into the shadows.
The curriculum you study, it makes you ask the question “if the people who look like me aren’t there now, what makes me think I can make it there?” Often people talk about imposter syndrome, in the context of women questioning whether they have the right to be in places of authority. I definitely feel like that’s true for women of colour. We have to question, “Am I worthy of even being in this classroom, let alone being on the curriculum?”
People talk about micro-aggressions they experience at university ranging from people asking if they could touch a woman of colour’s hair, to ‘Do you speak, like, African?’ If you speak out about the things that are wrong then you get labelled an angry black woman, an angry brown woman. This builds your anger and frustration because not only are you experiencing horrible things on a daily basis, but then you’re also silenced about it. That would make anyone angry.
People who bring different perspectives with them can have a completely different take on something that is not necessarily related to their identity but their lens. It’s really valuable to hear their voices as well.
Some of the strongest student groups at university are now the liberation associations and especially students of colour, who are doing a lot of organising. I feel like we really have a voice on campus now, one that is listened to and respected. It’s not been easy to get here.
Women of colour and sexual harassment at university
When I came to university, I had already done some thinking on what it means to be a woman of colour in England. In my first year, I got involved in organising on campus and I really enjoyed it. In my second year, there were elections for part-time student officers. I ran to be a women’s officer and won. I met some really great people and it was around that time when I knew I wanted to be a student representative.
I didn’t really know what I wanted to campaign about. But then it struck me that there was no reporting system for sexual harassment at King’s. The more I spoke to people the more they were like, ‘Yeah, this is definitely something that needs to change.’ Over that year, I campaigned around making the university take sexual harassment seriously, but also having conversations about representation of women of colour and making sure the different campaigns we had were all joined up to represent people who fell into multiple groups like myself.
Generally, I feel like as women of colour we’re socialized to believe that our own agency and our own choices aren’t as important as the choices people around us make – to almost be deferential, and make sure everyone else can reach their full potential. I think that translates into politics around consent.
There was an incident on campus where a woman of colour, specifically a Muslim woman, was assaulted, and at the time, didn’t feel like the support that she received from security or from the police was adequate. Even things like that, for women of colour are so important – feeling like you are in an environment where you are safe, cared for, listened to and trusted.
We’ve been having more discussions about security on campus, and I think there is starting to be more of an understanding that security means different things for different people. The things that make some people feel secure – having a high police presence – are exactly the same things that make people feel very uncomfortable. Conversations around that nuanced understanding of how we apply security in certain contexts are starting to happen. We’re on our way but we’re not there yet.
Getting help after sexual assault or harassment at university
You can learn more about how to get help after sexual assault or harassment from the NHS Choices website and organisations such as Rape Crisis. If you are a student at King’s College London, you can also speak to one of the university’s harassment advisors, who can assist you with deciding on next steps.