What is it like to be a black student at Kent?

“Are there black people in Ireland?”

As an Erasmus student, I find myself having repeated conversations about where I am from. When asked, I usually respond with Ireland, yet I always receive a confused response. Indeed, I am sometimes even asked: “Are there black people in Ireland?” Despite usually laughing it off, it is extremely frustrating to hear. Not only for the display of mere ignorance but because this has come from my fellow black students who understand the challenges that come with being black and British.

Navigating through my identity has been a constant and ongoing journey. Always questioning, am I just Black? Irish? Nigerian? Ghanaian? Can I be one or more than one at once? Moving to Kent has been quite a culture shock for me. I was not used to seeing so many diverse faces on a day-to-day basis. Coming from a suburban town in Dublin, I could count how many black families there are on my fingers. Growing up as the only black girl in my class, on my road, and subsequently in my work and creative spaces has always made me feel like an outsider.

There is a new generation who are born African and raised western or born in the west and raised with African values who have to find a way to understand themselves in a predominately white society.

On-campus I see so many black faces, but we are often in white spaces. An issue that I have seen both at my university in Ireland and here at the University of Kent is that it is a highly segregated environment most of the time. People from different cultural backgrounds tend to stay together, seeking a feeling of belonging and comfortability. There are exceptions to this, such as international students like me who are pretty much forced to interact with as many people as possible until you find those who understand you, or at the very least who have similar interests. Seminars, for example, are a perfect opportunity to find these people.

The university, however, does not do enough to utilise this space in presenting a diverse range of academics. The curriculums of most modules are full of white middle-class writers who are often male. Especially as a BAME English student, I only encounter writers who look like me when discussing a ‘struggle’. I hope there comes a time where black academics and scholars are appreciated to the same extent as their white counterparts. This is not because there is a lack of black academics, rather the system historically tends to favour and highlight white writers more than any other group or ethnicity.

When discussing the black experience, I think it is extremely important to distinguish between physical or verbal racism and systemic racism. One of my recent experiences with verbal racism was when I was asked for money from a homeless person and as soon as I responded “sorry, not right now”, my friend and I were called the N-word and told to leave the country. Fortunately, I was with another black female friend and we could laugh it off. Far too often I have found myself on public transport or in different environments where I feel alone, and I am left questioning who I am. In those instances, I wish just one person could also speak up against such words and actions, regardless of their ethnicity, as a symbol of solidarity.

Systematic racism comes when refusing to pronounce my Yoruba name correctly, for example, or being over-sexualised and tainted as the stereotypical angry black woman when I am passionate about something. Being a black woman in 2019 for me means being constantly aware of my surroundings and my setbacks, and despite that working constantly harder to prove people wrong. I believe the university is a mirror of the society we live in. It highlights the fact that as a black woman I will need to work extremely hard just to be heard and for my work to be noticed. However, I see at the University of Kent there are so many forums in which black students can express themselves that were not always available. Societies such as the African Caribbean Society and forums such as BAME networks see like-minded people in one space where we can share ideas to better our experience at UKC.

The university has something unique. It is a global university with so much potential. I feel as though we are taking steps forward to encourage equality and inclusion. My only fear is that people stop caring for the cause. We need to do better. For not only more black students, but equally more lecturers, coordinators, and leaders. This will help normalise black presence and diminish the idea that someone like me must always feel like an outsider in a place that I worked just as hard to get to.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of InQuire Media