BLACK HISTORY MONTH AND THE PRACTICE OF TOKENISM

by Candice Nembhard

Throughout my two, soon to be three, years at UEA I have not only witnessed racial discrimination but have also been a victim to it; everything from casual uses of racial slurs to instances of fetishes and exoticism. It may come as a surprise to some, but not once have I felt that the union has provided an opportunity, be it caucuses or panels to discuss the safety of ethnic students, unless pressured by activist groups or even the media. As October and Black History Month ends, I thought it would serve me and perhaps some other people of colour (POC) well, to reflect on how racial issues, in particular; the experience of black or brown students are often overlooked, diminished, or outright rejected, unless given a socially acceptable platform such as Black History Month or student elections.

If I may backtrack slightly, I want to draw your attention to late September; the Union is faced with the case of what I shall dub ‘Sombrero Gate’, which made it to national news. To summarise: official union reps banned local Mexican restaurant Pedros from handing out Sombrero hats during fresher’s fair, marking it as ‘racist’. In opposition, Chairman of the British Mexican Society, Richard Maudslay applauded the restaurant, congratulating them on their business and efforts to spread awareness of Mexican traditions. Needless to say, the issue was discussed extensively drumming up much online attention without ever touching upon the serious underlying issue; the overshadowing of ethnic students voices.

Norwich radical 2

( © Alamy )

In my opinion, ‘Sombrero Gate’ is symptomatic of people of colour not being given the opportunity to speak for themselves, concerning the issues that matter to them. Instead, their views were diluted and whitewashed. How many Mexicans or Hispanic and Latinx* people were consulted in decision making process? Similarly, to what extent did the union feel they were justified in deciding this was an appropriate course of action? By that same token, the union ought to ban: Afro Wigs, traditional costumes (such as Kimonos, Hanboks and Saris), Native American Headdress and Kente Cloths. Furthermore, why was one case of alleged racial discrimination publicly dealt with as opposed to the majority of incidents that take place on a regular basis?

Being selective in your political correctness does not absolve you of ignorance.

With rash decisions made on behalf of ethnic groups, one cannot help feeling that although the union campaigns tirelessly for equal rights among students, notably with academic, financial, and LGBTQ+ rights; any issues that are founded upon racial concerns, such as discrimination and POC rights/initiatives are often approached and executed with a certain level of tokenism. The numerous cases that go undocumented on union records surrounding racial prejudices and discrimination perhaps far outweigh the union’s public stance. Much is discussed of sexual rights and climate change, by students actively involved in those groups but I feel that black students are given a spokesperson whom has no active involvement with what occurs at grassroots levels. This is most notable in conduction of Black History Month.

Norwich Radical

( © Fox Searchlight )

The ratio of black students to non-black students asked to partake in devising talks and events were rather astonishing. The events I attended; both organised by the UEA Union and Norwich City were largely organised by non-people of colour. Many societies at UEA were given instructions as to what their involvement in the month would be as opposed to willingly participating. For example, Cinema Society was to collaborate with the Italian society, screening Life is Beautiful and also screen 12 Years a Slave in conjunction with the city events. Upon speaking with numerous people from different societies, I was told by a non-black international student that Black History Month no longer meant a month for black people, but a month to ‘celebrate all those that have been oppressed by colonialism’.

Many societies at UEA were given instructions as to what their involvement in the month would be as opposed to willingly participating.

There is no doubt in my mind that he meant this in a positive outlook, but I must stand firm in my belief that the struggles of Caribbean people are not the struggles of African, Desi, Asian, or South American groups. That is not to say that I believe that Black History Month is not allowed to accommodate these histories, but to imply that you should not speak above and beyond those that need their voice heard the most. Alongside campaigns for Free Education, flying the LGBTQ+ flag on campus, and renewable energy, perhaps more thought should go towards not appearing politically correct, but actually forming a respectful space for voices that need their own platform. Despite my article, I do appreciate the efforts made in October to accommodate Black students, but instead of going towards the token, respectable black people (Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Angela Davis), work closer with the black and brown students that still have to deal with the effects of what these people fought for.

( Cover image © The Sacramento Observer )

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