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Why I Welcome the Possibility of a BME Sabbatical Officer at Sheffield Students' Union

29/04/2013 16:13 BST | Updated 28/06/2013 10:12 BST

Sabbatical Officer Elections: what would initially appear as an equal opportunity for the student population to be elected based on their competency for the role regardless of their nationality, race, religion or sex. But despite a significant percentage of the BME (black and minority ethnic) community running for election at Sheffield Students' Union in February 2013, it is astounding that not one was elected to power. Such appalling under-representation is a stark contrast from this academic year, where two BME students occupy 2 of 8 Student Officer positions, the most notable President Abdi-Aziz Suleiman of Somali descent.

Whilst I advocate voting solely based on competency and not the colour of the candidate's skin, the results have since shed light on what I perceive to be a grossly ongoing overlooked problem since arriving in September 2011: the endemic under-representation of black and ethnic minority students. Despite rated the best Student Union in the country for the fifth consecutive year in a row, it is shocking that since its inception, my Union has failed to ensure the representation of the BME community, one of the most vulnerable minority groups in society at large, at a high level.

University of Sheffield's Black Students' Councillor Al-Hussein Abutaleb concurs, maintaining: 'Sheffield Students' Union must take effective measures to ensure that our BME students feel protected and cared for. Until BME students are represented... such a feeling of 'belonging' will not flow in the hearts and minds of BME students.'

However, it appears as if the vicious cycle of ethnic minority under-representation may not repeat itself for another year as Sheffield Students' Union Council last week passed a historic motion to hold a referendum for the student body to decide whether they consent to implementing a BME Student Officer. I wholeheartedly welcome the historic step to ensure the representation of the BME community at a high level and to end what I perceive as endemic racial inequality on campus.

University of Sheffield's BME Student's Committee Chair Abdullah Geelah concurs: 'I believe that the motion that has passed today has set a benchmark from which we, as students of Black & Minority Ethnic descent, can be both proud of and enthusiastic about. What occurred (last week) is a great advancement for the promotion of BME students' rights and views. I am hopeful this small step will ultimately create a better, tolerant environment at our university.'

Whilst I celebrate the motion, a significant percentage of the student population has not welcomed the possibility of a BME Sabbatical Officer. Most notably, some members of the LGBT and disabled community have claimed that they do not enjoy the identical privilege of having an LGBT and Disability Students' Officer. Whilst I would whole-heartedly support any move to implement an LGBT and Disability Students' Officer, it is disheartening when one vulnerable minority group disparage a fellow liberation group's attempt to gain further representation on the grounds that are not the recipient of this too.

But some members of the LGBT and disabled community may not be isolated in their hostility towards the motion. The referendum still carries the possibility of the student population opposing the referendum in October on the grounds that it is unjust to vote for a Student Officer based on the colour of their skin, which would prove to be a devastating blow for the BME Committee who have tirelessly strived for more equal representation this academic year. Geelah acknowledges this prospect: 'It is imperative to make that motion that has passed a reality and that needs hard-work, perseverance and determination.'

Should the Sheffield BME community be denied their much-needed Officer in October, this would prove depressingly reflective of wider contemporary British society. The death of Nigerian Durham University postgraduate student Boniface Umale on 9th April 2013 in potentially racially motivated circumstances in police custody at a Durham prison has remained shockingly absent in the national media. Likewise, the death of more than 320 Bangladeshi citizens after a building site collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh on 24th April 2013 has only sparsely been reported in the national media.

Conversely, the two victims of the Boston Marathon bombings was front page news for a week and have since received ongoing widespread coverage, arguably because they are white. Unfortunately, this sends out the message to the broader public that a white Western life's is more valuable than that of an ambitious international student and Bangladeshi victims of circumstances cruelly denied their lives and not deemed worthy for a mere headline in a national newspaper.

Such mistreatment of the BME community is further rampant in the political sphere. Cameron's scapegoating and demonizing of the BME community is not too dissimilar from the vitriol spewed by the far-right parties BNP and EDL to appease the increasingly xenophobic British public in an effort to secure votes. If our current government fails to actively encourage and promote racial equality, this sends the message to the wider public that that denying the rights of the BME community is acceptable. The absence of black and ethnic minority ministers in Cameron's Cabinet is suspiciously not too dissimilar from their absence at present as a Sabbatical Officer in my Union. Most notably, Baroness Warsi's demotion following Cameron's Cabinet reshuffle in September 2012 merely serves to symbolize that the BME community cannot penetrate and occupy positions of power traditionally occupied by whites.

I remain optimistic that the student body will choose to vote in favour of a BME Officer in October and that we can be represented identical to that of UCL BME students who currently have a full-time BME Sabb. More optimistically, this could even set the precedent for universities across the country to implement their own BME Officer to represent their students. President Abdi-Aziz Suleiman concurs: 'I look forward to the day when being BME at an elite British university will not be an isolating and alienating experience and when the average student will not be susceptible to the illnesses of xenophobia, islamophobia, racism and anti-immigrant propaganda and when no student will find their name the primary problem with their CV.'

But the struggle for equal representation may prove far from over. As Dr. Martin Luther King stated: 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'