“You must be very proud,” a woman whispered to me as I snuck another glass of champagne from the bar.
I had just graduated, and in a gazebo filled with innumerable square hats, I had been picked out by a stranger for a personal congratulation.
She smiled deeply before telling me why, “look around, nobody else who went on that stage looked like you today.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” I exclaimed. I had.
Though genuine and heartfelt, there was no delight in my realisation. Honouring itself as “a diverse intellectual community” and thus naming itself “London’s Global University,” one would assume that a University College London graduation hall flooded with hundreds of people would have one other black graduate there. But I was left to ‘represent’ alone.
The idea that I am proud or lucky to have broken through the barriers of receiving a world class education should be an outdated view in today’s society. I should be shocked. Being told how to feel about it is also disconcerting, as if I’m being robbed of another aspect of autonomy. Such as the woman in the ‘racist’ Dove ad: some people were upset understandably, she was not and that’s fine too.
What people didn’t notice then, in a large room of ‘over-achievers,’ being the only black person raised questions about myself that would not usually surface. Am I supposed to be here? Did I get here because I deserved it? Or was there a quota to be filled? Suddenly I feel like I need to work harder to prove myself, sound more intelligent, be more polite. Socialising becomes exhausting; I find myself questioning everything I say and do to the point where I wish I was back at home.
From my first day of university, I had been pigeon-holed as my race. Being handed the key to my shared room, the receptionist jumped, ecstatic to inform me that my room-mate would also be black. Not into art, from London or even coming from a year abroad like myself, but black. It was not until I realised there would be only one other black female aside from us in that building that the significance of the situation would have weight. “Is this diversity?” I would ask.
As great as my university experience was, my course highlighted the racial disparity even further. My History of Art degree discussed me as ‘Other’, constantly highlighting being black and female connotes being watched, policed. Either they were in the art as some sort of server or slave to be subjugated as in Manet’s Olympia. A black female artist could not just make art for art’s sake, she must be ‘fighting,’ must be ‘angry’. Of course, it was discussed to ensue change, but clarified that to be watched is to be controlled by others — just like the use of the provocative image of Lola Olufemi, paired with an emotive (and wrong) headline, underlined the notion of black women as overtly sexual and aggressive, edging back toward the time of Saartjie Baartman.
When I did look around in that hall full of people, what I did notice is the person who served me the champagne was black. So was the person who helped me put on my robe, who made the effort to help me with my braids as I struggled to find a hat big enough to fit.
In my three years, I saw one black lecturer. She began in my second year, straight from America. And thus, the news that no black academics have worked in senior management roles in any British university in the last three years comes as no surprise. But at least there are always cleaners and baristas. So not only am I underrepresented as a student, but also underrepresented as staff, perpetuating the idea that I am not meant to be there. As a man once told me at the age of sixteen as I read on the bus, “people like you shouldn’t be doing that.” Six years on, this is what I am inadvertently told again.
I am in no way undermining this women’s attempt at pointing out a change she clearly seeks herself. However, although sincere, her congratulation carried the same white naivety as the upset lady who screamed “you must be more upset than the rest of us” when Brexit was announced — my British passport tucked away in my drawer.
So when will I be proud? When I can walk around, be represented, work, not only as a black person, but one with as much room to define myself as my peers. When black people feel comfortable enough to apply to those universities. When those universities start accepting them. When the black people I see are not just the cleaners or political activists trying to change that, but integrated in all aspects of society. When I am the norm, and articles like this are no longer needed.