Coming back from my year abroad I was excited to return to University; I was eager to reunite with old faces and get back to my former routine. Upon my return, the question I was repeatedly asked was "What have you learnt?" And I would always reply stating "I learnt that across communities, diversity and integration are interpreted and implemented in different ways; my identity is never linear. On the contrary, it is endlessly challenged and often negatively stereotyped". Despite not being able to break the social mould, it made me reflect upon my personal experiences in Leicester. I came to the conclusion that across my years of study I often overlooked issues of racial and gender prejudices. In fact, what was considered as 'banter' was truly hurtful and dehumanising. In order to avoid being labelled 'too sensitive' or 'angry' I shrugged my shoulders, smiled and failed to speak up.
"Where are you from?" "No, where are you REALLY from?" "You have a small ass for a black girl" "You are pretty for a black girl, especially for a dark skinned girl", "You are not your average black girl" "You don't twerk?'" "Is that a wig, or your real hair? Let me see what's under there!" "Here comes Africa!" "Why won't you take my number, you frigid?'" "You are hot, but I don't date monkeys".
I once believed that those words were a reflection of how others saw me, but I cannot live my life through stereotypes which wholly contradict my thoughts, views and character for the sole purpose of entertainment and ignorance. I choose not to feel flattered by backhanded compliments because I do not want to be 'beautiful in spite of', but simply beautiful because I am comfortable with who I am.
Unfortunately to some people, these remarks are harmless and just a bit of fun. But what may be seen as teasing is in fact undermining the discovery and acceptance of self-worth. Sadly, I have experienced this; I have struggled with low self-esteem because of the constant dehumanising statements regarding my gender and the colour of my skin. Beauty has become subjective and this is simply proven when I go to a department store or supermarket to find that they only provide one shade of 'dark' or when I want to buy tights and the colour labelled as 'nude' does not match my skin tone but those of a much lighter complexion. I flick through magazines only to see women being sexually exploited and digitally altered to the point where even the models do not recognise themselves.
Everywhere we turn we are bombarded with what is considered 'beautiful' and I do not fall under that category. But I no longer want to belong to a system that considers beauty as synonymous. Instead I seek to create my own version of beauty that does not require the approval of society. Social injustices should not be part of everyday reality and remaining silent will not put a stop to society's prejudices. We cannot be complacent about race, gender, colourism or any other form of social inequality; we must confront these injustices by debating and raising questions.
Discrimination fails to become a prominent issue at university and although there are services to which you can report these matters, many students with whom I have discussed this issue feel that the institution will not take their case seriously because the comments may be taken out of context. For a long time I struggled to distinguish the difference between humour and insults, it was a grey area that confused me as I did not know whether to feel offended or relieved that my identity was being questioned under the pretence of humour. But what I failed to understand was that inequality is not a laughing matter and the more we participate in sniggering at real issues the less likely it is that this will ever be taken seriously.
We are led to believe that discrimination does not exist on our doorstep, that it is an outdated concept which does not apply in this day and age. Contrastingly, you may have been a witness or a victim of this 'invisible' force at the Students' Union, in student accommodation, at bars in the city or even at the library. I want to turn the invisible into the visible, I want to speak of the unspoken truths and I want to hold my head up high after so many years of hiding in shame and fear. Our student experience should not be compromised by social barriers; we have all earned the right to study and socialise in a safe environment and I refuse to feel insecure, marginalised, excluded or looked down on.
I do not want to live in a colour-blind society; we should not pretend that our individuality does not exist; the problem does not lie in acknowledging differences but rather in being ignorant. What distinguishes us does not make us inferior or superior, it makes us diverse.