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First of all, would you introduce yourself and tell me a little bit about yourself and your role?
Okay, well I’m Omena Osivwemu. I’m a second year sociology student. I’m the events manager for the hip-hop society and also quite involved in ACS (African Caribbean Society) and FemSoc.
Due to my background and experiences, I take a personal interest in racism and race theory, and it’s a definite area of interest in sociology. I’m the first Ethnic Minority CCO as it’s a new position here at Lancaster. For me, this role is about making steps forward to diversify representation at the University, to diversify the distribution of funding, but also to push this University’s public image and make it more diverse. At the moment Lancaster’s image is quite homogenous; the Roses publicity was pretty much all white people. I see myself as just setting the foundations and helping get the ball rolling in diversifying LUSU and our leadership to make it more representative of us as a student body.
Your role is a new one; how has that been for you? Do you feel like you’ve had to forge an identity for the role or has that been clearly laid out from the start?
It was difficult, especially in terms of actually running. Although I ran unopposed, a lot of people who define as black were against the role in the first place. I went about it by getting in contact with those who were most vocal about it to discuss why, as well as the positives and negatives of it. A lot of people felt that it was quite undermining and patronising; despite not having a black officer, they had done fine at the University and all of a sudden to be told that they were the victim was quite jarring. A lot of people felt like it was highlighting something that wasn’t there.
I personally felt a lot of racism. I guess what you could call institutional discrimination is there, but because no one has addressed it, it’s been overlooked. In terms of this role, a lot of it has been me coming up with my own ideas and discussing what I could do with the other CCOs and the FTOs.
I’m now trying to establish an Ethnic Minorities Council and then hopefully get other people to run for the position after me. I want to encourage other people to run – for any position, not just this one. People think that just because they’re physically different or English isn’t their first language or they have an accent that they will be persecuted, which isn’t the case.
One of the things you’ve done so far as part of your role is run a Black History Month campaign – tell us about that and the sorts of things you’ve done.
The idea was to just get it out there that October is Black History Month; with Freshers Week and other big events going on around the same time, it has always been overlooked. I came up with the idea of profiles because it’s always been about celebrating those that came before us and forged the way where others hadn’t. We celebrated people like Trevor Mcdonald, the first esteemed Black journalist, and Dianne Abbot, the first Black MP, as well as people even further back than that. I thought it was important to get them out there and get their names recognised, because a lot of people wouldn’t know about them at all.
We also had a film screening about the struggles of various ethnic minority groups when they came to Britain, as well as having a Sugarhouse event on the Saturday Week 3. We had posters all around campus – it was just about raising awareness.
As you’ve mentioned a lot of people were opposed to the idea of an ethnic minorities CCO and a lot of people feel similarly about Black History Month; how do you feel about the opposition?
To be honest, it sounds harsh and radical, but I see those who self-define as Black and yet are opposed to what is basically Black empowerment as ignorant. They’re ignorant to the problems. A lot of black people say there’s no such thing as racism in this country because it’s a lot more visible elsewhere. A lot of those people have had good experiences and that’s lucky for them, but they’re ignoring other people’s experiences. I’d say it’s just as much about raising awareness for them about the people who have come before them as it is about educating non-black people.
The NUS Black History month poster features names of various South Asians, for example, Arundhati Roy and Mohammed Hatta under the blanket term “Black” – do you think that this is cultural erasure?
That was sort of the criticism of officer role; people didn’t want it to be called Black CCO, as it is nationally, because there is a misunderstanding of the term Black. It’s a political term to mean non-white. It means all those that have faced racism, particularly in the UK, and was adopted by South Asians, Arabs, and Africans alike – each active group adopted it themselves. South Asians that say “I’m not black” are almost ignorant of their own culture from only 30-40 years ago.
The film we viewed featured people from all over the world who all came to Britain at various different times, but that all identified as Black. Ultimately, employers and people who were discriminating weren’t doing it to only African people, it was everyone with brown skin. I guess a lot of people thought that we’re stronger together, so to start dividing over “Oh, I’m a little darker than you” or “Oh, I’m not from the same country as you” defeats the purpose of solidarity and all fighting against the same thing. Our grandparents’ generation recognised that while they came from different countries and had different cultures and languages, they were all fighting the same thing: institutional racism.
The term Black has now become about race, so I understand that South Asians wouldn’t identify with it, but I just think it’s about a lack of knowledge. Even the Southall Sisters are majoritively South Asian, but they call themselves a Black campaigner group, so I think it’s just a lack of knowledge about the political discourse.
You’ve mentioned a lot about Black women specifically and the fact that you identify as feminist. How does your position as a woman and feminist effect your identification with the term Black, if at all?
You do have different experiences as a Black woman to Black men. I’ve read and seen people like Audrey Lorde, Angela Davis, and Maya Angelou, and they are all people who recognise that they are oppressed as women as well as for being Black. Obviously, my mum has always been a strong feminist in my life as well.
As a Black woman, you face sexism from Black men as much as you face racism from white men. There are things, such as police profiling, that are disproportionally experienced by Black men but Black women are still part of that struggle. There are things like domestic violence, rape culture and sexual violence that affect Black women because they are perpetrated by Black men. For me, there are things that I fight against more as a woman than as a Black person and vice versa.
How has the lack of representation of Black women in the media affected you throughout your adolescence?
I no longer struggle, but if you asked me as a young teenager then definitely. It was a part of growing up, but my ethnicity was a part of it and I had to find how I self-define. I define as Black and as a feminist woman, but also as mixed race. I have the issues of Black people saying “You’re not dark enough” and “You’re acting white” as well as white people saying “You’re not white”. It was about going back to my parents and discussing where I am from, where my ancestors are from and how I want to define that.
My mum has always made sure I had role models and representatives in my life; she always brought me Black Beauty magazines and made sure I had Black dolls. Simple things like that. She always highlighted that there are Black people out there and although they aren’t represented by the mainstream media, that has never been an issue for me personally. People like Beyonce are big role models because they are in the mainstream, but it disappoints me when white middle class feminists say she isn’t a feminist. I always wonder if that’s because she’s Black, because white women that own their own heterosexuality are always considered feminists.
You’ve touched on it already, but often within an academic context Black people report being told that they are “white on the inside” if they don’t conform to Black stereotypes. Do you feel like that sort prevalent in an academic context?
Yeah, but from my experience it’s usually coming from other Black people. In my studies I’ve come across a concept called the internalised gaze and I see this as internalised racism. We’ve been bombarded with these images for centuries that Black people aren’t going to come up to scratch with white people because we aren’t clever enough. We’re ok to be sports people or performers, but not academics or writers. Black people who read a lot and are intelligent or even who associate with middle class white people are called “Oreo” or “Coconut” because it’s not seen as embracing Black culture. This is just the stereotypical Black rather than how it actually is, though. My dad is Nigerian and there’s a stereotype of Nigerian students being quite studious and academic, yet my friends will say I’m being white because I’ve always been the geek. I think it’s just internalised racism and stereotypes.
Do you find the attitudes and environment of campus to be different to your hometown in the UK?
Definitely. First year it hit me quite badly because I’d never really been stared at – there’s just quite a sinister feel to knowing you’re a minority and being visibly different, but that’s highlighted by everyone’s reactions and response to you. Coming to Lancaster, it wasn’t as diverse as it seems to be this year – I don’t know if the intake of ethnic minority students has been higher or if people are just integrating more. Manchester is so diverse – no one stares at you unless you seek attention. You’ll hear 10 different languages just walking around and growing up I’d never felt different, even with my skin tone which is dark for mixed race.
Last year I had a bit of an incident with racial harassment and a lot of the language I would hear in general conversations was not acceptable. I had heard about stuff like that before, but coming to Lancaster racial slurs were used offensively. It’s almost accepted here because it’s not challenged; there’s policy to say people can’t be racist, but there’s no channel to use to complain. When I did try it took a long time, determination, and a lot of going back and forth between members of staff. It was an unsatisfactory system which is partly why I took on this role.
With your experience of racial harassment, what were the consequences of that? Was it dealt with properly?
I highlighted it and pushed it until it was dealt with and they were spoken to and had to apologise. In that sense I think it was dealt with, but it was also unsatisfactory in that I felt they got let off with it a bit. For me, the best revenge is success. Now I have this role and am pretty visible within the University, they’ll see my face plastered around on posters and know that they caused that. It’s a positive repercussion.
I think there should be a better system and it should be better publicised because people don’t realy know who they would go to in that situation. It takes a lot of searching to find the University and LUSU policies on it. When you come in as a fresher, no one highlights what isn’t acceptable and what you can do if you encounter any racial discrimination.
Once ethnic minority people get into positions of power, I think people do start coming forward – I’ve had discussions with Salman (FTO Activities) and he’s said since he got the role people have come forward and said things he didn’t know were happening on campus. I think because there haven’t been that many ethnic minority officers in the past, it’s been kept quiet so people think it doesn’t exist. It’s not that it doesn’t exist, just that it isn’t visible.
What would you say to someone who has experienced racism on campus? Who should they come to?
I’d say to come to me, Salman, or anyone else in LUSU that they felt comfortable with. Most officers are allies and strongly oppose racism and any form of harassment, so I think they would actively do something about it. We can either push it for them or they can push it themselves. Contact your college dean and make a formal complaint, and it’s useful to search policy because then you can cite it. Say what you want to happen. In my case, I had to give a statement as did the person in question.
At the moment, they don’t tell you what consequences have come from the process because it’s confidential. To me, that’s unsatisfactory; you’re just sat in the dark not knowing what’s gone on and you just have to hope they’ve done something. If enough people are coming forward, it’s something we can definitely push within LUSU.