I was a black SU president – trust me, systemic racism is alive and well in universities
I was told by a white person that I was racist for using the word ‘black’
I was the first elected black woman president of my students’ union, ever. I was the first female president in about 10 years and the first (and only) black president to get re-elected in that role. Representation matters. Those characteristics meant I could do, say and see things that none of my predecessors could. But those things also meant that I was subjected to discrimination at work that others were not.
Universities and other organisations have rightly been called out in the last couple of weeks for their optical allyship to the Black Lives Matter movement, when any black student will tell you that Higher Education is not always an inclusive space. Better than a black square would be strategies implemented around the BME attainment gap, lack of black professors and discrimination reporting. In some of the most progressive places in the country – Students’ Unions – structural racism exists. This is my experience of it.
I experienced racism from students, staff and trustees. At times, I felt isolated and alone, and when I did pluck up the courage to complain, I was made to feel like my experience was not valid. You have this pressure to just get on with things and be professional – doing this is incredibly draining and left me feeling very low and unhappy.
I was physically assaulted on campus. A male student aggressively grabbed me and called me a “black bitch” and wouldn’t let go, at our End of Year Ball. I had to scream and shout and try to shake him off me so he could leave me alone. It left me angry & very shaken. I reported it to the SU, but nothing came of it.
I’ve had to engage – as President of the SU – students, who were afraid of getting kicked out of uni for making racist jokes. The investigation was carried out by the uni and the outcome was not transparent. To this day I don’t know the official outcome of it. What I do know is that the students still remained students and members of that club.
When a lecturer said the n-word in a lecture uncensored, students complained and it was reported by The Tab, who reached out for a response from the SU. When students on campus were upset by BBC presenter Jenni Murray’s trans comments that year, the union spoke out. But when a lecturer used the n-word we did not give one. Why? Because my team disagreed with my response; one colleague said it is acceptable to use uncensored in certain contexts and we wouldn’t want people to think the SU is banning the use of certain words. I was visibly very frustrated by this. I couldn’t believe that I was sitting there as the only person that would be affected by this language and having to debate whether it was wrong or not. That they were ignoring students that thought it was wrong too. Despite a build-up of things that had happened before, the lack of action on this particular incident confirmed my sense that I was working with people that truly did not care about racism.
I was campaigning to make our student council more relevant & inclusive. In a public campaign post I highlighted all the groups that were currently being unrepresented or not at all; part-time students officer, foundation students officer, BAME officer. I also pointed out that currently we only had one black student sitting on the council and that it was not representative of the university student population.
That’s when the complaint about the use of “black” came in from a white female student member of the Students’ Union board. Yes, you read that right. In a complaint, they boldly said that “black” is “inappropriate” and “can be construed as racism, as black is a derogatory term”. I immediately wanted to call out the offensive language they had used. Black is not inappropriate. Black is not a derogatory term. I am proud to be black, and to be told the colour of my skin is “inappropriate” and “derogatory” is incredibly offensive in itself. Why do people get so triggered when highlighting a lack of diversity? Why do they hate the word “black” so much?
I felt silenced, manipulated and lied to. I was initially told by my SU not to share my story so I could give them a chance to tackle this issue, remove the board member and then they would post a public statement condemning the racist comments. I listened and trusted them. For weeks and months, I waited for this to happen. It never did.
Despite their private agreement that the comment wasn’t on, a senior member of the organisation claimed that a lawyer was needed to officially determine whether the discriminatory comments were indeed racist.
I was met with excuses like “we’ll do better next time”, “we have never had to do anything like this before” and “our processes prevent us from doing this”.
White privilege exists. Racism is in the UK and it is systemic. The Black Lives Matter movement is very much relevant here, not just in the US.
The whole experience left me wishing at times that I didn’t speak up about it, that maybe I should have just resigned so I would not have to work in such a toxic environment that did not protect ethnic minorities well enough. I wanted to stay because I was passionate about my role, the city and about making the student experience better.
The experience also has left me second guessing whether it is worth speaking up if it ever happens again in a future workplace. This is why I’m now running a campaign to make it a legal requirement for all UK registered organisations to have a visible policy detailing their process for dealing with complaints of discrimination.
It’s hard to overstate how devastating it is to be an elected leader and feel powerless to do anything at your place of work to stop racism happening to you and students. Structural racism is deep-rooted in higher education and impacts black people everywhere whether you are a student or the figurehead of a Students’ Union. Performative acts of solidarity are not enough to tackle this disease, thorough transparent fundamental changes need to be made.
Osaro Otobo is the former president of Hull University Students’ Union. You can sign her petition, to make it a legal requirement for organisations to have a discrimination policy, here.
In response to this piece, a spokesperson for Hull University Students’ Union told The Tab: “We condemn all forms of discrimination and inequality. Racism has no place here at Hull.
“HUSU is committed to actively eradicating all forms of racism, inequality and discrimination.
“In recent years, HUSU has benefited from strong presidents who have championed equality and inclusion for all, and did so much for both students, the Union and the University.
“It is clear that despite their remarkable contributions, incidents which have taken place have not always been resolved in the right way. We are sorry.
“HUSU is working hard on its policies and procedures. Last year, a new Code of Conduct was released which all of our Student Union members must agree to abide by.
“Alongside this, the University has its own structured disciplinary process in place for students.
“Policies including the Union’s Zero Tolerance, Equality and Diversity Policy have been reviewed, we have overhauled our complaints and disciplinary procedure, and we have also launched a new partnership group with the University to examine behaviour within student groups, including sports clubs.
“We thank and support all those who are speaking up and calling out inequality, and we remain committed to continuing to make positive change.”