‘Students play drinking games with the N word’: Black students on racism at Durham

The amount of times I’ve almost dropped out, honestly

After a fortnight of studying at Durham University, I remember calling my best friend from home, crying my eyes out. “It’s unbearably alienating and uncomfortable here. I just want to go back home. I feel like dropping out.” Just two minutes on the phone with her, and she understood immediately why I was so miserable. Yet, when I explained it to my non-black friends at Durham, none of them really understood. In fact, some of them took offence.

I could understand where they were coming from. Why would anyone dislike Durham? A beautiful town, a top ten university, with numerous different societies. For many people, the most exhausting thing about it was probably all the hills. I have asthma, so the hills definitely were a strong contender, but the most tiring thing about being at Durham, without a doubt, is being a black student.

As discussions became centred around the Black Lives Matter movement following the unjust killing of George Floyd, many people started sharing the resources and petitions that I and many others were putting out onto social media. However, after talking to people, whether it was constructive discussions about racism and how to be actively anti-racist, or exhausting rebuttals from people committed to misunderstanding me, one thing became predominantly clear: the majority of Durham students have no idea just how insufferable Durham can be for black people, and just how prevalent racism truly is within the community.

So, I’m here to give them an idea. I asked black students from every single college at Durham University about their experiences with racism and microaggressions. From students from all years, courses and colleges, this is what it truly feels like to be black at Durham.

Disclaimer: Durham have stated that they “condemn all racism and hate crime. Racism has no place here.” and have set up a new reporting tool for incidents such as this, which can be utilised to help with any racist incidents you or fellow students experience.

I literally have abuse shouted at me from cars

“When with my black friends or alone, people would always wind down their windows and shout abuse at us. There was never anyone else on the road, and it became so common that we’d just laugh it off. I’ve never experienced something like that before coming here.”

A white girl asked me if my natural hair was a wig

“During Freshers’ Week in a club, a white girl I didn’t know came up to me and touched my curly hair saying ‘Wow, is that a wig?’. I was so shocked that I couldn’t even reply. I just smiled awkwardly and walked off. This was the first time I’d experienced a microaggression.”

A woman in traffic yelled ‘the hairdresser is that way you dirty wh***!’ as I walked past with my natural hair

I heard a white boy say the N word at pres

“During pres at my college, a boy said the N word when it came up in a song. I took the time to explain to him why he shouldn’t say but I quickly brushed it off because I was the only POC/mixed race girl in the room. I felt really uncomfortable.”

Boys fetishise my blackness

“Throughout the year, I’ve had comments from white guys who have fetishised me, saying ‘I love the colour of your skin’, ‘I really like black girls, my past girlfriends have mostly been mixed race/ black’.  This has mainly happened at any given ‘urban’ club nights.”

But at the same time they don’t perceive being black as inherently beautiful

“People have said ‘I would get with you if you were white’ and that I am ‘pretty for a black girl'”.

I’m much more fearful walking around at night

“As a black woman walking back home or going anywhere, especially in the dark, is terrifying. I’m constantly thinking that if I go missing or am assaulted, the pursuit for my justice wouldn’t be the same as a white woman’s”.

My friends and I were walking home after a night out. We heard a girl screaming and I ran to see if she was okay. She told me to ‘f*** off back to Pakistan’ and called me a black b****’

White men at Durham take up so much physical space

“The white men I’ve met take up so much space, even when they’re a guest. I and other women would move when we were in the way of someone, even if it was tight in the room. But for white men it wasn’t instinctive for them to do that. When invited to my house by my housemates, they wouldn’t make space for me when asked and it was clearly obvious that they were in the way. Once I had to ‘mistakenly’ hit the cabinet door against a boy’s leg to get him to move because he STILL didn’t notice after five minutes of me being crouched by the cabinet struggling to get my stuff out.”

A staff member mistook me for another black girl

“At Matriculation, a member of staff mistook me for the only other black girl in the college, despite the fact we looked NOTHING alike. She asked: ‘Are you the one we asked to sign the book?’ When I became really confused, she began insisting it was me despite me repeatedly telling her otherwise.”

A bouncer asked me whether I was gutted that KFC had run out of chicken when checking my ID

“When I reported him, the company took weeks to reply and only gave a half-hearted apology for the ‘rudeness’ I had experienced”.

Some guy touched my hair and then acted like I was overreacting

“Once in the club a local decided to put his hand in my hair and said ‘honk honk’. When I told him sternly not to touch my hair, my friends acted as if I were overreacting.”

Some guy tried to use slang on me but spoke completely normally to my white passing mate

“At a college fashion show afterparty with my white passing, mixed race friend, a guy spoke to her in his posh accent, but took one look at me and switched his tone, saying: ‘Yo peng ting’, ‘bare this, bare that’. I barely understood what he was trying to say, so I relayed that calmly. He became incredibly aggressive saying: ‘That’s why I can’t deal with you people.’ ‘You people?’, I responded. The interaction stopped when his friend pulled him away.”

I have to watch white people sing the N word all the time

“On my very first day moving and setting up my room, as my mum was leaving she pointed out across the lawn and said ‘Oh look another black girl’. It was half an hour later that I realised I was one of three black individuals in my fresher’s cohort. It was daunting to say the very least. Growing up in a place where majority of people looked like me, going to Durham is what made me for the first time really acknowledge my race. Like going to urban club nights, standing there and listening to a sea of white people screaming the N word with a hard er at the end and feeling an indescribable discomfort”.

People heckle me from their cars on the regular

“I have had two encounters of people driving past, seeing me and slowing down. They would roll down their window and shout racial slurs at me in order to get my attention, following me down the road in their car as I walked back to my accommodation.”

As a college open day ambassador, several parents asked ‘where I was really from’

“They touched my skin and hair, and asked to take pictures with me”.

A group of people in their cars shouted ‘wagwarn mi friend’ at me

“When I was on my way back to college at night, a car of white students who I didn’t know rolled down their window to throw gang signs at me and shout ‘wagwarn mi friend’. Now every time a red car passes me I feel really uncomfortable”.

I was literally refused service at a Durham fish and chip shop

“At a fish and chip shop the staff refused to serve me, even though several white people had been served with no problem. I’ve been asked to show my campus card to prove I was a student after I’d already got a meal ticket which you can only get with a campus card. Also once I was having lunch and a lady looked at me and then moved her wallet into another pocket”.

I’ve been called the N word and had to watch white students generalise Africans

“During Freshers’ Week I got called the N word by someone driving by my college. Not so long after, a white girl kept telling me about how she visited “Africa” (she only visited Malawi) and told me that all Africans, the entire continent, just eat porridge.”

I have to argue against blackface with white students

“I had an argument on Durfess about blackface and why it’s wrong. Some football society guys had done it to dress up as their favourite football player, with their hair in cornrows or the continent of Africa shaved into their hair. The guy on Durfess felt that their ‘innocent intentions’ were enough to erase generations of painful historical context”.

I had arguments over blackfishing and Ariana Grande

“I had a debate about Ariana Grande’s problematic tanning, which I don’t think is racist but it’s definitely blackfishing. This girl at my college was extremely dismissive, saying: ‘It’s just a tan though.’”

Someone said to me: ‘so you’re only half white… like a mudblood right?’

“They said this while laughing”.

Walking down North Road, a group of boys followed me down the street, asking questions like ‘Are you from Africa?’ and ‘Have you showered?

People try to compare my struggle as a black student in Durham to…being Northern

“When I was talking to my mentor about transferring to a different university, she tried to compare my situation to that of a Northern English student who felt left out. I’m black British and Muslim. I got a similar comparison from a therapist. I have now transferred to a different university.”

A group of drunk men threw chicken bones at me which landed on my head and shouted racial slurs at me

“I was alone after a night out and very scared”.

Lectures and students here never respect my views or interest in social relations

“At my old uni, I and other black students set up a decolonising academia group which was supported by our lecturers, who actually used our material. The lecturer who helped us was white and very respectful and said that she would help as much as we need and that if we didn’t want her there then that would be fine. She encouraged us to talk about our experience being black students and compile feedback that the university would use to improve things.

“But at Durham I’ve always felt tension in my seminars and whenever I would talk about colonialism or social relations. My friend is from China and she feels the same. In our course group chat someone said that they don’t understand how the pandemic will impact people’s marks, which shows just how out of touch they can be due to their privileges. I’ve had lecturers ignore me and had to change supervisors because my former one gave me no help, was super dismissive of any social issues I wanted to add to my dissertation, barely replied to me and once didn’t even look at some work before a meeting so I made all the effort to go into university for nothing (I live at my family home in Durham).  I’ve also had a lecturer who meant well but misguidedly said I couldn’t say colonialism was because of race. At the start of the year, a white boy came up to me in a club unprovoked saying ‘Are you being racist towards white people? You need to be very careful’. It really freaked me out. I’ve found the experience in general quite disheartening.”

In my first year of university, me and three black girls were going to the taxi rank after a night out but none of the drivers would take us. When white students arrived, the drivers would take them instead

“We waited for ages, begging for anyone to take us. And while we did, two white guys walked by us and said ‘go back home N word’ with a hard R”.

Students play drinking games where they say the N word every time they see a black person

“A group of white students in my college have a drinking game where they shout the N word and down their drink whenever they see a black person. It’s so horrible.”

These are just a few of the many microaggressions and racist incidents that black people face at Durham, and it’s frustrating to say that I have experienced many of them too. Many people ask ‘Why don’t you just tell someone?’. But what they fail to recognise is that many of these incidents and several others (which you can hear about on Durham’s official podcast: Purple Radio on Demand later this week), are routinely ignored and dismissed. POC students usually feel more confident in bringing these issues to societies like the Durham People of Colour Association (DPOCA), and Afro Caribbean Society (ACS), which work tirelessly to highlight, expose and fight racism. However, tackling racism is not something to delegate to others to deal with, but it is in fact the role and the duty of the entire university. It is also important to remember that despite the focus on the experience of black students, racism is a reality for all POC, especially at Durham. 

Durham have responded to allegations of racism within the uni as of late, and addressed race as a whole, with the deputy VC saying: “Here at Durham University, we are working to build a safe, respectful and inclusive environment for all members of our community. We acknowledge we have more to do to make this a reality, but we are working hard to achieve this.

“To be absolutely clear: we condemn all racism and hate crime. Racism has no place here.

“Having signed the Race Equality Charter in March 2019, we are now working to understand any institutional or cultural barriers that may stand in the way of BAME students and staff, and to improve the representation, progression and success of BAME students and staff within our University community. More information is available at www.durham.ac.uk/equality.diversity/rec

“We have also introduced an online Report and Support tool through which students, staff and visitors can report unwanted behaviour and seek support. This is available at: reportandsupport.durham.ac.uk. We would welcome your support in raising awareness of this: please do share it with peers and colleagues.

“We will shortly be publishing the final report of our Commission on Respect, Values and Behaviour, a year-long study to help us understand people’s experiences of working and studying at here and what can be done to create positive change. All of the Commission’s recommendations have been endorsed by the University’s governing bodies and we will shortly announce a detailed programme of work to implement these changes.

“Additionally, you may have seen or heard about a video that has been posted on Twitter, which purports to show a Durham University student making racist comments. We are investigating this as a matter of urgency. We are horrified by its contents and condemn them in the strongest possible terms. Anyone in our community affected by the video can seek support via Report and Support, as above.

“Back on April 21, along with the Durham Students’ Union President, the Chair of the JCR Presidents’ Committee and the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) wrote offering guidance on online conduct and the support we have available in this area. In short: please treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. We would ask everyone to be particularly aware of this guidance at this time.

“We recognise that although things are changing, racist and hate crime incidents still take place, in our community and beyond. Racism can take many forms but includes prejudice, discrimination and hatred directed to individuals because of their colour, ethnicity or national origin. It can affect people and communities in different ways. It is only by understanding the impact our behaviours and privileges can have on others that we can ensure that everyone is treated with dignity and respect. Ridding our society of racism will require us all to play an active role and therefore we welcome your support in addressing these issues. For more information, please visit our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion web pages.”

Ultimately, it is not a surprise that black students only make up 1.2 per cent of the student population. The alienation and othering felt by the black community may not be seen by the white eye, but it is felt, strongly, by the black students who attend, or prospective students who had hoped to, and it drives them away. Durham’s target of gaining 100 more black students in the next four years is not only at the moment, highly improbable, but it is also somewhat insulting. We are not a quota to be fulfilled. Prospective students of colour will only continue to have an aversion to the university if it does not work towards becoming an environment that is actually safe, accommodating and actively anti-racist for them.

Durham University must do better. I hope that in light of recent events, it finally will. 

Names, courses and year groups have not been included in this article to protect the identities of the students featured. The Tab Durham can however confirm that the article features testimonies from every college at Durham University. 

Durham University have been approached for additional comment.

You can hear Mirabelle Otuoze read out some of the experiences she’s mentioned here and more in a special podcast, ‘Being a Black Student at Durham University’ that came out this Saturday. Search Purple Radio on Demand on Spotify and Apple Podcasts to listen to more examples of POC students’ experiences at Durham University.