LGBT Society criticise new Racial Equality Officer’s ethnicity and suitability for the role in group chat
‘He won’t have had the same experiences as people who can’t ‘pass’ as white’
Newcastle's new Racial Equality Officer Chris Wilkinson has come under criticism for his new role because some people have questioned his ethnicity and therefore his suitability for the role.
Screenshots from the Joint LGBT Society's group chat obtained by The Tab Newcastle show students discussing whether Chris is white, or 'passing' as white, and therefore not valid for the role of Racial Equality Officer.
In one of the screenshots, a member claims it wouldn't be "appropriate for him to get the role", because Chris "won't have had the same experiences as people who can't 'pass' as white".
Passing is when a person of colour is seen as “white” by others around them, and their race isn’t put to question in social situations. It is believed by some that those who “pass” as white don’t experience racism in the same way most people of colour do.
In one message, a member talks about the racism members of the Racial Equality society face, following it up with: "Pretending a white person can relate to those issues or understand their depth is silly".
In response to one member of the group saying "so who actually is he", another member replied with a picture of Michael Scott from The Office US, holding a glass of white wine with the caption "this is a white".
Another member compares Chris' role to the LGBT society, stating: "Imagine if a straight person ran for president of our society it'd be worse than leaving it open."
In response to the contents of the group chat, Chris called the situation "messy" and "ridiculous". Chris comes from a dual heritage background, and explained how comments like this leave him feeling in "limbo" as to who he can identify with. Chris said: "This sort of language unfortunately highlights something which has largely been glazed over in discussions about race and equality. It highlights the idea that people of colour who identify as coming from dual heritage backgrounds are more often than not left in a sort of limbo when it comes to which groups they are allowed to be identified with. You are seen as neither a true person of colour or as a true white person, and frankly it's ridiculous."
Chris says that having a dual heritage is a "unique problem" because he is "criticised from people who are white", but also from "people who self identify as persons of colour". Chris added: "It is upsetting to find that people like me are brown enough to have racism aimed towards them, but not brown enough to stand for racial equality.
"Brown enough to be excluded from certain aspects of life which might benefit from being privileged, but not brown enough to be able to celebrate my heritage. It's a very unique problem which people from a dual heritage problem have to deal with. Whilst I may be being criticised from people who are white, something I find pretty contemptible in the first place, I am also being criticised by people who self identify as persons of colour, which to me is no less contemptible."
He continued: "For those who say I am privileged because I may 'pass as white' I can only say that I wish that those people who have shouted racist abuse to me on the street would have had the same fluid ideas about race, since I am apparently only worthy of racism on the days when I don't pass as white. I never thought that there was a big racism problem on campus, I have repeatedly said that I am proud of Newcastle University being one of the most progressive in the country and the world, but at this time I'm beginning to rethink this."
According to Chris, issues such as this "can't be overlooked", not only because it an attack on his role within the society, but also personally. He stresses that he will be reporting the incident to the university. Chris commented: "I have no doubt that the people who said these things thought they weren't being racist, but I'm afraid it is, and I'm afraid it is due to ignorance around the issues which surround the term racial equality. Unfortunately I feel like this can't be overlooked, and both as a personal attack and as an issue with my role as racial equality I'll be reporting this to the University, hopefully to some end which might resolved this messy situation.
"I think it's especially rich that the LGBT society of all the different societies is saying this, and that it's not even imaginable that someone would accuse the LGBT president of being too straight and not gay enough to stand, or that someone would accuse someone of not being disabled enough to run for disability officer. The LGBT society is supposed to be one of the most progressive on campus, and I think it's a real shame that the society is full of this kind of conversation."
The Tab Newcastle contacted Oliver Isaac, President of the LGBT Society. He said: "The issue in question resulted from a questionable Courier picture in which there was a question as to the BAME status of Chris Wilkinson.
"There was no direct claim as to suggesting he was white, with most of the conversation hypothesising IF he was white, should we as a society be standing up. As a society that falls flat when it comes to People of Colour intersectionality, we have always understood the need for a racial equality officer who can fully represent our LGBT+ people of colour in the Union and ensure that their voices are heard and so a lot of the conversation was targeted towards being afraid of not having proper representation.
"Our committee will and always will be ready to stand up for what they believe in, and it is in part my fault as President for not shutting down the conversation earlier, before clarity could be provided. Following the successful election of Chris and confirmation of his BAME status, we are all more than happy he was elected as this is a role that is often left empty, minimising the voices of people of colour in the Student's Union.
"I, along with the rest of my committee, are deeply sorry to Chris, who had to have his BAME status questioned and only hope that he can understand our fears. As a person of colour myself, I understand the concerns of my committee about potentially having someone in a position of power who couldn't best represent us, however, I also acknowledge and understand that the way in which this conversation was conducted was in the wrong.
"We can't make excuses for what was said and will hold full responsibility that we were in the wrong, however, we hope that Chris will work with us in the future to help us improve the intersectionality of our society in the next year."