Talking to my sister about racism: ‘People your age seem so much more aware’
When my younger sister Fizzy tells me about her experiences of racism as a student, they’re both familiar and strange. It’s been six years since I graduated from the University of Cambridge, where I tended to explain racism away. It just seemed a part of life at the archaic institution – which was recently criticised for its lack of diversity by MP David Lammy.
My sister, who studies at Southampton, a newer university, has also experienced racism. She has encountered people who have openly used racist language, and is often asked to speak for Muslims or people of colour.
Fizzy responds to racism differently than I did. She has moved into a house with all non-white housemates in her second year, for example. Meanwhile, I never had a choice to be anything but a minority; I had one black friend at university and he graduated the year after I arrived. Most of my white friends lived in all white houses at university – and we thought little of it.
Prejudice at university was something I didn’t start exploring until long after I’d left. When I was at Cambridge, it was students in white tie who’d make the headlines, getting pissed and smashing things up. Today, it’s students of colour, such as Lola Olufemi and Jason Osamede, who have been targeted for protesting against white privilege, or wanting to “decolonise” an overly white and male curriculum in their posts as minority officers.
Back then I lacked the political awareness to frame my experiences. But my sister, 21 years old and immersed in a world of ongoing political debate on social media, knows exactly what’s happening to her. I can’t work out which is worse. We speak intimately and at length when I visit, to try to understand what it is about university that can make it such an isolating place for people of colour.