BAME Identities Part 1: “Whatever box I wanna put myself into, it’s never enough”

BAME Identities Part 1: “Whatever box I wanna put myself into, it’s never enough”

[Written by Siam Hatzaw (she/her)]

[Image Credits: Indigo Korres (she/her)]

Content Warning: Contains discussion of racial issues including slurs, colonisation, colourism and fetishisation.

In this two-part feature, Siam Hatzaw and Juneyna Kabir interview Lucy McKenna and Indigo Korres, sharing their reflections on the experiences of being BAME at university. Part 1 with Lucy explores topics including cultural representation, racial slurs, appearances and dating.

University is strange for everyone: landing in a new city surrounded by a whole host of people from different backgrounds, and all of you in the same boat. But, are we really? Entering the world of uni as a BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) student can be an entirely different experience. Whilst all of us are adjusting to the range of people around, it takes even more adjustment when you realise—as you often will over the next four years—that you’re the only one who looks remotely like you in the room. Walking into seminars, societies, or parties and realising you’re the odd-one-out is just one of the experiences which Others us. Granted, it’s not always A Big Deal, but it’s important to recognise these experiences that BAME students share which differ from our white counterparts—the negatives, and also the positives to celebrate and cherish. I sat down with Juneyna Kabir, Vice President of the BAME society, and 1st year student Lucy McKenna to explore these further.

“There’s not a lot of exposure. With seminars when I first started it was a group of white people, then me. I find it hard to break through,” Lucy began. We all knew how it felt being the only BAME student in class. For example, if race comes up in discussion and everyone turns to you (even inadvertently), there’s pressure to comment “like you’re upholding all people of colour”, Juneyna noted. Lucy continued: “I’ve had a tutor who, whenever he was talking about work made by a black woman, would look at me and smile.” Juneyna points out that, although not negative, these are “small things that Other you. Like white people are one thing, everybody else is this monolith we don’t identify with who we have to seek approval from to be politically correct. He could have looked at anyone else like ‘Yay we have a black author’, right? That’s cool for everybody.”

We identified two ends of the spectrum, people either trying so hard to be politically correct they tiptoe around terms like ‘black’ and ‘brown’ and avoid mentioning race altogether, or as Lucy recalled, they’re “so ignorant they say offensive stuff. I went in a taxi and the driver called me half-caste. He doesn’t see that as an offense, but as describing me. That makes me so uncomfortable but I just want to get to my house so I’m just going to smile.”

Juneyna had also been on the receiving end of racial slurs at her previous university: “My teacher was trying to say there was a scholarship available. ‘You would be a great choice’, he says, ‘because you’re a woman and a darkie’. What?! It’s 2017, it’s not the 1700s you can’t call someone a—but I was so shocked I couldn’t say anything. I was stunned. Isn’t that crazy?! I think when we’re taking political correctness without understanding where it’s coming from and why, it’s useless.”

This brought us to the topic of emotional labour, a process of corrective education that BAME individuals are often expected to perform. We questioned why the onus is on the individual, as if it is our job to explain when it should be their job to educate themselves. Lucy recounted an instance of this: “I just want to be at a party having a good time and now I’m bringing down the mood. I could just bite my tongue and not talk about it, but why is the anger towards me?”

Image Credits: Kofi Nana Oduro Iddrisu (he/him)

This is where the need for more BAME solidarity and community arises, as Lucy stated: “I want people who are ethnic minorities in Glasgow to read this and be encouraged to talk to each other more; we’re still isolated, so be encouraged and know that there’s support. We all have so many stories to talk about. These microaggressions are still happening, just having someone to look at and roll your eyes with is so reassuring, like ‘thank god you saw that too’. There’s people out there feeling isolated, I want them to feel they have people to talk with.”

On this importance of connection, Juneyna reflected, “obviously we come from different cultures but the values are similar I would say. We have this sense of community, I feel that so strongly.” We joked about the similarities between our cultures, especially our humour. “I’ve given up a lot of study hours to Subtle Curry Traits…” Juneyna responded when I brought up a meme from Subtle Asian Traits. These are Facebook groups with millions sharing posts revelling in a shared humour that feels specific to you. Lucy described how this even spreads to personalities: “One of my close friends is half Egyptian. Whenever we’re together, our energy is so high compared to when we’re apart. In college last year, when she wasn’t in I was much more quiet. But when we’re together, you feel more yourself—through the similarities, we big up our energy. It’s so liberating to be like, ‘girl, yes’. You know?”

We all understood this level of comforting connection, becoming a recurring theme in our conversation. Embracing identity stems naturally from incorporating and celebrating cultural aspects, especially in spaces where they’re unexpected. Juneyna told us a story about her sister: “She was packing saris for university, and I asked ‘what are you doing’, she was like ‘I’m just gonna wear them’. She would just wear a sari to class, saying ‘you should see the way people look at me, like it’s crazy’. People are either weirded out or they overdo the compliments. I wore a sari to my graduation, then me and my sister went to the club. Fuck it, who’s gonna change? So we were in saris in the club and people were all over our shit. You can be like ‘Oh that’s different, that’s cool’, but to be all ‘Can I touch it?! Can I take a picture with you?!’—I’m not a freak.”

“That’s reminded me,” Lucy joined, “now I’m wearing my hair straight but last semester I had braids. People are talking to me differently than they were before. It’s more convenient right now, but it’s a big statement that made me anxious. Things to do with your heritage, some people might not think about it, but it’s a bold statement. You need confidence. It can look like you’re isolating yourself, but it’s more like I’m proud of my culture, I want to show it off. I was nervous going into uni but my sister wears braids a lot and it looks amazing—I think when people do it and are proud of it, it’s pretty awesome.” Unfortunately though, people still insist on touching her hair, even without asking: “I thought people got the memo,” we joked, but it seems as though people think it’s okay because it’s ‘complimentary’. Moving on from these uninvited invasions of space, Lucy explained the deeper roots behind her hair choices.

“Being mixed race, I have a struggle of being right down the line. In school I was very much trying to whiten myself: always straightening my hair, being embarrassed when people ask where I’m from. From primary school, people said ‘for halloween you should dress as a poo’, awful things like that. I had a lot of self-hate. It was when Meghan Markle was getting married I was like, ‘oh my god, a mixed race person, people are calling her a black queen’ and everything. So I decided to start embracing this and talking about it openly. When I started doing that, I got the opposite reaction: ‘you could pass for white’. It felt like whatever box I wanna put myself into, it’s never enough.”

This struggle with identity is one which resonates with many of us as BAME individuals, whether from having a mixed heritage or as 1st/2nd generation immigrants, it’s as though we exist in-between cultures. Feelings of displacement and unbelonging can start to arise, complicating our perceptions of “home” which becomes a loaded word. Lucy reflected on this during visits to Montserrat: “Recently I went back with my mum. That was the first time I experienced feeling white. It was such a strange feeling going to the market that normally I could just walk through, now they’re going ‘hey lady come over here’. When I’m in Scotland, I don’t fully feel I belong because I don’t ‘look’ Scottish, so coming over to a place and feeling like I could belong is a really lovely, important feeling. I’m ethnically ambiguous, so when I go to Spain, Cuba, India, anywhere, everyone thinks I’m from there—whereas the only place I don’t feel I look like I’m from is Scotland, which is where I’m from.”

Juneyna has similar memories of Bangladesh: “Because I’m so fair, people treat me like a foreigner, and I’ve grown up there my whole life. It’s really sad for me because I forget what I look like on the outside. I’m this brown ass person on the inside just going about my life and then people will be like ‘which country are you from’, I live right here come on! Every single day it’s having to prove where you’re from. I say I’m Bangladeshi, they’re like ‘explain yourself’.” Lucy also feels the need to explain herself, “I’ve got to get out receipts to prove my ethnicity. Why is it so important to people to match what they want? Looking at me, trying to judge, then when I say, they’re like ‘really? Can I see a photo of your dad?’”

Curiosity is natural, of course, which led us to discuss how to go about learning people’s ethnicities respectfully. Juneyna admits she’s guilty of automatically trying to figure this out: “I think everybody does this, because it’s interesting, it helps you to place a person: where are they coming from, what might their thought process be. Sometimes I’m like to myself, why are you doing that, you should just treat people as people, but you can’t separate people from the environment they come from. Sometimes I have difficulty finding the line of where I should stop relating people to their ethnicity and where it’s important to them to recognise them in that light.” 

As BAME students, we all recognised the exhausting question ‘where are you really from’ but sincere conversations are generally welcomed—if someone is genuinely interested in my cultural background then that’s great! I’ll talk about it. The problem arises when the question is shrouded in the implication of you clearly aren’t from here, you don’t belong. You can feel it instinctually and it becomes another Othering, making you acutely aware of your difference.

We shared more stories of moments we were made to stare our Otherness in the face. On the topic of class, which often goes hand-in-hand with racialisation, I remembered a misjudged comment a friend made when walking me home to my council estate (with a growing South Asian community): “It’s like a whole different country here.” Lucy responded: “I’ve had that. I went to a school in Australia for an exchange and I was helping a girl go to the nurse. We turned a corner and these Asian students went past, she went ‘welcome to China’—this was their boarding area, I remember being like what?

“These tiny comments stick with you.”

“Exactly.”

“They do, they really do. I put my guard up.”

We sat in silence for a moment, dwelling on this shared solidarity.

We ended our conversation exploring how racialisation ties into appearance. “The thing I will never forget, it’s happened a few times,” Juneyna began, “I’ve had drivers asking ‘where are you from?’ and I answer. They’re like, no joke, ‘you’re too pretty to be from Bangladesh’. What? Firstly, you’re saying everybody in an entire country of 180 million people is ugly. Secondly, actually what he’s saying is you’re so fair—he’s equating beauty to skin colour.”

I had my own sobering moments recognising how colourism dominates beauty standards, back in Myanmar (Burma) when my aunt brought me some toiletries which turned out to be whitening products. “The description said ‘to get the fairest skin bla bla bla’. It’s sad this is such a popular product, but on the other hand, maybe because I’ve arrived from the UK, they kind of assume I’d want a whitening product—they’re so popular, I think it wasn’t necessarily a thought out decision, it’s just ingrained.”

Image Credits: Kofi Nana Oduro Iddrisu (he/him)

They both related, aware of the privilege that comes with lighter skinned or even “white-passing” individuals. Juneyna continued: “Like with the driver—that’s not a compliment, you’re using that like a compliment. You’re insulting my ethnicity but you think you’re being good to me, what world do you live in? People don’t think about why certain things are problematic. They either know they’re problematic or not. That’s where the problem lies.”

So how do these elements play into dating life? Experiences of exotification or fetishisation can happen when BAME identities become sexualised categories. Lucy answers, “I’ve found myself thinking ‘I wonder if he’s into non-white people’, it’s definitely on my mind. When I was around 4, my mum remembers I went to try and kiss a boy, he was like ‘I don’t kiss brownies’. I’ve always had that within me: I’m not gonna be as pretty as the white girls. Then the other way, especially on nights out, people are like ‘your colour, oh I love’—then just calling me black girls even though I’m not. I get that a lot. I’m so quick to just laugh even when uncomfortable. I’m having a night out, it’s not the right time.”

Many of us recognise this two-sided coin: you’re either unappealing because you’re not white or you’re fetishised because you’re not white. It’s difficult to know when attraction is genuine, as we shared moments of realising partners had racial fetishes, a hurtful and damaging revelation. “It’s like every girl, I like to think that I’m liked not just because of my looks, but because of who I am,” Lucy explained, “when I’m seen as, ‘I like you cause you’re this ethnicity’, you’re seeing me as a template. You’re not thinking of anything behind it. You’re just seeing a string of girls who have a type of look. This conversation needs to be had. I think people need to read it.”

Here, she hits on the crux of the problem BAME students experience, time and again. Our identities are at once underrepresented in the media, classrooms and syllabuses, whilst being the lens through which our complexities as individual, multifaceted people are erased. Lucy recalled overhearing two classmates describing her: “They were like ‘which one’s Lucy?’, and the other went ‘small, brown’. I realised that’s how they see me. Before they see anything else, they see my ethnicity. That was a wake up call: I’m not just a normal Scottish person, I am different.”

We ended by asking whether BAME students should provide support to each other, or if there should be better integration between BAME and white students.

“Both, absolutely,” Lucy answered. “I don’t want to be the Other, ‘us’ and ‘them’.” She described events at her school where people from different cultures shared food with each other, “it was for Scottish students as well, an event that’s not specifically about being minorities, just about culture, including Scottish—they’re a culture too! Let them celebrate that, inclusion for everyone.”

This two-part series is the result of GUM’s planned collaboration with the BAME society, aiming to platform the experiences of BAME students. Unfortunately due to the current circumstances, we have had to cancel the project however we’d like to share some of the other responses we received in the process.

Special thanks to Juneyna, Lucy and Indigo, Kofi Nana Oduro Iddrisu for his photo series from around Scotland, and the respondents of our survey.

Anonymous:

I’m an Asian Arab non-binary lesbian, currently a PhD student at the University of Glasgow conducting research in Scottish African literature and postcolonialism. I started my degree in October 2019 and the administration has been good so far, the staff and students have been respectful.

The university is actively working on the decolonisation of the curriculum which is great, but I wish more work would be done in the library. For example, having a wider section of African texts, culture and literature. I know I can request any book I need, but they only bring them temporarily. We need to decolonise the library and provide books written by and about BAME individuals.

Anna:

My name is Anna and I’m mixed White (Austrian) and Persian. I’ve been positively surprised by the amount of emphasis by some of my lecturers that they want to actively include non-white authors. I think in some areas this could still be done better (e.g. including non-white perspectives more on matters that don’t directly relate to race/immigration), but I appreciate that a lot of staff (especially in the Sociology department) seem to know there are issues within academia. From my perspective, it seems like the change is coming from staff (I know first-year Film changed their curriculum to include more films outside Europe/America after student complaints).

I think the biggest thing I notice is that I’ve had one black lecturer in my three years here, and that’s the only non-white lecturer I’ve had. I think honestly presence in staff is really important to me. Of course making sure that all curriculums include perspectives outside “the West” would be helpful, or at least make staff aware to try to include it. I also don’t think lecturers should be afraid of asking in non-white guest lecturers on some topics. Generally guest lectures have been some of the best lectures I’ve had, but using it as a tool to amplify the voices of marginalised people would be even better.

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