Scenario 1: my flatmates and I chat about relationships over the dinner table, and the subject turns to interracial dating.
“I don’t think I could date a fully Asian guy because I just don’t find them attractive,” one flatmate chirps, “but when they’re half Asian and half white I think they’re gorgeous.”
I stop smiling and focus on the plate of food in front of me. To my surprise, the rest of my flat responds with enthusiastic affirmations of her statement.
“And I always wanted a mixed-race baby,” another one chimes in, “they’re just so much cuter!”
More excited agreement follows and the conversation continues. I, the only mixed-race member of an otherwise all-white flat, squirm uncomfortably and retreat further into my pasta.
Scenario 2: my college mentor gives me a bemused look over his cup of coffee. He’s just made a joke about having ‘the most exotic mentor group in Durham’ due to his abnormally large number of black and Asian mentees. I have asked him to refrain from using the term.
“But why?” he laughs. I laugh too.
“Because pets are exotic. Plants are exotic. People are not exotic.”
“If you say so, but I always thought exotic was a rather lovely term.”
I remain smiling, but wince internally as he continues its use for the rest of our conversation.
Scenario 3: I’m sat in my English Lecture on Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, attempting to repress an encroaching sense of anger. My lecturer has, and is continuing to, explicitly state that Rhys’ novel is pro-black and calls for the complete equality of all ethnicities.
As he resumes his spiel on the ‘danger of racial labels,’ I wonder whether he remembers the frequency with which Rhys refers to black features as ugly, or the mob of black people who burn down the heroine’s home, killing her disabled brother. I am almost impressed at his ability to evade the presentation of mixed-race characters as figures of both pagan and biblical betrayal, of almost supernatural malice, cruelty and apathy. I would perhaps be more generous towards the ideas of my lecturer if he had not earlier this month asserted that, in the Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad regards the African Tribesmen as his social equals.
Later that day, I redraft my essay on Wide Sargasso Sea and delete its relevant sections on racism. I know that if I include them, I run the risk of damaging my grade.
As an expectant Fresher back in October, if someone had informed me that I would encounter situations similar to that of the first scenario, I would hardly have been surprised. The warning may have been met with a sigh or small groan of some form, but I was perfectly aware that- whether in Durham, Edinburgh, or probably even Denmark- I would encounter unintentional micro-aggressions from my peers that would be directed towards myself or other people of colour. What I did not expect, however, was the alarming number of problems with how, not students, but qualified academics and other university employees have handled the topic of race.
Don’t get me wrong, a fair few student encounters leave a lot to be desired: I’ve had people approach me on nights out purely because they have a ‘thing for brown girls;’ strangers plunge their hands into my natural hair without even so much as asking permission to do so; one fully black friend was told that black people were indistinguishable from one another. But somehow, the dismissive attitude that Durham University’s English department often adopts towards racial issues smacks of a disappointment no casual exchange could ever rival. These professors are brilliant intellectuals, often leaders in their field: I’ve had lectures on how language implicitly upholds patriarchal structures, and how one might go about deconstructing them. In tutorials, I’ve had lengthy discussions about internalised classism and its consequences. Yet where the department seems to be so beautifully synched with the intricacies of feminist and socialist thought, it often falls flat with the anti-racism movement. It could be that, as a first year, my perceptions stem from limited experience and misfortune. However, to me it appears that the racial standpoint of literary texts is denied the acknowledged complexity of other themes, reduced merely to pro-colonial = prejudice, anti-colonial = total equalitarian view.
I’m not asking my lecturers to do a full Achebe and brand authors as ‘bloody racists.’ I’m not asking them to spurn specific texts due to less-than-savoury representations of people of colour. What I’m asking is for them to appreciate that racial prejudices aren’t obliterated in one radical motion, but rather dismantled bit by bit: in the cases of Conrad or Rhys, a person can have sympathy towards a marginalised group whilst still thinking themselves superior. These problematic viewpoints don’t make the text any less brilliant in its literary craft, but on the contrary enhance it all the more: they can offer insight into the cultural context of the time, mapping the process and progress of thought throughout English Literature.
Since coming to Durham, the quality of education I’ve received from the English department has been for the most part spectacular. All I request is that the incredible insight into texts extends past a predominantly white perspective, into the multicultural analysis that modern day academia demands. Until then, you’ll find me at the back of my lectures, simmering with a quiet disappointment.