Being a black student at St Andrews can, for the most part, be incredibly alienating. Often, you’re the only black person in lecture halls, in tutorials, or on a night-out. Consequently, the duty falls to you to call out microaggressions and racist slurs, despite how uncomfortable the situation may be. The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the importance of educating those who you believe to be perpetrators of racism. Changing mindsets is the most fundamental way of tackling racism because, especially in a town like St Andrews, black people cannot be the ones to inform everyone.
Undoubtedly, St Andrews has an issue with diversity: of UK domiciled students, only 0.7% were black in 2015, according to the University of St Andrews Equality Mainstreaming Report, 30 April 2015 (page 27). Since then, there have not been statistical breakdowns of student ethnicity beyond the label of “BME”. This lack of transparency allows the university to hide its shortcomings in creating a diversified student population. Poor diversity leads to situations that are incredibly difficult for black students to address and often leaves them being inadvertently delegated as the one to challenge others on their language and attitudes. It is an uncomfortable situation to be forced into, but we know that if we do not point out microaggressions, slurs, and racist behaviour, nobody else will.
Racism can be difficult to challenge because frequently, it is not as evident as a verbal or physical attack. In academic settings, it can be belittling your ideas and contributions to discussion, saying the phrase often heard by my black peers: “wow, you are so articulate!” Being surprised by our intelligence or our accents does not constitute compliments ― it reveals ignorance within your preconceptions of black people. To help others understand the realities of being a black student at St Andrews, I spoke to a few other students because my solitary experiences cannot fully capture the prejudices within the students and system of the university.
Speaking to Maria, a second-year medic, helped me to understand further how patronising academic spaces can be. When I asked her about her experiences training to be a medic, it didn’t even take a second for a clear example of a time in which she was demeaned in front of her peers to come to mind. She explained that she had been at a session with BASICS (British Association of Immediate Care), everything was going well until she asked: “How can colour changes be assessed on casualties with a darker skin complexion?” Indeed, her question was addressed, but the coordinator of the session weaponised her words. She details that he chose to view this question as a critique on his intelligence ― how dare he be questioned by a black woman?
Maria recalls that for the remainder of the session, remarks were made regarding her question and that he kept coming back to the subject in a defensive manner. Incidents like this silence black women ― how can an educator be intimidated by questions? As a singular occurrence, it is uncomfortable and frustrating but not necessarily traumatic. However, when your questions are invalidated and mocked in front of others, especially in a field like medicine, it is particularly disturbing. Maria also highlighted that, if these questions are not asked, it would continue to allow lower standards of healthcare for POC, an issue that most medics should want to collectively tackle.
Maria’s experience was specific to her; something ingrained in her memory. The lack of consideration of black lives by medical professionals is deeply troubling to her because these are also the teachers of the aspiring doctors that will treat her mother, her father, and her friends. Perhaps the others attending the session did not register the remarks of the coordinator towards Maria’s question, but mindfulness by other students can help to support the black voices. Speaking up can be difficult, but acknowledgement of inequality is progress too.
Experiences similar to Maria’s are not uncommon. Several students that have contacted me have said that they too had been in classes where racial matters were approached with prejudiced ideologies. Certainly, many students have encountered someone who has expressed pro-colonial views, but this is more traumatising to those whose ancestry lies in previously colonised countries. Black students do not want to stagnate debates or restrict others freedom of speech, but how can one be expected to have to hear that the “glory days” of their ancestral country was the period of the enslavement of their people and looting of their land. Usually, it is shock that silences black students in these situations. Other times, it is intimidation, the lack of allyship amongst other students when calling out racism is remarkably weak.
These experiences also affect the social lives of black students within St Andrews. Personally, so many night outs have been overshadowed by hearing a non-black person say a slur. Whether it be singing along to a song or an attempted term of endearment or even if “you didn’t say it with a hard R” – these words cannot be normalised. It is still a slur. It is still language that undermines the respect that you have for black people. Frequently, myself included, we will let it slide over the fear of being labelled a killjoy or that we are unable to take a joke, but for us it is not that simple.
The accountability for the lack of diversity at St Andrews lies with the institution itself, the student body should not take responsibility for that. However, strong allyship is the duty of all of us. A key outcome from the Black Lives Matter movement is to highlight the importance of dialogue between people in order to create a more tolerant and equal society ― this applies to St Andrews too. Calling out microaggressions, addressing racial comments in class, challenging your friend’s choice of language not only allows black students to feel more comfortable in voicing their own opinions, but also reassures them that they have the support of their peers. Racism is an uncomfortable topic to address because it requires a critical reflection of yourself and those that you surround yourself with, but self-progress is not shameful: it does not make you contradictory or a hypocrite, changing behaviour is a fundamental way to aspire to be a better person, ally, and friend.
 The “University of St Andrews Equality Mainstreaming Interim Report (2017 – 2021)”, published 30 April 2019, states that the percentage of BME UK domicile students has risen from 8.7% to 10.1% from 2016-17 to 2018-19 and that all three levels (UG, PGT, PGR) have seen an increase in the proportion of BME UK domicile students in attendance (page 63). Unlike the statistical breakdown of ethnicity present in the 2015 report, the 2019 report does not break down ethnicity beyond the “BME” label.
The Saint welcomes other contributions and accounts of students’ experiences regarding this topic.