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Is our University System a Cause or Symptom of Social Segregation, or both?

A response to Afua Hirsch's polarising article 'I went to Oxford. As a black female student, i found it alienating and elitist'

It can be hard to know the difference between being purposely alienated on the grounds of malice, as opposed to the alienation caused by the novelty of a person – being an ethnic minority in a place for which there are virtually no ethnic minorities. Most of the time, if attempting to discern what is racism and what is not, common meta-communicative cues can give a clearer picture. It is also hard to isolate the racism that we, ethnic minorities, might experience. I for one am not convinced that for example, a question, or a comment relating to my race constitutes discrimination, unless the meta-communicative cues are obviously harmful.

Intuition tells me that when there is a variability, or an anomaly among a set of consistent data, the viewer’s attention will increase, naturally – away from the consistent data. Expressing sincere curiosity needn’t be considered malicious. And then there may be more than simply a sincere expression of curiosity, particularly in social situations. A white counterpart may assume that your dancing ability is comparable with ‘Beyoncé’s’ or that your copulatory organs are larger than that of an average person’s. They could even go a step further and request to touch your freshly-tied braids, or your geometrical masterpiece of an afro. In any of these situations, I would not interpret that alienation on the grounds of malice is taking place. Again, the understanding of context, the meta-communication, coupled with the words, ought to take place. I would even suggest that awkward, at best, would be that most accurate way of describing these situations.

‘My point is that it is possible to live well in a place with little diversity. I don’t feel as though I was targeted in any malicious way. I don’t feel like my opportunities were stripped from me and I certainly don’t feel like I was segregated.’

From the age of eight, I grew up in West Berkshire, a rather quiet place. If there were a word to describe my experience here, it would be ‘pleasurable’. In the same breath, my anecdotal evidence of how life as a black, in a place void of diversity can be ‘pleasurable’. However, it cannot and should not be perceived as representative of how other blacks who live in a place of a similar demographic. My point is that it is possible to live well in a place with little diversity. I don’t feel as though I was targeted in any malicious way. I don’t feel like my opportunities were stripped from me and I certainly don’t feel like I was segregated. The population of West Berkshire is 91.2% white. Even if we are to assume I was simply lucky, can it really be that growing up, I cannot clearly recall examples for which racism was felt? That’s 10 years spent in a county that is among the least diverse in the UK. Even if I had faced racism, would it then be right to blame it on the entire area or white people collectively? Or would it instead be more reasonable to blame it on the individual? Same applies for the supposed segregation to be found in British universities that Hirsch speaks of.

Suppose a scenario. A white person goes to a rural school in Africa: would it not be common sense to expect questions based on their skin colour and culture associated with it to take place? I’ll concede, it may be awkward, and perhaps even alienating, nonetheless, are those grounds for malice?

In terms of ethnic minority representation in universities, Hirsch references the University of Bath’s Institute for Policy Research study and later adds that ‘our universities are both a symptom and a cause of segregation’. Her point is based on the fact that ethnic minorities choose to study at more diverse universities, and that in and of itself proves malevolence of some sort. The use of segregation is interesting here. It works both ways. The ethnic minorities are segregating themselves from the ethnic majority through their choice to study at more diverse, newer institutions. To specify, this isn’t wrong, per se.

Manchester is an example of a university that has a larger than average Asian population and it could be said the groups generally stick to themselves. Marriage outside of the given race or religion is rare, particularly in Islam, where it is specifically condemned. That isn’t inherently an evil, people should be free to do such things. This is segregation however – something Hirsch has labelled our universities as being profound arbiters of. The trends seem to occur among all ethnic groups, not just among white people.

‘One can admit, there’s much to be praised in the celebration of one’s heritage and culture, however, the ironic paradox arises when the same proponents of race specific congregations, complain about their segregation.’

Moreover, at many British universities, including the University of Portsmouth, race specific groups are to be found: Asian society and Afro-Caribbean society, namely. Organisations which separate race groups from one another, segregate themselves from the general culture. One can admit, there’s much to be praised in the celebration of one’s heritage and culture, which I’m sure Hirsch will agree with me upon, however, the ironic paradox arises when the same proponents of race specific congregations, complain about their segregation.

Even if we wanted to blame solely white people for the lack of diversity in elite universities, and even if you were to suggest that the ethnic minority ‘only’ congregations in universities are perpetuated by institutionalised racism, one fact remains a sore thumb. The same study Hirsch cited, by the Institute for Policy Research, also outlines, ‘students growing up in the least diverse neighbourhoods tend to attend the least diverse universities’ and that ‘students who grow up in diverse neighbourhoods in large cities are disproportionately concentrated in the most diverse universities’. In addition, if white, Asian or black people were asked which ethnicity they would prefer to date, the results would most likely show that, generally, people would choose a partner from their own ethnicity.

In relation to class and educational achievement, working class people tend not to go to university. True. In middle-class circles, university and education is encouraged from an early age: parents may obtain typically middle-class, white collar careers. Those careers have many benefits, thus, when they have children, they will ensure the child aims for that. The same cannot be said for a typically working class family. University doesn’t receive as much of a focus. Hirsch speaks on behalf of the working-class students by suggesting that they feel deeply self-conscious when they attend Oxford or Cambridge, which may be true. She also adds that some of them drop out, pointing to anecdotal evidence of two she has personally known.

Here is the problem: Hirsch is a barrister, she has influence in the writing of legislation; therefore, it makes sense to assume that she wants to influence guidelines by institutionally increasing diversity. ‘Far more students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds leave before completing their courses… But getting students through the door will not be enough on its own’. Hirsch also makes the suggestion that the universities should pay for this. ‘OFFA is explicit that it doesn’t impose sanctions on universities’. But wouldn’t it be much better of a solution to increase diversity though proper means by influencing the culture that is not favourable towards universities in the first place? Wouldn’t it be better to improve pre-university education and equip working-class pupils with great teachers that will inspire them to be more aspirational? Currently, her solution is targeting a symptom of the issue, not the cause. After all, it there were a fire, would it make sense to take batteries out of the smoke detector, as opposed to treating the fire and then taking proactive steps in ensuring that the causes do not continue to be a threat?

This content is one individual's opinion and does not represent the opinion of The Galleon. If you disagree with this article or have any further comment to make please email yourview@galleonnews.com.

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