Rianna Walcott is an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh currently pursuing her PhD at King’s College London on the formation of black identity within digital spaces. She is an associate editor of an anthology that explores BAME mental health in the UK, The Colour of Madness. Dhruti Chakravarthi, The Student’s Outreach Officer, had the opportunity to have an intriguing discussion with her on the mental health of BAME students within the University of Edinburgh.
The University of Edinburgh gently holds itself proud of its diversity. Do you feel that this is justified?
What diversity? BME population is less than 10 per cent of the student population. Even a smaller part of that is black students. There is no diversity.
As an alumnus of the University of Edinburgh, retrospecting on the experiences you have accumulated, what kind of future change do you want to see in the system?
I would like to see an active attempt to encourage BME students, which could include extra scholarships. The other day I saw on the news that Glasgow University has acknowledged its part in colonialism and slavery and awarded 200 million British pounds to the University of the West Indies. I would like to see things like that happening. The University needs to understand their direct influence and how they benefit from colonialism and slavery, and there need to be some reparations.
I would like to see more BME staff because honestly, it’s just disgusting how few there are at Edinburgh. What does that say to BME students who don’t see anyone in the jobs they hope to achieve? There is no encouragement to stay in academia.
This extends to gender. I studied English literature in my time at Edinburgh. Most of the students who take that course are women, but more of the professors or teaching staff are men. What’s that about?
How do you think these direct changes would affect the mental health of BME students?
If you think about the BME attainment gap, in the report that was published in Edinburgh a few years ago, the reasons why BME students aren’t staying to pursue further education are well-speculated. The solutions I’ve suggested are very concrete reasons for this phenomenon. There is also a very Eurocentric and white curriculum. If you go to university and have no idea if the people who are marking your work have a bias against you or are able to understand some of the experiences you have. That plays out in so many arts and sciences subjects like sociology, social anthropology, English literature. You are of course going to suffer and it is very draining to exist in a system that doesn’t understand your experiences or where your work is coming from. I think some of those changes would be very helpful. I know for myself, when I go to Edinburgh I feel disconnected but then when I go back to London I feel so much better. When I moved to South London, which has a massive black population, I was massive improvements to my mental health. I no longer felt like an outsider inside my own country. It’s quite a nice feeling.
I find that it can be difficult for BME people growing up in a Eurocentric culture to have an extremely mixed sense of identity. Have you experienced this and what steps did you take to overcome it?
While I was very much immersed in a white society, going to a white school, I had a very strong black household. I had the benefit of still being in touch with my Jamaican’ness. There was never any doubt about my heritage. I am also very visibly black. I have been, however, very much immersed in those white spaces. In Edinburgh, I wasn’t able to access things like hair products or make-up. Honestly, the only thing that I was able to do was to surround myself with people of colour, by physically joining BME groups for example. For some people, there is a lot of trauma in having to go through the process of finding their identity and it seems to me like it’s kind of unavoidable for people of colour in white spaces. This experience might be different for people living in majority black or brown countries, but then again “white culture,” if you will, has such a status that even in majority BAME space it can hold such a weight of cultural currency so it’s not about being physically surrounded by “white.”
What measures, do you feel, BME students should take to unapologetically be themselves even in the realm of digital spaces?
I don’t think there is one answer to that because it very much depends on the individual. You try to tell people, “who gives a crap?” or “just say what you need to say,” but a lot of people aren’t ready for that yet. You can’t force people to get to the point of being loud and unapologetic and I think there are differences in how vocal about your culture you are depending on where you are from because some cultures have more cultural currently in the UK than others. With all the incredible amount of negatives that come with being black, it certainly is very cool to be black. So loving being black can be easy on one hand but not on the other if you’re in an academic space. In different settings, it’s probably easier or harder to be yourself depending on what stereotype is placed on you. So the Asian stereotype of being a hard worker and intelligent probably doesn’t hurt in an academic environment but it doesn’t have any “cool” points on the street. It’s exactly opposite for us (black people). People often assume that I’m not very intelligent and they’re immediately proven wrong. There are different moments for everyone when they realize they can be loud and proud and it’s a complicated, subjective question.
The only thing I would say is to surround yourself with each other. Make sure you’re in these spaces with other BME people because that is the easiest way to find your role models. When I was in such spaces, digital spaces especially, I was finding these incredible black women who were doing such incredible work, achieving amazing things who were as young as I am and I am thankful to have them as my friends. Being able to see people like that and network with them was so important for my understanding of what it means to be a black woman. Watching these people redefine it for themselves meant I was able to. Especially when you’re in a place like Edinburgh, which doesn’t have many people of colour, digital spaces can be quite important.
Is there anything you’d like to tell your younger self?
Therapy isn’t just for white people. That is very important.
Photo: Andrew Perry