In classic undergraduate style, I’m going to address the OITNB fancy dress debacle by taking a clear path down the centre of both sides of the argument: yes, there is an issue regarding racism at hand here, but no, it doesn’t mean we have to fire an attack at all white students or accuse black students who haven’t experienced campus racism as simply ‘appeasing their white friends’. What’s apparent to me is that these girls have become the cherry on top of the ongoing cake of issues with regard to the treatment of BME students at the University of Bristol. There is a diversity problem at Bristol that seriously needs to change, but ranting at two foolish girls who attended a fancy-dress party is, in my humble white-girl opinion, not the way to go with tackling such issues.
Surely, as students we’re all aware of the rise of identity politics and the growing importance of being mindful; ensuring that our words and actions are respectful of people’s backgrounds, cultures and identities. Anyone that’s remotely socially aware can see that there’s a serious issue with white middle-class privilege at UoB, and so we have to be sensitive and empathetic to those who are experiencing marginalisation. This should be part of today’s common sense – don’t commodify or appropriate black culture, working-class culture, or gay culture without being aware of the potential social repercussions. However, I don’t think the gals in the orange jumpsuits would for a second have worn those outfits if they were aware of the backlash they were going to receive and I’m sure they are absolutely mortified by the suggestion that they’re racist. The problem with these girls isn’t directly racism, it’s ignorance. Their ignorance is blindingly obvious if you read their statements, one of them even saying ‘I find it deeply offensive to be accused of being racist for my hairstyle, make-up and outfit’ – being offended for offending isn’t a thing, just wise up and apologise.
There’s a quote that says ‘being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn’ that I think is applicable here. We’re all ignorant on occasion and we all make blunders, unfortunately that’s part of what makes us human. The way we recover from these blunders is by educating ourselves about where we went wrong, and in this case, why our silly fancy-dress outfits were perceived as racist. I’m aware that there’s a much broader picture of institutional racism, but on a case-by-case basis let’s appease the situation by educating those that made the mistake – showing them why it’s bad, rather than just throwing accusations at them. Bristol SU made a statement about the fancy-dress incident that they concluded by saying: ‘All students have a responsibility to tackle racism on campus. We believe that open-mindedness, self-awareness and a will to learn and are key to this’ - here, here.
What I will say about the wider picture is that I think issues like this - that seem to be coming up time and time again within this university - are very much the problem of the university. Going to uni should be a time in which students learn about the wider world, experience diversity and become educated against any childish ignorance that might cause them to make a blunder like wearing ‘BB crème’ that is too dark for your skin to a fancy-dress party. The University of Bristol has a terrible reputation for its lack of diversity and also its lack of support for students that are experiencing difficulties – be it racism, classism, or mental health. The city of Bristol is a fabulously vibrant and diverse place and it is an enormous shame that the University fails to follow the trend. I have myself had difficulty with the privately-educated, everyone-knows-everyone scene at Bristol and I think tackling issues such as ignorance towards racial appropriation needs to start with Bristol broadening its intake. It’s time for Bristol to put the welfare of its students before it’s ‘prestigious’ reputation.
Photography: Bisi Alimi