Race, ethnicity and culture, Social and behavioural

‘They talked about having two versions of themselves’

Researcher Dr Lateesha Osbourne (University of Bath) spoke to Ella Rhodes about her PhD research, exploring Black students’ experiences at a higher education institution in the south of England.

26 May 2022

How did you decide what to study in your PhD?

My PhD brief was on underrepresented students’ sense of identity and belonging. Initially I wanted to look at gender identity, particularly trans students… I’d noticed there hadn’t been a lot of research at the time. I requested data from the university about gender and attended a few meetings of the student union group for non-binary gender queer and trans students, and it was a really small group. I realised that there was a risk of outing students or being able to identify students, so I couldn’t with a good conscience pursue that.  

Later I was invited to a mature students’ induction to discuss the issues that were relevant to them – I got permission to observe their meeting and take notes. There was one Black student in that induction, and during the breaks she came up to me and tell me how glad she was to see me there. She said she’d only noticed a ‘sprinkle’ of Black people and asked how I’d been surviving. At that point I realised just how important it was for her that I was physically in that room, and I wondered how common this was among the other Black students at the university – so I requested the data for race and ethnicity. 

At the time, the university had collated the data as white versus BAME, which didn’t help me to get a clear picture! It took me a while to get the actual breakdown to see that Black students were less than 2 per cent of the student population at that time. There was also an understanding, among people who worked in university and the Students’ Union, that a big chunk of the Black students were also international: they said there were around 50 Black British students at the university which is incredibly low. I realised it was a bit of a no-brainer to look at Black students’ experiences in my research. Speaking to the woman at the induction, I realised that this was so much bigger than me. And if I could give the students a bit of respite and a safe space to discuss things with a Black person, then I would have done my job. 

What next?

To get a feel for some of the issues, and whether these had been raised before, I spoke to the Race Equality Network student group and African Caribbean Society. I was told that there had been focus groups and interviews with Black students, but they felt this didn’t change very much – they were fatigued by having to dredge up traumatic experiences and then not see any change. I told them about the qualitative research I was planning and asked if they would like to take part. We agreed that I would do everything in my power to make sure this wasn’t just a thesis that went in the library never to be heard of again. It felt very important to honour their stories – they wanted their own voices in this, and they wanted to be humanised.

I did a pilot interview with the same student who was at the mature induction. It was very difficult in certain places, hard to hear some of her experiences, but at the end she said she felt so much better and thanked me for doing it. It was another point in my PhD where I thought that even if I struggle, I’m doing the right thing and it means something to someone other than me. 

I reviewed my pilot interview transcript with my supervisory team and asked for pointers about how to get better as an interviewer. I then continued setting up interviews and interviewees referred friends… they talked about how important it was to be able to talk about their experiences.

Can you tell me more about the interviews?

I was asking students to tell me about memorable moments in their degrees – the good, the bad and the neutral. For the most part they said their time at university was generally a positive experience, but within that they had experienced racism which, of course, detracted from the positivity and sense of belonging. There were some issues they felt the university could help by educating their peers and the student population. For my second study, which involved focus groups with Black students, I wanted to ask how they coped with all of the issues they faced, how they managed, how they strategised. 

I ran three focus groups and in each the first thing participants said was ‘I don’t know if I’ve been in a room with this many Black people since I’ve been here’ – and these were groups of six people maximum, including myself. I realised that the focus groups themselves made an impact – that this was quite a unique experience in this setting. To have a space where they could speak freely, advise each other… not necessarily agree, but to get to hear how other Black students were navigating life at university. That was a really affirming experience. There were some difficult disclosures at times, but it always felt worth it. 

What experiences did students discuss in your research? 

I did my PhD by publication and my first paper was based on the 17 interviews with students – the majority of participants were from London. They talked about arriving at university and they talked about the ‘overwhelming whiteness’ of the town and how this contrasted with their lives in London – they felt the shock of being a visible minority. One of my participants said something which I used as my first paper title, which is You never feel so Black as when you’re contrasted against a White background

They also talked about a particular look being attached to not just a city, but its residents. They said they felt they had to dress a certain way that was class-based. Some said they thought they’d be able to roll out of bed 10 minutes before a lecture, put on a tracksuit and just be there and be comfortable, but that wasn’t the case. They found very quickly there was an expectation to ‘look the part’.

On top of that, they said they didn’t just need to look the part, they also needed to sound the part. The standard accent was ‘posh’ southern English, and they felt they couldn’t use any kind of slang or classmates would see and treat them differently. They said this affected lots of working-class and Northern students, but they felt that also being one of the few Black students in the room, it especially put a spotlight on them. They talked about having two versions of themselves. This was so evident that one of my participants said when she called home her brother asked ‘why are you talking like that? It doesn’t even sound like you’. She told me she hadn’t noticed that she had changed her voice and said there were two versions of herself – the university version and the home version, and never the twain shall meet! 

There were big issues around class and how class shows itself. The students had thought of themselves as working class before, but they felt it really mattered at university. There were also experiences of everyday racism and they talked about the shock of middle-class racism. They said this was a group of people who, for all intents purposes were educated… they had parents who are well off, who read The Guardian, yet still used the N-word when singing along to songs. They were understandably quite taken aback… they explained that when you picture an archetypal ‘racist’, that isn’t the face starring back at you. They gave examples of how the racism they’d experienced was heavily based on racialised, classed, and gendered assumptions about who goes to a prestigious university. 

Do you have any examples?

One participant told me about a discussion she had with her flatmates about scholarships she had received. She was encouraging them to apply for the same ones when another flatmate entered the room and said, ‘you know the system’s broken if the only Black girl in our accommodation building has both of the scholarships’. This isn’t an ignorant comment in the way that we imagine it – but her Blackness and her class were used against her. When she spoke to me about it, it was clearly something that was still really painful. I said I could understand why. It was also interesting that he almost acknowledged there was an inequality – he noticed that she was the only one who looked like her in the building – and rather than think ‘god that must be hard for you’ or ‘what’s that like?’, he decided that was the reason she got the scholarships. 

One of the most pervasive types of racism my students spoke about was the prevalence of the N-word. They said they had never heard a white person in London use that word. In general people agree that it’s the worst word you could possibly use, it’s a word we rarely write out in full, so my second paper was about how that becomes an acceptable act on campus. When I spoke to the students about this, they told me they were often vastly outnumbered on and off campus. Some of my students said they would hear white students singing along to songs which use the N word in bars and clubs on student nights – but if there are 75 people doing it, how do you get them all to stop? Other times students heard it in more intimate and shared spaces, like their homes (shared accommodation). Again, they told me they were really shocked: your home is supposed to be a sanctuary, where you can relax, and yet they always had to be on guard.

In my final paper I looked at the strategies students used to navigate university life, which we talked about during the focus groups. Their responses were heavily classed. For example, one woman, who had been on a placement and come back for her final year, said she felt the work environment had taught her that the best thing she could do was ‘play the game’. What I mean by that is strategically performing whiteness – flattening your accent, dressing the part, essentially not being yourself fully, instead learning to be yourself within the confines of whiteness and middle classness. 

There were moments where class really shone through – a lot of them had experiences of feeling they were from completely different worlds to their peers. One participant talked about peers having industry connections which made getting placements much easier. The students talked about being from inner-city neighbourhoods and having a lot of solidarity with white working class people. The difference they felt between white middle class people at the university and the camaraderie and understanding of white working class people at home was an interesting juxtaposition. 

Some of the gendered aspects also contained class-based assumptions. Most of my participants talked about the difference between Black men and Black women. They said with Black men there’s a fear of their physicality, they’re seen as a physical threat, whereas Black women are not seen as a physical threat in the same sense. For instance, some of my Black male participants said that people would cross the road to avoid them, and when they went shopping, whether in Sainsbury’s or a boutique, they would not only be followed around the store – which sadly they expected – but they would also be the only ones asked by security to show their receipt when leaving. It was that class-based assumption that they couldn’t possibly afford to shop in boutique stores. 

Black women talked about being marvelled at a lot… a fascination with Black women and Black woman’s hair and beauty in particular. The most prevalent form of racialised microaggression for Black women was hair and skin touching. There was this feeling they were under the microscope a lot. They also felt they were under the microscope from the university itself: during Black History Month there was pressure was put on them to organise events and give their opinion. They were being treated like experts rather than for what they were which was, for the most part, young people trying to get a degree – they don’t necessarily want to do (unpaid) EDI work on the side, they don’t necessarily want extra responsibility.

It sounds like a lot of students found it exhausting just to exist?

One of my participants said ‘sometimes I just want to exist. And here it feels like you have to exist with an explanation’. I used that as the title for my thesis because I thought that is the crux of the issue. You can’t take your humanity for granted if people want you to keep proving your worth and value. Blackness and working classness are used against people… ‘you didn’t get here on your own merit’, ‘you’re here because you tick the diversity box’, or whatever. There was this constant need to prove, to say, ‘I am here because I’m excellent’, ‘I am here because I got the same grades as you’, ‘I’m not here because they lowered or diluted any kind of criteria, I’m here off my own back’. It’s a human thing – everybody wants to feel they got here based on their own merit and not anything else. They felt they were always proving and pushing… ‘I am just as good as you’.