Black Women, White Uni? is what we’re bringing to you for Black History Month this year. The idea is to celebrate the stories and the histories of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) women at King’s, and to bring to everyone’s attention that their representation is missing from the hallways around us, from the history of King’s College London as we know it. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be releasing the pictures and transcripts of interviews that we did with various women in the College.
The idea for this project grew very organically – and began, like the best ideas do, on Facebook. We were discussing what events we could put on to apply for KCLSU’s Black History Month funding when Natalie suggested that we do a bunch of portraits of BME women who were alumni to mimic the windows at the various KCL buildings – it would be an excellent way to highlight their representation, and also point out how in a very real way their images are missing from the campus around us. We then hit several roadblocks – the Alumni Office did not categorise their alumni by ethnicity, so if we did not already have people in mind it would be impossible to contact them; and the Archives were far too extensive and difficult to go through to find the women we were looking for. The project then expanded to being able to tell the stories of staff at King’s, and current students, and maybe some alumni if we could get in touch with them. But once we started talking to the people who volunteered, we realised that a simple photo campaign would simply not be enough – these women were talking to us, telling us about their lives, and it became instantly clear to us that there was something more here, something that we could build on. And once Surya and I had done about 8-10 interview sessions, we were at a committee meeting brainstorming a name for our project, when Rachel half-jokingly suggested, “Black women, white uni?” We all laughed, and then paused. The name stuck.
We hope you’ll read these interviews, and you’ll see what we saw in them. They speak of transformation and of identity, and once you’ve read all of them, you’ll see how they converse with one another in very explicit and subtle ways. Shubulade says, “there’s this sense of feeling not quite citizen.” Surya says, when interviewing Shereen, “yeah, I always felt like a second-class citizen.” Shereen talks about feeling as though she didn’t exist; Augusta says, “We exist!” But there are also much more subtle connections between what all the women we interviewed talk about – their experiences on and off-campus, and their stories. The conversations that we began to unpick from all the interviews were perhaps one of the most rewarding things about doing the whole project. We need more time to find them, and we need more time to read (and re-read!) them.
We’re aware, of course, of the limitations of a project like this. When we put out a call for self-identifying BME women to participate in a project organised by an Intersectional Feminist Society, we were aware that the people who would get back in touch would be people who were likely to already be cognisant of their race and gender and how this affected their lives. We might not have been able to capture the whole breadth of BME women at King’s who might not perceive how their race and gender affect them; and even within the group that we interviewed, some people might have been more aware than others. But it’s really important to make clear that we’re not putting this work out here as a collection that is representative of every BME woman on campus – every single one of them will have differing and varying experiences in one way or the other, and too often the problem with work like this is that it is expected to be reflective of the BME woman’s experience, or that one of us have been expected to speak for all of us. There’s a diversity and breadth to these voices that we did not expect to see when we began our work. It’s important to appreciate that we can relate to what they say and value it, but none of them speak for the singular, model representative BME woman. This singular model does not exist. And while transcribing the interviews, I certainly felt as though there were intellectual decisions to be made – there are various “Englishes” and it was a conscious decision to leave in the voice of the speaker (who sometimes was not a native English speaker). It would be wrong to try and “correct” that; or to superimpose our version of English and its grammar upon it, but I think it’s inevitable for the bias of the transcriber to come into the interviews no matter how hard we try to work around it.
And to end, thank you to everyone that helped us out. This project has been the result of a large number of people’s contributions: Rena Minegishi for transcribing a forty minute long interview for me; Mariya Hussain for lending us her camera to take photographs with and trusting us with it; Sohinee Ghosh for sourcing us more participants and helping me do some of the interviews; Library Services for sitting with me for half an hour trying to find me staff networks to contact for this project; the African Leadership Centre for getting us in touch with their former students; the Alumni Office for forwarding on our emails to some of the alumni; the Chaplaincy for forwarding us on to the Archives; and obviously, every single person that participated. And of course, a big thank you to every single person on the committee. These interviews are funny, heartbreaking, and transformative – and putting this all out there would have been impossible without your hard work.