Benjamina Dadzie, the Black & Minority Ethnic Students Officer at the Students’ Union, explains why a campaign like Black History Month remains so vital, and why all students should get involved
In the UK, October marks Black History Month, a month of events run by the Black, Minority and Ethnic Students campaign group to educate, empower and celebrate Black History.
Following a long history of certain socio-political circumstances, BME people have long been in a social position lacking privilege and equality. Lots of students come out of school with very bad experiences of being in a social environment that does not fully accept them, and this has an adverse effect on their performance. The Black History Month campaign is sometimes mistaken for a society. It’s a campaign, just like any other activism campaign.
The aim of this campaign is to make sure that students have an enjoyable experience at university. We’re talking about students of African, Caribbean, Latino and Asian heritage. BME MCR are a mediator between students and the university through the Students’ Union. So if you’re a black student facing difficulties or hate crimes, or you do not feel fully included in the university system or its social aspects, you can just come to the Union and talk to someone like me.
We facilitate the integration of black students: That’s why we have a black students’ campaign. But it’s not just about all the sad stuff; it’s also a social space, where we celebrate and empower our history, identity and culture. We want to educate people, and this goes for all students.
However, that is not to say that we only look at Black History in October: Rather, we have allocated the month of October to spread awareness about black culture, black history, and black identity.
This is why we do all these activities—to introduce to people what it means to be black in academia, to explain what race is and the politics of race, and to shed light on Islamophobia.
It’s a platform to introduce people to this, and to question themselves—how do I relate to this? How does my behaviour affect my black mate? How does my lecturer having difficulty pronouncing his name affect him? This is why we do this. Ultimately, we are raising awareness of the issues that matter, so that everyone understands.
All events are open to all students, and also to people of the wider Manchester community. So, even if you are not a student here, you can come to the events, share and understand together. I see a lot of students who see “black” and go “Oh, no thanks, I’m white.” We would like to see that change.
It’s understandable that some people see a black students’ campaign and say: “Hey! What about a white students’ campaign?” However, there are structures of power and social dynamics that make this campaign possible that wouldn’t make a white students’ campaign possible.
It is hard for white students to relate to disenfranchisement, and that’s another reason why we do this. I’ve had a lot of conversations with friends and it’s difficult to be in a position where you feel like “I can’t do anything, because I’m not a part of it.” It’s not like a club we have compiled—it’s about trying to help each other.
Coming to one of the events gives you the opportunity to learn something new, and learning something new means you can react positively when a person of colour is being subjected to difficulty.
You can get involved by coming around, chatting, understanding, and then ultimately applying this in everyday life. When we did our meet and greet after the Freshers’ Fair last week, we had a few students coming over to ask and understand what cultural appropriation was. And that made me extremely happy, because I thought, “thank God!” People are really interested in understanding so they can help and understand how their contribution is meaningful.
You don’t have to be black to be involved, genuinely. I actually think having non-black students involved in the campaign will really push the campaign forward, because I understand that me going to white students and telling them to come and join the black students’ campaign might not be the best approach. But if we have a white counterpart explaining the meaning of what we do, it would be so much more impactful.
I grew up in Italy and when I came to England to study, I was stunned. Italy is an extremely racist country and when I came to England I thought, “Oh my God!” In this country we tolerate and embrace so much diversity. Here, people really build on culture and diversity.
I realised that I had been suffering from unconscious racism without even knowing it. Racist behaviour was normal to me, and then I found out what it means to be black.
2015 has already been an historic year in Manchester, as it saw Lemn Sissay elected Chancellor of the university, and Naa Acquah elected General Secretary of the Students’ Union Executive Team.
I think at Manchester we are so, so much better, but obviously there is always room for improvement. This year has been absolutely amazing, because now we have outlets to actually start a conversation about what it means to be black, both at the university and at the Union.
We can ask: Does being black diminish your ability to be a Chancellor or a General Secretary? How does your race and social position influence your power within society? I think it’s great because now we have the chance to have this conversation. We can talk about things, raise the problem if there is any, and ultimately find a solution. I think we are doing as much as we can, and we’re doing pretty well.
Black History Month runs throughout the month of October, and full details of every event will be updated on the BME MCR Facebook page at www.facebook.com/BMEMCR.