Space Invaders: A Story of Race And Space
Euella recounts how racism and micro-aggressions shaped her university space.
When I was sixteen, my mum and I moved to Winchester. Situated in the middle of Hampshire, the old city boasted cobbled streets, a bustling high street, and a big, beautiful cathedral. It was nice but there was nothing there for me (and I’d like to argue, no other young person in their right mind). It wasn’t like Bristol. There were no clubs, no places to hang out in the city centre and no spaces for creativity. It was dead but bearable. It was the type of place where older, wealthy people went to retire and where everyone shopped at Waitrose. We were the only black family in our neighbourhood and we stood out like sore thumbs. On our Sunday morning walks with the dog or whilst doing our weekly shop, my mum and I played a continuous game of ‘spot the brown person’. That game lasted two years. We got to 87.
A funny thing happens when you see another person of colour in a predominantly white space.
A funny thing happens when you see another person of colour in a predominantly white space. You get tunnel vision. Nothing and no one else matters but you and your melanin-friend. As if by instinct, your eyes gravitate towards each other, you smile and then you do a small solidarity nod (and no I’m not making this up, it’s a real thing). You may even get excited and go so far as to say hello – a small gesture to show that you’re not alone, that you ‘get’ each other. But in Winchester, it wasn’t like that – not even close. My eyes would move towards another BAME person and they would look down. My lips would part to smile and they would look away. My presence was avoided like the plague and I quickly learnt that that wasn’t what was done there. It was as if by acknowledging my existence, they would have to deny their own. I couldn’t help but feel like it wasn’t me they didn’t want to engage with, it was my blackness.
I couldn’t help but feel like it wasn’t me they didn’t want to engage with, it was my blackness.
I’ve come to learn that spaces do that to you sometimes – they make you act differently. Whether it be an institution, a neighbourhood or even a country. Without even realising it, we bend and contort ourselves to fit to the conventions of spaces to make them feel more ‘safe’. As a black person living in a white, middle class city, you get defined in terms of your ‘otherness’ and you constantly stand out. It can get tiring. I imagine that for the BAME people living in Winchester, in order to get by, it was imperative to disassociate from their blackness. Some spaces make you seem bigger, out-of-place, hyper-visible, others do the opposite and make you small, and almost invisible. Some, like Winchester, may restrict you to the confines of your ‘otherness’ and others do all of the above- this was the case when I went to university.
From freshers onwards, I became very aware of the fact that mine was one of the only black faces in a white, middle-class space. I felt like a space invader*, and as result, I spent my first two years of uni with a low profile. I went to (most of) my lectures and went home. I spoke in seminars only when necessary. I didn’t get invited to any house parties or have friends outside of my course. For the most part, I wore black and didn’t wear anything that would make me stand out more than I already did. My social life became compartmentalised to outside the university bubble – via social media or elsewhere. In seminars when we had to partner-up, I often had to go with the professor because everyone had already decided who their partners would be. Most of the time, it seemed as if I wasn’t there at all. At other times, I was very visibly there, almost unmissable.
I felt like a space invader, and as result, I spent my first two years of uni with a low profile.
‘When you’re out with your friends and they’re misbehaving, who do you think the witnesses are going to remember? The five white kids who all look the same, or the black kid who sticks out like a sore thumb?! I don’t care if you weren’t doing anything – you’re the one they’ll remember!’
The sound of my aunt’s voice echoed through my mind. She said that to me and my cousin over a decade before and it only became more relevant the older I got. At university – whether it be the halls of residence, the lecture halls or the seminar rooms, mine was the only black face in a sea of white ones. I was stereotyped and considered one-dimensional. I was expected to be the big, loud, crazy, angry, black girl and in certain contexts that made me hard to miss. ‘Don’t slip, because you’re the one they’ll remember,’ I would say to myself. I felt eyes on me, eyes telling me I didn’t belong there, and how grateful I should be to be there. Eyes waiting for me to prove how ‘black’ I could be. When I didn’t feel invisible, I felt tokenised and exposed. I was expected to like grime music and teach people how to twerk. I was expected to speak in slang and colloquialisms. I wasn’t expected to have any knowledge or expertise in anything other than my race. It was exhausting.
I wasn’t the only one who felt like this. In my final year, for my dissertation, I reached out to other women of colour in other departments around the university. We met in coffee shops, in the libraries, common spaces – anywhere we could. I interviewed them on their time at uni and how they occupy space. They put how I felt into words and their experiences reflected my own.
‘..I don’t know, I think it’s that thing of feeling visible but then also feeling completely invisible. Feeling of being like I can come and go and no one cares’ (Bella, third year).
‘I don’t feel like they’re ‘not accepting’ but there’s difference – you feel different. There’s definitely an awareness of being different…’ (Sonya, second year)
‘I think people stereotype a lot, and I feel like I’m quite a friendly person but people just think I’m intimidating like I don’t know why because I’m literally the least intimidating person ever’. (Shola, first year).
‘In first year, I think I wore a lot of tracksuits but I used to get stopped by security a lot. Yeah, it was really bad. One time we got kicked out of the library…’ (Eve, second year)
These are the stories that diversity initiatives don’t see – they’re so focused on box-ticking and quotas that they fail to consider the lived experiences of those who enter these spaces. By looking at who enters a space and how they engage with it is an interesting way of seeing inclusion (and tokenism) through a new lens. Now don’t get me wrong, Bristol is such a vibrant and diverse city, but the university is different. If you don’t come from a middle class background, or aren’t white passing, you immediately feel excluded. And it’s not just the university I’m talking about. Many spaces, whether it be a creative industry or physical space, can make us feel different degrees of comfort. This is why it’s so important to carve your own spaces – offline and online. Take up space. Don’t be afraid to connect with other people of colour. It is important to know that you deserve to be in those spaces. I often think of those people in Winchester who didn’t feel comfortable enough to look my way. I hope you do now.
* Space Invaders is a concept by Nirmal Puwar from her book, ‘Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out Of Place’.
As Zora Neale Hurston once wrote: ‘I feel most coloured when thrown against a sharp white background’. If this piece has resonated with you, leave us a comment or tweet us. We love hearing from you: @rifemag