Muriel Gilbertson and I met through UEABC, UEA’s rowing club. She is the first and only Black female to have been on the team being one of two Black members of the current club. She was recently elected as the Sports Rep for the African-Carribean society 2020/21 and is going into her second year of geography and international development.
My first question involves her Black identity and its effect on how she experiences the world around her.”I’m always alert,” she continues, “every small thing you do is looked at through a magnifying glass when you’re Black.”
Her fear of being perceived incorrectly through her body-language, how she speaks or what she speaks about, leads us onto a discussion about the ‘Angry Black Woman’ stereotype and her wish to dispel it. Muriel tells me she has lost count of the number of times she has been labelled “aggressive.”
I ask her for examples of other grievances she encounters and would like to see eliminated. “You cannot just touch my natural hair as if it’s an artefact on display in a museum. Our hair types are natural so why are we treated like animals in a circus?” This quote horribly parallels a photo taken during the 1958 World Fair held in Belgium, where they replicated a Congolese village by shipping people from the Congo. The same ill mannered treatment of people, cultures and human features as ‘exotic’ still goes on today, a reality Muriel is quick to point out.
But she refuses to focus on the negatives and tells me “everything makes me feel proud about being a Black woman; my culture, my history, my curly hair, my dark skin, my language, my food, my music. I love it!”
I ask if her experiences at University have been any different to her general experience. She resoundingly replies with a “no”, instead praising the academic staff and particularly her supervisor’s actions over lockdown. Asking where improvements could still be made, Muriel responds “acknowledge the difference between Black and BAME. Several emails sent out about the Black Lives Matter topic contained BAME, but our experiences are very different, merging the two comes across as undermining what Black people face and endure.” She also hopes the university will continue to offer support for the Black community even when the news cycle has moved away from Black Lives Matter.
However her experience of being a Black woman in Norwich is different and trickier. “There are very few hair shops to buy basic Black girl essentials like gels, conditioners, hair grease specifically catering for our type of hair. In addition to that, there are few hairstylists that know exactly how to deal with our type of hair and offer protective hairstyles in the area either.”
We finish with a common interest. As Sports Representative for UEA ACS, Muriel is well positioned to speak about the lack of diversity in sport. She reminds me how the Summus Sports reports revealed 16 out of 23 of the GB Olympic squads and 8 out of 19 GB Paralympic squads had no BAME representation at the Rio 2016 Olympics. I ask her what she would like to see at UEA to improve diversity. Her answer is comprehensive and thoughtful.
“Organising sporting events and taster days exclusively for BAME students. Through this, a safe space is created for students of Black descent to experience sport at its optimum without fear of prejudice or discrimination. Also ensuring each and every sporting committee elects some form of diversity and equality officer to ensure all black members feel welcome and comfortable within their team and that their views and opinions are well represented and voiced when needed be.”
Muriel’s resilience and drive is unquestionable, and her language embodies a sentiment felt by many across the Black community in recent times. “Despite the obstacles I face as a Black woman, I am still able to defy the odds and continue moulding the future I want for myself and my children. I have a story to tell them, how the knowledge, courage, wisdom and strength of their ancestors moulded them into the person they are today.”