2016. The year that Black Lives Matter protests reached the UK with demonstrations at London City and Heathrow airports and in central London.
The year that the first Muslim mayor of any major Western city was elected, Sadiq Khan.
The year that the first black American president could be replaced by a man who failed to condemn white supremacist organisation the Ku Klux Klan and has been sued for refusing to rent his properties to black Americans.
Amongst the turbulence and triumphs, UEA celebrates its third Black History Month. The annual celebration of black British history and culture has been a national institution since 1987, and first came to UEA in 2014.
UEA SU has organised a month of events, ranging from discussions of racial preferences in dating, political blackness and body positivity to film screenings, celebrations of academic excellence and a vigil for UK victims of police brutality.
We spoke to the UEA students behind the events and asked them: what does Black History Month mean to you?
Sharmin Hoque, LGBT+ Officer (Open Place), organised Black History Month at her secondary school. She believes its “important to commemorate and celebrate black community and culture, to give recognition to all of the amazing achievements – especially at UEA.”
“The truth is that it [the university] is very white dominated, so, Black History Month helps to not just educate, but show achievements that have happened and are on-going.”
She told us that her own experiences have inspired to campaign for better recognition and representation of black and minority ethnic students and their achievements, saying: “I’m Bangladeshi as well, and Black History Month is also [aimed] towards people with other ethnicities, not just the black community. My parents came here and made a living for themselves, and I’m a history student, so I like to research things and see how things have changed.”
Sharmin added that, as someone who is “bisexual and Bangladeshi,” she has experienced “both racism and homophobia.” After organising the LGBT+ POC panel which covered “topics like homophobia in cultural spaces, racism in queer spaces,” Sharmin said she was amazed to have students approaching her to say they identified with her experiences: “being a bisexual Muslim, it’s so rare to find people like myself… finding a queer Muslim of any sort is gold dust, it’s really rare.”
However, she is campaigning at UEA to raise awareness of the intersection of these issues, and provide support to other students: “so that they’re not just swept away under the carpet. I’m currently trying to start up a campaign with the other liberation officers about tackling racism, homophobia and sexism.”
Tarun Sridhar, Ethical Minorities Officer, is responsible for hosting the events of the month. He described Black History Month as important for encouraging inclusivity, and added that he wanted “all UEA students” to feel involved.
Asked if there was someone he felt best represented the values of Black History Month, Tarun said: “there’s no one person who can depict the struggles, or who can show what it’s like to overcome the struggles. There are many types of people who have done many types of things. Choosing one person to show the ethnic minority struggle is not fair.”
Tarun also discussed the issues he has faced in the UK as an ethnic minority, saying that the “passive racism” he experienced worsened during the run up to the vote on Brexit.
“One day I was on Unthank Road and there was a white person who just pushed me down – during the Brexit time. I didn’t even know why he did it. He just walked away.”
“It wasn’t even that which affected me, it was the fact that everybody else walking in the road didn’t care. The only people who stopped were two black women in a car.
“They got out of the car and tried to chase the guy, but he was gone. Every other person in the street was white. It’s not like they didn’t care, it’s like they didn’t know what to do.”
Finally, Tarun highlighted the wide range of events UEA SU are organising throughout October. He said: “we have a week concerning LGBT and POC issues, then we have Black Excellence Week, so that’s specifically regarding African and Caribbean ethnicities, but there is a lot to Black History Month, everything is there.”
“We have discussions about political blackness, about LGBT POC, about Afro-Caribbean cultures, but we also have celebratory events.”
Rhys Purtill, President of UEA’s Pride Society, said that Black History Month matters “in terms of the future rather than in terms of the past. A lot of people think that racism has gone, but it really hasn’t. It’s important to think about these things and think about how we can move on from this in the future.”
He added that problems can often be experienced in unexpected places. For example: “on the gay dating app, Grindr, you find that there’s a lot of racism on there. You can go on to people’s profiles and find things like ‘if you’re black, don’t message me’.”
Rhys also discussed the misconceptions surrounding the LGBT+ community, saying that: “A lot of people seem to think that the LGBT+ community are one coherent group, when actually, a lot of the time it’s not: within the group there’s racism, there’s sexism, there’s transphobia.”
He said this is “one of the reasons that UEA Pride likes to get involved in BHM, we like to make sure that we are talking about things like racism, and we take some time to celebrate and highlight the struggles of people who are both queer and a POC.”
Malaika Jaovisidha, International Students Officer, told us that: “until very recently I never thought that I was a minority. It was only when I came to live in the UK that I felt like being a minority can actually be quite detrimental to you and your future. My opportunities are limited compared to most people. Most people being – I guess you could say – white.”
She added that international students and people of colour “still face discriminatory attacks, especially when it comes to finding a job or trying to enter a workforce,” as people are trying to “tick boxes rather than want you for who you are”.
She added that this tokenistic approach extends to colorism, which she explained as “racism within the same race, for example there are light-skin Asians and dark-skin Asians, one can be prejudiced against the other.”
Black History Month continues until the end of October across the UK.
More information about the range on events on offer at UEA SU can be found here: