Navigating white Geography departments
I remember being apprehensive before starting my Geography degree at a top Russell Group University. I questioned how I would navigate the department, given the fact I was black and from a state school, whilst most of those on my course were white and privately educated.
My first week on the course reaffirmed I had good reason to be apprehensive. I remember getting to know some of my classmates outside the geography department. We were having a discussion about results day when out of nowhere, I was asked if I had been awarded the grades to get in. ‘Yes of course.’ I replied boldly. I was taken aback by this comment. Out of a whole group, this person had only asked me this question. We could come up with a million reasons why they’d asked. Maybe it was because I was the only one in a blue coat, or because I was wearing boots. Or we could conclude what was glaringly obvious to me, that they had asked this question because I was the only Black person in the group and he doubted my ability.
Throughout my three years on the course, interactions with my course-mates tended to be the lowest part. Generally, I found the actual content of the course stimulating and enjoyable, as I was given licence to develop my own ideas on topics that were of interest to me.
However, it was my interactions with my classmates and their remarks that often revealed how privileged they were and how Other I was. This became apparent during one of the core modules – social research methods. The assignment for this course included designing a survey. I came up with the idea that we could survey students on their perceptions of ethnic diversity on campus, quite frankly due to the infamous paucity. They were a nice group to work with and endorsed the idea. I casually remarked how levels of ethnic diversity was a question I was most commonly asked by Black prospective applicants. The group were shocked that this was a question people asked as for them, it was ‘Never something they had to consider’.
This contrasted to my experiences. At the start of my journey, I would become anxious about speaking in lectures. I felt not only was I being judged for what I said, but how I said it, since I didn’t sound like I’d been privately educated like most on my course-mates, and also because I was Black and people perhaps had lower expectations of me and wondered ‘if I’d gotten the grades to get in’. Being a minority or an outsider was never something my counterparts had to think about, but for me it shaped my very existence in the lecture theatre.
Nonetheless, I didn’t let these worries stop me from contributing or excelling on the course. At first, I felt I had to try and prove people wrong and dismantle expectations about my ability, so I over-compensated by over-contributing in lectures and seminars. In my second and third year I stopped doing this. Somewhat because I felt I no longer needed to prove myself, and because I realised what I was doing. I had nothing to prove to people who might be prejudiced. They could think what they wanted. If someone would assume I was any less deserving or potentially less intelligent than them, then that was their problem, not mine.
An uncanny parallel of my internal conflict and my classmates prejudice reared, when we began learning about post-colonial geography. It was ironic that in the Enlightenment period, white Europeans would try and prove their intellectual superiority over Black people. Geography’s deep colonial roots laid the groundwork for this. Yet this white person had inferred the same sentiment when they asked whether I’d gotten the grades to get in. I wondered how geography could ever call itself post-colonial, when the colonial imagination and notions of race and intellectual superiority, were still codified into the minds of its students.
On the other hand, I had positive interactions with lecturers except for one instance that I won’t forget. We were tasked to discuss the claim that ‘All cities were ordinary’ in an urban geography module. I argued that cities weren’t ordinary. They were sites defined by unique cultural events such as carnivals like London’s Notting Hill. I thought I had made a great case. But instead, in front of the whole group I was told I missed the point.
At once, I felt not only publicly shamed but that my experiences of the city had been invalidated. I had grown up in London all my life, so why was my lived experience and understanding of what the city meant disregarded? It was at times like this that I was reminded how shallow claims to decolonise the curriculum can be. It’s a process that should include listening to those differences in the classroom.
I don’t think I missed the point. I think the lecturer did. Cities mean different things to different people. Whilst mine or the broader Black experience of the city might not be as prevalent in academic literature, they’re experiences that shouldn’t be dismissed just because they don’t align with Western understandings.
Later, I stumbled across geographers who had written about carnivals and how they made the city unique - Ernest Taylor and Moya Kneafsey. I wished it was literature I was made aware of on the course beforehand.
As I mentioned earlier, despite these challenges navigating the department, I excelled on the course and graduated with a First.
To any Black geographers beginning, or on their journey, two key pieces of advice I would give are:
- To write about the things that interest you and not what you think your lecturers want to hear. These tended to be my highest scoring essays. Of course, the example I gave highlights that not everyone is open to new ideas, so it’s sometimes best to run your ideas by your lecturers first and write about them once given the green light. This can also help you build better relationships with lecturers.
- You don’t need to prove anything to anyone except yourself. If you’ve been accepted into a university that’s the only proof you need that you belong there. Don’t internalise other people’s prejudice because that’s a them-problem, not a you-problem.
(the authors name has been changed to protect their anonymity)