“The more diverse the student body is, the more valuable it is to the University.”
In celebration of Black History Month, we talked to former Education Officer, Ruqia Osman, about her successes, reflections and experience as a Black woman in the SU.
When she took on the role of Education Officer, Ruqia Osman probably wasn’t expecting to be
“It’s only when people with shared anger and frustrations come together and demand action that we can create real change”
Prior to taking on her SU role, she has been on the committee for Islamic society; chair of the African and Caribbean Society (ACS); the NUS Black Student’s conference delegate; an academic rep; and a Freshers’ Week captain – all while studying for a biochemistry degree. It should come as no surprise, then, that her proudest achievements are her successful efforts to improve equality and accessibility within the University community.
During her stint as Education Officer, she helped to organise the first campus-wide Black History Month, as well as securing funding for the establishment of a new Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity team. The real catalyst to progress, she says, was the “huge public outrage” following the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s really driven conversations around race forward and forced people to have those conversations that they weren’t comfortable with having beforehand”. The effect of this has been to bring the issues facing Black students to the forefront of discussions at all levels of the University, something she admits she “thought would never happen”.
When the pandemic hit, she worried that this momentum would be lost – “I was very concerned that the disruption caused by COVID-19 would mean there were ‘more pressing issues to deal with’”. Fortunately, she says, there are promising signs that the issue has remained on the agenda– for example, an anti-racism report has recently been published with recommendations from students for real substantive changes the University and SU can implement.
“It’s good to know that me ranting for five years, and the work of Black student activists before me, has finally come to something…”, she says wryly.
Ruqia’s time as Education Officer has given her greater insight, both into her own character and into the institutions within which she worked. It took time to get used to often being the only non-white face in the room, but she’s grown to become more comfortable, as she “learnt to embrace [her] differences and what they bring to the table”. Despite this growth in self-confidence, the difficulty of inhabiting two very different realities never fully disappeared – “it’s quite lonely being the only Black person in a majority white institution. I felt very isolated from the Black community I connected with a lot as a student, because I was now a staff member”.
Somewhat of a bittersweet revelation is that “change takes time” – but in the process she has discovered reserves of patience she did not know she had. The biggest test of this newfound patience was working with others who, despite their good intentions, didn’t always understand where she was coming from or share her vision.
“It was frustrating having to constantly explain things that seemed so obvious to me – for example, why we shouldn’t constantly ask the Black community to explain their often traumatic experiences of racism or speak on behalf of the Black community, but rather empower them to speak for themselves. I even had to explain why disaggregating data is so important and how damaging it is to be grouping minority students together as ‘BAME’ when the experience I have as a Black woman is vastly different to what someone from another ethnic group will experience”.
Although positive changes have come about within the University as a result of Ruqia’s efforts, on a personal level it was far from easy. “When you are the only Black person in a room, you feel that burden of calling out racism…and that can sometimes be tiring”. In popular culture, Black women are often admired for their strength and resilience. However, as Ruqia points out, there is increasing recognition that the ‘strong Black woman’ label is damaging as it denies Black women the full range of vulnerability to which everyone else is entitled.
“I truly felt that although people were taking to social media to show their support to the movement, they were not making an effort to check in with the Black people in their own circles, perhaps because they didn’t recognise the emotional toll this takes on the Black community.”
Despite these challenges, she is fully aware of the value of her involvement in the decision-making process. While within the University governing bodies there is “a lot of goodwill”, this “can be damaging if it’s not channelled in the right way”. She noticed that there was often a “sense of detachment from the Black community”, and that is why she feels that physical representation is so vital – “you can’t ignore Black issues if they’re right in front of you”.
There has been much discussion in recent months over how non-Black people can combat this ‘sense of detachment’ and become better allies. Ruqia has some sage advice on the subject. Firstly, “do not just place the burden on Black people to call out racism, it’s not just our problem, it is everyone’s problem, and we need to tackle this together”. Openness to constructive criticism if you inadvertently cause offence is another must – “don’t take things personally when you get things wrong”. And finally, “speak up for people but don’t speak over them…Use your voice to uplift us and don’t speak on our behalf”.
For any Black students or prospective students, Ruqia’s message is: “don’t be put off by the lack of diversity. There are strong communities here that you’ll find your place in including the ACS which is truly like a family. Don’t be afraid to be the only one, you have something unique that only you can bring, and you shouldn’t let fear of being the only one stop you”. She would also encourage everyone to get involved with the SU – “it’s probably changed my life”.
And finally, looking to the future – where would she like Bath to be in five years’ time?
“I would like Bath to have a much more diverse student body, ethnically diverse and from various socio-economic backgrounds. The more diverse the student body is, the more valuable it is to the University.”
“Students from different backgrounds can contribute more – not only to the campus, but to the city of Bath as well. I want to see the University continue the work they’re doing on anti-racism as there is always a risk of this dropping off when people stop holding the University and the SU to account, and the media starts focusing on the next big problem. There needs to be more diversity in senior leadership, more women…and a new biochem building would be great.”