Welcome to the second edition of B(l)ackstage Stories. My name is Renée Landell, and after the success of the October Black History Month edition and calls for more stories, I thought it would be great to write some Term Two specials. So, I asked a few more influential and talented Black RHUL students and alumni to share their stories of ‘becoming’ and overcoming – to inspire you and to celebrate them!
(Alumni, Comparative Literature and Culture)
“Like many others, I'm a second-generation immigrant. My mother's family grew up in Kuwait and left when the Gulf War broke out. They'd managed to flee safely but suffered like many other refugees did at the time before they settled in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, due to the war, her Nursing qualification was put on hold. My father was born in Somalia in the 60s working as a director of sorts on a farm that exported bananas to Italy. When the civil war broke out, he fled in 1989, leaving behind his family, staff and entire world. Once he gained refugee status in Holland, he began trying to piece back his career working on several agricultural projects with Dutch universities.
"Given the trauma, the hardships they’ve faced and the interruption to their lives, my parents have been the reason I've always valued education. One of my earliest memories was my mother coming up to my room in the early hours of the morning exasperated and at her wits' end because I'd read rather than sleep. She'd tell me that I'd soon need glasses, but I wouldn't take her seriously as she used to do the same thing and read with the glow of the streetlights - I always remember thinking it was quite hypocritical.
"I loved literature at school, but always found the English literary canon to be somewhat limited, so when I began my Comparative Literature and Culture degree at RHUL I was really excited. For the first time in my educational life, I was regularly reading films, literature, and art created by POC, women and other individuals who are often omitted or ignored when it comes to Eurocentric/western Academia.
"Within a couple of months of joining RHUL, I became Secretary of the Women of Colour Collective which was founded by my friends Grace and Joy. I was elected as President in my final year and hosted a panel called 'Why is my Curriculum White' with speakers from SOAS, NUS, and King's College, London. The event had a great turnout, but the absence of some close, white friends was felt. They didn't see any structural racism, they said. Nor did they really 'buy into' microaggressions or the harsh realities that minorities who are multiply marginalised feel.
"RHUL was an amazing experience both academically and socially. Whilst I was at university, I was heavily involved in campus life and launched my start-up which saw me travel internationally, pitch to FSTE 100 companies and win the first-ever RHUL & Santander Entrepreneurship prize. But whilst I loved my degree, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do after university. Before graduation, I'd attended a Graduate Recruitment day, and over the course of nine hours, I was approached by four companies before I'd even graduated.
"The transition into working life was an adjustment for me. I went into enterprise insurance sales, and whilst Lloyd's of London and the insurance market in general like so many other historical industries, pledge to increase diversity, this was not something that is felt on the ground. One company I worked for had its staff address me as a 'chocolate lady', 'cappuccino' and I'd be told 'we can't see you in the dark unless you smile'. I wish I'd spoken up earlier as my silence translated to complicity, in my view anyway.
"Discrimination, inequality, and prejudice is an unfortunate but common occurrence - and it won't be something that will easily be overcome. For me, I get strength from my parents and their work ethic. It's made me resilient if not a little jaded, but I'm hopeful for the future.”
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