Sharon Ordor recounts how her race affected her experience at one of England’s top universities…
I can easily recall the day I got an acceptance letter into one of the most prestigious universities in the UK. A “small village” with an identity of its own, enclosed 188 miles away from the hustle and bustle of London. I shared the great news with a black friend of mine. She looked at me, puzzled; an expression which lasted for what seemed like several minutes. “Are you happy with that?” she asked confounded by my obvious elatedness, which she felt was unsuited to the magnitude of the news I’d just received. “Well of course I am” I responded, “It’s Exeter.”
“Exactly, it’s EXETAAH,” she said, emphasising the latter part of her sentence, so as to mimic the intonation several students adopt when describing the quintessentially prim and proper environment of the place. The stereotype that has long prevailed has identified the university as a top-class institution, but coupled with the rumour that it houses some of the posh-est, most entitled kids in the UK, I now understand the disappointment she felt upon hearing of my “good” news.
I recall the 1st day I set foot into my new dorm room. (Cool fact: JK Rowling attended Exeter University, and Harry’s very own dorms were inspired by the one I stayed in.) The stares I got were laughable. I guess it’s worth noting here that I was the only black student in my entire accommodation. Crazy right? The next day, a student approached me to touch my hair. She liked its texture. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or appalled.
My first clubbing experience there wasn’t much more promising. On our way to the much revered, retro clubbing hub in the city, I choked as a friend who accompanied me claimed that she’d never seen a woman in a Burka. Apparently, her village “only had a few Muslims.” At that point, I guessed I was probably also her first black friend. When I finally got into the club, a guy I’d gone to school with tracked me down and asked me to twerk. I twerked. They cheered. Later on, someone said to me, “Black people are so cool Sharon. Teach me.” As though my blackness could be purchased as a commodity. Instantly, my insecurities surged. She wasn’t the first student who had complimented me on my style and “effortless” swag. I began to wonder if they liked me for me; for my wit, my charm, my candour and intelligence? Or was it because I was black. Blackness after all, is something which can so easily be fetishized. It’s deemed cool and sassy, until we ask the world to share in our pain and suffering.
Once, I invited one of my black friends to my dorm to relax my hair. For those who are unfamiliar with this term, my natural hair has an extremely kinky nature, which is very beautiful and flawless in its own right. However, seeing as I’m not the best with maintaining my hair in its natural states, relaxers have been my go-to resource for the past 9 years. You simply apply a layer of the chemicals to your hair, leave this in for a few minutes and then wash it all off. Boom! Your hair comes out sleeker and softer. My friend and I laughed and howled at each other’s jokes, completely oblivious to where we were. The girl in the room next door, came over and knocked gingerly. I opened the door, she asked us to kindly quieten down a bit, in the nicest way possible. Upon taking a closer look at my hair, she noticed the strange chemicals which were now evenly coated in my hair. “Are you dying your hair?” she asked, puzzled. I shook my head, surprised she didn’t understand the process. Then it clicked, she wasn’t expected to.
I joined the African and Caribbean Society. Seeing as there were very few other black people on campus, being immersed in a society which catered to people from the Motherland and the African diaspora, was an obligation which I executed with much pride and enjoyment. I’d gone to countless parties that played music I enjoyed and I’d taken part in shows that sported fashion styles from my home country, none of which could be found anywhere in Exeter. I invited a friend to be a member because she’d spoken endlessly about her interest in my culture, and in learning more about it. “Isn’t that society just for black people though?” She asked me. She feared that she was ‘too white’ to fit in, and in all honesty, maybe she was.
All in all, my 1st year at Exeter University was weird. It was strange and very different to the cosmopolitan city London is. I suppose though that was always to be expected. I had to adjust to getting stared at frequently. I had to learn the art of politely declining those who wanted to touch, stroke and yes, smell my hair. I had to embrace the repetitive questions I was asked about being black and on tips on being cool. I had to weather these changes all whilst trying to maintain decent grades. It was my toughest year, and the distance from home only made it harder.
But it doesn’t end here, of course. It was hard, but change is inevitable. My life had been so familiar for 18 years that a culture shock proved very hard for me. But I saw kids from distant countries, with a minimal grasp of the English language, managing to navigate the sometimes murky waters of University and I realised that I had no legitimate excuse for not having a good time. I chose to plunge headfirst into experiences that allowed me to network. My circle expanded exponentially, and it felt natural. The moment I chose to embrace change was the moment change chose to embrace me, and it felt oh so sweet.
Illustration: Sara Stefanini