Ellie Wilson shares her experience of racism within the Glasgow University Athletics Club and unmasks the dangers of performative activism.
The world watched on in horror at the violent murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. As anti-racism protests spread throughout the world, many expressed their support. “Blackout Tuesday” saw millions of Instagram users sharing a simple black square to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Most of these squares have since been deleted with barely a single mention of BLM or anti-racism ever since.
As a mixed-race woman of Asian heritage, I have been no stranger to racism. My experience does significantly differ from others, and I derive privilege from lighter skin, however, this has not made me immune to discrimination. I’d grown used to being called a “P*ki” at school, and I still feel visceral nausea at the word. As I got older, and especially at university, racism became subtler. It was a “Where are you really from?” or a joke about traditional Indian clothing. Some instances were not so easy to detect, and took the form of systemic discrimination and social exclusion without any direct reference to ethnicity – but if you’re from an ethnic minority, you easily recognise it.
At Glasgow University Athletics Club (GUAC), both myself and others have experienced racism. I used to wonder if it was just me and if there was something wrong with me. I’ve since realised this is a common feeling – with one young Asian man confiding that he thought he was “just hard to like”. This highlights the insidious way racism can be internalised. When one of my close friends, a talented black athlete, joined the club I discovered it was not all in my head. Only a few weeks into her time at Glasgow she said to me: “It’s funny how they treat the two ethnic girls differently.”
We watched as we were continually set apart from others: we weren’t offered tickets to the Glasgow University Sports Association’s annual ball, we were excluded from social gatherings, we either weren’t at all or were very reluctantly put on teams despite our times dictating we should have been. Comments were made about black women’s bodies being “fat”, or saying they looked “scary”. One individual even said to my friend that he liked her natural hair because she looked “rough and ready”.
On 6 June, GUAC released a statement on racism – just like many other institutions and individuals have been doing. They expressed solidarity with the BLM movement and stated that they have and were against discrimination and racism. I left a comment on this post noting that while I appreciated them saying this, it was important to look inwardly and not wash over experiences of discrimination and racism that club members had faced. Sadly, this comment was swiftly deleted and further commenting on the post was turned off.
The club justified this by saying these conversations were better to be had in private. The outrage from other Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) club members and alums, as well as other allies, was swift. Private messages from the men’s captain showed that he thought these concerns were just “fucking Ellie being Ellie”. Since these events, despite the anger, the social media posts, an open letter to GUAC and GUSA signed by over 20 individuals and including four former captains, media coverage, and the interest of human rights lawyer and former Rector, Aamer Anwar, no real apology has yet been issued by GUAC. In a statement released by the men’s captain, he apologised for any “miscommunication” resulting from the deliberate deletion of the comment and noted that after having consulted with former (white male) captains, had concluded there was no racism in the club and such a comment was defamatory. Many referred to the club’s official response as being an example of gaslighting.
These events raise important questions about activism. By failing to acknowledge any past mistakes, it seems that the club was keen only to brand themselves as the “good guys” and loudly proclaim that they aren’t racist, despite showing a complete lack of awareness of the issues their BAME members face. Further still, you cannot claim to care about the BAME community whilst simultaneously silencing our voices. The point of this movement is to bring the issue of racism out of the shadows and speak about it openly, by deleting comments and trying to brush issues under the rug, the conversation isn’t happening. It seems that by trying so hard to not appear racist, the club exhibited the very thing it feared being seen as.
This begs the question – who was their post for? The club’s BAME members are angry, but they aren’t being listened to. I wholeheartedly believe the post was not for us, it was for them. Unfortunately, the most worrying aspect of this situation is a sizeable portion of the club’s current membership are continuing to support the committee and deriding those calling for change. Real change can only start when we hold ourselves and our friends to account. Real activism is uncomfortable, challenging, and can lose you friends, yet it can make a difference. The Glasgow University Athletics Club conveyed perfectly the sort of activism the BAME community doesn’t want. If your activism is only intended to make you look good, then keep it. We don’t want it.
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