Image: Larissa Kennedy

Does Warwick have a problem with race? An interview with Larissa Kennedy

Not only is Larissa Kennedy the President of WARSoc, Warwick’s Anti-Racism Society, she is also the Co-President of WASS, Warwick’s Anti-Sexism society. As an executive member of the university’s two largest liberation societies, she is, undeniably, an integral member of Warwick. And yet even she doesn’t always feel safe or welcome here.

It is obvious by now that Warwick has an issue with race. In the last year and a half, two incidents of racism within campus were exposed on Twitter and ended up making national headlines.

Most individuals do not have the courage to speak out against the virulent comments and microagressions they face.

But as Larissa explains to me, these are just the tip of the iceberg. Most individuals do not have the courage to speak out against the virulent comments and microagressions they face on a daily basis. Or worse, they do not even acknowledge that what has become a part of their everyday reality is not right.“I think normalisation of a lot of poorly phrased and racialised, sexualised , misogyny-based humour is hugely common within a university setting”, says Larissa.

It’s little things, she explains, such as people she doesn’t know putting their hands in her braids, that are often dismissed as jokes but can have a harmful cumulative effect. “There have been times in my Warwick experience where I have questioned whether this is the place that I should be.”

There was a boy in my accommodation who sat in the kitchen and read Nazi texts.

This claim seems entirely justified when Larissa describes one of her experiences as a first year: “There was a boy in my accommodation who sat in the kitchen, read Nazi texts, and said to me that if it was up to him I wouldn’t be here.” Why did she not say anything? “ I didn’t feel that I could report that, I didn’t know what mechanisms there were.”

And despite now knowing, Larissa still feels the reporting system at Warwick is lacking. Her main criticism is that it does not seem to take microagressions and smaller incidents into account. “It is too complicated and bureaucratic. Yes, you need a coherent reporting system, but you equally need something that is fit for purpose. Because there are certain issues that don’t require the same restorative action that bigger incidents do, but they still need to be addressed.”

It is sad that they must turn to social media to sort out an issue that shouldn’t even be an issue

It seems proof of Larissa’s point that the two major incident of racial microagressions at Warwick revealed recently were done so on Twitter. I ask her what she thinks about the use of social media to hold people to account: is this a good thing or sign that there aren’t enough structures in place outside it to address such issues?

“I’m glad Twitter is offering a platform to black people. But it is sad that they must turn to social media to sort out an issue that shouldn’t even be an issue.

“And to be honest, we’ve barely had any response from the university [regarding the incident at the Law School in October]; I don’t think we would have had had it not been for the publicity surrounding this case. The issue is not being recognised as an issue until there’s public pressure there, and that shouldn’t be the case.”

Over half of students do not think the university takes racism seriously

In response to questions from the Boar last week, Warwick’s Director of Press and Policy said: “A formal complaint has now been received and an investigation of the complaint will commence. We obviously now cannot comment further on the circumstances being investigated, or anything that could possibly be contextual to that investigation.”

Larissa was clear in our interview that she does not believe the university treats race with the seriousness it deserves. And she is not the only one. A survey conducted last year by the Boar found that over half (54%) of students do not believe Warwick takes racism seriously – with 23.7% thinking only the SU do, and 27.2% thinking neither the SU nor the university do.

There is no extra provision to make sure that black and brown students feel safe here

I ask Larissa what precisely she feels is lacking at Warwick. She does not hesitate. “What is the provision that specialises in mental health services for black and brown students? Where are the specific services for reporting racist comments and actions? There is no extra provision to make sure that black and brown students feel safe here, that they’re welcomed here, and they are able to succeed here. And also, that they are able just exist and be happy here.

It’s not only on campus that black students can feel under-represented. The ‘Why is my Curriculum White’ movement started by the National Union of Students a few years ago emerged as a reaction to the overpowering dominance of white voices and perspective in academia. WARsoc was heavily involved, curating a #DecoloniseWarwick Summit in 2016, which was the first of its kind at the university. I ask Larissa about the movement, how the university has responded, and the dangers of a predominantly white curriculum

“I am disappointed that the university hasn’t been as proactive as they could have been because some others have truly taken strides in making sure that they diversify their curriculums.” Indeed, in universities such as Sussex, programmes were organised to get students and staff involved in reviewing the curriculum and holding talks about inequality.

Everyone grapples with identity, but as a student of colour, this crisis is heightened

The consequences of a white-centric curriculum, for Larissa, are twofold. For black people the damage takes place on their own sense of self.  “Not seeing yourself in a curriculum is extremely harmful because it feels like: where do I come from? Everyone grapples with identity, but as a student of colour, this crisis is heightened.”

And for white students? “A curriculum of this sort fails to provide them with a rounded view of world history, of world culture.”

Larissa also refers to what she sees as an “underlying narrative” in the way we learn about the world and world history at university, a narrative which, according to her, privileges a white gaze. She admits the difficulties she faces when attempting to speak up against this gaze in seminars, claiming she is often subjected to an ‘angry black girl’ stereotype. “If I feel that someone else is taking a coloniser’s gaze to a question, I’ll say something—not in an antagonising way, I’ll just say it. And suddenly I feel the room kind of tense.”

I don’t know why people feel that aversion to us calling each other out and calling each other in

She emphasises that the ultimate aim is dialogue and understanding, not hostility. “I don’t know why people feel that aversion to us calling each other out and calling each other in. It shouldn’t be like ‘oh no, I’m being called racist’—racist isn’t a slur, it’s just addressing an issue, and that doesn’t mean we have to be in opposition to each other, it just means that we need to help each other to grow.”

And helping each other grow—both white students in their understanding of race and students of colour in their confidence and sense of self—seems to be precisely the aim of WARSoc.

Ultimately, I hope to actually feel a shift in attitudes towards race at this university

“Ultimately, I hope to actually feel a shift in attitudes towards race at this university,” says Larissa. “To know that more people are conscious of the way that race impacts other people’s university experiences, and also to make sure that students of colour don’t feel antagonised with regards to race and any other part of their identity.”

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