Many take it for granted that they can just walk down the street without anybody taking any notice of them, but walking through the world as a black male opens up the floodgates for people’s sick and twisted socially constructed ideologies of who I am and ought to be.
As students, most of us do not put too much attention into our sartorial choices, preferring to dress comfortably or indeed, throw on any number of university branded items we may have lying about. For me though, I have come to notice that items of clothing can (not always, but often) work to change people’s perception and reaction to you. It sounds strange, but let me give some more details.
I’m currently undertaking a master’s degree at the University of Oxford and I’m thoroughly enjoying my time here. But I’m often reminded, not through how people act directly to me, but through certain unconscious movements people make, that my identity as an Oxford student is surprising and unexpected. Walking around Oxford I started to realise certain behaviours and body movements were a regular occurrence.
In Oxford a high proportion of the student body wear what we call “stash”, which are university branded, and college affiliated items of clothing, such as hoodies, puffer jackets etc. Walking around you notice people move when they see you, their phone suddenly disappears into their pocket and reappears once you have walked past, you get suspicious looks, and you are treated with an air of nonchalance – or watched heavily – when you go into shops.
It has been interesting to observe that when wearing my own stash – a college puffer jacket – initially weary, people’s reactions to me change as they see my puffer, as if the sight of college branded items assuages their initial fear of a criminal coming their way to mug them. I notice people stare at the crest on my college puffer (every college has their own puffers, and you can see students throughout the city wearing them) as if to double check.
You see, in a society structured around race and racial hierarchies, black people are not associated with higher learning, and particularly elite institutions like Oxford. The assumptions are always that you are some form of criminal, drug dealer, or security guard for example.
As such, my items of university branded clothing often, but not always, help to shield me from the usual racial micro-aggressions. When I go into shops or walk around, you see people look surprised I go to Oxford.
In shops people call me sir, smile at me and treat me with respect. It’s an unsettling feeling knowing that, but for my university clothing, I would be treated in a completely different manner.
Of course, this is not always the case. A recent trip to the pub ended in an exchange with a student from another university, who despite my stash, mistook me for a security guard rather than a student.
The irony is, he came into what is an Oxford University space, surrounded by students, and still saw my presence as only being able to make sense as a worker rather than as a student. So ingrained was his idea of who black people are and what we can be, that he could only envision my presence in this space as outside the realms of intellect and higher learning and only within the confines of racial stereotypes. To be continued.
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