Interview by Beatriz Silva
Photography by Eliana Radaelli
Chinia, Kowsar, Akhigbe and Spencer joined me at the Media Centre on a late Friday afternoon. Yes, we are talking about Black History Month and the Black experience at LSE. Not just because it’s that time of that year again, but because questions around race continue to be as relevant as ever on campus and beyond. For this interview, with a group of friends who had so many lived experiences to share, I let the conversation flow. We talked about the African Caribbean Society and the unique role it plays in the experience of Black students at university; what Black History Month is about at LSE; Kant and GV100; Sidney Webb; and, inevitably, the Beveridge Cafe.
“When you first start uni, as a Black person, the first thing you go to is ACS,” Chinia shared at the very beginning of our hour-long conversation. The others nodded in agreement. Why is that? “You are always going to find like-minded people at ACS.” “As someone from Nigeria, Africa, you always want to remember your roots,” Akhigbe added. The African Caribbean Society quickly becomes the home of many Black and minority students at LSE. Understanding why this is so is not difficult: “When I moved into Roseberry in first year, I was meeting a lot of international, white, privately educated students, and I found that the way that they’d grown up, the way that they’d been raised, was quite different to me,” one of them said. As we all know from the wider student experience, moving to a big bustling city can be daunting to many. But the culture shock for international students who didn’t grow up accustomed to being a minority inside the classroom is overwhelming in comparison.
To Chinia, raised in Birmingham, there was no surprise there: “LSE isn’t unique in the fact that I just expected university in general to be very white.” With that comes a sense of responsibility, she shared. Chinia feels like she needs to speak up and represent her unique perspective as a Black woman in class. But what seems like something trivial to most students – raising your hand to participate in class discussions – can be an uncomfortable and even stressful experience when you feel surrounded by students from an entirely different background to yours. “Coming to my first class and being the only Black boy, I could tell that people were looking at me a certain way…I felt like people were judging me all the time.” Spencer wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Black students are used to being challenged in class settings by their white counterparts when it comes to questions of race and colonialism.
“Is Kant a racist and does it matter?” – this was one of the weekly GV100 questions last year. It was discussed in Kowsar’s class as a debate. “I am one of two Black people in that class, a big class…and a couple of white people took the first opportunity to centre themselves in the conversation,” Kowsar explained. “I guess people think this is for them to speak on because the department offered it to them.” Everyone in the group agreed that all students are entitled to speak their minds, but when some resort to arguments based on purported biological differences between races – essentially, eugenics – should everything be up for a class debate? “They took it out this year – which I guess is the bare minimum.”
Chinia brought Sidney Webb into the conversation here. “Did you know that Sidney Webb [House] is named after a eugenicist?” Webb was one of the founders of LSE and, indeed, a eugenicist. More recently, LSE named the Beveridge Cafe after William Beveridge, a widely respected public intellectual in the UK who spearheaded important welfare policy reforms. However, for Black students, or anyone who is familiar with his writings on eugenics, understanding why exactly LSE made the decision to name the café after him in 2019 is still difficult. “That means two years ago you sat in an office with other people and when you decided the name of the café you actively chose a name that would diminish the experience and identity of so many people.” This is, of course, a controversial topic on campus with no straightforward answers. But how should a Black student at LSE feel about this?
Despite making these often unsettling decisions, LSE celebrates Black History Month every year. So what is Black History Month like at LSE? “I have no idea,” Chinia replied. “All of the events the SU put up for BHM, we had no idea about. They didn’t actively promote them, they didn’t reach out to us [ACS] so that we could promote it to our members. …I didn’t even know about half the events until it was already too late to go to them.” The truth is that the Students’ Union put together a variety of events, but they were not well-promoted if the President of the African Caribbean Society didn’t know about them. When it came to the ACS’s own events, “they didn’t support us at all.” It’s a shame that despite an impressive lineup of events, the people who should have felt supported the most in October weren’t.
What is then Black History Month about at LSE? A range of events that LSE and the Students’ Union organise every year so that they can tick the box, or is there a wider meaning to them? These are contentious questions. In an official statement, LSE said its theme for Black History Month this year “recognises that we must think beyond Black History Month to achieve the world we want for tomorrow”, and that “Blackness and Black people cannot be constrained. Black thought must radically be told and maintained. Breaking barriers in every time and space. The Black experience cannot be co-opted or replaced.” This is a powerful statement and not something LSE can commit to lightly. For a university where most students do not engage at all with Black History Month, where students frequently report being frustrated with course choices that are “whitewashed”, taught by staff unrepresentative of those they teach, there is still a long way to go in order for LSE to meet its discourse.
For BHM in 2019, the cover of Flipside was Angelica Olawepo, a LLB Law student and YouTube sensation. She said: “I feel like LSE only remembers that they have Black students when it’s time for Black History Month.” My conversation with the LSESU Caribbean Society finished on a similar note. It is true that in recent years LSE has increased its intake of disadvantaged students more than most universities. But once these students actually get here, the School can lose touch with their daily struggles. “For Black students who are here, right now, I don’t know what there is. To get here there’s a bunch of stuff, there’s LSE CHOICE and a bunch of summer schools. But now that we’re here, what is there?”
Instead of organising big speaker events with renowned guests during Black History Month, perhaps more tangible, even if smaller, attitude changes could have a greater impact on daily campus life. A few months ago LSE sent its students a newsletter asking for ideas on how to name the café of the (already) infamous Marshall Building. Perhaps not after a eugenicist? That’s a start.