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Photography Thomas Allsop

The dark reality of ‘racial segregation’ in UK student housing

‘I was told it was a ‘coincidence’ that our flat ended up with all people of colour... but every single person in my flat knows it’s not’

Like most other students, when 19-year-old Priya* moved into her new flat in her second year at Durham University, she set about decorating her room with fairy lights and potted plants. Then she began to introduce herself to her flatmates.

The first person she met was a Black student, and Priya recalls feeling “reassured” that she wasn’t the only person of colour in the flat. But as the day wore on, Priya and her fellow flatmates began to realise a pattern was emerging. By the time they all gathered around the kitchen table in the evening, they began to think that they’d been grouped together for a reason: they were all either international students or people of colour.

It literally feels like they went through a list of names, found which ones sounded like people were from an ethnic minority and put them together,” Priya – who is British Indian – tells Dazed. She claims that her situation wasn’t unusual, and alleges that multiple colleges at Durham have a reputation for seemingly separating students based on their race. “Other colleges like Hatfield are known for segregating international students and people of colour,” she claims. “I was told it was a ‘coincidence’ that our flat ended up with all people of colour and international students, but every single person in my flat knows it’s not.”

New research affirms that Priya isn’t alone saying that she’s experienced ‘segregated’ halls. The study, commissioned by the student accommodation provider Unite Students, found that several students “commented on segregation within halls” with one respondent saying: “My block was known as the block for Black people from London. I think it was probably intentional because there was also a block with mainly white students.”

“It reinforces the idea that we’re different by the very nature of our skin colour,” Priya says, adding that she was unsurprised by her experience. “Racism – whether overt or subtle – is part of the culture at Durham, as we’ve seen when it platforms people like Rod Liddle. You kind of feel a bit powerless when you’re up against an institution.” (A statement on Durham University’s website says that the university is “committed to freedom of expression within the law and to the safety of staff, students and visitors to the University”.)

The report also found that more than half of Black students have been the victim of some form of racism in their accommodation, including the use of racial slurs, spitting, and physical violence. Three-quarters of Black students reported that their mental health was impacted due to experiencing racism, and that their suffering was often “compounded by a lack of support and difficulties in finding counsellors with either the lived or professional experience to understand the impact of racism on mental health.”

“I was told it was a ‘coincidence’ that our flat ended up with all people of colour and international students, but every single person in my flat knows it’s not” – Priya, 19

Tamara, 23, experienced racism from other students while she lived in Leeds Beckett University halls. “My experience there was pretty bad overall,” she says. “Just having one of my flatmates using the n-word, being quite ignorant, talking about immigrants and calling them terrorists. It made me feel quite uncomfortable and not very accepted in Leeds considering it was my first year.”

Tamara explains that she didn’t report the racism she experienced because she didn’t want to cause any tension in her flat. “It was my first year: I wanted to make friends, I didn’t know many people, I just felt quite alone. So I didn’t report it. I didn’t feel that the uni would do anything.”

Nkasi, 28, is a PhD student at King’s College London. Like Tamara, she too alleges to have experienced anti-Black racism in student accommodation. “Staff members have been rude and aggressive to me, but gentle and caring to other students. I have been stopped from entering my accommodation, despite having identification. People I was living with made fun of the food I was eating and played reggae music when I would enter the flat. There’s been a few occasions that I have heard songs with the n-word being blasted and the students have sung along,” she claims.

Nkasi’s harrowing experiences took a toll on her mental health. “I have invested time, money and energy into building my confidence and self-esteem but every time I experience racism in student accommodation I feel powerless and it triggers my depression and anxiety,” she explains. “It’s an awful feeling to feel unsafe and uncomfortable in your own home.”

“I have been stopped from entering my accommodation, despite having identification. People I was living with made fun of the food I was eating and played reggae music when I would enter the flat” – Nkasi, 28

Thankfully, the research also found that there are instances in which racism is being challenged. 40 per cent of Black respondents reported witnessing staff confronting racism, while 57 per cent of Black students reported witnessing other students confronting racist attitudes. Still, in spite of these small positives, the report clearly illustrates that racism is endemic in university halls.

Responding to the report, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, the vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, said: “For a long time, the experiences of students in student accommodation have been overlooked and disconnected from the broader university experience. This is particularly true for Black students, who often speak of high levels of racism in and at university, including in their accommodation.”

“More needs to be done to support Black students across higher education,” she continued. “This is a good opportunity to look at how we can truly tackle racism at every level of the university experience.”

At the end of the day, the issue of racism in student halls is microcosmic of the issue of racism in UK society, and it would be naive to think that it’s possible to wholly eradicate racism in universities while societal racism continues to proliferate. But, equally, it would be defeatist to think that we can’t do anything to tackle racism in student accommodation.

The report not only highlights the culture of racism in student accommodation: it also proposes a number of recommendations, including employing more Black staff in halls and ensuring Black students have appropriate mental health support available to them. In the meantime, Nkasi and fellow student Yannick have set up a not-for-profit organisation called Black Students Talk, which provides mental health peer support groups for Black students.

It’s important for all of us to remember that at this point, it’s ultimately not a question of if things will change – it’s a question of when.

When asked to respond to the above claims, Durham University said: “Durham is a hugely popular destination for students, from across the UK and around the world, and the vast majority of our students have an outstanding educational and wider student experience with us. We are more diverse now than ever before, with staff and students from more than 150 countries, and 17 colleges, each of which is a thriving community of people from all backgrounds and subject areas. For the very small number of students who have concerns, we encourage them to raise them with us, and work hard to address them when they do. We have a wide support network available, both through our colleges and central support teams.”

A King’s College London spokesperson said: “We take any allegations of racism very seriously and students should report any claims to our Student Conduct and Appeals Office where appropriate action will be taken, or as an informal log via our anonymous disclosure tool.”

*Name has been changed