You may have heard about a new campaign underway here in St Andrews. Following similar (and very popular) campaigns at Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge, the #ITooAmStAndrews campaign has been launched as a way to “improve the ways that students interact with each other,” according to the campaign’s leader, Sium Ghebru, a second-year medicine student and the new SRC member for racial equality.
Though taking its cue from campaigns elsewhere, #ITooAmStAndrews hopes to illuminate some of the issues unique to the University of St Andrews and its students. Mr Ghebru says: “The main thing I want to do is just stop people from using cultures inappropriately.” One of St Andrews’ greatest assets is its multicultural population, but this can also lead to people “making a lot of incorrect assumptions” about cultures they do not yet understand, says Mr Ghebru.
Bongo Ball and the Boat Club’s recent ‘Rock My Chinese Junk’ event are examples of the cultural insensitivity, or misappropriation, that this campaign hopes to address. Speaking about the ‘Rock My Chinese Junk’ event, which was held at Rascal’s Bar on 2 April, Mr Ghebru says: “That kind of thing is really just something that I find distasteful, but it’s also the kind of thing that this campaign can focus on.”
Chris Furby, the Boat Club’s events officer, explained the event in more detail in an e-mail. ‘Rock My’ is an annual Boat Club event, centred on the idea of vessels from around the world and throughout history. This year, the club chose the junk, “a flat-bottomed sailing vessel… typical of China and the East Indies” according to the OED definition that Mr Furby included.
The issue here is more than one of simple semantics, though. Mr Furby was clear when he wrote that “St Andrews University Boat Club take any offensive connotations linked to our events very seriously.” However, the obscurity of the term ‘junk’ as used in the event’s title invites misinterpretation. Additionally, the ‘Rock My Chinese Junk’ Facebook page invited guests to wear “oriental attire,” providing suggestions of paddy hats and Confucian styles. These costume ideas were arguably more offensive than the name of the event.
This event speaks to Mr Ghebru’s concern that “people are using cultures incorrectly”. He hopes that the #ITooAmStAndrews campaign will help show that St Andrews students are “not bad people” but that “we’re just making a few mistakes”.
The photo shoot style made popular by the #ITooAmHarvard and #ITooAmOxford campaigns shows minority students holding up a small whiteboard on which they have written examples of racism, discrimination, or micro-aggressions they have experienced on campus. Mr Ghebru hopes that the St Andrews shoot, held on 2 April, provided students with the “chance to get some stuff off of their chest” By doing so, he hopes the photos will “help illuminate some of the issues here” and better voice “how minorities feel” in these situations.
The ‘I, Too’ concept began at Harvard University. The #ITooAmHarvard Tumblr page states: “Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned – this project is our way… of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.”
African-American students who participated in the Harvard photo shoot held up signs that read: “You’re lucky to be black… so easy to get into college!” And: “You’re basically white.” And: “No, I will not teach you how to twerk.” While these comments were probably not made in a malicious spirit, they are obviously offensive. Tsega Tamene, a third year student at Harvard, told the US media organisation NPR that such comments “aren’t just slips by innocent people; they are symptoms of a larger nationwide disease”.
The universality of this problem is perhaps why the ‘I, Too’ idea quickly spread, jumping across the pond to Oxford and Cambridge, where similar campaigns quickly followed suit. The #ITooAmOxford campaign made it its goal to instigate a discussion about race at the university and to demand institutional change. (One Oxford student held up a white board reading, “Why are only 0.4% of UK professors black? #institutionalracism.”)
The #ITooAmStAndrews campaign does not have the same goals as its Oxford counterpart. Mr Ghebru says: “I think the [race] discussion’s already been had. People aren’t unaware that there are issues with cultural insensitivity at St Andrews. I do think that people don’t think it’s a big deal.”
Mr Ghebru had much to say about what he thinks poses a problem at St Andrews, as well as the kind of cultural insensitivity he has experienced firsthand. He says: “I like to talk a lot about race because it’s something that intrigues me, but people often assume a certain level of responsibility. Personally, I don’t find the n-word offensive. But sometimes when people hear me say that, they think: ‘Oh, clearly that must be okay.’ But I’m not the representative of the entire black population. I may be one of the few black people you know, but I’m not that for you.”
He continued, providing an example of the way people make cultural assumptions that – however well intentioned – are often misguided and offensive. “From my point of view, it’s about this idea of, ‘Oh, you’re black, this is an entire set of customs and personality traits that you must share,’” Mr Ghebru says. “Especially with Americans, unfortunately, they’ll say, ‘Oh, you must love fried chicken.’ Or, ‘Have you ever tried Kool-Aid? I think you’d love it, Sium.’”
Scrolling through the photos on the #ITooAmHarvard and #ITooAmOxford Tumblr pages certainly reaffirms what he’s talking about. While interviewing Mr Ghebru, I asked him about how students and societies at St Andrews might ask minority students about their experience without extrapolating their answers to be representative of their entire race or culture. It turns out it is not so difficult. He says: “It’s good to ask individuals: ‘What do you think?’ It’s good to ask cultural societies: ‘What do you think, collectively?’ It’s not good to ask an individual what do they think on behalf of their entire culture.”
The #ITooAmStAndrews campaign tackles a complex issue, but Mr Ghebru is adamant about its inclusive and positive nature. He says: “I also want white people to get involved, especially white British people, because there are so many different subdivisions. If you’re from Scotland, and you keep being mistaken for someone’s who’s from England, that’s a cultural misappropriation.”
Based on the early photos from the shoot, there is definitely an interest in what #ITooAmStAndrews can achieve. Students from a variety of backgrounds showed up to share their experiences. Whiteboards read: “Bengali + Scottish ≠ coconut!” And: “I am Italian but I do not belong to the mafia!” And: “If you’re from Africa, why are you white?” White students who have not experienced the same kind of thoughtless commentary as minority sometimes do also showed up to express support, writing “Solidarity” and “#ITooAmStAndrews” on their whiteboards.
#ITooAmStAndrews is meant to be an agent of positive change and a way for students to better educate themselves about the problems that cultural insensitivity and ignorance can cause. Though it focuses on the experience of minority students, the campaign is not meant to be an exclusively minority event. Mr Ghebru says: “There’s no sort of circumstance for you to be on the campaign. You don’t have to be an ethnic minority. I just want support.”
To learn more, check out itooamstandrews.tumblr.com.