Talking To My Sister About Racism: ‘People Your Age Seem So Much More Aware’

When my younger sister, Fizzy, opened up about her experiences with racism as a student, I realized that her stories were both familiar and strange. It’s been six years since I finished my degree at the University of Cambridge, where I often dismissed racism as just another part of life at this archaic institution that was recently criticized by MP David Lammy for its lack of diversity. However, Fizzy, who is currently studying at Southampton, a newer university, has also dealt with racism. She has encountered individuals who have unabashedly used racist language, and is frequently asked to speak on behalf of Muslims or people of color.

While I tended to shrug off prejudice during my time at university, Fizzy responds to it quite differently. For instance, in her second year of university, she chose to live in a home with non-white housemates, whereas I never had any option to be anything but a minority. In fact, I had only one black friend at university, and he graduated the year after I arrived. Most of my white friends lived in exclusively white housing on campus, and this did not strike us as odd at all.

It wasnt until long after I had left university that I began exploring matters of prejudice. When I was studying at Cambridge, it was students in white tie who received the most press, getting drunk and vandalizing property. These days, students of color, such as Lola Olufemi and Jason Osamede, are the ones who are targeted for protesting against white privilege, or simply wanting to "decolonize" the curricula that overlooks women and people of color in historically white and male contexts.

The objective awareness necessary to frame my experiences was something I developed over time. However, my sister, who is 21 years old and soaked in ongoing political discourse via social media, understands very well what is taking place. I can’t determine which is worse – experiencing racism and not realizing it or being aware of what’s going on, but being unable to do anything about it. When I go and visit Fizzy, we talk intimately and at length to try to comprehend why people of color tend to feel so alienated when they attend university.

Fizzy Noor: Were you pretending when you were at university that racism didnt exist?

Poppy Noor: Dont be so harsh on me! I knew that something wasnt right – I felt distressed and excluded. But at that time, racism was normalized. For instance, the most typical thing was listening to boys say, "I dont like brown girls, its simply a personal preference.”

FN: What perplexes me is how can you not comprehend that it is racism? That is explicit racial prejudice. Rejecting an entire group of women because of their skin color.

PN: Its bewildering – questioning why people who are supposed to appreciate you would say such horrible things. Theyre not flushing your head down the toilet when they say it, theyre doing it while going to parties with you and giving you hugs.

FN: Yeah, its still happening that way. Nobody feels self-conscious to say it. I believe that theres more racism in university settings than is ever expressed at home. The first time it happened to me here, I was with a large group of people and someone made fun of me using a racial slur for a drinking game. I didnt know what to do, so I texted you right away.

PN: That hurt me tremendously to hear that. However, when I was young, people used to insult me using racial slurs all the time.

FN: When I was young, people would say nasty racist stuff, but it was so outlandish that people would be shocked. At university, they express it by saying, "Oh, its just a joke. He didnt intend it to come off as racist."

PN: Some people say racist things openly and casually, whereas others choose not to intervene. The person who questions it feels like they are the one who is wrong, which makes it difficult to call out. Why do people want to be racist in university?

FN: Being edgy… That might seem strange and immature, but its a real phenomenon.

It becomes quite exhausting when people assume that, because one is brown, they are obligated to serve as an ambassador. Masala Isely-Rice, Fizzys friend, who is an American student of dual black and white heritage, also weighs in.

Masala: I believe its tribalism. Accepting the diversity in different individuals is more difficult than stating that, "This is what black people are like," right?

FN: Its a group mentality. Part of being part of the powerful majority in university is to bring down the minority.

FN: There are multiple layers of privilege, including wealth and race. Although it is possible to be white and impoverished, whiteness alone will not condemn someone to poverty.

PN: Many individuals fail to comprehend the true meaning of racism. They do not acknowledge that failing to view someone as an equal is equivalent to saying “I don’t like brown girls”. Some believe that one must harbor hatred and a desire to harm others to be racist. I understand that no one wants to be reprimanded for unintentional actions or to be excluded from important conversations.

FN: However, it is not a matter of exclusion. It is about understanding that the conversation must not revolve around oneself. Simply reading about racism does not grant one an authority to speak on the topic more than someone who has personally experienced it.

PN: Have you heard of the concept of decolonizing the curriculum? University should serve as an intellectual institution to expand our knowledge, but if we only learn from Western philosophers, this subtly reinforces the belief that white culture is intellectually superior. This frames POC as emotional and illogical, often negating their contributions to philosophizing.

FN: Absolutely. I find that people often claim “your personal experience does not surpass statistical data”. One of my friends even believes Nazis should have freedom of speech. They argue that they are not causing direct harm, treating the situation as if it is irrational to fear. However, to me, the most important aspect is safety. If someone wants me dead because of the color of my skin, I am not safe- that is the crucial matter at hand.

PN: Yes, I feel as though white supremacy was often justified through intellectual arguments during my university years. When I watched Hotel Rwanda with a friend to learn about the genocide, he stated that “you’d never find white people running around with machetes in a jungle killing each other like that.” When we discussed the Holocaust, he claimed that the acts were strategic. This taps into an old colonial form of racism that paints non-white people as hotheaded and biologically different. Nazism can be described as anything other than violent or emotional, and any reaction to it is deemed overly emotional or aggressive.

FN: Recently, some friends discussed the so-called colonization of the UK by Islam. One even remarked that 28% of people born in the UK are not British.

PN: But how is that possible? How can one be born in the UK but not be British?

FN: He insisted that “they’re not really British”, and when pressed whether that meant white, he confirmed, “yeah”.

PN: How does this make you feel?

FN: Isolated. People will talk about extremism as though all Muslims are terrorists. However, if I mention the injustices that white individuals have committed, people will argue that it’s only a vocal minority. But ISIS is a vocal minority- they are terrorists.

PN: Do you experience personal targeting?

FN: Frequently, people treat me as an experimental subject. For example, I was eating a full English breakfast with friends when one of them remarked, “You’re Muslim; you shouldn’t be doing that.” I’m sure they didn’t intend to make me feel singled out, but I did. White individuals have their own religions, but they are not assumed to follow them so strictly. However, as a Muslim, I am often questioned about my habits and choices. People don’t seem to realize that I am just a normal 20-year-old student like them.

PN: Does living in a non-white household make a difference?

FN: Yes, I have to put in more effort to find a diverse group of friends. It can be tiring when people expect me to serve as an ambassador for my race. Although I care about racial issues, it is not my only defining characteristic.

FN: During my time in school, my non-white friends expressed their desire to attend Leicester as they didnt want to be outnumbered. I now understand why they felt that way. I feel more conscious of my brown skin when spending time with my white friends, and it becomes quite exhausting. Conversations can often become difficult to navigate. For example, I recently brought up the TV show "Dear White People," and immediately faced backlash from my friends who claimed it was oppressive towards white people. It made me feel uncomfortable and unwilling to engage in any discussions regarding race.

PN: Is it sometimes about seeking some relaxation and ease?

FN: Yes, it is also sometimes about safety. People around me make hurtful remarks, which can be emotionally and mentally challenging to process. For instance, someone from my group made the derogatory comments "fuck the yellows," referring to people of Chinese origin. I understand its not their intention to hurt me, but they forget that Im part of a minority and that such jokes are inappropriate.

PN: It seems absurd that people still find it acceptable to say such things. Ive tried to share my experiences, but people often dismiss my views by claiming that racism isnt a problem where theyre from, as if its only limited to certain areas.

Masala: Im studying at a supposedly liberal college in Colorado, but its not much different from my high school, which was outright racist. Its worse because people here claim to be open-minded and say things like "I dont see color," making it challenging to discuss racism.

PN: Racism exists everywhere. Ive experienced it myself in Manchester, where people use racial slurs like "Paki shop." In Norwich, they make comments about my black boyfriend, and everyone finds it amusing.

FN: Was it different for you at Cambridge?

PN: Yes, in some ways. Officials often approached me and questioned me, even though I was a student there. In this country, we tend to view race issues as class issues. While class played a part at Oxbridge, officials frequently targeted students of color and not their white counterparts.

FN: Was it because of the prestige attached to Cambridge?

PN: Sometimes, I felt like people expected me to be grateful, saying things like "people like you dont typically get the opportunity to attend places like this." I, too, fell for it and thought Id only gotten in through quotas.

FN: That must have been a difficult experience.

PN: Sometimes, I wonder if you have it even harder because young people today seem to be more aware of issues related to race.

FN: Do you think that attending university makes people more politically involved?

PN: Yes, but the way in which young people engage with politics has changed. When I was your age, most people used social media only to stalk each other. Today, young people challenge conventional views and often use social media to discuss issues of cultural appropriation, class fetishism, and race fetishism. I imagine its challenging to face your own oppression with so much knowledge.

FN: I agree. Its frustrating when others dont hear me out and only view me as angry because of my skin color. Its hypocritical; if I were to say to someone, "you only think that because youre white," theyd ridicule me. However, now that Im part of a group that isnt mostly white, things are different.

PN: What about those who warn against echo chambers? In university, I had learned to deal with it, and we do the same in the outside world.

FN: Its easier for me now to live in an echo chamber, but at least people hear me out and relate to my experiences.

PN: Im glad that youre happier now.

The text has been updated to provide more clarity regarding the intention behind two statements. Be sure to keep up with the latest insights from Guardian Students by following @GdnStudents on Twitter.


  • daisymay

    Daisy May is a 34-year-old blogger and student who is passionate about education. She has been blogging about her educational experiences and tips for other students since 2010. Daisy May is currently studying for her Master's degree in Adult Education.



Daisy May is a 34-year-old blogger and student who is passionate about education. She has been blogging about her educational experiences and tips for other students since 2010. Daisy May is currently studying for her Master's degree in Adult Education.