Airashi Dutta shares why she refuses to consider ‘you speak such good English’ a compliment and other common experiences as an international student in St Andrews. Part 2.
Within the St Andrews community, there seems to be a divide, a feeling of “us” and “them” that is unintentionally cultivated. I have experienced a series of racial micro aggressive encounters that aren’t lethal but are most certainly hurtful. One example of this is being called ‘exotic’. Once again this is something that is seen as a compliment but really isn’t; you would call a rug ‘exotic’, not a living breathing person.
As we are in a bubble, and despite my love for tradition, some ‘quintessentially St Andrews’ components are antiquated and could use with a 21st century update. The Kate Kennedy Club, the club we love to hate, is an example of such an institution. Made of predominantly ‘posh’ or well to do white boys and barely a handful of people of colour, it can hardly be classed as a modern charity or an inclusive one. The insertion of the ‘token’ female in the group in 2012 is hardly inclusive – more than half the university’s student body is excluded from the time of birth. Sure, one could argue that there are international members, but does this represent the body of international students as a whole, or just those from other European nations and the western world at large? Looking through the annual group photos of the club, it is evident that the point stands… hardly takes Sherlock Holmes to arrive at that conclusion.
Treatment of the different racial groups by the student body also varies greatly. The Scandinavian Society organises the Nobel Ball every November, a highly competitive month for events. This year’s edition saw the tickets sell out before they had even been offered to those that had queued in front of Hope Street. Clearly, it is a sell-out event that is highly sought after, and with it comes the vibe of classy fun. There’s also Sitara*, the fashion show organised by the Sanskriti Society. Students at the event are whisked away to a world of South Asian culture fused with modernity and high fashion. Also a highly sought after event, it breaks away from traditional catwalk routine, creating a warm and inclusive vibe. In the midst of the fashion show season, Sitara* is one of the most grounded and unique events one can go to.
What do both of these big events have in common? They are both organised by committees made up predominantly by people who come from the respective cultures, thereby giving the group the chance to have direct control over how they choose to have their culture and society at large perceived by the St Andrews community. Juxtapose this with Xavier Ball, formally branded the (in)famous Bongo Ball, where a committee of predominantly white students had complete control over how they projected their take on African culture. This completely fetishises African culture and is utterly inappropriate, and ‘fun’ is not a valid justification for trivialising someone else’s culture and simplifying it into animal prints and the Lion King. Yes, I understand that the main goal behind Xavier Ball is to raise funds for the Xavier Project (a very compelling cause founded by an inspiring St Andrews Alumnus), but perhaps the method to go about doing so could be altered. So hats off to this year’s Xavier Ball committee for rebranding themselves and distancing themselves from the ‘Africa meets black tie’ theme.
Once again, I want to return to the original thought that spurred this piece of writing. I love this university and the Bubble, I have met some of my best friends here. But there are some experiences that taint this otherwise happy picture of my university days. Keep the so called ‘compliment’ of language proficiency to yourselves. Or even better, admit the gap in your knowledge (nobody knows everything after all) and use this opportunity to learn about another culture. Being asked by people why one speaks such good English is a question that belongs in a bygone era – it was one my mother was asked when she started working in the nineties, not one international students studying at one of the UK’s most prestigious university should be asked.