In a landscape of short-term contracts, precarious teaching positions, and student-as-consumer models, universities are becoming increasingly hostile environments for students of colour, particularly non-EU international students. Responses to the neoliberalisation of higher education institutes have ranged from student-led campaigns and protests to academic discourse. Persistent and tenacious work has led to national tours of campaigns like ‘National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts’, ‘Cops Off Campus’, ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ and ‘Students Not Suspects’, which address a plethora of issues, many of which have been exacerbated by the marketisation of universities.
In spite of such successful collective campaigning, many students are still struggling to have their voices heard by mainstream student movements. In a neoliberal system that forces vulnerable students to rely on unions, and particularly the NUS, to support them in the absence of reliable and permanent institutional structures, it is vital that these students are assisted by and centred within student movements. This is important not only in creating sustained support for vulnerable students, but in envisioning the future of student-led activism.
I want to draw your attention to one woman’s case in particular: Sanaz Raji.
Ms. Raji has been campaigning for justice for four years, since her PhD scholarship was revoked by the Institute of Communication Studies (ICS) at the University of Leeds, leaving her homeless, without an income and on a temporary visa. Following this disgraceful and violent treatment by the University of Leeds, Ms. Raji launched the Justice4Sanaz campaign in order to raise awareness of the treatment of non-EU international students in UK universities, and to help her to eat and have a roof over her head. Ms. Raji has had to rely entirely on the kindness of friends and strangers in order to survive since her scholarship revocation and eviction from her student accommodation.
To get through her ordeal, she has been lobbying SUs to support the Justice4Sanaz campaign, including LUU (Leeds University Union), since 2011. Nine SUs, including KCLSU, SOAS, University of Bradford and Royal Holloway, have passed motions of solidarity with the Justice4Sanaz campaign. However, as the Justice4Sanaz campaign rightly points out, ‘simply passing a motion is not enough’. Ms. Raji and other non-EU international students struggling against institutional violence need tangible and sustained support from SUs; not just cursory nods of acknowledgement.
Fast-forward to the end of this year, Ms. Raji is still seeking justice and fighting homelessness. Having been ignored and side-lined by LUU for more than three years, the events that unfolded surrounding the LUU-sponsored ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ talk at Leeds University, is perhaps not surprising, but nonetheless deeply worrying. The ‘Why is My Curriculum White’ campaign is an important critique of the lack of diversity within university course curriculums, and more broadly, a challenge to white supremacist institutional structures, racism and discrimination on campus. Despite Ms. Raji’s grassroots campaign being at the centre of these issues, particularly in relation to the maltreatment of non-EU international students, LUU neglected to involve Justice4Sanaz in the discussion.
The absence of grassroots campaigners on the event panel is particularly worrisome: why are only academic and NUS voices being centred in a discussion of whiteness in university curricula? Surely grassroots activists’ interactions with and thoughts on, education, teaching and assessment are equally as important? One commenter on the ‘Why is my Curriculum White’ event page, Amrit Wilson, made the important point that ‘Only the privileged would wish to separate what students are asked to learn about race on their curriculum from their everyday experiences of racism from, and at, the University’. Indeed, movements that focus on structures that embed racism and other inequalities within the Academy cannot afford to neglect the everyday experiences of discrimination (in and at the hands of universities) faced by marginalised students and the ways in which these experiences interact with and uphold structures like university curricula.
After publically appealing on the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ event page to LUU’s Education Officer who chaired the event, Ms. Raji also drew attention to the fact that since an NUS officer would be speaking on the event panel, the campaign discussion would be in direct violation of the NUS Black Students’ Campaign motion 102a (the Black International Students Motion) which states that the NUS BSC will ‘support the Justice4Sanaz campaign’. Despite the blatant violation of an NUS motion, which seems to mean very little in practice, Ms. Raji was left with a half-hearted response from the NUS representative and no platform to speak at the event.
In a response to my request to comment on the events that transpired during November’s ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ incident, Melissa Owusu, Education Officer at LUU, said:
‘Unfortunately I was not aware of the Justice for Sanaz campaign prior to organising the line-up for the “Why is my Curriculum White” event, so was unable to incorporate it into the agenda. However, I have reached out to Sanaz but to date my offers of support haven’t been taken up.’
It is important to say at this point that the LUU offered to mention Ms. Raji’s campaign at the beginning of the ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ event at Leeds, but this offer was not followed through and no mention of the campaign nor Ms. Raji’s predicament was made. Moreover, many commenters and onlookers have questioned why Ms. Raji did not accept Ms. Owusu’s proposal to be featured on a future panel at the university. We must continue to remind ourselves that an offer to be featured on an unnamed future panel is not a concrete way in which Ms. Raji can receive support and exposure for her campaign. The LUU and other Student Unions must understand that, in order to support people like Ms. Raji who are in extremely vulnerable and precarious positions, they must provide tangible real-time support as opposed to vague future offers that can easily be retracted or forgotten. Grassroots campaigns like Justice4Sanaz can not rely on empty promises: they need active and timely solidarity from student unions and organisations.
Ms. Raji attended the ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ event on the 26th October with Mr. Tony Erizia, a founding member of the NUS Black Students Campaign. According to multiple accounts of the evening, the event was strictly securitised, which is highly unusual – we can only surmise that a security presence may have been requested by event organisers. After being notified by a union officer, a security staff member approached Ms. Raji to order her to stop filming the event. However, things really got out of order when Ms. Raji began reading her statement of intervention towards the end of the event. According to Mr. Erizia and other witnesses, three large white male security staff members grabbed Ms. Raji as she was reading, and attempted to bundle her down a flight of steps towards the room exits. Mr. Erizia was also physically handled by security when he attempted to intervene in Ms. Raji’s forced exit. After vocalisations of dismay from some audience members, Ms. Raji was able to read her statement, albeit surrounded by security.
It is appalling that Ms. Raji was so blatantly put under surveillance and treated with such contempt in a setting that was meant to provide a platform for the voices of People of Colour. Moreover, it is telling that there have been no official responses to the way she was treated during the event, where security guards bundled Ms. Raji down the venue’s steps while simultaneously a tour discussing Prevent and surveillance (Students Not Suspects) is making its way around universities in the UK. What does this mean if we turn a blind eye to surveillance of students/individuals within the very events we hold when it is convenient to us? What does it indicate about our engagement with broader issues about race and higher education, when we fail to extend support to the very people who are suffering under these structures? How did we allow a Woman of Colour, who is homeless, has no institutional backing, and is currently living with a precarious visa status and no passport, to be silenced during an event about whiteness, race and higher education?
Following Ms. Raji’s and Mr. Erizia’s treatment at the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ event, the Justice4Sanaz campaign sent a formal letter of complaint to the LUU on the 4th November. The letter highlighted and challenged the securitisation of the event, and the silencing of Ms. Raji’s intervention, arguing that:
‘If she [Ms. Raji] and other Black and people of colour cannot have frank discussions and more importantly, support for their activism, then we are afraid that the Why is my Curriculum White event will become little more than a cosmetic performance of caring about racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and misogynoir while allowing for these very problems to continue without a sustainable response and support for those people and campaigns trying their best to oppose such measures.’
On the 11th November, the LUU issued a response to the Justice4Sanaz campaign’s complaint. In the letter, the LUU emphasise that the event was securitised due to ‘the numbers of attendees’, and that the LUU’s Executive Officers ‘are not mandated to support individual campaigns if they do not wish to do so’.
We remain silent and apathetic to Ms. Raji’s case because it is convenient to turn a blind eye to campaigns that require more sustained and critical solidarity from us. The fact of the matter is that people involved in the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ event at Leeds University felt more comfortable focusing on performing a type of ‘solidarity’, while permitting a vulnerable Woman of Colour activist (who has been at the receiving end of the very institutional violence the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ campaign claims to address) to be berated, silenced and demonised.
For years now, Ms. Raji has been deeply vilified by Leeds University as a vindictive, angry and unstable brown woman. And while one would hope that this would remain the warped cry of a neoliberal university attempting to cover its tracks and invalidate a grassroots campaign’s calls for justice, we are seeing this trope increasingly adopted and invoked by others in an attempt to justify their silence and non-action in light of Ms. Raji’s pleas for support. Ms. Raji should not have to perform a type of victimhood that requires her to be a ‘likeable’ and palatable victim in order to be supported by SUs and the NUS.
But one thing that the Justice4Sanaz campaign has highlighted over the years, is that Ms. Raji is not the only non-EU international student suffering as a result of institutional violence: the abuse of non-EU international students is a systematic issue. The Justice4Sanaz campaign has fought to bring other cases of abuse against international students to the forefront of student campaigns, particularly urgent since such cases are often described as individual incidents. One such case, which both the Justice4Sanaz campaign and BuzzFeed have highlighted, is the plight of a disabled woman of colour postgraduate non-EU international student at LSE. LSE accommodation has failed to provide sufficient housing for her disability – in her own words:
‘What they [LSE management] are trying to do, what they have been trying to do for the past 6 months is just to stretch [this matter] out for as long as possible so I don’t have funds to either stay in the country, to support myself, or to pay for repeat teaching.
The amount of time this has taken me has not only [taken time] for me to recover mobility in my left arm, the emotional distress because I have a disability, the cost which is more than $85,000 US dollars in loans, the physical impact of having to move 4 times.’
Another two devastating examples of abuse of non-EU international students come from SOAS, where one student, Nayantara Premakumar, was kicked off their course for requesting an appropriate supervisor, while Sahil Warsi notes that they have faced struggles similar to that of Ms. Raji’s while having also seen peers face similar institutional discrimination.
So, in light of the ways in which non-EU international students continue to face systematic abuse at their institutions of study, what can we do about it? We need SUs and student campaigns to take a more hard-line stance on supporting grassroots campaigners like Ms. Raji. We need to move beyond petty respectability politics that requires vulnerable students to adopt a certain form of ‘likeable’ victimhood in order to receive solidarity and for their cases to be taken seriously. SUs should, as Warwick 4 Free Education have mentioned, be ‘the highest form of student representation […] created to promote the welfare and voices of students, giving them a platform to engage democratically in University processes and decisions’. If we fail to provide this support to those who need it most, like Ms. Raji and other vulnerable non-EU international students, we are allowing SUs to become neoliberal service providers, rather than platforms for student voices and sites of solidarity.
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Ananya Rao-Middleton is an M.Phil student in Modern South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge and a graduate of History and Anthropology BA from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her academic interests include Hindu nationalism, structural violence, gendered surveillance and neoliberalism in South Asia. She writes on intersectional feminism, issues pervading the War on Terror, and politics within South Asia and the UK diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @ananya_rm
More by Ananya Rao-Middleton
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11 thoughts on “‘Palatable Victimhood’ and the Callous Hierarchies of Power within Student Politics”
According to the University of Leeds Ms Raji’s scholarship was withdrawn because of poor academic progress (https://www.leeds.ac.uk/news/article/3673/statement).
Having a PhD myself and been through the system I can’t see anything that supports any other conclusion that’s she’s simply not PhD material, or made some very bad choices over her research and was unwilling to address those.
PhDs are not like taught courses, they’re more like an academic apprenticeship and as much of a test of character as raw academic ability. There’s nothing to be ashamed of starting one then finding it’s not for you, many students do then take a lesser degree and exit having discovered something about themselves. Equally PhDs by their very nature carry some risk (it’s original research after all) and sometimes things simply don’t work out. Part of the process is recognising that with your supervisor and addressing the concerns and changing tack, and if you don’t accepts advice then it’s your own responsibility if you subsequently fail to meet the required standard.
This would look far more to me like Ms Raji has simply been unable to come to terms with the fact she’s not been producing PhD quality material and has had a massive hissy fit rather than accept that. It’s also pretty amazing that anyone thinks she’s going to achieve a PhD with a substandard thesis. The process of assessment of a thesis by internal, and external examiner’s is rigorous to say the least (as anyone who’s experience a four hour viva being grilled intensively by your examiners will know), and awarding a PhD is an academic, responsibility to which as an examiner you publicly put your name and reputation.
Your comment is not only based on misleading information, as Ms Raji has pointed out, but is patronising and completely misses the point of this article. This piece is not about Ms. Owusu, and when it does address the shortcomings of NUS and SU officers, the piece does this by highlighting structural issues as opposed to blaming individuals. It is a real shame that quite a few commenters have come to this article with the intention to deliberately individualise the issues faced by non-EU international students, including Ms. Raji. It is also of utmost importance to consider power, as well as politics, in how non-EU international students are treated by HE institutions and sidelined by student politics — their precariousness and powerlessness needs to be taken into account when we discuss their plights vis-a-vis institutions and representatives in salaried positions.
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Thank you for writing your informative article.
I wanted to add a few bits of information that you may find useful
Ms. Raji grew up in Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania – one of the wealthiest suburbs in America. Her father is a wealthy American doctor. She grew up in a mansion and went to one of the best high schools in America. Unfortunately, she had “mild dyslexia” and never quite fit into her socio-economic milieu. She developed an insecurity complex and anger problems due to this conflicted upbringing. She lived at home until she was 26 years old, so she was very delayed in finding her independent identity. Moving to the UK and obtaining a PhD was her best chance for attaining validation as an “academic” and asserting her independence. “Academic success” is the idol that she craves: the one thing that will “right all of the wrongs of the past.” Most people who fail out of a PhD program (fairly or unfairly), feel anger, shame, and grief. But, they are able to accept reality and move on with their lives. Unfortunately, Ms. Raji has been unable to move forward because she is filled with deep conflict and unresolved identity issues. She blames “the system”, but, in truth, the problem is within her own heart and mind.
This continued targeting of Ms Owusu by Sanaz and her supporters is disgusting. Not everyone who doesn’t agree to give Sanaz a platform to speak on is an oppressor exercising their privilege to crush her movement! The speakers had already been organized way before she started to contact Ms Owusu publicly, and to be honest if Sanaz had approached me in such a rude, abusive way I would not have invited her to speak either! Ms Owusu DID shout out the Justice 4 Sanaz cacmpaign at the end, I was there. And Ms Owusu also is making a HUGE impact on the student body here in Leeds, so many people are becoming interested and involved in the dismantling of the white curriculum thanks to her! This article does not actually highlight anything about Ms Owusu’s so called “privilege” (let’s not forget she is a hardworking disabled, black, lesbian woman), this is nothing to do with privilege. Instead of writing a takedown of another BME student who launched the first ever event of this kind in the north of the country and accusing her of using her power to silence people, you could have written something slightly less divisive, and less based on Sanaz’s personal history with Ms. Owusu due to not being able to bully her into getting to speak at the event.
I am going to reply directly to your accusations indicating that I’m “simply not PhD material”. There has been ample information that I was a victim of institutional racism and bullying via e-mails acquired from the University of Leeds from a FOI request that show without a shadow of a doubt the type of deplorable and vile attitudes prevalent during the time that I was a PhD candidate which you can read here:
Most people like yourself fail to take into account that when I began my PhD at the School of Media and Communication, University of Leeds I was given a PhD Scholar three year scholarship on account of the strength of my previous academic work and writing. During my PhD I had presented numerous academic papers and had published chapters in books with other leading academics in the field of diaspora studies, gender studies, queer studies, etc.
Even after the disgusting treatment that I had endured at the University of Leeds, which, I might add left me in enforced poverty and now homelessness, I still managed to produce academic works, like my co-authored piece in the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies [http://read.dukeupress.edu/author/Raji,Sanaz].
So, if I’m, to your opinion not “PhD material” I suppose, there would be no way for me to do one iota of the academic work that I have accomplished without a PhD!
Of course, the University of Leeds has hidden behind and used the idea that I was not suited for PhD level work in order to cover their backsides for the lack of supervision that I was not given, the discriminatory treatment and outright hostilities that I received as a women of color in academia. This is not new. We have seen the same sort of discourse recycled over and over again to victimize and abuse talented Black and PoC scholars within higher education, whether in the UK, EU, or North America. In the UK alone, out of 18,500 lecturers, only 85 of which are Black- that statistic alone points to the endemic racism within British higher education. If by your argumentation, I guess we should conclude that not many Black and PoC academics are intellectually suited for higher education- not the fact that most if not all face appalling levels of racism, xenophobia, ableism, and other structural barriers that actively forces them out of academic positions!
Hiri, I think most of us know that an PhD is an contribution to an original research. However, some of the things that you’ve regurgitated from some vile neoliberal anus of white supremacy makes me chuckle. My PhD was not substandard, but your level of delusional thinking and coming to terms with my activism and the active racism that Black, PoC and especially so non-EU students routinely encounter within the halls of many British universities is exactly how the neoliberal system of higher education wants you to think. It is the type of thinking that universities profit from in order for you to stop interrogating why early career researchers are overworked, under-paid and living with constant precarious employment, that disproportionately affects and disadvantages Black, PoC, working class, and non-EU academics.
If you are the future of academia, then we are well and truly fucked.
Firstly just a touch curious why do you assume that I am both white and not from a working class background? And the lab I worked in as a graduate student was pretty much the definition of multicultural too, with the running joke from one of the postdocs that as she was a Brahmin she was unarguably superior to the rest of us 🙂
“My PhD was not substandard”…. Frankly that’s not up to you to judge is it?. You seem to act like you’ve some sort an entitlement to a PhD just because you enrolled for one, and your whole attitude to your supervision seems naive, in my case for instance half of my thesis was in areas and techniques that my superior had no experience in, and as to absence, well he departed two days after I arrived in his department for a three month exchange visit elsewhere.
As to overworked, sure you should be, if you expect to get a PhD off a 40 hour, or even 60 hour week you’re deluded. PhDs are hard work and quite often lonely experiences too, that’s why so many people drop out, but the privilege is you get three years to work obsessively in new research with relatively few of the restrictions you have later and to rub shoulders with, learn from, and if you’re very lucky party with, the brightest people in your field.
Oh and just because you’ve published isn’t proof of anything. As an academic you’ll know quite well that papers are pitched to the academic journal that will accepts them, right down to the apocryphal Journal of Rejected Papers that is common to any field. Of much more interest there would how often anything you’ve written has been subsequently cited and where.
Frankly you should swallow your pride and sense of entitlement, apply for a lesser degree from the University of Leeds and move on.
I went to the event and it was the first of it’s kind in Leeds which introduced many students to the concept of the white curriculum. I’m sorry but the panel was picked way before Sanaz requested to be on it, and the focus of the event was to analyse our curriculum. Ms Owusu has been doing amazing work accross the uni to encourage people to think about the way we learn and white supremacy within the university system. Stop trying to discredit all of the work she is doing, and the hard work put into the event just because she didn’t give Sanaz a platform to speak on at it. She didn’t have to do it and she doesn’t deserve to be targeted for not giving in to Sanaz’s requests! If you stayed till the end you will remember that Ms. Owusu actually did shout out Justice 4 Sanaz and told those attending how they could join her cause. She’s doing a great job and it’s actually really disgusting that so many people are taking away from that just because she chose not to work with a woman who was extremely abusive and rude to her when she didn’t get her own way!
I agree with the comment above about the need for WIMCW to engage with grassroots organisations and move beyond the university setting to include the wider educational system and the vast ways in which race relations manifests itself in the UK.
But, I think this argument would hold more ground in a region or university where the debate has taken off further. It is important to note that this was the launch event, not an event that centres on how to advance the campaign in Leeds. Indeed, we need to start somewhere at Leeds and having visible, influential and learned panellists who are willing to share their experience and knowledge, is an ideal way to begin the debate. This is not to say only those who are part of NUS or are academics understand the debate or have anything to contribute, but in terms of people who’s knowledge and experience is recognised, then who better?
Certainly, there needs to be better acknowledgement of grassroots movements such as Sanaz4Justice and more inclusion of these organisations in the debate. This needs to happen sooner rather than later. But this oversight on the part of the organisers is not one of malice or ignorance. It is not even an oversight. It is a decision that was made to attract as many people to the event, to show the University and the Union the extent of support there is for the WIMCW movement. Not only are we challenging an institution, we have to be aware that we work within it. The way the University works is that it will not seriously take forward discussions which only a few people are having. The launch was the best way to highlight the seriousness of the discussion. It allows the campaign to hit the ground running in Leeds with high profile academics and NUS officials, so we can then begin to move beyond talk and focus on action, which would include grassroots organisations and the wider educational system.
The Why Is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch event was organized by Leeds University Union with the backing of the NUS Black Students Campaign. While I welcomed such a timely and important discussion to take place, I was equally dismayed and disappointed that grassroots campaigns were completely left out of the discussion altogether. As Ananya Rao-Middleton’s piece indicates, quite rightly, we cannot discussed the issue of white supremacy by engaging in discourses that ignore the grassroots campaigns on the ground fighting the same issues, often with little to no support.
As for whether the LUU’s or for that matter, NUS BSC response to my request was, as you put, an oversight, “not one of malice or ignorance”– this is debatable.
After the debacle at WIMCW?, the Justice4Sanaz campaign wrote this piece outlining the issues at stake and particularly the negligent response by both LUU via Melissa Owusu and the NUS BSC via Malia Bouattia before and after the event:
“The Justice4Sanaz campaign found Ms Owusu’s response entirely deficient in tone and lacking in action. In fact, it was noting more than someone using their power to discipline and silence our voice rather than to engage with the important aspects to Ms Raji’s public appeal. Ms Raji would not need to have gone to such great lengths had LUU worked with the Justice4Sanaz campaign at the onset. If anything, Ms Owusu revealed that she was more interested in controlling the Why is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch to reflect a thoroughly institutional approach to the event that did not ruffle the feathers of the University of Leeds, while saving her own face in order to look in control. With people like this, it is no wonder why we are still having a conversation about white supremacy and racism within British higher education– it allows mainstream student political leaders to manipulate the truly revolution and radical message by distilling it into something that neoliberal “diversity” oriented Black and PoC activists can use to make themselves appear radical- i.e. cosmetic/performance activism, while ignoring the truly radical work of those Black and PoC activists who are engaged in these struggles, day in, day out. After all, Ms Raji is not interested in becoming an elected member of the NUS or becoming a Labour councilor- she simply wants to vindicate her name that has been rubbished by the University of Leeds and to help other non-EU international students of color who experience institutional racism, and xenophobia on and off campus.
Compounding this was that we found out that Ms Malia Bouattia, the NUS Black Students’ Campaign (BSC) Officer was also set to speak at the University of Leeds for the Why is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch. In May 2014 the NUS BSC passed a motion in to support the Justice4Sanaz campaign. The motion, entitled “Black International Students” indicates that the NUS BSC would “support the Justice4Sanaz campaign.” Since the passing of this motion, the campaign has not received any tangible support for over a year. Therefore when we learned that Ms Bouattia was set to speak at the Why is My Curriculum White? Leeds Launch event, Ms Raji sent this public message which indicated that speaking at the event without mentioning and/or inviting the Justice4Sanaz campaign to take part would be violation of the motion that the NUS BSC passed in May 2014. Ms Bouattia’s response was equally disappointing- again, you can see everything in the link below, along with her supporters and NUS officers, many of whom have consistently failed to answer messages sent from the Justice4Sanaz campaign, yet somehow finding the time to comment and send a barrage abuse and accuse Ms Raji of things that are again completely unfounded:
This article hasn’t addressed the title of this article, it is about one campaign Justice4Sanaz which is completely fair and I hope she gets the justice she’s campaigning for.
I was expecting this article to explore the nuances of the why is my curriculum white campaign, cops of campus etc that those leading it or able to participate are those who have succeeded in or managed to survive the educational system. This isn’t to undermine the campaigns at all. It’s about encouraging thinking about how we can link these campaigns up with other campaigns of Black empowerment eg. secondary and primary, 6th form/college education, the dire state of apprenticships, youth prisons and detention.
Writers do not choose the titles. Feel free to engage in the actual content if the piece.