Highly coloured remarks

April 7, 1995

The racism I faced wasn't a very violent form. . . it was much more the patronising tone with which people dealt with me. It was as if to say, 'we don't let many of you in so you should be grateful'."

The very fact that Shrupti Shah even got to university marked a personal triumph over the stereotypical attitudes that confront many black and Asian would-be students.

Brought up in what she describes as "whiter than white" Exeter, her university ambitions were largely dismissed as unrealistic. Members of her extended family questioned whether a university education was necessary or appropriate for a girl. . . people at the local further education college were totally dismissive: "They literally used to laugh in my face when I said I wanted to go to university.'' Shrupti put her critics in their place by winning a place at Oxford University, where she read physics at Somerville College. Despite her experience of growing up in a largely white town, she believes it did little to prepare her for the way she felt she was treated at Oxford.

"It was very white and very male. The whole place had a public-school ethos and background. I found that many of the other students treated me as if I was some sort of quota.'' She did not face any overt racism or racial violence whilst at Somerville, but says she suffered from a kind of prejudice and covert racism, which she found quite debilitating. "For example. I'd been working for weeks on a major practical report. I wrote it all up and was very pleased with it. I lent it to a white male colleague who copied it literally word for word. When we got the marks back he got lots of very helpful comments, advice and analysis. All I got was 'good presentation'. In itself it's not a big thing but over time I felt undermined, as if I was being denied any credit as a scientist."

Paradoxically this incident, one of the few times she felt she had evidence of being discriminated against, actually helped her come to terms with the situation. "Up until then my confidence had been shaken and undermined. But this made me realise that there was nothing wrong with me or my work. It made me aware that I was not the problem.'' In her current position as vice president (education) of the National Union of Students, Shrupti has to deal with student complaints of racial discrimination. There are surprisingly few cases. Those there are range from freshers complaining of prejudice from flatmates they did not choose through to academic appeals, where people feel they have been given lower marks because of their colour.

She believes the lack of discussion about racism against students on campus is partly because the institutions want to protect their reputations, and partly because the students do not want her to make an issue out of their problem: "The students simply want the problem dealt with, whatever it is."

And when it comes to dealing with race problems she says she has found the new universities are far better than the older ones.

"Perhaps it's because the former polytechnics and colleges have more experience of dealing with black and Asian students," she explains. "The former polytechnics and colleges seem to have adapted themselves to meet the needs of their students. Often with the older universities you get the impression that it's the students who're expected to adapt to fit the needs of the college."

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