Navigating Freshers' with Microaggressions


By Leanne Gayle, BBC Intern

Ex-English student and now BBC Intern, Leanne Gayle, discusses her Freshers' experience of 2016, noting various microaggressions made against her for Epigram's #WhatsMicroaggression campaign.

There is a line for every POC where friendly banter turns into a microaggression. That line can only be defined by personal experience and how someone is made to feel in that moment. The spectrum of microaggressions can be wide. Whilst asking questions about my hair or asking to feel it might not bother me in the slightest, for others, it is a repetitive and strange request from non-POC that contributes towards possible feelings of otherness in what feels like elite spaces - such as the University of Bristol.

Freshers' week is always a place where as a black person, you will have to navigate your space and make your personal boundaries clear. Many of my friends around the UK told their flatmates from day one they did not want the N word uttered in any circumstance. Others made clear that racial fetishisation would also not be cool.


In my first night in Bristol, I felt like a complete outsider. I tried really hard to talk to girls in my building, but knew I wasn’t fitting in. The way people spoke, dressed and their cultural interests were somewhat not aligned with what I grew up with. However, I was ready to embrace change. We all have to adapt in some ways. Bristol University was always going to be a majority Whitespace - I knew that and I still applied.

I ended up joining this group walking to Motion who were, of course, the edgiest group Bristol had to offer. They were lovely towards me, but we had nothing in common. We trekked down to Motion, it was a local DJ, and I all I could hear was the same beat banging over and over again. I asked myself – 'ok, is this what people do for fun?' I started talking to a guy in the smoking area. We spoke about where we came from and what environments we grew up in to finally arrive in Bristol.

It seemed like it was all going well until he told me I didn’t ‘seem like a real black person’. I was confused and asked him what he meant, he then went on to explain that there was a ‘real’ black person living in his accommodation - with a ‘big nose’ and a more stereotypical black name. I think I was still standing there in shock when he told me there were no black people in his school, only Asian students, but he used a racial slur instead.


I felt sick. A guy I met from that group earlier saw I looked distressed - an ally. He came over and asked if I was ok, and took me away. I honestly could not believe what I had heard that night. I had never had a conversation like it before. The whole day had been awful. It didn’t even begin to reach anything I had hoped for my experience at Bristol. Needless to say, I went back to room and just cried until I woke up the next morning.

Freshers' was not over. Day two consisted of walking from pre-drinks to a club with a person comparing our life situations. They were a privileged white person who attended an average private school - unlike some of the elite names you hear around Bristol University. I left them feeling somewhat of an outsider.

I, a black, Caribbean, working-class woman, as far removed from the Bristol Elite as you can imagine, never having even met a private school student before arriving at University. I understood their frustrations, but was annoyed that they even tried to equate our experiences. Furthermore, telling me 'how few black people in their private school' also annoyed me - a conversation I neither began or wanted to engage with on my night out. Thank you, next.


A few weeks after Freshers, I settled into a nice group of friends who were fun and open-minded. They were all white, some interested in having discussion about race, others were not so much. Most importantly, I felt comfortable with them; switching up hairstyles, wearing my wig one day and braids the next.

In this new group or as an added extension, there was another non-black POC. He would make comments and jokes about only being interested in dating White Women, claiming he would never date his own race or black women. I questioned him on this: the answer was not even a tolerable 'it’s my preference,' but instead that 'people in his own race were annoying or not to his standards.'

It frustrated me that my friends would hang out with someone like this - but it didn’t bother them, why would it? Later on, he called me the N word as a joke. I looked at him earnestly and asked him not to call me that word in any context. He quickly tried to turn it into a weird situation; falsely accusing me, saying I called him a racial slur, making the whole situation sound like back and forth banter. The awkward faces on everyone around us was tragic, quickly trying to move the subject on. They didn’t care - no one cared. Another part of my University experience, another day feeling misunderstood and lost.


All of these events were somewhere on the scale of outright racism to quiet microaggressions. Each time I felt further and further disconnected from the people around me. There was still an emptiness inside me, everywhere I went in Bristol I dragged my feet and felt a dark cloud hovering over me. I cried to my close friends from home who listened and empathised.

Black people in White spaces need allies, so they feel safe on a night out or comfortable to just be themselves. If I were going to give some advice to students who want to be allies; don’t pretend race doesn’t exist, most of us our proud of our heritage and culture we happy to share this. Pretending not to acknowledge the injustice caused by racism all over the world is just another microaggression, in my eyes.

I found that most microaggressions are mostly born out of ignorance, so education and conversations can be key. However, there are those that are willing to listen to the experiences of black students and adapt accordingly. I met some of these people at Bristol and they were a lifeline. However, if Bristol University is to ever truly evolve then it must continue to improve diversity in terms of race and class of its students.

Explore more contributions from Epigram's #WhatsMicroaggression campaign here.

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