Dodging the ‘N Word’: Being Black and Female in (Mostly) White, Male Student Halls

Image copyright GoogleMaps 2017.

What happens when a woman of colour from vibrant South London moves into a student flat in Portsmouth with a group of mostly white men? Dyanni Swhyer-Brown reveals all.

I stared out of my window at the sunset shining through the gaps between the James Watson Hall and the surrounding buildings. I ducked at one point for fear that a girl outside might think me a peeping Tom. So much for making friends then.

I didn’t want to venture out, but I could hear my friend’s voice in the back of my head, urging me towards the kitchen. ‘Be more sociable!’ My food was there and my stomach was growling. It was now or never. I preferred never, but that also meant starvation which I didn’t fancy trying. Slowly I pulled the creaky door, each millimetre sending out an echoing screech into the empty hallway.

How could this happen to me? I was used to being the only one, or the ‘Tigger’ of things. Only child, only friend, only person of colour in the room. Now, I was reduced to the only girl, as well as the only member of an ethnic minority in my university flat. I remembered breaking that news to my mum. She’s usually not fazed by me mumbling while trying to beat her Subway Surfers’ high score (yes, I am serious. She was addicted). However, saying ‘You know I’m the only girl in my halls flat right?’ had her finger hovering over the phone screen and left her running partner, Frizzy, crashing into a brick wall.

‘What?’ was all she came back with, but I saw everything else in her face.

Her only daughter, smart enough to get into university, surrounded by rampant hormones and dirty, crunchy floors for nine months. If she hadn’t boasted to her friends, she would’ve suggested deferring a year or find alternative housing. But it was too late.

After coming to terms with my imminent departure, Mum made sure I had every variation of Dunn’s River seasoning to last me the year. A ‘likkle taste of home while you’re away’ she said, re-sorting the cupboards I had just packed. She would have given me a couple of plantains, but was worried that light-fingered flatmates would mistake them for bananas. I didn’t actually think she would leave me here with them. I expected her to move in down the hall and make friends with my flatmates, so I didn’t have to. I was a girl’s girl. How would I survive nine months with my reflection being the only female company?

No more stalling, I thought, thrusting myself out the room and tip toeing down the hall. Well, I ended up spending five minutes galloping between my room and the kitchen door, like a shookhead. Eventually, I managed to push the kitchen door and not bolt away.

The laughter hit me, before I managed to take in everyone’s faces. I tried to match faces to Facebook pages, remembering who I met yesterday. The boy with the cheddar grin, who offered to help me with my bags. I refused because I didn’t need them thinking I was some limpy orchid, with no upper body strength. Was it the lanky, bearded one who caught me Skyping my friend in the cupboard, whilst on a quest for toilet roll? As first impressions come, it was only a matter of time before my weird side emerged.

One of them shook my hand, because a polite wave hello wasn’t enough. He asked if he properly pronounced my name, and I had to stifle a snide ‘Ha!’ It would be some form of sorcery if my name was pronounced correctly the first time around. Loudly and clearly, so all could hear, I revealed the proper way to pronounce it. I even gave a list of acceptable mispronunciations now turned into nicknames like ‘Dannie’ but not ‘Diana’.

Satisfied, I looked for a stool in the furthest corner, taking a homemade cookie out of the tub on the side. It was a piece of home I could replicate, even with a shitty three setting oven. I wasn’t paying attention to their conversations. The topic of girls came up at one point, but I couldn’t join in. I don’t have a girlfriend at Oxford or Cambridge. I have a stuffed dinosaur from Woolworths.

At some point, the ice broke between the five boys, who started asking about the maddest things they’d done, like accidental school arson or that mad skiing trip that they all seemed to have gone on. I was still observing from the safety of my window corner. Dannie Attenborough, thrust from her multicultural life in South London to live amongst melanin – deprived males, in a building named after the discoverer of the DNA structure and a proven racist. That’s when I was blind-sided. It was as if I was enjoying the shade underneath a tree that housed a sleeping cheetah.

‘Can I ask you a question?’ one of them directed at me from across the room. I nodded, putting on my friendliest smile.

‘I play my music really loud and have a lot of songs with the N-word in them and…’ I didn’t hear the rest, as my ears set themselves on fire and my eyes rolled to the back of my throat.

Really? REALLY? This was the first full day. Is this how it was going to be for the rest of the year?

I never really understood the concept of ‘the burden of representation’ before this moment. It was the first time I was aware how much of a minority I truly was. It sounds silly, but I came from a school where white people were the rarity. There were enough white people not to notice a divide in school but they were still under-represented. Now, I was sat in a room with people who’d never had a proper conversation with a black person before me.

Were they going to then ask if I actually liked chicken and why I wore dreadlocks?

First, stupid question: chicken is universally good. The only reason it has been attached to black people is because we season it. Yes, I need all seven of those seasoning jars, that’s why our flat smells so nice when I cook.

Second, I twist my hair. Locs are permanent, these are not. So, if you don’t see me all day, I’m either dead or doing my hair. Yes it does take that long and no you can’t touch it.

Was I now going to be the encyclopaedia for everything black?

They’re all still looking this way.

‘So is that okay with you?’

Do I say yes or do I say no? Yes or no? Yay or nay? I don’t even use the bloody word. Why has this been put on me?

I looked to the Asian housemate for a supporting glance, but no luck. I should have known he’d be no help. He was the one offering up hand-flipping-shakes!

If I said no, I would be another uptight black girl to them, always finding something to be ‘angry at the white man’ for. The dandelion scrounging in the garden of freedom and self-expression.

If I said yes, my name would mean ‘betrayer’ instead of ‘precious one’. The phrase ‘Dyanni said it was cool’ would be used to excuse prejudiced behaviours. If I stayed silent, that would be so much worse. I needed to establish a voice here. Ground rules. I licked my full lips and sighed. They all widened their eyes simultaneously. Were they more scared? I doubt it; there were four of them against little ol’ me.

‘You can play your music, as long as you’re not saying it when you sing along. I don’t even say it.’

There. It was done. I set down the law and braced myself for the uproar that followed. Instead, he slowly nodded in agreement and I could breathe again. I had successfully dealt with a racially charged discussion and came out of it unscathed. For years to come, the moment when I, the only female, managed to keep the peace between my unruly male flatmates, without backup, will be remembered amongst students.

The guys seemed to have respected my answer, because conversation swiftly moved onto wanking habits. Yes, with me still in there, and no, they didn’t give a damn. They now saw me on their level and I would use it to my advantage, even if that meant suffering through TMI conversations. I even got them to promise to do game night. Me!

If I carried on like this, I could end up being queen. Yes, Dyanni, queen of the Uni-jungle has a pleasant ring to it. However, knowing my luck, I’ll end up being Dannie, queen of the park. Not even a nice park. A muddy one, with old crisp packets, lifeless acorn trees and no swings.

Image copyright GoogleMaps 2017.

  • Ellijay

    Eloquently written and problem solved with brilliant diplomacy, I think Dyanni will go far.