Oxford PhD candidate Warren Stanislaus discovered that by treading a path less travelled, he was able to break through some of the barriers that black British students have to face. He describes his personal journey to further education below, explaining how a pivotal moment came when he first visited Japan.
The Guardian’s report on racism and unconscious bias reveals neatly how the expectations that society has of BME people - and we have for ourselves - can be limited. In other recent research, the underrepresentation of black and minority ethnic (BME) students and staff in history programmes across the UK was revealed by the Royal Historical Society. The data showed that history, alongside other humanities subjects such as languages, is one of the least diverse disciplines. The numbers are particularly disheartening at the postgraduate research level in history. BME students make up just 8.6% of the total 4,670 postgraduate researchers. Black students have the lowest participation rate at 1.7%. Looking at the same figures for languages, the next generation of researchers is only 1.2% black. Straddling the two fields, I am in the 1%.
When I returned to the University of Oxford in October 2017 it was as one of only a handful of black British students (of African or Caribbean descent) to have ever been enrolled in an Oxford history PhD programme. For me, it was a transformative encounter with Japan that led to this road less travelled.
Although I was lucky enough to go to an independent school in London, I was never fully engaged in the educational experience. With no examples of black British intellectuals, my aspirations lay in the worlds of sport and popular music – areas where black ambitions are often channelled by the expectations of society.
I learned early in life that history was not for people of colour; we are not agents of history apparently, and I took the first opportunity to drop the subject before GCSE level. Feeling sufficiently disenfranchised, I actively disengaged myself from pursuing academic excellence. I had also lost the desire to play my assigned role as a black male in British society, a role where my identity as an English person and capabilities would always be brought into question. Instead, I let my mind drift away into a different world.
I was not the first teenager to seek refuge in Japan’s soft power exports of animation, games, movies and music. Otherworldly anime shows and fantasy games serve a similar purpose in Japanese society. As a black British person, engaging with Japanese culture offered me comforting escapism.
Indulging my affinity for all things Japanese, I discovered an aspect of myself that I had been denied by mainstream representations of people that look like me: my capacity to study intensively. I would write Japanese characters for hours on end trying to master the stroke order. I had forgotten my GCSE French, but I still had the audacity to set myself an ambitious goal of becoming fluent in Japanese in order to live, study and even work there.
After secondary school I was on the first plane to Japan for a gap year placement. Upon landing I suddenly became a gaikokujin (‘foreigner’ or ‘alien’). As a black Brit, I had always felt like an outsider, and so this aspect of residing in Japan was nothing new. What was new was that my fellow volunteers from the UK (who were white) were also gaikokujin. Native speakers praised my simple Japanese phrases with exactly the same level of enthusiasm as they gave to my compatriots. Japanese businessmen on the train awkwardly avoided the seat next to me and the seat next to my white British colleague. Japan was levelling.
Writing down every new word I learned in my pocket notebook, my Japanese language skills were rapidly improving. I cancelled my deferred offer from a university in the UK and stayed in Japan for a full undergraduate degree programme.
It was my time at International Christian University in Tokyo that unlocked my passion for research and history. In assignments for the Japanese history class, my exploration into a historical topic didn’t have to begin in the library, but could start with the design of a building or the route of a train line. I was eager to equip myself with new knowledge and theories to better understand the sources I was examining.
Returning to the UK, first as a Master’s student and now as a PhD student, has brought back some of my old feelings of alienation and uncertainty. Am I, as a black British student, being valued/evaluated in the same way as my white peers?
Introducing myself at academic networking events, people often assume that I am studying something related to the African continent or diaspora. Fluency in Japanese by no means releases me from the struggle for acceptance and recognition in higher education. But Japan is a country so culturally remote to the majority of British people, that a mastery over it can temporarily redress the black/ white power imbalances. For a moment, my blackness is stripped of its historical baggage.
Within the field of Japanese Studies itself, I am the first black British graduate of a postgraduate research programme, and the first doctoral candidate . If, as studies show, BME students are regularly opting out of humanities subjects at alarming rates, then we need to rethink the way history and other disciplines are practiced in the UK.
In the meantime, I strongly encourage BME students to become empowered, as I did, by exposure to radically different research options such as Japanese and other East Asian languages and cultures. With significant investment coming in from China through the Confucius Institutes, and Tokyo’s push to get more students from Europe to study in Japan, now is the time to leverage these opportunities for diverse students.
As the data collected by the Guardian and the RHS survey results show, discrimination and unconscious bias are still serious challenges. Mine is just one story of a statistically unlikely journey, but one I hope will inspire other BME students to ignore the odds.
Note 1: Freedom of Information requests by the author obtained in 2017.