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6 Apr 2017

African students battle bias on campus

Subhankar Chowdhury, TT, April 5: The campus is covered in posters condemning the attacks on Nigerian students in Noida. Kina Joel, a student of international relations from South Sudan at Jadavpur University, would need more than posters to reassure him that he is any safer.
Joel was in a group of students from Africa who spoke to Metro today afternoon, sharing their personal experiences on the campus and off it that reveal the racial undertones in how black people are treated in Calcutta.
Almost all of them have faced difficulty in renting accommodation. Some fellow students refuse to sit on the same bench as them. Even buying groceries without facing discrimination in service or pricing is a challenge.
"All you need to do is scratch the surface and the truth will tumble out," said Joel.
Around a month ago, the young man had accused a fellow student of abusing him with a Bengali word for "black". The university authorities instituted a probe based on Joel's complaint, but the chapter was closed after an apology from the accused.
Incidents like these reinforce the suspicion that "partial or subdued racism" targeting Africans is not confined to Delhi or Bangalore. A city like Calcutta that prides itself on being inclusive is possibly just as prejudiced - and hostile - towards Africans.
'Class' division
"Blackberry." Not the phone. This is how some students on the JU campus allegedly allude to their classmates from Africa.
Buba S.M. Ceesay, an undergraduate student of history from Gambia, said he and his fellow Africans had become used to being taunted for the colour of their skin. "It alienates you. I feel that in their subconscious, they nurse a dislike for us, which should not be the case in a place for education," he said.
A student from Tanzania who does not wish to be identified recalled how three students shifted to another bench after he entered a classroom on Monday evening and took a seat next to them. "The message is that they will not share space with someone from the black community. This is what we call partial racism, which, if allowed to grow, would snowball into an extreme reaction eventually."
The alienation allegedly extends to team projects. "Whenever I am assigned to do a project as part of a group, I notice that there are some students who withdraw because I am part of it," he said.
Renting a house
South Sudanese Joel's encounters with prospective landlords until he found an apartment whose owner was not prejudiced towards him mirror what every other African faces. He recalls zeroing in on a suitable apartment in the Bijoygarh neighbourhood, only to be told by his agent that the place was not for him.
"When I sought to know from the agent why, he told me about the impression the owner has about Africans," Joel recounted. "The person said that Africans were 'drug addicts by nature' and so he was averse to letting out his apartment to them."
The owner allegedly also said that he was apprehensive about African tenants "bringing home women and polluting the neighbourhood".
This was long before the incident in Greater Noida last month that triggered rumours of cannibalism by African students and a demand by residents of the National Security Guards Black Cat Enclave that the government expel all Africans.
Besides the blunt "no", one sure way of chasing away an African trying to rent an apartment is apparently to quote an amount that a student cannot afford.
"What else can you call it but discrimination when the apartment owner quotes a rent that is double of the amount mentioned when the place was advertised?" Joel said.
But he has a word of praise for the owner of the apartment he now shares with another African. They have been staying there for a year and a half and have faced no difficulty because "the owner is very caring", Joel said.
Buying provisions
The Tanzanian student has been refused a bottle of mineral water by a shop owner in the same neighbourhood where Joel stays.
"As you stand on the edge of the steps at the store, you can see the bottles of water stacked on a shelf. But he (the owner) will not give it to you. He will give you a hard stare if asked why. The stare conveys what he feels about me," the young man, who is studying for a master's degree in education, said.
This is not a stray incident. In some grocery stores, African students are denied anything they want to buy on some pretext or the other.
"I was at a grocery store with a hundred bucks to buy bread and coffee, but the owner told me he did not have change. I said he could keep the balance and he still refused to give me the items I wanted. If a local resident of the neighbourhood were in my place, would he have done the same?" Joel said.

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