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Rohan reveals "scary" experience of racism

YUSU’s future Activities Officer discusses the importance of “active inclusion”

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Image Credit: Felix Wahlberg

To most students at York, Rohan Ashar is best known for his hilarious stand-up performances. As President of Comedy Society, Rohan is a familiar face on campus and in February he became a student household name when he won the election for Activities Officer in the 2022 YUSU elections.

Nationwide, comedians are using their public platform to speak about or go into politics. Rohan’s new job does not start until the end of June but on 22 March he publicly posted on Facebook and Instagram about his experience of racism during the YUSU elections campaign.

Rohan’s post was distinctive in that he immediately clarified that he was not speaking publicly about his experience of racism “so that you feel sorry for me.” As we sat down together virtually on a Sunday morning, I prompted Rohan to explain why he said that “Maybe it’s the wrong decision to make a post about this.” Rohan said that his experience of racism came at a busy and stressful time, with the abuse posted in the midst of the elections campaign. Understandably, Rohan said he needed time to have some “headspace and to reflect on this”.

Before making the post, Rohan was most concerned about “blowing it out of proportion” and revealed he was anxious about whether his experience of racism was “too small”. He confidently tells me that speaking out was the “right thing to do”. The experience was “pretty scary” and “worrying” but Rohan said he was lucky to have very supportive friends. When Rohan first experienced racism he says that he remained very much "focused on my campaign.”

Looking back, Rohan says that it was an “upsetting” experience. He acknowledges that “issues to do with racial diversity” cannot be solved through “one social media post” but hopes that students will “read the meaning behind” his words.

Rohan is very calm and composed, and as soon as I pressed Zoom’s record button, he was quick to clarify that his social media post was not intended as “criticism of YUSU or the University.” What motivated him to talk about racism was the chance to raise greater awareness about the “overarching theme of racial diversity in York”.

Unfortunately, before deciding to run for Activities Officer Rohan said that it is “very sad to admit that it did cross my mind that I’m putting myself out there more than I usually do as President of Comedy Society” and racism was therefore a “very real possibility”. The racism Rohan encountered during the elections was his first experience of targeted racism at York and “one or two people” were responsible.

Rohan was keen to emphasise that he didn’t believe his experience “reflects York as a whole” but saw speaking out as a chance to encourage “these wider conversations” about racial diversity and “prevent it in a day-to-day life.” Rohan identified two different and related problems which need addressing. These are “racism” and “racial diversity in York”, with the latter often being “neglected.” The obvious problem at the University is that we haven’t had many “BAME candidates going for Sabb roles (Sabbatical Officers) or other senior positions'' Rohan points out.

YUSU and the University are “making steps in the right direction with the creation of the BAME network and three incoming Sabbs who identify as BAME '' but, “we’ve got more work to do”. Rohan says that it is important that all students make an effort to engage in a “consistent conversation” about race.

When I brought up the effectiveness of Black History Month, Rohan says he appreciates that Black History Month serves an important purpose in providing students with “an opportunity to reflect.” However, he said that an issue with the month is the suggestion that these conversations should only take place during this one month.

“Why don’t we think about this all year round?” Rohan said. A point which gets to the heart of the problem. There is a lack of constant dialogue and what troubles Rohan the most is the “acceptance” of this. There is a prevailing attitude that “it is just the way it is” and Rohan plans to tackle this issue by promoting “active inclusion.”

An important difference Rohan highlights is that “York is open and welcoming but also falls slightly short when it comes to active inclusion.” Rohan says more BAME students should be supported in becoming student leaders and we should continue to focus on “diversifying student-led activities”. From his own personal experience, he referenced the fact that performance societies “don’t have many BAME students at all.”

When Rohan’s stint as Activities Officer begins, he signalled his intention to remind student leaders that they need to be constantly thinking about ‘diversity” and “active inclusion.” In York, a major part of the problem is that you are “combatting history in a way" Rohan argues, as in comparison to other parts of the UK “the north of England particularly struggles with racial diversity.” Rohan hopes that his election will lead to “more inclusion across the board”, although he in no way means to suggest that constructive work hasn’t already taken place.

Rohan appreciates that it will require much more than his election alone for genuine change to be brought about. Rohan reminds students that there is no harm in “celebrating going in a positive direction but there is still a lot to be done.”

Throughout the interview with Rohan, the word “BAME” is frequently used so I asked the future Activities Officer what his opinion of this term was. Rohan told Nouse that the use of the term had already been discussed last year in the BAME network and most agreed that they disliked it. Rohan explained that the difficulty was that the alternative terms “we also didn’t like.”

Asked when it was appropriate for students to use the term, Rohan said that the term was “useful in certain contexts” but definitely “overused”. Sometimes, Rohan said it was frustrating in that it “gets to the point where people should use more specific terms.” Rohan’s advice to students was to “avoid” using the term when you can but also highlighted that the ultimate destination is to “get to the point when we stop using the word ‘BAME’ altogether.”

At this stage people will have a more nuanced understanding of “different cultures and active inclusion.” Rohan hopes that his social media post was helpful in “shining a spotlight” on racial diversity and racism.

Before the interview draws to a close, Rohan said students should know that “I’m not asking for sympathy, let’s have this consistent conversation, not only about racism but racial diversity in York.”

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