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New YUSU BAME Officer criticises election of “another white cisgender college chair” to President role

Image: University Radio York
Image: University Radio York
Hannah Joseph-Asikhia (left) and Nayomi Karthigesu (centre) following the announcement of their election victory. Image: University Radio York

An incoming Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Officer of the University of York Students’ Union (YUSU), elected less than a week ago, has attacked “those who trade on their race and privilege” to win elections, including the President-elect, in an opinion piece for York Vision.

Writing for Tuesday’s printed edition of York Vision, Nayomi Karthigesu criticised the “precedented and entirely predictable move by the voting body of YUSU” to elect James Durcan, “another white cisgender college chair”, to the position of YUSU President.

“For a University filled with such a diverse range of people,” wrote Karthigesu in York Vision, “it seems our student union is dominated by a worrying minority who trade on their race and privilege to attain almost certain electoral victory.”

Karthigesu drew attention to the number of former college chairpersons elected to the role of YUSU President, commonly seen as the figurehead role of the Students’ Union, as well as to the 2018 Re-Open Nominations campaign, misogyny, racism and student media at York.

“The issue is clearly the lack of any sort of change in YUSU representation,” wrote Karthigesu,

despite the greater percentage of females at York, despite the overwhelming number of people that aren’t a college chair, YUSU, year after year, have the same small margin dominating the leadership and representation of the student body. This is unacceptable.

James Durcan, the winner of the Presidential role in the 2018 Officer Elections, is a former Chair of James College. Durcan continues to be active in the College’s sport structure.

Later in her article, Karthigesu claimed that, “As a woman, I have repeatedly been told to subjugate myself for the sake of others – those others predominately being men.” Later, describing the “passive imposition of gender norms,” she asked readers to recall walking down a street and “see how man times you move out of the way of another pedestrian, and more importantly a pedestrian that appears to be a man.”

“When placed within the context of the YUSU elections,” Karthigesu added, “it is clear women have stepped aside for too long.”

In the latter half of her article, Karthigesu referred to a recent Nouse report citing low admissions of students from BAME backgrounds. Readers ought to note, she argued, that the article was authored by “a white cisgender man. “This is exactly the problem with York,” she added, “even our student media deprives BAME students of space to discuss BAME related issues.”

Lastly, Karthigesu criticised other student media groups, including The Yorker, University Radio York (URY) and York Student Television (YSTV), stating that “almost every interaction” with student media during the election period left her with “a more bitter taste in my mouth than the last.” She pointed to the media’s misspelling of her name and described it as a “microaggression”.

Karthigesu, a Second Year PPE student, was elected to the role of BAME with Hannah-Joseph Asikhia on Saturday 24th February. The duo will assume their positions at the end of the current academic term. They will work with the serving Sabbatical Officers until the end of the academic year, when the 2018/2019 Sabbatical Officers, including James Durcan, will take over.

The incumbent BAME Officer, Demi Daniel, told The Yorker that the BAME Network agrees with Karthigesu’s comments.

The frequent misspelling and mispronunciation of your name is a micro-aggression. Your name is incredibly important, and if the Western world can pronounce names like ‘Tchaikovsky’ then it speaks volumes of disrespect when the same effort is not spent to get BAME names right. Nayomi was very kind to focus on herself as an example, when actually it is sad that in such a self-professed international space thousands of incoming students change their name to make it more palatable to the realities of white York.

Daniel supported Karthigesu’s criticism of student media outlets, telling The Yorker that student journalists will find it easier to accurately report others’ name when “they end up in dead-end jobs where everyone is Steve and Becky”.

When they don’t we see lecturers asking them to, course mates othering students whose name they can’t pronounce and student media, who know how to research everything else, failing to spell it correctly. We are entering a global world where everyone is becoming interconnected, and even in this world respect and cultural etiquette is still important. This whole ordeal speaks very poorly of those working in these media outlets. But hopefully, when they end up in dead-end jobs where everyone is Steve and Becky, there will not be a problem.

When The Yorker asked James Durcan for his reaction to Karthigesu’s article, he told the publication that Karthigesu’s words “raised some really important points about making our student body and Students Union’ more diverse – and it’s vital that we do address these issues head on as a Students’ Union next year.”

“I believe that a lot of change should, and will, take place next year,” he continued, “and I think it’s key that the Sabb team works closely with Nayomi, Hannah and the other Part-Time Officers to make our Union more diverse and accessible.”

On the election results, Durcan was optimistic. They had shown “that many students do want to see changes to our Students’ Union by and how YUSU interacts with students and I believe it is important that we address this.”

“I set out wanting to open up YUSU by engaging with students better and giving them a chance to voice their opinions,” Durcan concluded, “and I believe that the election results have given myself and those that I will work with the mandate to do this. I can’t wait to get started and to work with both our students and staff to build on all that has been brought up during this election.”

The Yorker has contacted Alex Urquhart, the current YUSU President, for comment.

This is not the first time that a Part-Time Officer has publicly criticised another incoming member of the YUSU Officer Team. Last year, Michaela Tharby, formerly the Women’s Officer of YUSU, criticised the then-President-Elect Urquhart in an article for York Vision.

Tharby claimed that Urquhart could not adequately represent working-class students after receiving his education at Harrow. “Alex Urquhart, while lovely, went to Harrow, one of the most expensive and exclusive schools in the country – forgive me if I think he may not completely understand the working class perspective.”

York Vision returned to campus on Tuesday after a long hiatus. The multi-award-winning student newspaper, established in 1987, now edited by Amelia Hubbard, has faced a mixture of financial and legal problems for a number of months.