A Black former students’ union president has made a string of allegations of racism she says she faced while in the job – including being told the word “Black” was “a derogatory term” when she called for better representation on the board, and being “silenced” when she wanted to speak out about a student calling her a “Black bitch”.
Osaro Otobo, who headed up the SU at Hull University, says she was told to keep quiet about a physical racist incident, and that it was “acceptable” that a white lecturer had used the N-word during a class because “we don’t want people to think the student union is banning free speech”.
As Hull’s first-ever Black female students’ union president, Otobo – now 25 – said concerns were ignored and trivialised even when she brought up incidents of racism that were reported by other students at the university.
When the lecturer used the N-word, sparking an apology from both the teacher and the university, Otobo says she was told that the union itself “shouldn’t waste time commenting on matters like this as it is not important”.
In an email chain seen by HuffPost UK, one member of the board wrote: “I do have a problem with a statement that could give the impression that we are in favour of censorship [and] ‘banning’ words.”
Speaking out in a Twitter thread, Otobo said: “It’s hard to over-state how devastating it is to be a young elected leader and the figurehead of an organisation whilst feeling powerless to do anything at your place of work to stop racism happening to you and students.”
She has now launched campaign to make it a legal requirement for all UK registered organisations to have a visible policy detailing their process for dealing with complaints of discrimination and racism.
A spokesperson for Hull University Students’ Union said they were “deeply saddened” by Otobo’s comments, adding: “Racism has no place in today’s society.”
They also said that there “have been times where we have not done enough to drive change and address concerns”, but that the union and university are “committed to actively eradicating all forms of racism, inequality and discrimination.”
Now I want to share my personal experience in Higher Education, and the structural racism which still pervades not just universities, but places which are rightly seen as progressive & supportive organisations – students’ unions.
— Osaro ✨ (@OsaroHazel) June 7, 2020
Otobo told HuffPost UK: “I stood for president because I thought I could be the right person to lead. They never had a Black female president before.
“I thought it was time for a different perspective, and I thought I could use my own experience of being a Black woman to engage with a different side of students.”
In 2019, Otobo was accused – by a white student trustee of the board – of being “inappropriate” for using the word Black in an election campaign. She had called for better representation for Black people within the council.
In the message, she wrote: “Union Council is not a representative sample of the student population at Hull […] for example – we currently only have one black student sitting on union council.”
In an email chain read by HuffPost UK, the person made an official complaint against Otobo’s campaign partly on the basis that they found the term “black student” to be “clearly an inappropriate comment, and to some can be construed as racism as black is a derogatory term.” The complainant later withdrew a proposed motion of no confidence against Otobo.
When Otobo plucked up the courage to complain to the union, she claimed she was “silenced” and “lied to” by members of the board when they assured her that the matter would be dealt with and that she should “hold off publicly saying anything”.
Instead, she feels like they let things “drag on for months and kept giving excuses”. “It felt like they didn’t understand how serious it was,” she said. “Maybe because it didn’t affect them and because there were no other Black members of the board.”
She told HuffPost UK: “That entire experience really upset me – the student [who said Black was a derogatory term] upset me, but what upset me more was the organisation that I was the figurehead of had let me down.
“I felt like they shied away from tackling the issue of racism.
“I was campaigning at the time for diversity on the student council,” she said.
She said she told them that, as a union, they had never explicitly said: “We stand against racism.” “Not even with the lecturer [who used the N-word in the lecture],” she said. “So I told them it was time for us to stand up.”
She added she felt “gaslighted” by board members who allegedly asked her not to share her experiences of the incident. Otobo says they later promised to hire a lawyer to determine if her use of the word “Black” was in fact racist, but she says no lawyer was ever hired and the matter was never resolved.
During that time, she felt “isolated and alone”. “I was really stressed, my weight fluctuated a lot, I couldn’t sleep properly,” she said. “All the stress was making me anxious – and anxiety wasn’t something I experienced before that whole incident.
“I was told [by members of the union] that I couldn’t talk about what was going on. I couldn’t talk to my friends – it was very lonely.”
Otobo says she was also urged not to speak publicly about a racist incident that took place a year earlier at Hull’s end of year ball.
She says a male student grabbed her arm tightly and refused to let her go, calling her a “Black bitch” and claiming that she had spilled his drink.
When she reported the incident to the union, she says someone initially tried to help and have the student permanently banned from the nightclub where the event was held. However, the student had recorded mobile phone footage of Otobo responding angrily in the immediate aftermath of the encounter, and Otobo says she was told it didn’t make her “look good as president”.
She was then told there was little the organisation could do about the incident.
“It probably didn’t look great because understandably I was really angry and upset at what he said and did to me,” she said of the footage. “[But] it upset me that I wasn’t allowed to be outraged about being racially assaulted just because of my role.”
During her time as president, Otobo also says she experienced and witnessede multiple instances of both covert and explicit racism from other members of the student union.
She recalls a staff member making a joke about going to a barbershop where the people “looked dodgy, like they worked for ISIS”, and making comments about how their tan made them the “same colour” as Otobo. She says that same person touched her hair without her permission and asked “really invasive” and “inappropriate” questions that “made me feel really uncomfortable”.
When she was asked to introduce herself at an event, Otobo says she was mocked by another member for saying she was the union’s first Black female president during a speech.
“It made me feel so small and made me think they probably made fun of me behind my back for mentioning that I was the first female Black president of the SU when I do speeches about myself and my role,” she said.
“It also bothered me because in speeches like that I would also say that I was the first female president in nearly 10 years and the first postgraduate one but for some reason the fact that I say ‘Black’ bothered them.”
Despite her experiences, she was proud of what she achieved during her time as president. Otobo now works as a higher education consultant in student experience, diversity and inclusion. “I wanted to channel that traumatic experience into something positive,” she said.
Her petition has so far gained nearly 1,000 signatures. “I’m hoping that people will see how important it is to make sure that there are policies in the places where we work and learn that can protect us when things go wrong,” she said of the campaign.
“A lot of people think racism doesn’t exist in the UK, but it does.”
She added that, while “there are violent incidents that happen in the UK,” there is also racism “that we have to deal with every day. I wanted to share my experience of that everyday racism.
“I love seeing all the things that are happening with Black Lives Matter but I’m also thinking about how we can harness that momentum and bring about long-term change – part of that is making sure laws and policies reflect the BLM movement.”
A spokesperson at Hull University Students’ Union said: “We are deeply saddened by comments made by former presidents about their experiences – racism has no place in today’s society.
“HUSU, working closely with the University of Hull, is committed to actively eradicating all forms of racism, inequality and discrimination.
“In recent years, HUSU has benefited from strong presidents who have championed equality and inclusion for all, and did so much for both students, the union and the university.
“Unfortunately, it is clear that despite their remarkable contributions, there have been times where we have not done enough to drive change and address concerns.
“In the last 12 months, HUSU has been working hard on its policies and procedures, and will continue to do so to make positive change.
“We thank and support all those who are speaking up and calling out inequality, and are committed to taking action.”