During the summer of 2016, I wasn't very engaged with politics, international affairs and injustice. On the evening of July 5th I saw Alton Sterling die by the hand of law enforcement while he was being restrained. My heart jumped out of my chest, I spent the evening in mourning and then I slept. I woke up in the early afternoon of July 6th and Philando Castile had been shot in front of his daughter again by the hands of law enforcement. A switch flicked inside me. It was something about the closeness of the two tragedies that triggered me into action; I asked myself genuinely, what was I doing? What contribution had I made to work being done around fighting widespread injustice? - Hardly anything at all. I attended my first BlackLivesMatter march that week as the country was thrown into uproar around continued police brutality on US and UK soil. That march really changed my life. I felt connected to a body of people who all craved the same cause thing - justice.
I think one of the strangest things about life is that there is no way of telling what turn it will take. At the beginning of that summer before the deaths of those brothers, if you told me about the position I would be in today, I would have swatted you away in disbelief, as I wouldn't have had the foresight to understand what had led me to this point.
I am the elected Black Minority Ethnic Officer (BME) Officer at UCL, a title that these days seems to own me and be all I am or rather all I am seen to be. I also reverted to Islam in May. These are the two most influential aspects of my life at this very moment, impacting every decision and step I make.
Identity and responsibility are concepts that shape my interactions with others, concepts that form the fundamental basis of my thinking.
Before reverting, the most significant part of my identity was being 'black' or what society saw as most significant. I have short locks, 6ft and usually wear dark clothes. When travelling it's not unusual for people to make their discomfort at my presence known through incessant staring, moving away from me or the tightening of their body language - I am used to this. The negative characteristics attached to the Black identity have caused me grief to say the least. The masculinisation of blackness means that I have always faced a disproportionate level of stigma, expectation and punishment.
As a young boy growing up through the British education system, I was always held to a higher moral standard than my white peers, I was treated like more of an adult and was expected to understand how to be accountable for every single one of my actions from a young age.
This constant scrutinisation has stuck with me to adulthood, despite trying to shake it off in every way possible. I always try to be calm, as my anger can be used so easily against me, to the point that even a flicker of passion and emotion can be classed as aggression. Being in white dominated spaces has ingrained the practice of every interaction being measured and considered, I have been made to become extra cautious and overly conscious of each move I make.
Becoming Muslim I would say has been the best decision in my life although many may not see it that way. At the age of 21 I have been through more personal trials and traumatic experiences than should be fair. Islam is not something that everybody will understand or appreciate, which makes sense when you look at the way the west has distorted it from a thing of beauty and perfection to oppression, backwardness and inherent evil. Being Muslim has given me the tools to be able to repair the damage I have incurred, whilst helping me break habits that caused me continuous self-harm and it has also allowed me to forge my own path giving me constant guidance on how to keep improving my spiritual being as much as possible.
Before I was Muslim I would campaign against racism and islamophobia, but experiencing islamophobia is very different and I felt like I had been thrown into the sea without being able to swim. I received subtle and overt forms of it from friends, relatives and strangers. If I'm honest I feel that because of the nature of my officer role and the work I do, I still haven't had the chance to stay immersed in my faith as I would have liked, as I feel like I had to hit the ground running. It sometimes feels like I didn't have the luxury of enjoying my transition as much as I would have liked as from the beginning I already had to start defending myself and my decision.
Alhamdulilah though I have a great support system of people around me who have me on my journey and who are always on standby when there is a concern.
The mixture of being black and Muslim is difficult to articulate but I will try. It seems like many believe them to be like oil and water seeing both as a foreign concepts. There is also the issue of Antiblackness in the Muslim community due to strong cultural influences, despite the fact Islam states racism is not acceptable and at the same time there islamophobia and intolerance in the black community. I tread a tight rope of being black and Muslim, a unique group which I never foresaw myself being part of but here I am. I have a love for both my communities which I show through my activism and work, but perceptions and understandings really need to change. One of the ways we've been trying to start change is with open dialogue. At UCL we had an event called "One Ummah,Two Standards" talking on the manifestation of Antiblackness in the Muslim community led primarily by the Somali Society - the conversation was expressive and productive as a first step with more voices needing to be added. Islamic societies on campuses now need to take on the responsibility of continuing and bringing such discussions to the forefront of conversation, and lastly listen in order to implement solutions.
Now onto my officer role, this role at times has almost consumed me in how much it has required from my personal and social life. I represent roughly 16,000 students on my campus who come from African, Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Asian, South American and Indigenous backgrounds (it's a lot). All these rich cultures and heritages are boxed into the category of BME - Black & MINORITY ethnic, despite us being a global MAJORITY, the latter term I believe will be the only way to refer to such a group but western governments in neglecting in neglecting all our individual worth and greatness prefer to refer to us with reductive labels as it helps them to conceptualise us while easing their guilt on the various oppression and genocide that have enforced on all the groups I mentioned.
My role being the only full time role of its kind in the country comes with added expectation from those I represent and from the institution itself. The expectation to represent all those groups, some of those groups I have little or no understanding of because I have not lived their experience is sometimes crippling.
Trying to accommodate everywhere can feel like I'm spreading myself to thin and at the end of the day no one ever seems to be satisfied - however it is my responsibility to endeavour as much as possible to try.
During the week I receive about 350 emails, texts, whatsapp messages, Facebook messages and twitter DMs. Many of these are queries, work correspondence and personal messages; however a huge portion is made up of advertising requests for the network I run. I've had to learn hard lessons and become less trusting as I've realised that not everybody is actually interested in bringing about a genuine change but rather they are careerist and self-serving with the intention of using the BME Network as a stepping stone or leg up. This is one of the many examples of instances that have caused me to become less trusting.
I probably sleep less than is healthy, reading, researching and soaking up knowledge as I believe once knowledge is extrapolated and properly applied it can turn into something powerful. This is how I conduct my work on a day to day basis. My area of interest (and obsession) is colonialism, as it has defined almost every aspect of life and society. If you talk to me long enough, I'll probably slip it into conversation here or there.
Reflecting on all of this I think the next steps for me on a personal level are to pull away from what society & people see me as, to not let their perception of me control my expression and to focus on what I see myself as.
Ayo Olatunji has completed 2 years of Medicine at UCL and has interrupted his 6 year course to take on the role of BME officer as a full time role. As a Black Muslim he has had no choice but to be politically engaged and his campaigning centres around working against racism and islamophobia. He has a special interest in critical race theory and critical whiteness and has set up a campaign with other students and student officers called DecoloniseUCL, which seeks to Decolonise his institution which houses the twisted history of the pseudoscience of Eugenics, the campaign will ask the central question of "Why Does My University Uphold White Supremacy?".
He has also written an article of the same title which can be read here:
You can follow him on twitter: @AyoOlatunji96