Black is the warmest colour

Australia is even whiter than you think, writes Vanessa Mukhebi.

She looks like me. Her skin, the colour of dark chocolate. Her head, crowned with knotted extensions of finely twisted matted locks. She stood out like colour in a black-and-white scene. Gracefully trying to overcome my temporary state of paralysis, I walked into the lecture hall. I sat in front of her. I was burning up with elation. After three years of studying journalism at the University of Sydney, a manifestation of all I had ever hoped for was suddenly only an arms-length away. Pinch me! What if she is an axe-murderer? Or worse, what if she is vegetarian? No, Vanessa, don’t question a gift from up above! All that matters is that she looks like you. My heart throbbed to an irregular beat as she introduced herself. “Jalessa Mungin”, she said. Strangers we might have been, but our similar pigmentation drew us together immediately. I finally didn’t feel so alone. We exchanged sweet shy glances as the lecture began.


I arrived at the University of Sydney from Kenya in 2011. I’d attended, and loved, an international school in Nairobi throughout my teenage years, but, like so many young Kenyans, had decided to go overseas for university. I hadn’t wanted to take the conventional study route and end up in the UK or the US. The University of Sydney had seemed like the right fit – far enough from my family and friends to discover my sense of self and well-renowned enough to appease my parents’ high standards. Being aware of Australia’s multicultural population, I hadn’t made a considerable effort in researching the make-up of the student body, assuming that university was going to be an extension of my culturally diverse high school. The University’s glossy marketing materials, all of which featured students from a wide array of ethnic backgrounds, reinforced this vision. But when I first walked down Eastern Avenue searching for a face that resembled my own, I saw nothing. Over the next few months, I struggled to find someone who could empathise with my frustration at not being able to find a cheap hairdresser who could handle Afro hair, who could understand my midnight cravings for plaintain, who wouldn’t look at me funny when I said I ate goat’s meat. Although I was enjoying myself at USyd and found a good group of friends, I was surprised at how significant the lack of Kenyan, or even black, students would seem to me.


But perhaps I shouldn’t have trusted the marketing. University promotional materials are designed to give these potential students an impression of the educational experience they might expect. Recruitment coordinators and marketing staff work tirelessly to create and nurture a specific image of their campus by deciding which buildings look the most collegiate, which computer labs look the most high-tech, and the way the student body should be depicted. Universities market themselves as diverse and socially inclusive in order to attract students from a wide variety of backgrounds, including overseas. While it is understandable that universities attempt to carefully craft their campus in the most positive way possible, the question remains whether or not these representations accurately portray the reality of the institution.

In a study published last year in the Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, researchers analysed more than 10,000 photographs found in the recruitment materials of 165 tertiary institutions in the United States. Led by Timothy Pippert of Augsburg College in America, the study found that a majority of schools “provided images of diversity to prospective students” that typically portrayed “African American students at higher rates rather than presenting a more representative student body”.

Brands are psychology and science wrapped together as a promise. “Good marketing is about understanding your customer, producing a product that meets their needs and then telling them about it,” says Robyn Martin, an academic in the Marketing department at the Sydney University. “Then they will be happy with your product and tell others about it, therefore driving word of mouth. Poor marketing is looking at the customer, seeing what they want and then telling them that your product has what they want even if it doesn’t.”


When Jalessa began applying to colleges in America in 2012, her race was a serious factor in the decision-making process. As an African American student, she was apprehensive about the difficulties she might encounter at some of the colleges she received admission brochures for in the mail. “I remember getting one from a university in Lynchburg, Virginia. You really think that as a black person, I’m about to go to a place called Lynchburg? Play me not, I know what that’s about!” She remembers experiencing a sense of bemusement at the representation of African American students in some universities’ promotional materials. “[There] was this one university, located in some random part of Tennessee, where I lie to you not, it was the same black person in every single photo. He was literally the token black person. There is no way in hell I was going there. Couldn’t they have at least tried to find another black person?”

Having been accepted by all the universities she applied to, Jalessa says that her decision to study at the University of Pennsylvania came down not just to the institution’s academic reputation, but also the large number of students it had from minority backgrounds. “It was mainly because I came from a high school where there weren’t many minorities and I was tired of that kind of environment. I was tired of having those awkward conversations where the one time they are talking about slavery, they look at the one black woman in the room, and you are expected to know everything about Rosa Parks. I refuse! Coming from that environment, I just really needed to be surrounded by other people of colour.”

Jalessa participated in an exchange program to the University of Sydney in the second semester of 2013, hoping to broaden her view of the world. Though Australia was foreign territory for Jalessa, she was surprised with the vision that greeted her. “Well I guess I knew it was going to be pretty ‘white’, but … I wasn’t expecting it to be that ‘white’, if that makes sense. Like I expected there to be more Aborigines [sic], I expected there to be more people of colour. I am not saying that I expected there to be a lot of them, but when I came to Sydney Uni, my jaw dropped! It was really confronting … it did not match expectations.”

The friendships Jalessa fostered over her four-month stay were hard for her to leave, but returning home was something she looked forward to. “I really did enjoy my time there, but I remember that there were also distinct periods where I really just wanted to return home. I missed people of colour. There is just a certain level of comfort being around people who look like you. Like we are both black and neither one of us fit. There is comfort in the fact that at least we don’t fit in together.”


While she was in Australia, Jalessa and I spent lots of time with Muthoni, a Kenyan Media and Communications student at UNSW whom I’d met during my time at Sydney. Muthoni’s ethnicity had never been apparent to her until she arrived in Australia. “Growing up around Africa I didn’t really notice my race. I wasn’t made aware of my race until I came here. I have never been a minority. So when you become a minority, then it is like, ‘Oh, okay, so I’m ‘African’ now’. That’s when I started to take note that in class it’s just me. You actually begin to fathom that you are the one, you’re the only African.”

Muthoni recalls that both she and her sister, who set up the African Students’ Association at UNSW, were often asked to appear in promotional photographs for the university, its union, and residential colleges. “ I ended up being on the cover of the website, the cover of the prospectus book that they hand out, and you know what … I was thrilled! Looking back at it, it seems like the college might have been trying to portray something, and I don’t have a problem with it. You use your resources to the best ability but I think that it can be misleading to other people who may not see it quite like that. They might think, ‘Who is this girl? What does she do? She is on this book, she is on this website…she is everywhere!’”


Dr Gaby Ramia, Associate Professor at USyd’s Graduate School of Government, says that images of multicultural diversity are particularly important for universities trying to tap into the lucrative international education market. According to Ramia, Australian universities tend to focus on appealing to Asian audiences, while universities from the US and UK reach out more to African audiences. “[In Australia] you will typically have images of Caucasian students with students from Asia in particular, because Asia is the major market in Australia, but occasionally you will also see images of people from Africa,” he says.

International students generate $15 billion towards the Australian economy. This means higher education ranks as the country’s fourth largest export, after iron ore, coal and gold.

Ramia, an expert in international student welfare, believes that Australian universities tend to focus on the economics of international education rather than on the cultural vibrancy they breathe into the host community. “I think that they make an enormous contribution and that is often overlooked, because … despite all the legislation and despite all the attention on safety and well-being of international students in the media, we still largely treat international students as cash-cows.”


But Muthoni says that the measure of her worth goes beyond the dollar bill. “I think money is still a contribution, because international is international, regardless of where you come from. But I think just personally, being able to open people’s eyes in terms of Africa, because people do have that whole mind frame of Africa not being safe and just a ditch of poverty and darkness.”

Like other foreign students, Africans such as Muthoni contribute to the multicultural wealth of Australia. “I have had a couple of friends from here visit me in Kenya, and the genuine shock on their faces when they see that I have an actual house with toilets and not drop holes. I told them if they wanted to see them we could go to my grandmother’s,who also has a ‘normal house’. The rural stuff is there, but it’s only one aspect of life in the village. But being able in general to open their eyes to the fact that there is so much more to Africa is great!”

So whether she is teaching her housemates how to dance the Azonto or explaining why her sleek hair suddenly turned into an afro, Muthoni serves as a cultural broker. An ambassador of sorts, showing that there is vibrancy within ‘black’ and that she is more than just filling in ‘colour’ for advertising purposes. “I mean, someone has to do it…it might as well be me.”


The unknown can be distressing. Human beings are naturally drawn to people who they share similar backgrounds with. As such, the way universities represent their student body in recruitment material does have an impact on an individual’s decision to study at a particular institution. Students want to feel like their presence matters, and that they are part of a wider community. A sense of belonging is crucial.

But university is also about self-discovery, and even though black faces are not the norm in Australian universities, I have no regrets about studying here. I have grown fond of so many things about this country, but most importantly I’ve grown to appreciate my ‘colour’. Who would have ever thought that speaking Swahili was “so cool”? Being one of the few Kenyans at Sydney Uni has instilled a strengthened sense of patriotism and responsibility to represent my culture. If I can impart my knowledge on to others about Kenya’s various customs and traditions, then I can take pride in the fact that at least I make a mark, however small.