Illustration by Waad Abrahim

Racism at NYU Abu Dhabi: A Global Problem at a Global University

A global campus is not exempt from racism simply by being diverse. We need to expel every last sliver of racism that currently exists in our community: in the administration, faculty and student body.

Recent conversations on NYU Abu Dhabi online forums have revealed an alarmingly skewed understanding of racism and how it manifests itself on our campus. The need to address this issue is compounded by events in the U.S. sparked by the murder of George Floyd and the global response it yielded. Racism encompasses more than just overt instances: it also includes a lack of representation and racial consciousness that impacts the day-to-day experiences of Black students on campus.
Senior Leadership and Faculty
A clear form of institutional racism at NYU Abu Dhabi can be seen in the absence of Black people in the Senior Leadership. From the President of NYU, to the Vice Chancellor of NYUAD, to the Provost, we see strong white representation and a jarring absence of Black representation. NYUAD’s leadership is broken into five divisions: Office of the Vice Chancellor, Office of the Provost, Academic Deans, New York Leadership Team and Governance. For a place that prides itself on its diversity, it is remarkable that almost none of the “Key People” in these divisions are Black. As a result, Black students do not have individuals in high-ranking positions who they can aspire to or share similar experiences with.
Take the example of the 2020 Commencement Magazine, a memento meant to commemorate the diverse Class of 2020. Six students from the Class of 2020 were highlighted, detailing their journey at NYUAD and their plans for the future. However, not a single Black person was featured in the magazine, while other races were featured more than once. While this may have been unintentional, it is merely a symptom of a deep-rooted problem: a lack of racial consciousness and diversity at the higher level of leadership. It is heartbreaking that a magazine that was meant to serve as a means to remember the Class of 2020 will be, for many, a reminder of a journey filled with exclusion. It took a quick skim from the Black community to notice it. Yet how could the 2020 Commencement Magazine which passed through a chain of people before being published contain such an oversight? This is a direct indication of a need for increased racial consciousness in order to prevent such blunders.
While NYUAD appears to have a diverse faculty, there is still a severe lack of Black professors, as depicted by the chart below. According to six independent student trials conducted on the NYUAD website, only eight out of 260 (3.08 percent) of the current entire academic faculty is Black. This absence raises concerns about the extent to which students are exposed to Black scholarship and literature. It is disappointing to see NYUAD perpetuate existing institutional racism in academia.
Taken from the NYUAD website as of June 5, 2020.
With this stark under-representation, does it come as a surprise that our classrooms can be turned into spaces where Black students feel offended, uncomfortable and embarrassed? Several Black students have had to sit in classes where non-Black professors use the N-word, when teaching. When these students voice their concerns, the professors cite “academia” to justify their use of the word. Not only is this offensive to Black students but it also leaves them vulnerable to the inherent power dynamic present between professors and students. It makes one question the priority of racial issues to professors and the efficacy of their training to navigate such situations.
The Student Body
Among the student body, there have been several instances of racism, regardless of intention. In fall 2019 and even spring 2020, not one but several non-Black students had their hair styled with box braids causing discomfort among Black students on the basis of cultural appropriation. When questioned, some justified their choices by claiming they had sought permission from their Black friends. It may be obvious to some, but one Black person does not represent the sentiments of an entire group of people. As a result, this sparked frustration within the Black community. Their frustrations were quickly dismissed by a large portion of the student body, claiming that the existence of cultural appropriation is inapplicable as NYUAD does not exist in a U.S. context.
Why must the experiences of Black students always be met with skepticism and invalidation?
It is upsetting to see a selective appreciation of what part of ‘Blackness’ students want to engage with. Is it rap/afro-beats? Is it dancing? Fashion, or slang? One thing is clear: ‘Blackness’ as related to racism or any form of racial ignorance is constantly met with silence, dismissal or rebuttal.
Moreover, a student event like the yearly Mock Wedding organized by the Pakistani Student Association continuously raises questions of Black representation. In order to engage the community, the PSA chooses one partner to be ethnically South Asian while the other can be of any race or ethnicity. Black students have consistently attended this event for years only to witness the PSA choose white or white passing students for the role through their private selection process.
These exclusions may not be intentional but should be recognized and questioned when considering the goal of engagement and inclusion. After reaching out to the PSA for two consecutive years on the matter, there has been no evident change in the selection of the brides or grooms. The selection has been justified on grounds of popularity, and raises the question of which social circles are prioritized. Could this be attributed to colorism that has extended to racism? This is just one example of many instances in which Black students have felt excluded in NYUAD. How much more effort is required by the Black community in order to be represented in such an important student tradition?
So What Next?
Why should you care? Why don’t you care? Let’s say for a moment that you don’t, you don’t have the time, you can't relate, it’s a “U.S. problem.” What would the world look like if everyone approached global issues with this mindset? Where would we be?
NYUAD is our community. There are people in our community who constantly feel deprived, diminished and dejected because of their racial identity and the ways our institution interacts with that. If you accept their lived experiences as valid — and we hope and expect that you do — why must your concern be coaxed? Why default to discrediting someone’s lived experience? Hopefully, you see that racism and anti-Blackness are global issues that manifest themselves in numerous ways on campus.
Recent discussions on online student forums have revealed that many students were unaware of how Black students experience racism on campus. The amount of ignorance is perplexing considering the abundance of programming organized by Black students on campus to raise awareness of these issues. Previously, Africa Global has held countless roundtable discussions on the Black experience both on and off campus, AZIZA has held an allyship workshop, and CSA has collaborated with other SIGs to explore topics concerning the Black community. Ultimately, given the many opportunities Black students are offering for awareness, the online discourse raises the question of what non-Black students are doing to make themselves aware of the experiences of their peers.
So what does care look like? Allyship. An ally is a privileged person who cares about the struggle as if it's their own, despite their inability to understand what it feels like. An ally is one who does not choose to stay silent about the injustices taking place around them. Here is a list of what an ally does and does not do:
NYUAD is committed to building and strengthening a university-wide culture of diversity, inclusion and equity. But as long as racism and anti-Black sentiments exist in our campus, our university is not a conducive learning environment for Black students, and by extension, all students. We need to expel every last sliver of racially-based prejudice in our community. Less racism is not the goal. No racism is.
Ultimately, racial equity is a proxy for what we truly want you to care about: humanity. Advocating for the equality of all lives — regardless of race, gender, nationality, religion and so on — should be of concern to all of our community and all of humanity. We have to be intentional about centering the experiences of marginalized students without asking why they need to be centered. You are not doing Black people a favor by educating yourself on racism. You are not doing Black people a favor by dismantling the inequities of society. You are not doing Black people a favor by speaking up.
You are doing justice by yourself. You are doing justice by humanity.
Waad Abrahim, Charles Kanyanta, Nour Ahmed, Mohammed Waseem Chaudry and Yehowahi Sekan are contributing writers. Email them at
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