Flashback fifteen years or so and you would find me laughing with my family, frying fish by the riverside. Moving from the Jamaican countryside to inner-city London was a time I could probably write a novel about, but moving from London to Cambridge, a decade later, was an equally defining experience in my life.
It may seem ridiculous, but before Cambridge, I had not really thought about the fact that I was a working-class, black woman. I was Jamaican, my best friends were Chinese and Pakistani and Zimbabwean and Ethiopian, but in Cambridge, our differences paled to insignificance when we stood alongside the white, middle-class majority.
I quickly realised that being a working-class, black woman meant something. I initially felt the need to disguise my ignorance of this new world but it was quickly exhausting. I got tired of feigning laughter at cheese jokes (no, I’d never heard of Camembert) and nodding knowingly at philosophical French sayings (but seriously, what?). The ‘them and us’ divide between Cambridge university students and the wider Cambridge population made me feel uneasy about inviting university friends to my own community.
I got tired of the words “caramel” and “chocolate” slipping into chat-up lines. I got tired of the requests to teach people how to twerk, dutty wine or *insert next dance fad appropriated and popularised by X celebrity*. Coming to Cambridge, I found myself single-handedly having to tackle every black stereotype and it was frustrating. I had to accept that I would spend the next three years of my life dodging the hands that made their way towards my hair uninvited. I would need to spend the next three years asserting my right to my own body.
After a while, you grow tired of being tired and get increasingly angry and of course I was assigned the dreaded label of the angry black woman. If I am honest, I can be pretty disagreeable. However, until you find a meta-analysis demonstrating a correlation between the absence of a Y chromosome, high melanin content and a tendency to irrational outbursts of wrath, I will continue to be offended by this reductionist, demeaning and ignorant label.
I have had very few encounters with people who are overtly malicious, but much of the wilful ignorance I come across is equally damaging. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” When you continuously squeeze me into your box of preconceptions, you limit me, you reduce me to abstract portraits painted by news reports and ‘statistics’.
There is a lot in the media about the number of BME students admitted to Oxbridge. However, there is little focus on representation. Diversity alone is insufficient to bring about equality. I quickly joined the university’s African Caribbean society and became president the following year. I was also my college’s first Ethnic Minorities’ Officer. See the thing is, the number of working-class or BME students in your college may be increasing, but if their voices are failing to be heard, the system is still failing. As long as I continue to be referred to as ‘the black girl from X college’ there is work to be done. You see, when you create a box from preconceptions and then squeeze people inside it, you are hiding them away.
Yes, I am working-class. Austerity measures do affect me differently to how they affect you. If you do not see class, you are simply failing to acknowledge the reality of my experience. Yes, I am a black. When I am hanging out with friends, the police will approach us ‘just to make sure everything is alright’. If you do not see race, you are simply failing to acknowledge the reality of my experience. Yes, I am a woman. The decisions I must make about advancing my career and having a family are real ones. If you do not see my gender, you are simply failing to acknowledge the reality of my experience.
I am a working-class, black woman. And that’s ok. What is important is that we recognise that these labels, these boxes, are inadequate. I am far more complex than a checklist could ever capture. However, you will never know this until you allow me to speak. Allow me to challenge you.
Cambridge is a place to learn; not just about bacteria and scientists, thinkers and ideologies, but to learn about the people around you and their ways, their ideas. Allow me the same individuality, the same clean slate on first-meeting, that you would expect me to allow you. Let me be my own spokesperson and you may gain a far greater insight into intersectionality than a fifty minute lecture could ever teach you.