Just under a month ago, FLY held a meeting (open to all genders) that hosted Cambridge’s men of colour. The meeting as a whole was a success. A surprisingly high number of men turned up and, by the end of the meeting, conversation was spirited and flowing freely. But it’s important to discuss the reason why we felt the need to host MOC.
The numbers that attended were surprising because, up until then, it had always appeared that MOC at Cambridge were politically apathetic. From the “I, Too, Am Cambridge” campaign last year to the upcoming panel discussion on the intersection between race and mental health, it has predominantly been women of colour at the forefront of race-related activism at Cambridge.
We’d hoped at the meeting to get to the bottom of this gender disparity, and a lot of interesting opinions came to light. There were two arguments that interested me most: 1) the idea that it’s not our responsibility as people of colour to help other POC; and 2) the idea that academic and professional success will prevent us from experiencing racism. These opinions are understandable but misguided.
I’ll begin with the second point because I empathise with it most. Going to the sort of private school where I was the only black person in my year for three years running, I thought the best way forward was to ignore my race and let my grades do the talking. After all, if we all had the same educational advantages I surely had nothing to complain about. Interestingly enough, my Cambridge offer never stopped staff from following me around in high street shops. Our degrees won’t keep policemen from stopping us in the fancy cars that we buy, or from being told we got our jobs to fill a quota. Won’t protect our children from being teased for their funny names and funny skin. We can’t outrun racism with respectability politics. More importantly, as human beings we deserve basic respect simply for existing. We shouldn’t have to collect Firsts in return for our humanity being recognised by our peers and by the state. Yes, money and a great education will protect us from many of the possible manifestations of racial prejudice. But if we want to end racism we have to fight racism itself, not pretend that we can place ourselves outside of its grasp.
The question of whether it’s our responsibility to help other POC is easier to deal with. It is our responsibility. It’s unfair that that’s the case, but such is the life of a privileged POC. We have our places at Cambridge because of activists before us who refused to accept the status quo. You didn’t ask for their help, and they didn’t hand you any figurative baton. But if we’re interested in a world of success that’s accessible not only to us but to all people who deserve it, opening doors for others is what we have to do.
This doesn’t explain why it appears to be case that MOC at Cambridge are more inclined to buy into these arguments than WOC. This wasn’t fully addressed at the FLY meeting but, at least in my mind and in the context specifically of racially black men, there is one clear reason why there are more women activists: the ease with which a lot of black men are able to assimilate into environments like Cambridge.
Anecdotal and empirical evidence shows that black boys in predominantly white schools have an easier time (than black girls) assimilating because of the stereotypes associated with black men. This remains the case when those black boys grow up and enter university. While there are no genuinely positive stereotypes of black men, it’s easy to see how the idea that black men embody “cool”, for example, can make it easier to integrate, even to become popular. This in conjunction with the fetishisation of black men (case in point: the anonymous woman who allegedly filled in her RAG blind date form saying she was looking for an “afro-exotic experience”) means acceptance is that much easier. It explains why black men might, therefore, be less inclined to rock the boat by joining controversial campaigns that would other them from their white friends. Moreover, assimilation can look a lot like equality, leading to assumptions among black men that there is, in fact, no need for said campaigns.
The same evidence shows that black girls (and women) are only hampered by the stereotypes held against them, which isn’t always a bad thing. Personally, I can’t see how assimilation achieved on the basis of stereotypes that are ultimately harmful can be ideal. Moreover, it’s clear that assimilation is not the same thing as parity when your white friends engage you in plainly racist “banter”. When you, out of all your friends, are the one who is stopped at the porters lodge of a college that isn’t your own. When you’ve been stopped and searched on your way back to college and none of your other friends are even aware that things like that happen in a place like Cambridge.
All of that being said, I should state the obvious and say that I do not believe that white Cantabrigians only befriend black men because they hold certain stereotypes about them. Nor am I saying that fitting in among white people automatically makes it more difficult to engage with these issues. This post is less about the relationships we have with each other, and more about the possible effect those relationships can have on our political beliefs. The trends I’ve noted above exist and are known to exist. They contribute to the extent to which black men are able to assimilate into the Cambridge student population, which may then affect their decisions to get involved in campaigns calling for racial equality. This is not the case for all black men, and I don’t know whether it’s the case for MOC as a whole. I’m not saying that black men have no difficulty whatsoever assimilating in some environments. I’m also not saying that politically active black women are only active because they feel excluded at Cambridge.
Finally, I should note that MOC at Cambridge aren’t completely apathetic. ‘Soar’ is a network that was set up a few years ago with the specific aim of creating solidarity and a shared space for MOC (much like FLY). The alumni who established the group saw that there are conversations that MOC need to be having at Cambridge. Though Soar has become less well-known over the years, it has recently been revived, which hopefully marks the beginning of better engagement with race politics from MOC at Cambridge.
So to Cambridge’s MOC. We know that there’s work to be done by POC of all genders. You don’t have to take to the streets or become your college access officer. Accepting that assimilation isn’t equality is the best first step. Call out your friends, join Soar, begin to address the fact that we aren’t fully equal and that that isn’t our fault. All of us, with our immense educational privilege, have the power to change the future for the better. Not simply for ourselves, but for others like us as well.