Last term, Zadie Smith was interviewed at the English Faculty; she read one of her short stories and answered some questions. She spoke about how grateful she was to Cambridge for how much it had taught her and for enabling her to have the career that she has had. It got me thinking about what it means to be grateful to an institution that you might not always feel like you belong to. Often criticism from students of colour is shutdown because apparently being at Cambridge nullifies all other structural oppression. Some people actually believe that because I’m a student here I have gained a privilege that overrides the fact that I am black and a woman. This means that I have to be in a constant state of gratitude to Cambridge, I have to worship its systems and its academics or else the chance they have taken on me is lost somehow. Odd logic, I know.
Cambridge has taught be many things; how to punctuate (still working on it), what hendiadys means, it has given me access to young creatives and activists in a way that I’ll always treasure. I’ve met intelligent, inspiring women and non-binary people here and been given opportunities that would not have happened at another university. What struck me being here is the sense of importance that people ascribe to their beliefs and activities, I mean – we’ve been told that we’re the best the country has to offer, right? The mantra of “that person is going to be influential one day” is both ridiculous and vaguely accurate. My desire for an accurate reflection of the “brightest kids in the country” is something that will never change. I’m always a little personally offended when people actually believe that Cambridge is full of the “brightest kids” without acknowledging the systems of privilege that mean that the same faces, just like the ones that adorn the walls of our halls, make it here at the expense of all others. If something like 0.5% of the undergraduate population is black, how dare you claim that Cambridge as it stands, holds the most intelligent people in the country. How dare you? (yes I’m aware there are more white British people in the country than people of colour, yawn) Realistically, short of tearing the institution to the ground and starting again (not ruling this out) all we can do for now is work in it, however frustrating this may be, to make changes. But change cannot happen without an acknowledgment that there is a problem and herein lies the problem.
Sometimes students of colour get the sense that people want them to shut up and be grateful. Cambridge will drag you out as their token minority, their “success story,” as “evidence of their state school intake” but in the process, demand that you be quiet about your negative experiences whilst you are here. This puts you in a strange position. You’re forced to choose between having to “package” your rage and pleas for change in a way that that will “get white men on side” and raising a holy middle finger to an institution that values only certain parts of you. Case in point – Cambridge will ask students of colour to lead access tours, put you on the front of their prospectus, ask you to write positive testimonials but refuse to do anything about their eurocentric, male dominated curriculums. Your tutors will shrug and sigh and say “isn’t it a shame, that’s just the way it is, we’re very traditional here” and your frustration will know no bounds. You will try and vocalise how it feels to be interrogated by a porter, assumed a foreigner, walk into a hall of all white faces or experience a microaggression to your white friends and they will stare back at you perplexed and ask “Well, are you sure it was really because of the colour of your skin?” Rational dudebros or trademark liberals will ask that you agitate for change politely, that you try not to hurt the feelings of white men in demanding that your humanity is recognised. You’ll get into a heated debate with the boy who asks you “why does your lived experience of race/gender/class/sexuality outweigh my opinion?!?” and so on. Despite all this, we must constantly exist in a state of deference and “aren’t we so lucky and privileged to be here?”
It is possible to both love and hate an institution. It can be infuriating and exciting in equal parts because nothing is solely good or solely bad. Being grateful that I am here does not mean that I should view Cambridge uncritically and criticism doesn’t make me any less worthy of my university place. The impetus behind student activism comes from a desire to make this place better. So to anyone belonging to a marginalised group that is agitating for change – sure people will roll their eyes, accuse you of whinging, make you feel like your well founded complaints are an annoyance, like they overstep the mark somehow but remember Alice Walker when she said that “no person is your friend that demands your silence.” You do not need the company of people who are unwilling to engage with the issues that are important to you. However subtle or overt the calls are for you to be quiet, to keep your head down, to get your degree and then your law internship and wander off into the city, keep talking. Scream it from the rooftops, show your anger and your frustration openly because as a wise friend of mine once said; anger is the difference between people who say they want to change things and those who actually do. Use the platforms and magic legitimacy that Cambridge gives you to right wrongs, to point out the ridiculousness of this place because in doing so, you reclaim a little piece of Cambridge for yourself. The more I criticise this institution the more it feels like mine and the more it feels like a place I might be willing to convince people to come to. I can call Cambridge institutionally racist and still happily volunteer my time at open days.
Women of colour and other oppressed groups – being at Cambridge does not have to “kill your spirit” (Fabien Romero), I’m learning that you can be a social justice warrior and still love Dickens. Work within your eurocentric curriculum if you cannot work against it and subvert it when you can. You don’t have to exist in a constant state of opposition because you will tire yourself out. You don’t have to reconstruct yourself to fit some arbitrary Cambridge mould. Rebel with your language, your clothing, in anyway possible, show that there a thousand ways to be a Cambridge student because there are. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to be angry. You can be angry and grateful at the same time.
“immigrants, poor people, queer people of color, disabled folks, women (esp trans women of color) and gender-nonconforming folks if you are in academia and you don’t feel smart enough, remember that you are in the playground and training grounds of the elite. academia was not designed to include you. you are surviving something that has been systemically designed to exclude you in order to keep power in the hands of white, middle class, able bodied cis-men. Knowing this, don’t let academia train you to believe that elitism is the right way to make it through school. you can learn shit, hold the knowledge of your people in your heart, discard shame for your humble beginnings and/or marginalized identities. move through this experience knowing that the changes it offers you don’t have to include accepting academic elitism, inaccessible language or superiority. you can can simultaneously own the privilege that comes with being college educated and connections to your roots. academia does not have to kill your spirit.”
– Fabien Romero