Education may be the great equaliser, but not all educational institutions are created equal. Going to a university like Cambridge makes this all the more clear.
The university is clearly marked out by borders. Even on a geographical level, there is a sharp and immediate difference between the areas of the town enriched by the presence of the university and those occupied by its less wealthy permanent residents. The borders I’ll focus on here, though, are those that demarcate Cambridge University as, among other things, a place of privilege, imperialistic conceptions of intellect, and, most importantly, hegemonic whiteness.
This wouldn’t be much of an issue if not for the fact that Cambridge is also one of the best universities in the world. Oxbridge provide an excellent education, one that is genuinely unparalleled by any other school in the UK. It should be the number one destination for any ambitious, hard-working student, and, for most of them, it is.
But there are also too many who, despite being perfectly capable, don’t apply. Faced with a choice between a great education and three or more years of isolation, and a slightly less respected degree achieved around people to whom they can relate, they choose the latter. Beyond them there are young people who feel that most if not all universities full-stop don’t exist for people like them.
To say this is not to lay blame for failed access schemes at the feet of those underrepresented groups themselves. Aside from structural impediments that begin their work long before anyone is thinking about applying to uni, there is the fact that the culture at Cambridge – more specifically, the things it values – is repellent to anyone uncomfortable with privilege, imperialism, and hegemonic whiteness.
I’ll state here that while imperialistic thinking is clearly an inherently bad thing, the detrimental consequences of Cambridge’s privilege and hegemonic whiteness must be explained. The privilege I’m thinking about here is that associated with the kind of old money at the university’s foundation. The old, gorgeous colleges. The robes, the Latin prayers. Regular engagement with this world is deemed a luxury only accessible to the exceedingly wealthy few. But it’s also a part of the history of all English people, and it’s great that Cambridge is able to open up that world to more people; ostensibly anyone who’s intelligent enough to make it there.
The problem is that privilege of every kind is inherently exclusive. Those spaces were created with the intention that only a certain, small group of people would be able to enjoy them. While the white middle-class seems to have built up an entitlement to that privilege, anecdotal evidence has suggested to me that black Britons and the black working-class in particular still find that it’s a space that doesn’t belong to them. It seems that the kind of privilege heavily associated with Cambridge is also robbing some Britons of the sense of entitlement to the university they might otherwise have had by virtue of their academic ability. While the solution obviously isn’t to get rid of Cambridge’s traditions, the alienating effects of this privilege clearly need to be countered.
This detrimental consequence of privilege is exacerbated by the issue of hegemonic whiteness, a concept best explained by American sociologist Amanda Lewis in her 2004 paper ““What Group?” Studying Whites and Whiteness in the Era of “Color-Blindness””:
“For an ideology to gain hegemony it must do more than enable people to make sense of their lives; it must successfully naturalize the status quo. In naturalizing and legitimating the present state of things, ideologies tend to support certain interests and to subvert others… Ideologies become hegemonic to the extent that they enable people to understand and to accept their positions within a stratified society. They gain consent from those on various rungs of the social ladder to a system that secures the positions of both the dominated and the dominating (Hall 1986; Gramsci 1971).
Hegemonic whiteness then would be that “configuration of [racial] practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of [white supremacy]” and that secures the dominant position of whites (Connell 1995:77)…”
In the context of Cambridge University (and in specific reference to black students), hegemonic whiteness expresses itself in the fact that there are too few black students and little critical evaluation of why that’s the case. It’s a fact that’s simply been accepted. Due either to the misguided belief that black people are less academically able (or inclined) than white people, or an apathetic awareness of structural inequalities that don’t exist in our favour. It’s also evidenced by the Eurocentric curriculum and the erasure of all people of colour in popular discourse surrounding Cambridge. While it makes sense for whiteness to be the norm at a university where over 80% of the students are white, that whiteness dominates in a way that prevents the meaningful introduction of necessary non-white influences into the culture and curriculum.
This presents an obvious problem in terms of access, as black people are justified in rejecting the prospect of three years of isolation at a place where they literally cannot see themselves for the sake of a degree. No one should have to ignore a fundamental aspect of their identity (here their blackness) in order to succeed in an educational institution. Yet in not applying, a lot of black people are also shutting themselves out of a world of opportunities. This is why it’s so important for those of us who do cross the borders into spaces like Cambridge to find ways to break them.
It’s worth nothing here that “hegemonic whiteness is not a quality inherent to individual whites but is a collective social force that shapes their lives just as it shapes the lives of racial minorities” (Lewis, 2004). Moreover, it’s “also something people may well have only partial access to and that regularly is contested. For example, colloquial references to blacks “acting white”,… and to whites behaving as “wiggers” all are examples of people partially crossing borders in and out of hegemonic whiteness with varying degrees of reward or penalty.” People of colour can perform and even identify with hegemonic whiteness (e.g. by embracing or defending certain cultural and institutional practices). The problem remains that those who don’t embrace hegemonic whiteness in a place like Cambridge risk suffering the consequences, be it a rejected essay style or an alternative reading list that might provide a more rounded education but fail to prepare one for their exams. On a non-academic level, rejecting white hegemony might also lead to alienation from the majority of the student body.
Knowing what it is that the borders of Cambridge protect makes knowing how to break them easier. In fact, knowing this also means being aware that the crossing and breaking of those borders must be a radical act. And when I use the word “radical” I refer to its Latin etymology, meaning ‘forming the root’. That is, in order to break borders one must get to the root of their existence and pull it out, rather than trying to bring about change through more tangential measures.
I’ve been very lucky in my life that my mum has had a job that allowed her to send me to private schools and then on to Cambridge. I’d always assumed that using this privilege for good involved crossing borders into spaces that were historically not open to black people and pulling other black people up as I went along. But the methods I had in mind were not radical enough.
I used to have a set process in mind:
- Through discipline and hard work, enter spaces (such as Cambridge University) that don’t historically belong to you.
- Learn what white people in those spaces value, learn how to excel in their culture through mimicry and assimilation.
- Go back to the border at some point and teach younger black people how to mimic white people so they can make their way into and through these spaces even faster than you did.
I essentially felt like it was my job to give black people the cheat codes to life among successful white people. That was how one broke borders. Then we’d flood these spaces with assimilated black folk and white people would have to accept that whatever they could do, we could do, too. The only thing standing in our way was black people who didn’t see it as their responsibility to teach the next generation how to succeed.
This approach is good to the extent that it can introduce white people in places like Cambridge to the diversity of black experiences: we can be anything from Stormzy to Diane Abbott. I also understand that it’s the pragmatic approach. It’s easier to climb the social ladder than it is to deconstruct it. Harder to change a culture than to work within it. However, all this realistically does is serve to maintain borders rather than break them.
By assimilating into white hegemony anywhere, one reinforces it as a good thing thus making it more difficult for other black people to enter into and benefit from spaces like Cambridge. It changes nothing and merely allows the status quo to continue. For one thing, it was certainly my experience in school that when exposed to me, finding that I didn’t fit into their conceptions of blackness, white people merely made me an exception to their stereotype, rather than actually tackling their prejudices. Moreover, “breaking borders” by encouraging others to assimilate into white hegemony won’t lead to the liberation of all black people – just those who are willing to assimilate. On a more abstract level, our instinct when we come across an instance of white supremacy shouldn’t be to change ourselves to fit into it. It should be to destroy it.
But most importantly, I feel like this approach evinces a lack of self-love. We shouldn’t be so willing to shed aspects of our identity and replace it with what’s valued under white hegemony. Not only should we be proud of our identities, we should want to see our blackness in spaces like Cambridge – spaces associated with success and social mobility. To use our heritage to shape these institutions rather than hide it like some shameful secret and, worse, encourage others to do the same.
It’s not enough to make black people subscribe to certain cultural values while ignoring their own. If we want to break borders and genuinely draw more black people in, they should be able to see themselves at Cambridge. Not just literally, but at an institutional level as well. We should question reading lists that only have white authors, modules that diminish and other non-European work, history, and culture. We should grow our cultural societies and try and force them into mainstream Cambridge culture. This is what we tried to do with FLY last year by increasing its presence in the university through introducing the ideas of women of colour to the rest of the student body.
We should write our own stories about our time in places like Cambridge to complement the single story already told time and again. The story that’s found in books like Brideshead Revisited and, more recently, on Caroline Calloway’s Instagram account – that of white people struggling and celebrating amidst privilege – is valid; as true as mine or anyone else’s. But we need more people to share the real diversity of experiences that take place in Cambridge, too.
If we truly love our blackness, we’ll see the value it can add to an already world-class education and want to share it as much as possible. And there are already people who do, to quote a friend, “incorporate their uniqueness” into their work. Bringing their blackness into their supervisions and exploring various aspects of it with their supervisors. This should be done as much as possible.
The reasons for why anyone might not love their blackness are both obvious and complex. Hegemonic whiteness extends far beyond Cambridge to the rest of the world. Two extracts from black feminist bell hooks’ book ‘Black Looks’ cover the reasons why quite well for me:
“A culture of domination demands of all its citizens self-negation. The more marginalised, the more intense the demand. Since black people, especially the underclass, are bombarded by messages that we have no value, are worthless, it is no wonder that we fall prey to nihilistic despair…”
“As long as black folks are taught that the only way we can gain any degree of economic self-sufficiency or be materially privileged is by first rejecting blackness, our history and culture, then there will always be a crisis in black identity.”
Self-love while black can therefore be an exceptionally difficult thing. We’re all taught, regardless of race or background, to value whiteness above everything else. Be it English classical music, white literature from the United States, the remnants of the Greek and Roman Empires. We’re taught that whiteness changed the world while the rest of us watched. It’s no wonder, then, that when so many of us cross the border into a space from where pioneers and leaders are said to originate, we accept the whiteness of that space and expect other ambitious black people to follow suit.
But self-love is essential if we’re to break the borders to places like Cambridge. When black people can see that they’ll be valued in these spaces – that they won’t have to sacrifice any part of themselves – then those borders will finally be broken. We must teach Cambridge how to love blackness as much as we do. Break down its hegemonic whiteness as much as is possible in order to make blackness a part of the culture wherever it’s relevant. Not only will that benefit prospective applicants who will know they’ll be accepted should their application succeed, it could only enrich the education that the university provides, drawing on the good that blackness can bring.
It is, of course, impossible to produce a blanket definition of “blackness”. Especially as an African who didn’t really identify as black until mid-adolescence, it’s hard to know what’s meant by the term. What it claims to represent. But I think the answer could be both personal and obvious to any black reader from any part of the world who encounters this idea of “blackness”. Beyond the tropes, there is cultural meaning in blackness. My mind will likely change on the subject, but I think it’s safe to say for now that blackness means whatever it means to whichever black person tries to define it as they apply it to themselves, their families, their history (especially in relation to other races), social justice, and the work of other black people which they consume or of which they are aware. I think it’s also clear to all of us which aspects of black cultures are unwelcome in white spaces.
As a final note, it’s worth pointing out that part of the reason it’s so difficult to see that we have to deconstruct white hegemony in order to break borders is because crossing borders is very closely tied to the capitalist dream. Without critiquing capitalism itself, it’s clear that within a capitalist framework success and equality are primarily measured in accordance with how much money one is allowed to earn, how much power a person is allowed to hold. So because a minority of black people increasingly have access to both money and power, it’s easy to think that borders don’t need to be broken by changing the culture. The culture appears to already accept us.
However, there are other ways in which to measure success which are less superficial and, in my view, more telling: how your colleagues view and treat you; your relationship to the state; the way you’re represented in the media; the way people talk about your success; whether your people’s history is taught in classrooms; whether the work that your people have produced is respected; and, most importantly, whether you’re really at peace where you are, doing what you’re doing. These things become important when you value your blackness (as well as your general well-being) as much as you value success. Understanding that these factors are important leads us to see that in order to actually break borders we need to do more than mimic whiteness and buy into its hegemony.
It’s easier in theory to practice the kind of radical self-love required to abolish borders. To be both unapologetically black and wildly successful. But we should try, otherwise we’re destined to lose ourselves even as we try and do better for ourselves. We can have it all. We should.