This week, FLY is working with Students of Cambridge to showcase the voices of women and non-binary people of colour in our community. Our first interview is with Micha Frazer-Carroll.
R: What’s your experience been like as a BME woman in Cambridge, and how has it differed from how it was before? From wherever you were before Cambridge?
Mi: So before Cambridge, my school was quite middle-class, but I was still in London so it was much more diverse, definitely. I found when I came here, I encountered so many people who genuinely were like, Cambridge is the most diverse environment they’d ever been in, which was so weird to me. And I think I didn’t necessarily notice it straight away when I came to Cambridge. I think it was the first time I visited home, when I went back, and I was standing on a platform in Edmonton which was where I lived. I looked around and was like, “Everyone on this platform is an ethnic minority! This hasn’t happened to me in such a long time.” That’s when I started to realise that in Cambridge I do actually feel quite a strong sense of otherness, of being different.
And also just communicating with academic staff. I remember at my matriculation dinner, just looking around at the walls, it was literally just like all these giant portraits of white men and just feeling like, “Okay, this isn’t explicit racism, but it reinforced the idea that I didn’t belong here.”
R: When you were thinking these thoughts, like “this environment is so different from where I was before”, and obviously you feel a bit of a shock, did you ever express these thoughts out loud to people? Or did you feel like you had to keep them to yourself?
Mi: I think I kept it to myself until I went to my first FLY meeting- that was literally at the end of second term of first year. I just thought like wow- I had no idea there were other people who had the same experiences, the same thoughts. I think that was really validating to find that, and realise that you’re not wrong, and your experience isn’t weird.
R: So you mentioned that you might not have experienced explicit racism directed towards you- have you? Or where there instances where you felt very affected by a microagression?
Mi: I guess, it’s the little things. People treat me like an academic resource, or something to educate people. People ask quite intrusive questions. Or like when people tell me what I should do with my hair. I wore my hair natural for the first two years and I started straightening it at the beginning of this year- and people were telling me that they prefer it curly, or that I should wear it like this or that. Or asking, “How does that fit in with your politics?” And you would never ask those questions to somebody who was white! I can’t quite pinpoint one moment.
R: If you can’t pinpoint one moment, then, what’s been your constant, underlying feeling being in Cambridge as a woman of colour?
Mi: It’s alienation, I think. That partly comes from the college system. Corpus is really small. Even if you make friends with people of colour, that kind of home base. I’m only one of three black people in Corpus. So it’s definitely one of alienation.
R: What have been your coping mechanisms having experienced all of this?
Mi: Literally, just networking with other people of colour. In contrast, in school, I didn’t want people to think I just hang around people of colour, or that I look like them and we all just hang out with each other. But when I came here for university, everyone was like “why are all the black girls hanging with each other?”
R: No definitely, I started to feel proud, like I shouldn’t be ashamed of that!
Mi: Exactly! When I came to university, there started to be a sense of like unapologeticness to it: like, yes all my friends are women of colour, and you’re a white girl, and all your friends are white girls. Also in conjunction with spaces like FLY, also having non-political spaces where you can hang out with people of colour. You don’t necessarily have to talk about being a woman of colour, or person of colour: you are just being. And feeling at ease and relaxed, and you don’t have to explain yourself all the time.
I think I was very political in first and second year and this year I came to realise I’m not obliged to be involved in politics, like it’s an active decision. It’s totally okay to sometimes step away and take time for yourself. And remind yourself that you don’t owe your time to anyone. It’s totally okay to go through your time in Cambridge, not involved in politics if you find it draining. Just loads of self-care, and doing what’s right for you. And step away from conversations that make you feel uncomfortable and if you don’t have the energy to educate people.
Ri: I think it’s super cool that you do the Blueprint zine, and I wanted to ask about this intersectionality between being of colour and being a woman. I feel like it sometimes this manifests in mental illness, or extra challenges and difficulties- how do you navigate that experience?
Mi: For me, I struggled with depression and anxiety. And I think I came to realise that it was so intertwined with my race. I used to see it as very separate issues, as race, gender, mental health. Then I realised they were really, really intertwined. A lot of those daily microaggressions, and that feeling of walking on the street and always sticking out, always being different actually does start to weigh quite heavily on you, and can play out in mental illness, I think. When I set up the magazine, I didn’t want to make it very explicitly racial or very gendered, almost trying to veer away from intersectionality. Then I had a realisation that was like, “Wait, these are real experiences”, and I think it would be erasure to not include diversity of all kinds.” Because it is a reality that people of colour, black people specifically, are seven times more likely to be diagnosed with depression and mental illness. And I think anxiety as well is more common in women, and it’s like “Why should we ignore the statistics? Why should we erase real experiences, just to cater for a white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual kind of norm?”
R: For sure. Moriyo and I were talking about exactly this the other day. We were saying that the whole point why microaggressions are so affecting is because like you said, for example, if you have a mental illness, and you have these racial aggressions made towards you, you don’t fit them together? You don’t voice your thoughts out loud, because people think you’re making an excuse, that you’re blaming something that doesn’t exist. Because you can’t say them out loud, you get really isolated.
Mi: I think that’s an added level- like, you have the initial feeling of being hurt or excluded but then it’s even worse when you try to voice it and someone’s just like, “What are you talking about?”
Mo: Taking into account that so many people take you to be overdramatising, what’s your experience with how white men respond or treat you, as a woman of colour?
Mi: In terms of reacting to when I speak out?
Mo: In terms of reacting, and also in general.
Mi: I’ve definitely had a lot of white men- because I had white men close to me be like, “Do you really think that’s a race thing? Are you sure that’s not because x, y, z?” That’s even more insidious, because as a woman of colour, already, you’re probably more prone to being unsure of the validity of our experiences, or insecure, and so when you get a [?] like that, you think maybe it’s just me, like, “Oh yeah, maybe I’m making it up.” It’s almost kind of gas-lighting.
Mo: It’s like them telling us how to think.
R: Was there anything else you wanted to talk about in general?
Mi: I think my main point that I wanted to reiterate was you don’t owe anyone your time. Choose as and when you want to be involved in political spaces. They can be very empowering, they can be very draining. There’s no right way to do Cambridge as a person of colour, I think. It’s about surviving and doing what’s best for you. And living in an environment that makes it so hard for you to literally exist, sometimes, means that you have to do what’s right for you.
I’ve only recently started thinking about [finding solidarity in adult life, after graduation] because my sister’s just got into the workplace. I think having been in spaces like FLY in Cambridge, I came to learn about having your reality confirmed and validated. I’ve realised if you’re a woman of colour in a predominantly white space you probably are feeling what I’m feeling. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that thing of being in a really white space, it could be a place, city or a lecture environment, and you see another black person and you look at them like [look of solidarity]. You don’t have to say anything, but you know how it feels. Or just a little nod. Even if I’m not lucky enough to have very overt political spaces like that, I’m very much aware that my experiences aren’t just unique to me, and even just that little nod is enough to keep me going through the day.