Re: Rebecca Tan
Ma: Mariam Ansar
Ri: Richelle George
Mo: Moriyo Aiyeola
Re: If you’d like to direct the conversation, that’s totally fine. But otherwise I’ll start with: what’s your experience been like as a BME woman in Cambridge, and how has it differed from wherever you were before?
Ma: I think going to Cambridge made me confirm aspects of my identity in a way that I just hadn’t thought of before. I come from the North, specifically Yorkshire, [sic] that area, and it’s really mixed. And I think I thought about things in terms of my identity in a way that was more about like issues: things that were going on in the news, politics, things like that. But coming to Cambridge probably for a lot of women of colour is the first time you’re introduced to being invisible and visible at the same time. I was so aware of the way I was being perceived. Perception is a really heavy thing. It wasn’t even like I was walking into lectures and being myself, it was more like: “She’s brown, and she’s Muslim, and she’s quite small”. But it was also the fact that I wasn’t myself, it was all those political facets. And then on top of that I had to convince these white people that I’m also interesting and funny and stuff. I feel like for a long time I blamed myself, thinking I wasn’t good at expressing aspects of myself, when actually the shift shouldn’t have been on me.
And I think that doing English as well- like, I’d admit we’re all pretentious! But it was almost being blocked out of that, like I couldn’t share in that collective identity, because there were already these obstacles, like the way I was being perceived. And I feel like for a lot of people that meant writing me straight off, like they felt they couldn’t engage with me.
You know when posh people do that thing when like: you’ve met them, like three times, and they act like they haven’t met you?
Ri: Oh my gosh.
Mo: Don’t… Too many times [laughs].
Ri: It always happens to women of colour, or people of colour- it’s like, but you can see us from a mile around!
Ma: I felt like that happened to me so many times.
Re: Is that what you mean by “invisible but visible” at the same time: obviously they see you, but they’d rather not-
Ma: They act like you don’t exist. I think we had a subject dinner, everything was fine, I walked in and was like, “Cool… Everyone’s white.” And this alumni who had come to speak to us was talking about their research and they started talking about how they were writing about Orientalism and how that intersects with Islam. And I didn’t have to say anything but you know [sic] everyone just like turned to me. That tiny, tiny shift. I feel like a lot of the time who you are becomes the elephant in the room for a lot of people who aren’t at peace, or content, with addressing these issues. In the same way that people stumble over saying “black people” or “white people”. They haven’t worked out a way to pronounce who you are. And I don’t think Cambridge is particularly good at addressing that. It doesn’t seem like something that you should feel uncomfortable to speak about.
Re: That’s something that Micha mentioned just now- she said she often feels like her place in Cambridge is as an academic resource. People just look to you- and it’s strange. It almost dehumanises a person, for you to be seen as a gateway to some “exotic culture”.
Ma: Yeah. I was thinking about how some people I know, for example, they probably when something crops up about Islam or Muslim women, they probably think like: “Oh yeah, like my friend Mariam.” And it’s just like I’d never call them “my friends”. That “my friend” extension only exists for them to use when they can feel better about themselves. But it’s more about the fact that they have never kind of gone out of their way to befriend me, it’s literally just because they are instantly reminded. And it’s completely not fair but it shows that it does feel like quite a heavy transaction on their side. And you can’t really opt out of it, or you feel you can’t.
Mo: When you talked about feeling the need to convince people that you’re interesting, and have a personality beyond a facade, do you feel like you’ve managed to find a circle of “white friends”? Or that you’ve mainly found a circle with people that you identify with?
Ma: I have a group of friends that I really, really love and they are just the kind of people I would invite to my wedding in the future. And only one of them is white. I have white friends who do my subject, who I’d just be like, “Hey, let’s get a coffee” maybe twice a term.
It almost feels like different layers of friendship. But I think convincing white people that I’m funny or interesting or all of those kind of things, became something that I did implicitly, rather than feeling like I had to do it all the time.
Because sometimes I’d be like “I want to be in a play!” but I know they would never cast me. Or I want to do this, or I want to do that. Creative expression was especially important for me to feel like I was expressing myself, in a way that I wanted to be. That became the door that I went to: slam poetry, and things like that. I do do things with plays, but you kind of realise there are levels of being. And whiteness affords a level of being that you aren’t necessarily able to be.
Somebody said to me – when I was in a lecture and I had never spoken to her before- “Oh I’ve seen you around and I think you’re really cool” and I was like “Oh thanks! I’m in third year now, people think I’m cool!” And that I was like, wait a minute, of course they’ve seen me around. Who else in the English faculty looks like me? In the same way that you other-ise yourself, I was just like I should accept the compliment and take it as that, but I was also forced to interrogate it. That interrogation level is what is consistently reminding me that, “You are other, you are still all these things [sic].”
Re: Would you say you’ve had obvious racism directed towards you, or has it instead been an underlying, constant feeling compounded by microaggressions? Which do you feel is more accurate?
Ma: I think a lot of it has been microaggressions, just feeling out of it. But also, I remember this one time when I was cycling into town: it was completely fine, everything was normal. Then a guy suddenly shouted, “Taliban!” at me. My first reaction was, “Wait… Is he speaking to me?” Then I was also like that was really rude and strange, because I don’t think the Taliban have been in the news for a while, so that’s also a lazy insult.
I was obviously trying to find the humour in it, but I feel like that was probably the thing that I remembered the most. Also, contrast this time when I was at home and I went to the post office to get some stamps or something and this little kid was like pointing at me and saying, “Terrorist!”
I think in Cambridge the level of racism, aside from that incident, are hidden, in a way. You recognise it, and you understand how uncomfortable the atmosphere is, and how it’s making you feel. And in a way that is more insidious. At least at home it’s out there. I know what’s going to happen. Whereas I think racism here is often covered up in “good intentions”, or “trying to understand” or someone saying, “oh, I need diverse friends.” That is literally what a white person has said to me before. Like, are we here to fill your quota? That’s not the way it works.
That’s the dangerous thing about Cambridge. Often a lot of these people don’t realise what they’re saying is wrong. Or they haven’t ever had to think about it the way we have always had to think about it?
Re: What do you think when white people or white males say, “Oh it’s all said with good intentions”. Or when they say “I’m not trying to be mean, it’s just me being ignorant.” Or that it’s “banter”, or it’s “just jokes”. Even being told: “stop being so sensitive!” What would you say to those people?
Ma: It’s just the level of privilege that white males have. Any engagement with them is going to initiate some kind of power dynamic. Even if you’re like really, really good friends. And I was saying this to my friend before, but I don’t think any of us need to convince anyone of our humanity. I think that’s what the engagement becomes. You have to convince this guy that he’s wrong, or you’re worth something.
There’s a really good Toni Morrison quote about the function of racism being distraction, like you feeling like you have to convince people of who you are. And that kind of like: “oh it’s just banter” is a dismissal of everything that you stand for. And it’s also incredibly arrogant. I think most people kind of adopt this kind of ideology that if somebody calls them out they would want to improve. But if you’ve never been called out in your life, you’re going to be arrogant about it. It kind of looks down on the fact that you’re friends. You would expect any of your friends to care if you’re hurt by something that they said?
Re: So in terms of your experience in Cambridge, and the negative experiences that you’ve had, what are certain coping mechanisms you’ve found are especially useful. Or what would you suggest BME women coming to Cambridge for the first time- what can they do to navigate this space?
Ma: I think that the most important thing for all of us is that fact that we are complicated people. Every single one of us has a complex identity and we relate to situations in different ways. I think that what Cambridge does is suggest that there’s one way to be a student. There’s one way to study. There’s one way to interact. And I think the biggest thing for me was holding on to the fact that I have more than one way of speaking. And I have more than one opinion and my responses to things are going to be more spontaneous or more messy than the kind of privileged response other people will have. I don’t think we have to be apologetic about that anymore. For a lot of people, coming to Cambridge and having a complex identity means you feel like you have to shrink yourself, that you have to be smaller in order to be able to navigate these intimidating places. It takes a while to realise that actually, you’re allowed to speak, and you’re allowed to take up space. Especially in a way that doesn’t have to coincide with the way people usually think of Cambridge. It can actually just be you being yourself. And that self being a really expansive, lovely, multi-faceted thing. And I think that’s what FLY does, it encourages that. I like that, that we speak in different ways and I like the fact that how we speak to our friends isn’t how we’re going to speak to like people in supervisions. When we leave Cambridge we’re also going to have different ways of speaking. Being able to switch- that doesn’t have to be a burden. That’s really important. That it shows who we are as people. Accepting that means celebrating it. And that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learnt: to celebrate that [sic] of myself and not seeing it as a burden.
Mo: So it’s sort of like, as a woman of colour, in a way what you’re saying is that it’s positive that we’re able to adapt to different environments. But then you think about white people coming to university, they can go anywhere and just be themselves, you know. In a way, that’s quite tragic. Quite sad.
Ma: It’s true.
Re: Yes, but in a way you can explore facets of yourself way more deeply than-
Ma: I do think that it’s not an easy thing to do. I feel like I spend a lot of time being really sad about it and feeling like “Oh, if I’d just be simpler, this would be so much easier”. There have been times when I’m crying to my friends like, “If I just take my hijab off… Everything would have been so much better.” But it’s also that’s reductive thinking. There are no certainties here. It’s really annoying that we’re fed this narrative that the more you suffer the better it’s going to be. I don’t really agree with that. I do think that there is something about telling yourself that you don’t have to stick it, but it’s a testament to yourself that you can. And a lot of people are not going to understanding this [predicament]. And as much as it is a burden, it can be more than that. That’s where the shift is- I realised it doesn’t have to be this damning thing. It can offer so much depth and exploration. There are so many not-interesting people in the world [laughs], and the fact that you have so much to say about so many things is actually good.
Re: Going forward from Cambridge, do you have any plans? How do you think your time in Cambridge has changed what you think you’re going to do in the future?
Ma: It’s made all the bits of my identity- all the edges of me have been coloured in more. Anything that I have to do, I feel like I have a responsibility – to myself, and to all those pieces, to the women I’ve met – to do something. I’m never going to forget what this experience has taught me about myself and the way that I’m perceived. And that I can change the way that I’m perceived. I think it’s been a lesson in my identity and also treatments of my identity. And also about people who I don’t have to entertain if I don’t want to. It’s going to be about filling in gaps, it’s going to be about seeing what I can do for people who are invisible and visible at the same time.
Mo: I don’t know what your parents think Cambridge is stereotypically perceived as but I remember my mum saying, “Come to Cambridge. It’ll be a training school for the future.” But do you really think Cambridge will be a realistic representation of what you think going into society as an adult would be like?
Ma: I don’t know what the future’s going to be like, but I do think the experiences and the feelings that have been provoked by Cambridge- you are going to feel after you leave Cambridge. It’s almost like getting a handle of those feelings. But obviously I don’t expect, and I know, that the rest of the world is not going to be this white and this middle-class. We learn to handle ourselves. There are these things that we don’t have to convince anyone of. There will be a kind of silent understanding, I think.