R: Rebecca Tan
M: Moriyo Aiyeola
R: So how do you feel your experience as a BME woman has been like in Cambridge and is it different from wherever you were before Cambridge?
A: Yeah, I’d say in a way it’s strangely been more positive because I went to a private school that was really similar to Cambridge in the sense it was very very white I think it was even less diverse than here, and I came to boarding school here when I was thirteen straight from living in Africa. So over the course of the years I was there I became very conscious of my race and my gender but I didn’t have the language with which to talk about those things yet. It was very lonely and isolating where I’d feel certain things and I didn’t know how to express them or whom to express them to because I obviously knew sort of implicitly I couldn’t talk to my white friends about it and every time that I tried to it became very clear that I wasn’t supposed to be talking about these things.
But then also loads of black students would come in sixth form and their approach when they encountered racism was sort of the totally valid approach of putting their heads down, just getting through school and then leaving. But that, being able to do that has never been in my nature and I’d get really, really frustrated because the way that I saw it, you know, we’d all paid to be there and part of getting an education is being treated at the same level of respect and dignity that everybody else is and so I just kind of felt, who are these people to treat me with less respect than they expect for themselves and they receive? So it was just a – it was very lonely and I came to Cambridge and within my first week I heard about FLY and I was able to build this community with loads of other women of colour and suddenly like, sort of before I got here, being a woman of colour or being a black woman – my blackness and my womanhood had been sort of a wall between myself and everybody else and here it became like loads and loads of bridges to all of these other women of colour, who were black women, who were brown and East Asian etc etc, and I was able to build a community for myself and I found the words to describe my experiences and yeah.
Obviously it’s Cambridge so it’s not all rainbows and butterflies and I think there is a large extent to which, which is really annoying and sad, of just, I’ve got used to lots of instances of racism, so I’d go to FLY meetings and hear people say, or like Mariam was saying earlier, you encounter a posh person and they pretend not to know you and that’s just something I initially brushed off and I went to a FLY meeting and someone brought it up and I was like “Oh my God! That’s obviously not a normal thing…!(sic)” Like, that doesn’t happen to most people but yeah I think coming to Cambridge I thought more about my identity as most people would say and I got really really angry about it, or about all the “isms” etc and yeah, I felt more willing to talk about it.
R: So did you ever experience, like I asked Mariam, blatant racism, directly towards you, like quite aggressive, or was it all these little micro-aggressions that built up over time?
A: Yeah I think for the most part. I think for the most part they were a mixture between direct racism and micro-aggressions because they weren’t directed at me but they were very racist things. So for example during freshers, I’m Kenyan, and there was a boy in my year who had mentioned that he had gone on his gap year to Kenya and slept with a Kenyan girl when he was there and everybody’s immediate reaction was to joke about how he definitely had AIDS now…
R: Oh my god, that’s genuinely disgusting. That’s just disgusting.
A: Yeah, and it’s just little things as well like people in my friendship group are going on a holiday to South East Asia and they were taking bets on all the things which they would do, all of which were fairly repulsive. And then one of them said, “Oh, we have to bet on which will be the first person to sleep with a black girl.” And I was right there and we were supposedly friends, and I just thought… It’s a similar question to which I used to have when I was at boarding school and similar things would be said like out of nowhere and I’d just be like, “why are we friends?” kind of thing, and I feel like that characterises a lot of my relationships with white people, and a lot of my white friends in certain respects, even when it was just micro-aggressions like when I tried to talk to a friend about something racist and they’d be like, “well it wasn’t really racist though, why do you care?” Kind of thing. Obviously I know that I can be friends with white people. I’ve made loads and loads of great friends here but yeah, I think there are loads of experiences of racism and micro-aggressions and I think that is how they always made me feel at the time, like “why am I bothering when there still an extent to where you don’t really see me as a human being?”
M: Talking about sort of male perceptions of I guess, how they view your blackness as a black female, like have you, how do you think? What do you think? What sort of impression do you get from these white males that view you, what do they indicate?
A: Well, to be honest… Those are the only instances where I’ve explicitly… well that instance and another one… were the only instances where I’d like seen men, white men, explicitly fetishise black women. But I hear about white students fetishising black students all the time here. I don’t think it’s something that is talked about a lot and I think actually one of the things I introduced to consent workshops for this year was racial fetishisation because… to use a non personal example… I don’t know whether you’ve heard about RAG blind date?
A: You can bribe for certain people there which normally is supposed to be like fine and wholesome, and you bribe for a friend –
M: Oh my god!
A: I don’t know! There’s this white woman who when she asked for the bribes said that she was looking for a male Afro Caribbean experience?
M: Oh my god!
A: And she didn’t sort of explicitly ask for a black man, she said she was looking for the Afro-Caribbean experience, whatever that is! And yeah, just the things I’ve heard people talking about in my year. My friend who slept with a black guy and asking me about his genitalia, like asking me explicit horrible questions and it’s very pervasive I think and it’s just not discussed at all and it worries me because if it’s not addressed then these people go out into the wide world and they continue to think these things and I do think it raises really scary issues about consent, especially for women of colour and black women. For black women for example, if I’m perceived to be inherently lascivious by somebody I’m interested in, how likely are they to appreciate if I were to say no, how likely are they to listen?
M: So do you think there is a sense that black women or women of colour are valued as less than their white counterparts in a sense?
A: I think that… well yes –
M: In terms of amongst their peers in particular.
A: Yeah, I think it’s something that definitely comes from wider society; it’s not a Cambridge specific issue. But yeah, I definitely feel generally less… it feels so petty to talk about beauty generally but I definitely feel less desirable in spaces like Cambridge than in spaces where there are more black women and I’ve heard other women of colour, of other races, talk about how they feel the same and how they feel sort of diminished every time they’re reduced to stereotypes and that is scary because obviously you know, if you’re on a night out and you’re trying to get with somebody, regardless of race or gender you’re not going to be trying to figure out somebody’s personality but then those stereotypes shouldn’t be coming into play at all. If anything, it should be “do I find this person attractive? Do they seem into me?” That should be it. Not, “is this person going to be good in bed because they’re black or are they going to be submissive because they’re East Asian?” or… (sic)
M: So in terms of coping mechanisms, to deal with it, how have you sort of, what sort of ideas, obviously you mentioned FLY…?
A: I’d say that getting involved in student politics has been really important. And I don’t like giving that as advice to a lot of people because that requires a lot of labour and a lot of energy and everybody has different ways of dealing with things. But for me personally, I always find it so much more impossible to deal with racism when I feel like I’m letting it go and I know that logically speaking, it’s not every day “fight the power”, I know that we are all entitled to just try and lead our lives and it’s exhausting to have to constantly be fighting things. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s in my nature to just get angry about things and to just… If I can’t necessarily change them, then make sure that people can’t ignore them, can’t ignore things as they are. So I’ve actually found that to be self-care and I think, I really like my job right now as Women’s Officer because even though it’s super disheartening, especially at this time, when it just kind of feels like, when it’s being made apparent how quickly women’s rights can be taken away. It just feels like anything I do right now, who knows how quickly it could be unravelled a few years in the future? Yet still I couldn’t imagine not doing anything, basically, I feel like my mental health would suffer more if I didn’t have an opportunity to try and do something.
R: How do you find – because obviously, you’re the Women’s Officer for CUSU – how do you find having this intersectionality between being a black women? How does that manifest in your life? Do you find any relationships between these two, or do you feel more “other” because of that?
A: No, I think, what’s good about the role is that you can make it what you want it to be. And CUSU as an institution is inevitably quite liberal so what I’ve been trying to do is find ways in which to entrench intersectionality into the job so that in the future, when a white woman inevitably takes on the role she won’t be able to just go back to ignoring these things. So it has actually been really good, I have been doing loads of stuff with like, Decolonise Cambridge in particular and also working with the BME campaign on the various things and also trying to keep up to date with FLY. So I haven’t let the fact that I am also black and a woman make the job any more difficult. I’ve tried to incorporate my identity into the role so that it becomes a better role for future people that hold it.