It’s okay to not feel at ease here. You’re in an institution that has privileged people that are unlike you since its conception in the 13th century. But that doesn’t mean you can’t thrive here.
If, like me, you have come from an area of large ethnic diversity, it can be a shock coming to Cambridge which is more reflective of the country’s ethnic and racial make-up. You become aware that you are a minority, something which for many of us, was not part of our childhood and adolescence.
It can be difficult living amongst people who are not from a similar cultural background. The food that you eat is ‘interesting’, the music you listen to is ‘different’, the clothes you wear are ‘cool’. Never before have you been conscious of the fact that you are not the same as everyone else. Social activities, like drinking societies and attending grand dinners, may not be culturally normal or acceptable to you, and you may have no interest in engaging in them.
As NB/female POC, there are additional pressures. You can become a reflection of your race, and a site for the male gaze to be exercised upon. Your appearance may transform you into the subject of multiple attractions, from the stereotype of the Black woman as ‘jezebel’ to the exoticised and passive Southern and Eastern Asian woman.
A POC from the LGBTQ+ community may experience their race differently, becoming the subject of frequent questioning. It is notable that some find it hard to reconcile, in their heads, the thought of being both an ethnic minority and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, as if they are mutually exclusive identities.
Our experiences as women/NB POC are also transformed by class at Cambridge. Upper class students are extremely overrepresented here, making those who do not exist in this elite, privileged world feel alienated. Whilst some POC may feel more at ease in these social circles or situations – for example at networking events – they can often make people, myself included, feel alienated. Things as simple as kitchen conversations related to politics can become uncomfortable situations where you are confronted with the reality that a lot of students here have never experienced financial hardship. They believe that we live in a meritocracy, which of course is not your experience of the world.
With all this in mind, I urge you to resist the pressure to change. Alienation can be overwhelming when you first arrive. I found myself changing my accent, using less slang, and straightening my hair more. These may appear to be insignificant changes, but they are in fact transformative. These are things that define you. Don’t sacrifice important parts of yourself for approval from people who you probably won’t be in contact with once you finish your degree.
There are people like you in Cambridge, it’s just a matter of finding them! Go to as many events as you can. Find your cultural society at the freshers’ fair or by other means. Go to their icebreakers and freshers’ events. Go to women’s groups, college FemSoc events, events hosted by FLY. Meet other like-minded NB/female POC. Bring your white friends along so they can learn about your culture. Attend events hosted by different cultural societies to show your solidarity for other marginalised ethnic groups.
Remember that not everyone in Cambridge is ignorant about cultural differences, and many people respect diversity. Whilst racist incidents do occur in Cambridge and there is poor representation of people of colour, you can expect that many people will be welcoming and kind to you. Whilst you are by no means responsible for educating others about cultural difference, you can expose people to your world, and hope that this ensures respect for your boundaries and a level of understanding.
Don’t come here with the expectation that you’ll fit in right away, but you will find your feet. Keep your eyes open, and throw yourself into anything that you’re comfortable with. Ask current students about their experience, and try not to make the same mistakes that we did!
You will be fine.