The Worst of Both Worlds: Being POC and Working Class at Cambridge University

Halfway hall has recently passed and for many it stood as a commemoration of our time here so far and what is yet to come. However for me, it stood as a culmination of everything I’ve tried to be and in turn failed to be for the past year and half in order to fit into this giant puzzle piece that is Cambridge.

For a lot of people, being accepted into Cambridge means the end of a long and arduous battle, but for me I knew it was only the beginning. Since arriving here, I have been self-conscious about the fact that I am one of very few brown girls at my college. But more so than this, I have been self-conscious about the fact that I come from an underprivileged background in an inner-city London borough. I was more insecure about being working class than being Asian.

Before coming to Cambridge, I knew there was a clear problem regarding the lack of racial diversity. But I was aware that groups such as FLY and the CUSU BME Campaign, as well as cultural societies, were addressing this issue, providing people of colour with safe spaces, and ensuring an easier transition into Cambridge life. In addition to this I knew that quite a few students at the university were from private schools and/or had a middle to upper class upbringing which allowed them – to a certain extent –  to have the potential of fitting in a little more. And so, living at the intersection of being a woman of colour and working class, I found myself wondering, where does this leave me to fit in?

My background meant that I was fundamentally ‘rowdy’ or ‘loud’, that I had different interests in music, food and clothing, that I had a ‘weird’ accent, as well as a ‘weird’ vocabulary that people would attempt to appropriate. In Cambridge, it meant that I was looked down on and given disapproving looks by fellow students. I found that most people here, due to either class difference or private schooling, had been hardwired to behave in a certain way, deemed ‘acceptable’ and ‘appropriate’ by society – or in this context, a respected institution.

Before attending University I was happy to be ‘rowdy’ and ‘loud’ in my neighbourhood; I never thought ill of it and neither did my friends. But I knew from a young age that people were more likely to hear the volume at which I was speaking rather than the content of my speech, so I had to condition myself into being quiet and well-spoken, essentially giving up the characteristics that made me who I am. I had adopted a persona which I could switch on and off to allow myself to excel in professional environments such as interviews and workplaces, as well as networking events. However, I don’t understand why I need to continue using this persona in university, among fellow students who I should feel comfortable around.

For the past year and a half, I feel as though I have tried in many ways to be more ‘Cambridge’ and to fit in. But regardless of hard I try, I cannot suppress my inherent ‘working class-ness’. Although both working class people and people of colour are minorities at the university, I feel as though being both working-class and a person of colour in Cambridge is not something that is widely talked about.

Being self-conscious about your race and being ashamed of where you are from is mostly seen as a bad thing. We are told that we should always be proud of where we’re from. However, when it comes to the issue of class, it is a different case. The insecurity and shame which comes with being working class (let alone a woman of colour) is not considered a negative thing, because being poor is nothing to celebrate; especially when you are in an environment that is predominantly middle/upper class.

It is easy to feel as though people only see a working-class girl, and fail to acknowledge your value and personality. Being a minority often grants you the possibility of falling back on a rich, diverse and crucially, distinct, culture as well as university societies that celebrate racial diversity. But what is there for working class students to fall back on?

Race and class difference in Cambridge are both very important issues to consider but their intersectionality should be more widely discussed. Speaking from my own experience, we are more likely to feel like the biggest outliers in Cambridge. More often than not, students are either at a disadvantage in terms of race or class, but rarely both. With the difficulty of transforming yourself into something you are inherently uncomfortable with, and finding people who can empathise with you, it is hardest for those who fall into the intersection of these groups to find a sense of belonging here.

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