Politics Racism

Is Cambridge University Institutionally Racist?

I want people to start acknowledging that Cambridge university is a where a person of colour can find as much happiness and success as a white person

Maheen Behrana

Naked Politics Blogger 

I am a BME student, about to graduate from Cambridge university.  I am often told by other BME students that this university is a hostile place for people of colour.  I’m told that people will fetishise me and exclude me simply because of the colour of my skin. But nothing could be further from my experiences here.  Recently, an incident involving the academic Priyamvada Gopal and the porters of King’s College (one of around 30 constituent colleges which make up Cambridge University) captured headlines.  She accused the porters of racial profiling, and tweeted about the incident, once again sparking a debate on Cambridge and its attitudes to race.  Although I think Cambridge has a lot to work on, this incident and the subsequent furore has compelled me to speak out. Because I don’t think the mainstream media features enough stories from BME individuals who enjoy Cambridge and who are prepared to challenge the narrative of it being a hostile place for people of colour.  

Priyamvada Gopal was attempting to get through King’s College on a day when the college was closed to all non-King’s members.  This was clearly signposted. Most people would have probably chosen to walk along one of the other routes which would have taken them to the English faculty.  Some might have queried why it was members-only on that day. But Dr Gopal would rightly not have been let into King’s on that day because she is not a King’s member.  For her to feel that she should have been is at best strange and at worst entitled.

In a BBC article covering the case, Dr Gopal is reported to have said ‘They will let white people walk through unimpeded but demand ID cards from people who are not white’.  Where Dr Gopal gets that information from is uncertain. Although students and staff who belong to the college may sometimes be able to walk through unchecked, generally all non-members are asked for their cards at the gates.  I frequently walk through King’s college but I automatically show my card as a matter of procedure and courtesy. My white boyfriend, who has studied at King’s College for six years and has also lived in the main college for three of those, regularly gets asked for his card even though he is a very familiar face to all the porters.  I have had nothing but friendly interactions with the King’s porters, and while this is just my experience, I take issue with the idea that the King’s porters especially are impolite and discriminatory. They have to be vigilant with security because King’s is not just an historic building, but a place where many people live and work.

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One article covering the case in the Observer has been approved by Dr Gopal; Dr Gopal took Donna Ferguson on a tour of Cambridge colleges, in an attempt to show her the discrimination she encounters on a daily basis.  Ferguson reports only one instance of Dr Gopal having her identity checked in the whole article, and this is when the pair enter St. John’s college. Dr Gopal is asked by a porter which college she lectures at ‘as though he doesn’t believe she is a member of the university’.  To an outsider, this may appear to be what is going on, but actually most members of the university would not have cause to visit St. John’s unless they were members of that college or meeting someone in there. Instead, the main demand to enter the college from non-John’s members comes from tourists.  Ferguson describes the porters as people ‘whose job it is to keep unwelcome visitors out.’, but security is only one part of their role. Porters keep colleges staffed 24/7 and make Cambridge an infinitely safer place for all students.

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As I leave Cambridge, I assure all people of colour that this university truly can be a wonderful place for us.  We do not just exist on the fringes of this university, but at its core, and find friends everywhere. Recent headlines may suggest that Cambridge is not the place for a non-white person, but it is and it needs to be.  Cambridge degrees are intense and comprehensive, but they also offer much flexibility. Being able to choose almost every text you study as part of the English degree is a brilliant enabler and has allowed me to write on topics that are particularly important to South Asian communities.  And only if we have more people of colour in this university will that work be able to continue. When Priyamvada Gopal asserts that there is racism in the porters gaze it is her experience, and she has every right to feel that way. But when she publicly accuses the porters, she perpetuates the problems with access that this university needs to shake.  

Before I came here, I was so nervous that I would not fit in for a whole host of reasons.  I think those feelings are natural, but in the light of recent newspaper headlines, those feelings must be so much worse for incoming people of colour.  For me, racial hostility was when someone spontaneously and unexpectedly shouted ‘Power to the BNP!’ at me, the only non-white person in the room in my hometown of Rochdale.  But I’ve never minded when the King’s porters have checked my ID. People of colour face too many systemic inequalities, but to insist on seeing them lurking around every corner, to define your life on the basis of them, is counterproductive and unhelpful.  

Things that are interpreted as racism must be examined, but I also want people to start engaging in more productive dialogues. I want people to reach out to others instead of constantly highlighting difference; I want people to step back from seeing a binary world of racists and allies; and most of all, I want people to start acknowledging that Cambridge university is a where a person of colour can find as much happiness and success as a white person.   

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