I, Too, Am Cambridge – What Next…
Over the last couple of weeks, the ‘I, Too, Am…’ campaign has catapulted to Buzzfeed and Facebook fame. But is it really all it’s cut out to be?
Last week, I happened to be meeting a friend outside King’s at the same time that the Black and Minority Ethnic campaign was taking its final few photos. When asked if I wanted to contribute my personal take on the issue – through the means of the now famous sentence-on-a-whiteboard format – I hesitated. Perhaps I am just unobservant, but it seemed like I hadn’t experienced anything outstandingly discriminatory in my time at Cambridge. Sure, there was some casual racism every now and then – the odd joke about Asians having small eyes, or being good at maths – but nothing I perceived as actively malicious. Not wanting to falsely paint myself as a victim, I politely turned the offer down.
But then I looked up the ‘I, Too, Am‘ campaign and it got me thinking. Was my relaxed attitude to race part of the problem? Is it even a problem worth tackling when there are greater issues at hand? What can you do about something so deeply rooted in society? These were questions I had only given the slightest attention to before the recent “I, Too, Am” campaigns of Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge; campaigns whose popularity proved, beyond a doubt, that these issues resonate with many students, minority or otherwise. These pictures exposed to many for the first time how, by perpetuating cultural insensitivity and ignorance, even unintentionally racist actions can weaken the feeling of belonging among many ethnic minority students.
Raising awareness about prejudice is an important issue, especially when that prejudice is not always overt. And the success of the BME project demonstrates the ability campaigns of this sort can have to capture the public imagination.
But I also think it is missing a trick.
Many groups face prejudice in and out of our university and yet we tend to think of them as isolated issues. Would it not be better to see how these categories are related and thereby build a united response that is effective at a base-level?
We could start with the ‘prejudice’ against students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. It parallels the race issue in that not only is it harder for these people to gain entry to and afford a place at elite educational institutions; but once they do get in, it’s harder for them to integrate with a student body that is so dominated by middle and upper class. At Cambridge, with the ubiquity of expensive formal halls, college ski trips, private members’ clubs and May Balls, it seems you’re presumed wealthy until proven otherwise.
Prejudices against socioeconomic background are tightly interwoven with ethnicity. Ethnic minorities all over the country are almost invariably financially worse off, with black Africans being two and a half times as likely as white people to live in a low-income household, and more than twice as likely to be unemployed. The scrapping of the EMA, public sector job cuts and cuts to the voluntary sector all hit minority ethnic families harder than anyone else.
So perhaps rather than looking at casual, often inadvertent racism, it might be better to look at the institutionalised inequality that caused it.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that student campaigns like BME are bringing heavy issues to the forefront. Only with this first step can we then get onto the real business of working out how to solve the problem. With all the recent commentary decrying our generation of students as apathetic and apolitical, more interested in downing Jägerbombs than taking action on the burning issues of our time; the popularity of the “I, Too, Am” campaigns have given us a small glimpse of the potential response from students when strong stances are taken on issues relevant to them.
But if campaigns like these are not built upon by joining up with other relevant campaigns and organisations, student or otherwise, then momentum will be lost and no change will occur. The civil rights movement was not fought by African Americans alone, nor were the victories for women’s and gay liberation won without men or straight people. To combat an issue of this scale, we cannot stop at just highlighting racial discrimination against students in a few elite universities. No, we need integrated movements on a national scale that are committed to fighting the political and economic structures that systematically disadvantage vast portions of the population.
And for that, we’re going to need a bigger whiteboard…