PHOTOSHOOT: Celebrating Diversity in Cambridge

To celebrate Black History Month, GEORGINA WONG interviewed Priscilla Mensah about BME issues and styles a black and white photo shoot

Photographed by DANIEL ZHANGD

GW: Do you think BME underrepresentation is currently an issue at Cambridge University?

PM: Yes, it needs to be dealt with at this institution. As President of CUSU, I see the efforts made by senior members of the university to change things (for example, working with CUSU to develop staff training on equality, diversity and unconscious bias) but the number of BME students here, particularly British-born BME students, is disappointing.

As a student, did you ever feel like you were at a disadvantage because you were BME?

Academically no, and most BME students at Cambridge (from our Big Cambridge Survey data), say the same thing. Academically in terms of teaching, they don’t see a difference necessarily, although the curriculum is another matter. Socially, yes I did. I was often subject to casual racial prejudice – a student asked me if my brothers were gangsters, for example – and these are things that are said in jest, but they’re not funny when you’re one of very few black students at your college.

But it also comes down to welfare; if racial or cultural prejudice is impacting a student’s experience, one could argue that it might impact their academic performance, too. I would definitely say that I did at times feel isolated; frequently I’d walk into a college for a supervision and be stopped and asked ‘Where are you going? Are you a visitor to the University?’ but it wouldn’t happen to the other students who were walking in just before me.


Mariane wears Ichi bomber, Topshop cami, and Zara culottes

How do you deal with the fact that in Cambridge, everyone is considered privileged, and thus BME issues are seen as a small concern?

It’s a real issue of contention. I was recently at the NUS conference, and if you’re looking at issues that span the entire HE sector, the kind of issues that BME students are facing at other institutions invariably differ significantly from the kind of situations that BME students would be facing at an institution like Cambridge.

There are many fortunes that come with having a Cambridge degree, regardless of your ethnicity, but that cannot disqualify the fact that BME students here are facing a particular type of experience that can be, in some cases, quite negative. I know from co-founding the BME Women’s Network here, that students from across the BME spectrum are often subject to completely ridiculous stereotypes, and that’s unfair.

Mariane wears Adidas bomber and top, Asos trousers

How do you think the university can better encourage diversity amongst its student body?

More targeted access for BME students: for example on open days, conscious efforts to be talking about the current rates of BME students and encouraging BME students to apply; wherever possible, training staff in equality, diversity and unconscious bias; a review of reading lists and curricula, and looking at the extent to which you find women and men of all ethnicities on that curricula. Lastly, active recruitment of BME post-graduate applicants, and BME academics.

No one should pretend to be an expert in how to create complete equality, but these are some of my ideas. To go full circle, it’s important we increase diversity in this institution. The benefit of a more diverse student body is that you’re likely to have friends who are not from the same background as you, and thus more likely to develop an empathy and understanding of their experience. Because they are your friend—purely based on multiple common interests— I believe we start to cut away stereotypes, too. Thus I would say that one of the ways in which it begins in a Cambridge context, is a more diverse student body.

How do you create awareness? For instance the ‘Dear World, Yours Cambridge’ video had some controversial figures in it: this could have been because of a lack of awareness – what can you do to make people more aware?

I’d encourage BME students to run for JCR and MCR positions, and run for CUSU positions. For example, BME students have shared with me their disappointment and frustrations with the choice of individuals in the video and I am now in a position to take forward their criticisms to senior University members in the appropriate fora. The more BME students at the University, the chances are more BME students will end up in elected representative positions and warn against such decisions in the future. Unfortunately I didn’t have that opportunity in this instance; I was unpleasantly surprised to see David Starkey in there.

Marine wears Ichi bomber, Topshop cami, Zara culottes (all as before), and Adidas sneakers

What are some of your suggestions for BME officers on college JCRs to tackle lack of awareness?

First and foremost I’d say reach out to the rest of the network, I know the BME campaign is very keen to ensure that there is a representative on each JCR and MCR – this means that if there are 31 BME or equality officers, then you have a network, and you can talk about the experiences at other colleges; you can share good practices, and you can mobilise – this would be my first piece of advice.

Can you describe one of the BME events that you have been involved with for Black History Month?

I was a member of the panel for ‘Fly Takes Over Forum’ – annually the Women’s Campaign has a series of women forums led by a particular liberation group. This year Lola Olufemi, the BME Women’s Representative invited three women to talk on the panel, myself included, about intersectionality in the liberation movement, and why it’s important. 

Mariane wears Topshop bomber

How can we attempt to solve marginalization within the marginalized: other factors such as class and background can also create different strata of privilege?

Acknowledging and respecting intersectionality. Pidgeon-holing people is part of the problem because every person’s experience, and how they experience oppression will inevitably be different. Strata of privilege, I think, is a tricky one: we must be able to check our privilege, but also trying to play a game of ‘who is more oppressed than anyone else?’ is inevitably going to be unproductive.

Mariane wears Adidas bomber and sneakers, Asos trousers (all as before)

Lastly, you can’t create empathy, or force someone to understand what other people are experiencing. The people putting up the most resistance towards BME issues are the ones who need to engage with the dialogue the most – how do you engage them?

I don’t think one person can answer that question in full. No one should pretend to be an expert in how to create equality, but we can all pose ideas. One of many ideas is the active attempt to increase diversity in this institution. The benefit of a more diverse institution is that you will inevitably have friends who are not from the same background as you – if they are part of a marginalised group, you are more likely to be able to empathise with their experience. Thus I would say that one of the ways in which it begins in a Cambridge context, is having a diverse student body.

Mariane wears Topshop bomber and cami

Photo shoot Director and Stylist: Georgina Wong
Assistant Director: Vicci Nelmes
Model: Mariane Lisboa
Photographer: Daniel Zhang