White Women’s Tears: Cambridge has a problem with selective forgiveness

Why have we welcomed Mary Beard and Barbara Stocking back with open arms?

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With Mary Beard coming to speak at the Union this Sunday and Barbara Stocking being embraced as President of Murray Edwards College again in spite of Oxfam scandal allegations, it is painfully clear that Cambridge loves to forgive white women.

Mary Beard, a Classics fellow at Newnham, has been welcomed to speak at the Union for an event called "The Century Girls"; an opportunity to discuss and embrace the book by Joyce Reynolds and Tessa Dunlop. Beard will be introducing this event to students and members of the public and she will be joining them in the audience afterwards, available to answer any questions.

This comes after Mary Beard commented on the Oxfam aid-workers scandal, provoking backlash from Cambridge students, fellows and the national press.

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The tweet that landed Beard in hot-water.

Beard's decision to wade into this scandal by tweeting that it would have been difficult to maintain "civilised" values during the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake was highly offensive and inflammatory.

Her sympathies to the disgraced Oxfam staff by insinuating that such disaster zones are places that "most of us wd [sic] not tread" was a painful affront to the BME community.

Beard later tweeted that “I am amazed that after decades of Lord of the Flies being a gcse English set book we haven’t got the point about the breakdown of morality in danger zones!!"

Many felt that her language regarding the disintegration of morality and the inherent lack of civility in the non-Western world severely ostracised students of colour and only served to justify and excuse the horrendous actions of these Oxfam workers.

During the ensuing internet backlash from students and Professors of Cambridge, Beard posted a photo of herself crying.

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She accompanied this with a tweet saying "I am not really the nasty colonialist you say I am."

Many were absolutely appalled by this photo which was considered an attempt to stem the disapproval, and victimise herself rather than be accountable for her insensitive actions.

In response to countless BME students calling out Beard's incendiary remarks, Beard wrote "If you actually want to know, I am sitting here crying."

Beard's hurtful tweets caused widespread upset, but the photo of her crying activated something more insidious: the potency of white women's tears.

This ability to shut down debate and silence criticism with public crying is not a tool that all have at their disposal.

It is the mark of privilege and a painful reminder that the distress of BME students is somewhat secondary to the comfort of old, elite, white women.

Professor Priyamvada Gopal, an English fellow at Churchill, and a woman of colour, confronted Beard's tweets, only to be met with backlash. Various national news outlets demonised Dr Gopal, overlooking her academic achievements in colonial and postcolonial literature and lived experience as an academic of colour at Cambridge.

Whilst Mary Beard is being invited to the Union and hailed "Britain's most cultured woman", Priyamvada Gopal is consistently met with vitriol and alienation from the academic community and the press.

Women fought for the right to exist equally in this academic environment, and yet there remains a huge discrepancy between different women's experiences.

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Meanwhile, a leading figure within the Oxfam scandal, the ex-CEO and president of Murray Edwards College has experienced a similar ride.

Barbara Stocking's involvement in the scandal and her insensitive comments surrounding it made BME students feel incredibly isolated and uncomfortable.

The JCR published a statement saying "Her conduct has seriously called into question the viability of protecting students’ welfare, particularly that of BME students, while Dame Barbara continues to act as college President".

They accounted that "Dame Barbara spoke about sexual exploitation in a dismissive manner, " which was extremely triggering for survivors of sexual harassment and assault.

The continuous defence of Stocking by her college, and then her speedy reprisal of her role as president after a six-week period of leave is another slap in the face to BME students in and outside of Murray Edwards.

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The email sent round to Murray Edwards students, informing them of Barbara Stocking's return as President.

It is as if the college have brushed the feelings of these students under the carpet. Many had assumed that Stocking's temporary stepping down would become permanent.

Numerous students of the college have raised concern about Stocking remaining in this space, which must remain safe for women and non-binary people. They have questioned whether she will be attending graduation and conferring to them the degrees of finalists.

Of all the places in Cambridge that remain male-dominated and exclusionary, it is not without irony that the two remaining women's colleges have at the highest echelons, thwarted the comfort and safety of women the most.

The tears of Mary Beard and the brief 'holiday' of Barbara Stocking serve as an agonising reminder that white female figureheads feast off the special privilege this university continuously hands to them.