Opinion: Cambridge’s Black community needs action, not performative statements

The University and its’ white students can no longer close our eyes to the anti-Blackness embedded in this institution


CN: Discussions of racism and anti-Blackness

Stephen Toope’s statement on the death of George Floyd as a result of police brutality, in what I presume is the University’s equivalent of a black square on Instagram, was long-awaited, and coincidentally came mere hours after a statement from the University of Oxford, in what many would describe as a signal of performativity, rather than a signal of genuine concern for Cambridge’s Black community. 

Without concrete action, Toope’s statement is just empty words

As a white person, I will never be able to fully understand the weight of the anti-Blackness which is embedded in our University, which so proudly tops many league tables – including that of the University in the UK with the highest number of reported racist incidents. But, it doesn’t take much to see the emptiness to Toope’s words: “We do not always live up to these aspirations” is a very euphemistic way of saying “porters are so unused to seeing Black students in our grounds that they repeatedly question their presence in college” or “we consistently under-employ Black staff, unless we are filling precarious roles which do not pay the living wage” or “we don’t include Black academics on many of our reading lists”. 

It’s all very cute for Toope to release a statement, discussing how he “hope[s]” we will stand shoulder to shoulder”, but without concrete actions on how to achieve this, it is quite simply empty words. Ultimately, the University needs to adopt an anti-racist strategy and it needed to do so a long time ago. In a country where anti-Blackness is so prevalent that Belly Mujinga and Shukri Abdi lost their lives due to racism, and their attackers walk free, and a city where Black people are almost seven times as likely to be stopped by the police as white people, the University should be ashamed that it has taken this long to finally release a statement on this, without even alluding to how this will be achieved. But we cannot sit content with a few words of ‘solidarity’ in times of crisis, without acting on this. 

One article is insufficient to discuss Cambridge’s legacy of racism, and specifically anti-Blackness, which is rooted in our institution. Looted statues, such as the bronze cockerel statue, until recently displayed at Jesus College, and memorials to racists, from R. A Fisher to Isaac Newton and Churchill, have been part of our university’s ‘aesthetic’ for centuries, amid an inquiry into the University’s slave trade links and historic racism. As long as these visual reminders, and indeed celebrations, of racists remain, the university sends a message of exclusion to its Black students which is unacceptable.

But our anti-Blackness is not just historic, it’s ever-present in our institution. This can be seen in issues of access, whereby six colleges took fewer than ten Black students from 2012-2017, and for some colleges the success rate of Black applicants was half that of the university’s average. This discrimination continues after offers are made: Black students can expect to be questioned by porters, achieve lower results and not see themselves represented in faculties, reading lists or art, amongst other areas of student life.

Cambridge’s ACS, the CUSU BME campaign and individual BAME officers in our college are doing a fantastic job to attempt to overcome these barriers. The resources they have provided have been educational and insightful, and their relentless energy to enact change is incredible, and I would recommend you all to access these here (CUACS and CUSU BME). The CUSU BME campaign released an open letter to Toope on Thursday, calling for a list of demands. These include providing more resources and funding for welfare provision for Black, and BME students and staff, addressing issues of access, recognising and tackling the Black attainment gap, decolonising the curricula, hiring more Black and BME staff, improving procedures for reporting racism, and a commitment to anti-racist training for staff. The petition already has over 3,900 signatories at the time of writing and I urge you all to read the full list of demands and sign here. 

At the time of writing the petition had over 3,900 signatures

Yet, anti-Blackness is not a ‘Black’ problem, and hence we cannot continue to solely look to these campaigns to force change. Anti-blackness is, and has always been, a white problem and we can no longer ignore our role in upholding anti-black systems and sit and wait for marginalised groups to use their emotional labour to make change.

To white people,  we all have privilege and we must all use this. Email university management, your faculty and college, enquiring into the number of Black staff they employ, and Black students they admit – and more importantly how they plan to improve these woeful figures. Push for reforms to decolonise curricula and include Black history, culture and politics in courses and Black academics in reading lists. Demand change, as has been done by this open letter to the management of Cambridge Medical School, highlighting the need to take action to protect BAME patients and colleagues and setting out a pathway to overcome institutional racism in the healthcare system and medical schools.  Ask colleges to remove racist memorabilia and replace it with key Black figures or art, college libraries to buy books by Black authors, and catering staff to have more diverse menus. 

Sign the petition to remove the window honouring R.A. Fisher here

And look to yourself, and how you are holding up ideas of anti-Blackness: whose books are you reading, which social media accounts are you following? Which talks are you attending? Who are you surrounding yourself with? Understand your role in upholding anti-Blackness and do better. Amplify Black voices. Educate yourself on microaggressions and call out friends, staff and yourself on anti-Black behaviour. Sign petitions. Have conversations with racist or complicit friends and family members. It can be hard to find the right words, and you may worry that you say the wrong thing but this is a risk we need to take: silence is complicity. Don’t get offended if you are corrected by a Black person, and do better next time. Indeed, “it is a privilege to learn about racism rather than growing up experiencing it”. 

Speaking to The Cambridge Tab, a spokesperson for the University told us “The University has received many helpful suggestions and we need to take time to consider them. We want to work closely with black students and staff to address their valid concerns. We believe that we are beginning to address many of the issues that have been raised with us but we know there is a lot of work to do.” and reiterated that ​“Students or members of staff affected by these events may wish to seek advice from the University Counselling Service or from the Equality and Diversity Team.”

As white people, we have a choice to close our eyes to anti-Blackness, but this is a choice we can no longer make. Yes, the University, faculties and colleges need to do better – but so do we.

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Cover image credit: Ella Fogg, all other images: author’s own screenshots