Silence is still compliance: There’s more to be done about racism in Cambridge

Racism is not a debate, it’s a reality. Here’s what we can do about it


CN: Detailed discussion of racism in Cambridge including the racial harassment of students and staff, legacies of slavery and colonial legacies. Also contains references to the death of George Floyd and police brutality against Black lives. 

Edward Colston’s statue was put in a museum, we’re still hoping for Rhodes to fall, but in Cambridge, even a simple debate about Churchill’s “racial consequences” was called “toxic” and sparked huge amounts of uproar. 

The discourse around historical figures in Cambridge has become highly inflamed. Recently, Jesus college alumni opposed the removal of the memorial of slave-trader Tobias Rustat, and suggestions arose that calling Churchill’s past into question was “trashing” his name

The discussion about racism in Cambridge has been reduced to a couple of sound bites around a handful of historical individuals, but while the focus has been on statues, conversations about the real-life implications of racism at our university have come to a complete stand-still. 

Back in May, when everyone was resharing posts from BLM and campaigning against institutional racism, there was a real determination that we both felt and really wanted to believe; that we weren’t going to let this momentum die out by the time we were back in Cambridge. 

But nine months later, race is still an uncomfortable conversation for many, and more than that, racial issues and concerns in Cambridge are as present as ever – we have seen this with Trinity’s response to a student who felt he was “antagonised” by a porter or with findings that the pandemic has led to increased racial harassment against Asian and East Asian Cambridge students.

By and large, we haven’t given enough attention to the very real concerns regarding wider and ongoing racism at this university.  The experience of feeling unwelcome in Cambridge is all-too-common for many BAME students. 

(Credit: Camfess via Facebook)

It’s time we stopped being reluctant to talk about racism in Cambridge because the impact it has on students and staff has not ceased to matter.

As a university and community, we haven’t come anywhere near as close to combating racism as we should have, and we cannot allow the conversation we started over the summer to have meant nothing. So let’s talk: 

Let’s not forget, the university’s response to what happened in May was pathetic 

After the death of George Floyd, students were calling on the university to address the anti-racism movement in the UK, as well as the distress caused by surrounding events on the Black community in Cambridge. 

But what followed was disappointing, to say the least. Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope addressed the issue in one of his many regular updates on the 4th of June – not an extensive email in and of itself, but a ‘final reflection’ – tacked on the end of a long list of things to be celebrated, such as the “reopening of the University Library”, and “new ways of learning” via Linkedin. The Vice-Chancellor was consistent in sending out supportive statements to students regarding COVID-19, and also about graduating students, but appeared to have minimalist reflections on these tragedies. 

The Vice-Chancellor’s “final reflection” appeared to lack sincerity and some felt it missed the mark by a long way (Credit: Author’s own screenshot)

Professor Toope published a statement on the University website, which again, felt like generic lip-service amounting to a mere 215 words. We felt that this neglected to capture the full depth of responsibility that the University needs to claim, and also failed to set out concrete and tangible anti-racist objectives. Toope himself summarised it aptly – “we do not always live up to these aspirations.”

We’re not saying this to dredge up the past, but to highlight the apparent inaction taken since this email. The lack of visible follow-up makes it abundantly clear that these statements can easily be seen as tokenistic, even if the sentiment behind them was genuine. What the statement lacked was the honest acknowledgment that systemic racism isn’t just happening in America, but also in the UK and in our very university. 

When approached for comment on these criticisms, a University spokesperson said: “The University takes its role in the fight against racism extremely seriously, and a collective effort is underway across the institution to accelerate progress on equality and inclusion.”

The university listed some examples of action taken against racism since November 2019, which include a BAME Staff Network, the creation of a Black Students’ Advisory Hub in 2019, and the appointment of Dr. Nicola Rollock to advise the Vice-Chancellor on issues of race, racism and equity in October 2020.

We shouldn’t have to provide example after example to prove the fact that we need to be doing more about racism, but we would like to briefly outline some ways that racism manifests within our university, and what you can do to fight it. Further change will only happen if we choose to educate ourselves, take action, and refuse to remain silent. 

Legacies of Enslavement

In 2019, the university launched a project to look into its historical links with the slave trade. This was an important step towards acknowledging the reality of Cambridge’s history. Though some may suggest that digging up the past does more harm than good, comments from Professor David Starkey over the summer on how “slavery was not genocide” demonstrate that the way we talk about history has contemporary consequences. 

While the opening up of archives was a step in the right direction, we aren’t expecting to see a full report on the legacies of enslavement until 2022. In the meantime, we can’t be silent about our university’s problematic history, and there are still ways we can push colleges to be more transparent. 

We need to lobby as many colleges as possible to investigate their links with slavery

Many colleges are contributing to the 2-year inquiry to uncover their associations with slavery, both overtly and covertly. Further to this, a few colleges have launched their own independent investigations, such as Jesus and King’s.

It’s imperative that the university’s inquiry includes as many colleges as possible, as the majority of profits that have been garnered from slavery likely exist on an individual college-level. It’s probably worth asking relevant college staff and JCR members if your college is actively looking into the legacies of slavery, as while these conversations were being had in early 2019, they might not have materialised into concrete action. 

Some colleges, such as Selwyn and Churchill, although they agreed to open their archives, said they were “unlikely” to play a major role, due to the fact that they were established after the official end of the Atlantic Slave Trade (1833). However, this logic is flawed, as slavery still had tangible effects after this point, so it’s important for all colleges to play their part in these inquiries. 

Another line of criticism might arise from the feeling that “inherited culpability” i.e. the need to atone for an original sin, is something that we, in the present, should not need to bear. This could not be further from the truth. The colonial history of the university is perpetually visible, be it through commemorative windows or the racial profiling experienced by students and staff on a daily basis. The tangible legacies of slavery will remain unless we take action, so whilst “culpability” might not be inherited, it should certainly still be acknowledged.

Dealing with historically racist figures 

Inflammatory discussion about figures such as Churchill or Rustat has the potential to distract from the lived experiences of everyday racism. However, it is important we acknowledge how celebrating these figures is inappropriate, and is not only limited to a few news-worthy stories, but is prevalent throughout the university.

The reasons these discussions become difficult is because these figures are often large benefactors of colleges. At Jesus, descendants of Rustat have claimed that it’s wrong to link Rustat’s investment in the college with slavery. However, a university report has found that he had undeniable links with the slave-trade, and so his memorial is a constant and unwanted reminder of the college’s affiliations. A Jesus College spokesperson has said that its council have “supported the recommendation for the memorial to be relocated to an educational space.”

Meanwhile at Churchill, the former Prime Minister’s grandson criticised a college debate on Churchill’s racial past, because the college “benefits enormously from Churchill’s name.” This only highlights the importance of acknowledging his views, and the impact that celebrating him has on BAME students. 


A bust of Churchill at Churchill college (Credit: Katie Thacker)

Discussions around Churchill need to be rooted in the fact that his legacy has real-life implications for students at the college. For example, busts and portraits of Churchill take up space in several college locations, and Churchill Fresher’s Week T-shirts have displayed his face on them for several years up until recently. Being surrounded by commemorative momentos of imperialism can inevitably be damaging for minority students. 

Former JCR officers at Churchill told us that whilst the T-shirts have been a “tradition” for many years, “in hindsight, there should have been greater reflection” about the discomfort it might have caused to students. We’re glad to know that the T-shirt design was changed this year, and greater reflection on the part of students and colleges is exactly what minority students deserve. 

This isn’t about just a few instances at a handful of colleges

At Christ’s, our own college, there have been efforts to remove a portrait of renowned segregationist, Jan Smuts, from formal hall. The portrait was eventually moved into a different room at college – the room where the matriculation register is signed by oncoming students. It is daunting for anyone to matriculate into the University, let alone when the eyes of a segregationist are staring down at you whilst you do it. 

To make matters worse, the room that the portrait of Smuts was moved to was the Mountbatten Room, eponymous of the Last Viceroy of British India, whose role in partition cost the lives of over two million people. This highlights the all-to-common approach taken by colleges to prioritise tradition over their own students. The BAME community shouldn’t just have to accept the fact that their college celebrates deeply problematic figures. Much more needs to be done to make Cambridge an inclusive and non-oppressive environment. Tradition and artwork are not more important than student welfare.

The Mountbatten Room at Christ’s (Credit: Charissa Cheong)

The Senior Tutor at Christ’s told The Tab that a panel is being written for the room that will “specifically address the problems of portraiture in general”, which they hope will be implemented by the end of the current academic year.

Change is possible. Over the summer, students successfully lobbied for the removal of the commemorative R.A. Fisher window at Caius. This is an example of what can be achieved if enough pressure is placed on colleges to take responsibility for the people they celebrate. Caius has now removed the window and introduced a Working Group on Representation to look at equality and diversity more widely in the community.

(Credit: Author’s own screenshot)

Whilst removing statues and investigating legacies is a real issue, it is not the focal point. Racial harassment occurs in Cambridge all the time, affecting students in tangible ways. More needs to be done for the welfare of the BAME community at this university:

Reforming the Reporting System

Discussions about removing statues or the legacies of slavery need to be entrenched in an awareness of the everyday racism experienced by marginalised people in Cambridge.

And unfortunately, it’s extremely hard to do that, given the fact that our reporting system is broken. In 2017, 50% of BAME students believed appropriate action would not be taken should they report an incident

More recently, The Cambridge Tab conducted an investigation into racial harassment, which found that complaints formally made to colleges were sufficiently lower than reports made informally to the End Everyday Racism project. While most Cambridge colleges received fewer than five racial harassment complaints over the last five years, the End Everyday Racism project collected 117 testimonies between its launch in 2018 and August 2020.

It is clear that students don’t feel comfortable going through the formal reporting system, and it’s easy to see why, when stories from people like Greg Serapio-García, who reported an incident of racial harassment this year, was left feeling “disappointed” at the investigation that was carried out by an all-white team.

Even now, Greg is waiting to hear back from the college about due process: “Regardless of outcome, the process was not very appropriate […] for a process like this to take over 100 days is not reasonable.”

Trinity College has been contacted for comment regarding this statement. 

He adds: “What is so perplexing is that these colleges are registered charities with tax-exempt status. If someone files a Freedom of Information request, colleges have a regulatory duty to respond within 20 working days. Yet, when someone raises an allegation of harassment, misconduct or discrimination, colleges have no obligations whatsoever to respond within a timely manner. The implication of this discrepancy, intentional or not, is that individual Colleges treat abstract requests for information, often from strangers, with more urgency, dignity, and respect than tangible traumas raised by hundreds of minoritised students. I think that’s deeply problematic.” 

Greg, along with other concerned students and faculty, have written an open proposal calling for amendments to University Statutes to standardise reporting across Cambridge’s constituent colleges. This calls for responses to college-level complaints to occur in a timely and transparent manner: within 21 calendar days. It also proposes that non-compliant colleges pay daily fines into a centralised SU fund supporting equality initiatives for minoritised students across the University. 

The SU has since passed an emergency motion to support the proposal. Together, this has formed part of the #SpeakOut campaign, which was originally created by Collin Eduoard, after he was physically prevented from entering Catz by a porter. We spoke to Greg, and Howard Chae from the SU BME Campaign, about why our reporting system needs reforming. 

As Howard says, “the collegiate system [of reporting] is not fit for purpose”. The SU held an open meeting for students “to share thoughts on how the system was failing them,” and according to Howard, it’s clear that “things need to change, and the only way that’s going to happen is through student pressure, with students demanding change in their colleges.” 

Here’s how you can help:

Plain and simply, you can sign the open proposal. Before the proposal gets submitted to the university, as many students and staff from different backgrounds need to take action. As Howard says, “we don’t need allies, we need accomplices.”

Secondly, Greg suggests sending the proposal to relevant faculty staff, your senior tutor, administration in your college, and anyone in your college who handles minority rights, encouraging them to sign. 

Importantly, Howard adds that “this shouldn’t just be the priority of Women’s Officers or BME Officers or Disabled Student’s Officers. This should be the priority of the whole [JCR or MCR] committee” – the onus is not only on those directly affected, and everyone has a part to play. This brings us to the third way to take action, which is to get your JCR to sign the proposal by asking them or by submitting a motion at an open meeting. 

Finally, Howard and Greg aim to build “a broad coalition” for combatting discrimination. This involves having college-level conversations about reform and then joining these conversations together into a collective effort. Howard adds that “it’s important for students to challenge the culture of silence and shame,” highlighting the importance of demystifying the reporting procedure to make it more accessible. The SU has a guide on campaigning for reform, which can be found here.

(Credit: Camfess via Facebook)

Often the outcome of such conversations is limited to implicit bias training for staff and students. Greg mentions that “we have evidence from research that implicit training is not effective without structural change.” This is why we need to push for wider systemic reform at our university. You can read about the #SpeakOut campaigns’ suggestions for such reforms here.   

Whilst we’ve discussed the open proposal in the context of racism, its demands are not just limited to racial harassment. The proposal is aimed at reforming the reporting procedure as a whole, including complaints related to sexual misconduct, disabilities and every form of discrimination. A more transparent and efficient way to report misconduct benefits everyone.

Moving towards an anti-racist university

Racial diversity in Cambridge is at an all-time high, and with that comes an even greater urgency to make our university a safer space for BAME students. As Greg says: “All of the colleges are patting themselves on the backs for admitting record numbers of BME students, but I think it’s irresponsible to celebrate that when we’re not prepared to handle the responsibilities of caring for minoritised students.”

Whilst it is undoubtedly important for systematic changes to make college environments more welcoming, anti-racism isn’t limited to large-scale reformation. Things like cultural sharing, which facilitate greater racial integration in your day-to-day life are also valid ways to create an atmosphere of inclusivity.

Racism at Cambridge has not gone away since last Summer. There are steps being made in the right direction, but this is not just the job of BAME staff and students. It is the responsibility of everyone at the university to work towards creating a safe and welcoming environment. Whether this takes the form of signing an open proposal, or lobbying college to reconsider commemorative monuments, it’s important to keep this momentum up.

Ultimately, conversations about racism need to have the experiences of BAME people at their centre. Howard sums this up well: “Bigger debates and conversations about politics or policy ethics, have to be rooted in everyday concerns and experiences and vice versa”. Greg’s final comment adds:  “I’m tired of talk, I’m tired of chatter, I’m tired of empty rhetoric on the University’s part [..] we need to stop abstracting racism and prioritise the impact over intent. Broken reporting structures directly impact victims of discrimination.” 

In an effort to spread awareness about this impact, we’ve compiled a short reading list so you can continue to educate yourselves on how racism affects people in Cambridge, and start productive conversations that push for systematic change. Please note that some of this content may be distressing for some readers. 

Reading list

•  End Everyday Racism August 2020 Report

•  Cambridge professor involved in Twitter controversy – subject of ‘far right’ poster campaign

  Cambridge’s Race Equality Charter

•  Cambridge University don apologises after black student ‘physically prevented’ entering college

  Slave trader’s descendant argues Cambridge college should keep memorial

  University of Cambridge’s historical involvement with Tobias Rustat

•  Racist incidents towards Asian students soar amidst mounting coronavirus fears

•  Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change

•  What Cambridge University taught us about racism

•  Being black at Cambridge University

• For more information on reporting harassment and sexual misconduct to the University, visit the university website

To sign the open proposal in support of reforming the reporting system, click here

NOTE: The university press office and colleges discussed in this article were contacted for comment. Their responses are here: 

A University spokesperson said: “The University and Colleges provide a range of support and reporting processes for students to access where they have experienced any form of harassment, bullying, discrimination or sexual misconduct.

“The University of Cambridge has a centralised reporting system that all students can use. Students are able to raise complaints about other students, staff or any aspect of their University experience. Complaints are investigated using specialist and appropriately trained investigators, and it can take time to ensure that a thorough investigation is conducted. Reporting processes are continuously reviewed for improvements, in response to research from specialists and as a result of feedback, including from students.

“More information about the current University reporting and support options are available at:

“In November 2019, the University’s commitment to address systemic racism was acknowledged with an Advance HE Race Equality Charter  (REC) Bronze award. The University’s REC submission openly acknowledged that there are serious issues that we need to tackle, and we are addressing these through the institutional three-year REC action plan and many other important initiatives led by students and staff.”

A Jesus College spokesperson said: “Our aim is not to erase Rustat, a historical benefactor with ties to the Royal African Company, from the College’s history. We have taken a nuanced approach, considering the places where he is explicitly celebrated versus where he is referenced as a historical figure. 

We followed a sensitive process involving careful historical study and consultation through student representatives. Our College Council agreed that Rustat’s large memorial, which represents a celebration of his entire life and is in a position of veneration overlooking everyone who walks in, is incompatible with the experience of Chapel. Chapel is an inclusive community; everyone should be able to feel welcome and comfortable in this place of collective wellbeing.

Council supported the recommendation for the memorial to be relocated to an educational space enabling the College to acknowledge its past and offer proper contextualisation, as part of its commitment to an anti-racist environment. It is one step within a wider process of institutional change.”

A Churchill College spokesperson said: The Churchill Archives Centre houses the personal papers of many twentieth century British politicians, civil servants and diplomats. Some of these individuals were certainly involved in Imperial and colonial administration. During normal times, the papers are freely available for public consultation by anyone by appointment, and at the moment team members are on site answering enquiries. The College’s own archives start with the foundation of the College and relate primarily to its administration and operations.

 “The College exercises no control over t-shirts worn during Freshers’ Week, which are designed and produced by the JCR.”

A Gonville and Caius spokesperson said: “We are committed to making Gonville & Caius a place where everyone feels welcome and have made changes to our working practises to support and boost representation. Many measures are already in place, while others are being implemented.

 “The Working Group on Representation, established last year following the removal of the Fisher Window, has completed its evidence gathering sessions and is finalising a report. Recommendations on all aspects of representation – not just the Fisher Window, which is currently in storage – will be made for College Council to consider.

 “Representation is a societal issue and it is incumbent on us all to make changes to improve diversity and eradicate discrimination. We are determined to make Caius a place where everyone can thrive.”

Trinity College and Selwyn College were also contacted for comment.

Featured image credit: Greg Serapio-García and Howard Chae

Related articles recommended by these authors:

•  Racial harassment in Cambridge colleges: Do the numbers reflect reality?

•  End Everyday Racism launches its first report on racial abuse in Cambridge

• ‘Silence is compliance’: How you can speak out against systematic racism