Churchill is one of eight undergraduate colleges not to have a BME representative on the JCRChristopher Hilton

Churchill College’s motto is ‘forward’. It's one that, as a black woman at the college, I can only interpret to be ironic. When it comes to BME (black and minority ethnic) representation on the JCR, we lag painfully behind. We are one of eight undergraduate colleges of the 29 across the university not to offer the role of BME officer. At Churchill there is nothing. It was generously suggested that maybe BME students should fall under the bracket of ‘international’. But I am not, despite appearances, an international student. I’m just black. Need I say more?

A number of students at the college have been pressing for the implementation of the BME Officer role, something that many would assume to be a given. We were unrealistically optimistic. The resistance comes not only from some white students at the college who insist that race issues are not ‘widespread’, but some BME students who have argued the same. They also appear to have problems with being yoked together with other minority groups. Whilst I understand that not all non-white people are a monolithic entity, I think there are far worse things than identifying with those who make up different parts of B, M and E.

The insistence that racism isn’t a ‘widespread issue’ is flawed. The point shouldn’t be how pervasive it is, but that it occurs at all. I imagine that at a college where a student blacked up to go to a swap as Muhammad Ali, and another defended the act, that the issue is not only present but in need of urgent attention.

How much racism is enough to necessitate a BME officer? I would say any. I would say none. The problem goes beyond individual counts of racism. Cambridge as an institution can be especially isolating for some non-white students. When elements of it negate your existence and consistently fail to reflect your experience, then a solitary BME representative can be a comforting acknowledgement you exist.

“What could motivate a white student to so adamantly resist a change that would have no implications for them? Unless, of course, they want to be racist.”

The problem is less with the institution than you might expect, although I do struggle to understand this oversight. I was assured by my Senior Tutor that the college was anxious to rectify the condition and install a BME Officer. The resistance comes from students, who are so convinced that racism is not a problem that they wilfully ignore others’ experiences.

Ironically, what some fail to recognise is that their staunch opposition is partly what constitutes the problem. Why would anyone be against the creation of a position to support students who have asked for it? What could motivate a white student to so adamantly resist a change that would have no implications for them? Unless, of course, they want to be racist.

Although I don’t understand the reasoning of oppositional BME students, they too are entitled to their opinion. And yet, these students may also choose not to engage with the services being offered to them. If they don’t identify with the title, so be it; but they shouldn’t bar the way for those of us that do. It seems obscene to suggest that a majority of BME students should suffer before they are granted representation.

After a shambolic open meeting, the decision was reached, to conduct a survey of students at Churchill. I couldn’t overcome the sensation that I was being asked to quantify my oppression, only for other people to decide whether it was sufficient enough to warrant support. As a result of it, a motion was proposed to “include a statement” making welfare officers responsible for representing BME interests.

“If students still challenge representation for the third that require it, I’ll call it what it is. Racism.”

Again, not good enough. I’d prefer not to have the interests of BME students tacked on to the pre-existing ‘job titles’. In doing so, Churchill JCR sends the clear message that such issues do not require the same attention as those of, say, LGBT+ or female students.

Consequently, it was revealed that roughly two thirds of BME students did not support the introduction of an officer. This equates to 11 students. Interestingly, similar numbers of people who had experienced racism felt the need for the officer. If students still challenge representation for the third that require it, I’ll call it what it is. Racism.

‘But what about the BME students that object?’ you may ask? As mentioned, they will also have the choice not to engage with it. The students who require this support, however, are left without the luxury of that choice. Moreover, by suggesting that if a majority of BME students object, it should be abandoned, one is actively denying us the nuance and difference that exists within a diverse group. Oh, the irony.

There was some Facebook beef where students hotly debated the issue: one (white) student, who presumably saw no need for BME representation, asserted that the arguments presented by some other white students “smacked of colonialist and racist, patronising assumptions”. I was impressed by his imaginative use of what appeared to be a progressive argument. What this misguided student failed to recognise was that rather than ‘telling BME students what was good for them’, his opponents were merely voicing their support for people like myself, reiterating the very same arguments that, when I voiced them, were literally scoffed at.

In my experience, the debates have been toxic and upsetting. In the most recent meeting I remained silent, I didn’t trust myself to speak. I have to mentally prepare myself for what is yet to come. Fix up, Churchill. No one wants to look racist…