Dignifying Cofnas with a patient response would be tiring and boringClemens Koppensteiner, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Deed, via Flickr

This month Varsity reported on the comments of Dr Nathan Cofnas, an early career Philosophy Research Associate at Emmanuel College. A self-styled ‘race realist’, Cofnas recently published a blog post arguing for a ‘hereditarian revolution’. It is a tellingly rambling piece. In laboured prose, Cofnas argues for “racial tribalism”, suggests it “makes sense” for “whites to fight back as whites”, and claims that black people have “failed to develop a culture of homework, respect for the law, and strong nuclear families”.

It is hard to know where to begin when dismantling this stuff. I could make a number of points. It echoes the eugenicist theories of the early twentieth century. Cofnas indulges in savagely crude racial essentialism, referring to a “mean IQ 85 population…adapted to hunting and gathering on the savannah”. The piece uses a breathtaking visual of a horse-riding knight fighting for the cause of ‘race realism’, with dog-whistling historical connotations of the worst kind. This is not to mention other completely unsupported claims, such as his “anecdotal” assertion that “white children are sometimes driven to transgenderism in an attempt to escape the shameful status of oppressor”.

“The racialised gaze becomes paralysing, forcibly confining you in its restricted view”

But I think that reason is the wrong approach to take here. I have enough respect for my readers’ intelligence to know that going into this level of explanation isn’t necessary. Even more importantly, arguing back would only elevate Cofnas’ comments to the level of respectable discourse. They are anything but that. Following backlash, Cofnas has behaved in ways that I believe reveal tremendously bad faith. His claim that the Daily Mail “distorted” his meaning proved to be a haggle over their quote that Harvard would “have no black professors” in a meritocracy. In his view, this stands completely at odds with his original statement in the blog, which was that the number of black professors at Harvard would, in that scenario, “approach zero”. This stance defies parody for anyone, let alone an Oxbridge academic.

The main reason I won’t dignify Cofnas with a patient response, though, is simple: it would be tiring and boring. Being a non-white student at Cambridge can be emotionally exhausting at the best of times. You must become used to tropes being foisted on you, and will always be expected to live up to these imposed constructions. You must brush off tone-deaf comments by the malicious and well-meaning alike, or else you will be seen as confrontational and aggressive — which will often only reinforce those stereotypes. The racialised gaze becomes paralysing, forcibly confining you in its restricted view.

“When it comes to racism, people of colour know what they’re talking about”

It is even more tiring, when explaining exactly why cases like these are so awful, how often you will be met with resistance. Told for years that I might be ‘reading too much into things’, I am sick of having to argue my case on self-evident questions. Cambridge has a track record of defensiveness in this regard. Take the case of Dr Priyamvada Gopal in 2018, a Churchill fellow who accused King’s College porters of “racial profiling and harassment” after she was prevented from passing through the college grounds. When Varsity contacted King’s for comment, a spokesperson “categorically denied that the incident referred to was in any way racist”.

I’m sorry, but this is too much to take. In this term alone, I have been stopped twice at that college and abruptly asked to identify myself, whilst none of the group of friends I was with (all of whom were white) were called out. On the first occasion I was met with the jibe, as I fumbled for my Camcard, that I didn’t ”look like [I] go here”. So trust me, when it comes to racism, people of colour know what they’re talking about. We don’t need to second-guess ourselves any more than we’re already pressured into doing.

“The worst part of this entire affair is the hopelessness it inspires”

In my view, the worst part of this entire affair is the hopelessness it inspires. Thanks to Cambridge’s employment policies and government legislation on academic freedom, nothing is going to happen after this. Cofnas will keep his job, and most likely also the funding that supports him. Contrary to the claim made by the chair of the Faculty of Philosophy, who declared without irony that “there is no place for racism at the University of Cambridge”, there are in fact legal and institutional guardrails in place to ensure that there can be. Every passing day that Cofnas continues to remain in his post reaffirms this. How, then, should we respond as individuals?


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Not, I would hope, by addressing Cofnas on his own faux-academic terms. His work, which, in terms of its rigour, has been described as the equivalent of flat-earth theory, does not deserve such treatment. But doing so would also be uncompassionate to others. As Asha Kaur Birdi argued, Cambridge has a cultural tendency to “over-intellectualise” issues of existential significance for real people, demonstrating a lack of empathy and profound moral confusion. Let’s not do that this time. It’s natural to feel angry about this scandal — for ourselves, for the students and colleagues of colour who have the misfortune to interact with this man, and for the university as a whole. But it’s also right to be angry about it.