"For those of us who inhabit elite institutions, fantasy and reality battle it out"Simon Lock

Being a fresher is a difficult experience. It’s even more difficult if you don’t fit into the preconceived idea of what a Cambridge student looks like.

Black History Month coincides with the arrival of a host of new undergraduates with specific and idealistic ideas about what Cambridge is like. This year, there are a number of events highlighting the history of BME individuals at this institution, including the launch of the Black Cantab project, panels about black feminism, and workshops about cultural appropriation and the erasure of Cambridge’s racist history. The BME Campaign and FLY have worked hard to put together events as a means of reclaiming space and to highlight the contributions of black academics and artists. But it is frustrating to work so hard at trying to be visible and then to return to colleges where you are made to feel an outsider just by virtue of your existence. Colleges with only three or fewer black students, colleges that are filled with paintings, mottos, plaques that serve as a reminder that this space was not built for you.

When we talk about diversity, we pay lip service to how appalling it is that a college had just one black fresher last year; or how some colleges refuse to admit their links to colonial endeavors, erase the history of BME admittance or refuse to co-operate with BME officers who wish to hold events, that’s all we do: move our mouths. Diversity seems to have become nothing more than a talking point. We can all admit that Oxbridge has a problem with race but can never bring ourselves to combat it in an effective way. 

Admittedly, beyond placing pressure on this institution in various forms, there is little the student community can actually do. We can beg black prospective applicants to apply despite the fact that the government is making this harder for those from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds (who are also more likely to be BME). We can perpetuate an idea of Cambridge as a melting pot but we cannot simply will them here. It is down to the administration to radically reform its admissions procedure and stop clinging to the idea that it is not “their responsibility” to be diverse. Any institution that claims to have the brightest students in the country must show that those students come from a variety of different backgrounds.

There is something odd about discussing Cambridge’s lack of diversity with those who will never suffer from it. Alienation for BME students doesn’t disappear when the lack of diversity is self-reflexively used by their white peers in arguments to score points. Empathy in activism is paramount, but seeing a whole host of freshers must bring back, for members of oppressed groups, the anxiety that comes with being “other.” You wonder how much of the Cambridge fantasy will actually become reality for those joining us. How long before they realise that nice buildings and fancy gowns mean nothing set against an institution so heavily steeped in oppression that at times to combat it seems impossible.

For those of us who inhabit elite institutions, fantasy and reality battle it out; there is something about being here that only students seem to understand. Perhaps it is the disappointment at being force-fed the lie that academic excellence is somehow exempt from racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism and so on. Perhaps it is the insistence on intellectually rigorous debate at the expense of all else. Misguided freshers and people who aren’t students love Cambridge for the same reasons – its quirky traditions, its attachment and reliance upon history – without recognising that these are the very traits that stop it from being truly inclusive.

It is frustrating to be able to so clearly identify problems, feel passionately about them, share those ideas and then be met with an overwhelming sense of inaction. This is particularly poignant as Black History Month approaches; those involved are simultaneously aware that they are contributing to this institution’s future in examining and talking about its treatment of race, both now and in the past. However, as I look around my college and see not a single face like my own in the incoming year, it can feel like talking to a brick wall. Hopefully what this month and the ongoing events can teach is that visibility in itself is a form of action. In refusing to be sucked in by a romantic view of Cambridge and revealing the history of students just like us who studied here in unbearably racist conditions, in being unapologetically black in this space, we show through our defiance that it is becoming nearly impossible to white-wash this institution’s history. We contribute to the long list of individuals here who have fought to make it somewhere worth studying for everyone.