Dr. Priyamvada Gopal in the English faculty at SidgwickNoella Chye

“I realised immediately that it was a hatchet job.”

Dr. Priyamvada Gopal has been at the centre of many recent high-profile events, including the Cambridge strikes, a public argument with Mary Beard, and most recently a Daily Mail hatchet-job by journalist Guy Adams. She tells me of the moment she first glimpsed the article, which had a picture of her sprawled across the paper beside the headline, ‘How CAN Cambridge let this hate-filled don pour out her racist bile?’. Perched on an armchair in an office gently lit by sunlight on one of Cambridge’s sunniest days this year, she discusses Adams’s attack piece on her from two weeks ago, which harshly criticised her use of social media to speak out against Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar – which was “incontinent abuse”, in Biggar’s words – and others.

“I was horrified, kind of depressed by it.” Gopal tells me, even though she has only skimmed the article – an active choice. “I got the general idea”, she says, and adds: “I just thought this was very ugly.” I sense dissonance in Gopal, over facing an ugly public attack while believing it is illegitimate.

“The British Empire was by definition a racially unequally structured white supremacist civilisational project”

In his article, Adams paints a simple picture of the Churchill fellow: “Famed in academic circles for her strident left-wing views, she is a vehement supporter of Jeremy Corbyn who has published several opinion pieces in The Guardian and is a prolific user of Twitter, having posted more than 17,000 tweets in the past seven years.” If Adams is right, Gopal is easy to make sense of – a character that fits the narrative of harshness, and needlessly angry, thoughtless left-wing rhetoric.

Before I leave, I ask Gopal to describe the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf in front of us. She tells me, “It’s a sort of … map of my research interests.” She starts at the top, where books on Marxism, Marxist theory, feminist theory and black studies sit from her time in graduate school. “Because I was in America I did a lot of race and ethnic studies as part of my graduate training,” she explains. Just below, at eye-level, we find her teaching materials on postcolonial theory, British literature, literary theory, and Asian American and African literature. The lowest shelves hold a mixture of Asian and South Asian literature and poetry.

It’s difficult to reconcile Adams’s remarks with this visual microcosm of the twelve years of thought, research and work behind Gopal’s comments. When I ask her to substantiate what she said about Biggar, she readily answers. “The British Empire was by definition a racially unequally structured white supremacist civilisational project ... Any project that wants to take on the empire but not admit that it was a supremacist and racist project is by definition endorsing racism and supremacism.”

Biggar, portrayed in Adams’s article as a victim of Gopal’s “left-wing nastiness”, wrote in The Times: “If she’s that aggressive on Twitter, then what is she like in person?” Shockingly, Twitter rarely captures reality. In Gopal’s case, sitting in her office, listening to her speak, I realise she commands a certain intellectual vigour, a quickness and energy commonly mistaken for thoughtless aggressiveness. This is not unique to her; a number of other academics in Cambridge spring to mind. The difference, in Gopal’s case, is that she opens herself up to misinterpretation in using as public a platform as Twitter. It makes sense, then, when Gopal remarks about the piece: “I was surprised that it was entirely on me.

“That made me realise that there was quite a strong racial dimension to it. You know, accompanied by a photograph that they stole from my site without paying me or crediting me.”

“The University and college are willing, at least passively, to play ball with some of the claims of that piece”

Two weeks after the Daily Mail article was published, the University and Churchill have yet to issue a statement acknowledging the piece’s racial undertones despite mounting pressure from the Twitter community. She tells me, “I think it is extraordinary that a senior member of the University would be attacked so publicly in the media and there not even be a half-hearted attempt to just check on me and see how I’m doing, or even think about a joint response. There’s just been silence.”

“That suggests to me that they are willing, at least passively, to play ball with some of the claims of that piece. I find that troubling ... it doesn’t bode well for things like anti-racism, and diversity, and inclusion on this campus, broadly speaking.”

Twitter seemed to agree. The hashtag #FreeSpeechSoWhite became a prominent feature of the conversation online, registering over a hundred tweets.

The Daily Mail article that attacked GopalMailOnline

For Gopal, the University and college have failed to defend the academic’s role in society. “Not all academics, and increasingly fewer academics – but for those of us who have job security, we have that security and that protection for a reason … It is precisely to allow intellectuals to speak truth.”

Twitter, therefore, is a useful medium. Gopal, who has 18,000 followers, can come across as the picture of confidence on the website, occasionally retweeting hateful tweets about her, sometimes from trolls. On the afternoon after Adams’s piece was published, she tweeted in reply to a follower commenting on Adams’s grammar: “I have offered @DailyMailUK and Mr @guyadams free writing lessons. The offer stands.”

Recently, though, doubts have surfaced. The Daily Mail article, she tells me, has made her starkly aware of Twitter “as a quotable medium”. She adds: “You can be quoted very easily, and without much context, therefore as with any writing exercise, as I tell my students, you have to be mindful of the institutional framework and the audience.”

She stands by what she said about Biggar – Adams quotes her as having called him “racist”, a “bigot” and “supremacist shite” – as a comment on his ‘Ethics of Empire’ project, not Biggar himself, a distinction she now sees the need to make explicit on Twitter.

“I find that this generation of students is very vocal and active ... and that has made it a much better place to be in”

Her tweets, only fragments of which were quoted in Adams’s article, read: “The British empire was constitutively racist. Its great theorists & chroniclers at the time had the virtue of never denying that it was fundamentally premised on Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. Ergo, today’s apologist [sic]––including Nigel Biggar––are racists. But dishonest ones.” In another, she describes Biggar’s essays, ‘The Ethics of Colonial History’ as “Shameful. Apart from any politics attached to it, dumbing down of actual historical work to supremacist shite. Racist & lightweight, well-done, Oxford.”

Dr. Gopal has been a common presence and notable voice at rallies, including the rally in solidarity with student Lola Olufemi last yearLouis Ashworth

Perhaps naively, the medium’s public dimension has not always been at the forefront of her mind. “I had envisioned myself talking to friends who were discussing the project, and I was completely blind to the fact that this was actually happening in a public forum,” Gopal explains, though Adams’s piece has certainly been a wake-up call.

I have often caught glimpses of Gopal amidst the crowd at last term’s stream of organised action. Through fourteen days of industrial action, a five-day student occupation, and some of Cambridge’s largest rallies, she could be seen huddled towards the back, keenly watching the action or talking to union organisers and student activists. “I find that this generation of students is very vocal and active, and politically engaged, and that has made it a much better place to be in,” she says.

She likens her relationship with Cambridge to “a long marriage”, and adds: “You understand what the bad things are, but you also get used to some things, and you start to feel appreciative of the good things.”

“When male and white supremacy is challenged, the response is that it is the victim”

This has not always been the case. Seventeen years ago, when Gopal first arrived at Churchill College just out of American university Cornell where she had completed her PhD in colonial and postcolonial literature, she was faced with “a tremendous culture shock”.

As one of just two members of the faculty not trained in Oxbridge at the time, she tells me: “I actually didn’t quite realise where I had landed.”

“I found, as many people who come to Cambridge do, that it’s very much a planet in its own right. I was struck and I still am struck by its insider-ness.” She explains, “No one told me what a supervision was, no one told me what the rituals were, what I did in a college, what the difference between a college and university were.”


Mountain View

Cambridge and Churchill criticised after breaking silence on Daily Mail article

It was only when she came to Britain in 2001 that she began engaging directly and extensively with the legacies and afterlife of the British Empire. Her comments attacking imperial apologists are drawn from this immersion in colonial and postcolonial thought – a point Adams failed to mention, although he noted that “eminent Oxford don” Nigel Biggar has “published over eight books in five decades”.

“The framing is very typical of our times”, Gopal says of the article. “When male and white supremacy is challenged, the response of male and white supremacy ... is to invert the situation and for the dominant party to claim that it is in fact the victim.” She adds, “For me, Nigel Biggar is a kind of bigger symptom of a larger malice where those in power are responding to threats by playing victim.”

“You have this with Brexit, where you had wealthy establishment men claiming to be anti-establishment. You have this with Donald Trump where you have a billionaire who’s hugely well-connected, he’s a white man – he’s a white conservative man – claim to be speaking for the victims.

“To do so, they’re doing something very interesting – they are taking the language, and the weapons, and the rhetoric of the marginalised.

“For the Daily Mail to charge me with racism is a very good example, because you take the person who is complaining about colonialism, imperial apologetics, white supremacy, racism and say: ‘No, actually, you’re the racist.’,” Gopal says.

How can Cambridge let someone ‘pour out her racist bile’, the Daily Mail headline asked. Perhaps more pertinently, how can the Daily Mail pour out masses of bile of its own?