The burden of activist work should not fall on the shoulders of the less privilegedJohnny Silvercloud

My experience at Cambridge has involved listening to white boys fetishise black women and having to remain civil with people that have stated all Africans have AIDS for the sake of making dinner at hall less awkward. But as a middle-class black woman who spent five years in private school before coming to Cambridge, I also carry a significant privilege.

I’ve become less good at it as time has gone on, but certainly throughout my undergraduate degree I could assimilate into any white middle-class community I chose. At college dinners, academics who initially dismissed me began to warm to me the moment they learned that I love Schubert’s famed string quintet. I’m not at all alienated by the paintings of white men on the walls of my college because I feel automatically entitled to any space that my mother’s money gets me into.

“It’s easy to be brought into white friendship groups as the unthreatening ‘other’ who brings a dash of diversity and culture to the group”

I often have white people come up to me and tell me that I speak about anti-racist politics in a way that is super-accessible to them. But given that the words that come out of my mouth are no different to those that spring from the mouths of the working-class black students they find so unpalatable, the only conclusion I can draw is that what they are responding to is my middle-class accent, which can make the most radical statement sound soft and non-confrontational.

The experiences of middle-class black people (on whom I focus  purely because that is what I know) render our experiences here exponentially easier. We won’t actually be liberated by respectability politics. But if I want to pretend that things are alright, if I’m willing to ignore that dissonance between equality and tolerance, I can. I can do so very easily.

It’s easy to be brought into white friendship groups as the unthreatening ‘other’ who brings a dash of diversity and culture to the group. Easy to drown in the honey of supervisors congratulating you on your ability to assimilate.

Easy to walk past the photo campaign run by the CUSU BME Campaign declaring Black Lives Matter because you do so with your drinking society pals and they’d feel uncomfortable if you acknowledged your blackness so explicitly.

Easy to ignore your friend at Fly who asks you to attend a meeting. Why segregate ourselves? Easy to view black activists with contempt. How dare they suggest that you need more when we’re all on our way to getting Cambridge degrees that will obviously level the playing field.

Wake up.

You will be stopped by police in the Porsche you drive once you get that City job. 

There are too many black middle-class students letting working-class students fight for their rights not just on campus but beyond it. It’s time we fight our own battles. And more importantly it’s time we fight for our peers.

If you have to, apply for that City job – you’ll succeed if you Lean In, and regardless of class I love seeing PoC get that dollar. But do this also: campaign for colleges to do more for students who don’t meet their criteria for financial support but genuinely need it. Don’t apply for travel grants when you can get your parents to pay for your expenses. Listen when working-class black students talk about what changes they’d like to see in your college and then fight for those changes as if they’d benefit you, too.

Tackle zero-hour contracts, to which many working-class PoC must resort, placing them in precarious financial positions. Challenge neoliberal solutions to the integration of immigrants into the labour market, which push them into low-paid, unreliable jobs and fail to tackle wider structural and prejudicial impediments towards their work. Defend the living wage with more energy than you defend equal pay at the corporate level.

And turn up. Turn up when the BME Campaign asks you to. Turn up when your college BME officer asks you to. Stop centring your white (middle-class) friends and your desire to assimilate into their culture. You will never fully do so. Be led by working-class PoC who are significantly less likely to be as trash as we are. Know that money will never liberate us.


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Don’t let Cambridge African Caribbean Society events (or other cultural society events) turn into mills for middle-class black people to be thrust into jobs that allow you to add to your family’s wealth without supporting the livelihood of other PoC, given that your freedom was brought about by PoC without your money, and that it is largely PoC without your money doing anti-racist work today.

I still have a lot of unlearning to do, so I have to remind myself of everything I write here every day. And there are people who share my privilege engaging in really great anti-racist activism on campus. But it remains the case that the extent to which we middle-class black students are willing to throw everyone else under the bus is frankly embarrassing. We should do better. We can.

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