Dr Priyamvada Gopal speaking at a decolonisation rally last yearLouis Ashworth

The Daily Mail’s hit-piece on Dr Priyamvada Gopal is unacceptable, but not unexpected. By this, we mean that it is unsurprising that a woman of colour, who is unapologetic about speaking out against white supremacy and patriarchy, is threatening to white men, accustomed to their position of privilege in an oppressive status quo shaped by Britain’s colonial legacy. The premise of Gopal’s critiques, shared broadly by decolonisation efforts, is that the seemingly neutral principles deemed essential to Western liberal democracy, including free speech, need to be contextualised within a colonial framework, as they privilege white men while marginalising women and people of colour. The Daily Mail’s smear campaign demonstrates the myth of this neutrality.

The article attacks Dr Gopal for her vocal criticism of Professor Nigel Biggar, a theologian at Oxford University who in December 2017 was widely disparaged by colleagues in an open letter for his article in The Times entitled ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’, as well as for his announcement of a five-year research project seeking to contest the supposed characterisation of empire in contemporary academic discourse as “unethical”. The Daily Mail singles out Dr Gopal as a “hate-filled don” and “prolific internet troll” whose “racist bile” victimises white academics.

“We are asking to be seen and heard in the fullness of ourselves and of the histories that we embody. Cambridge University, are you listening?”

Beyond its vitriolic content, the article represents a wider, worrying trend in which Cambridge students and academics of colour are terrorised by right-wing press. Within the past year, former BME Campaign president Jason Okundaye, sitting CUSU women’s officer Lola Olufemi, and incoming BME Campaign education officer Jess Tan have all been targeted in inflammatory and sensationalistic articles by the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, and The Sun. One might say that such media attention is to be expected because of Cambridge’s international status and prestige. But tellingly, the five-day occupation of Old Schools last term, which was led mostly by white students, did not receive coverage from any of these newspapers, despite the presence of national media in Cambridge to cover the passing of Stephen Hawking at the same time.

Cambridge should, therefore, recognise that it has a duty to intervene in cases such as these. Save for a statement supporting Olufemi, released only after an open letter had already received hundreds of signatories, the University has watched in silence as students and academics of colour are routinely browbeaten by national media. Meanwhile, by speaking out against no-platforming, the University has actively supported the rights of people like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Katie Hopkins to be wined, dined, and applauded for filling the hallowed halls of the Cambridge Union with their (to borrow from the Daily Mail) “hate-filled” views and “racist bile”. A public statement expressing its unconditional support for Dr Gopal is the bare minimum of what we expect from the University, but this is not enough. The University needs to commit to upholding its duty to those affiliated with it in maintaining an ethic of care and critical inquiry with a comprehensive policy plan. This should include instituting a rights-based approach to its implementation of Prevent, which has subjected Muslim students in particular to constant surveillance and curtailed their civil liberties.

What this ongoing dispute over ‘free speech’ often fails to recognise is that colonial laws denied communities of colour a right to free speech and assembly. The Public Order Ordinance was passed in Hong Kong during the 1967 leftist riots to give the police power to arbitrarily arrest anyone suspected of rioting. It was revised in 1980 to establish a licensing system for public gatherings, and again in 1986 to include a provision to seize and suppress newspapers and other publications. This ‘archaic’ colonial strategy of using legal mechanisms to silence dissenting voices and the Prevent programme are eerily similar.

Our hashtag #FreeSpeechSoWhite aims to highlight the racial bias underlying our ‘neutral’ understanding of free speech, namely that it has historically served, and continues to serve, the interests of white men. That the immediate trigger for the Daily Mail’s campaign of terror was an article by Biggar decrying the outcry to his bigoted views as “cyberbullying”, when people of colour face constant bullying by a status quo that views their lives as dispensable, shows how the institutions which we expect to uphold ‘neutrality’ continue to privilege white masculinity.


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Today, we, as descendants of those silenced colonial subjects, exercise our hard-fought right to speak out about our ancestors’ centuries of pain, trauma and oppression – a history ordered and condoned by the portraits who continue to look down upon us while we dine in hall. What a ‘privilege’ it is to study and occupy the places of those very people and systems that administered and facilitated the suffering and subjugation of the Global South. Our very existence in this repository of British colonialism and elitism is the antithesis of the tradition which it takes so much pride in celebrating, whereby our bodies are treated as disposable income. Indeed, it is this historic denial of recognising people like us as worthy of human dignity which continually manifests itself in national media’s attempts to dehumanise and silence us to protect their fragile white privilege.

By not actively standing up for marginalised community members, the University has again endorsed an oppressive status quo. So long as the University remains silent, we understand which side it has chosen.

We are asking to be seen and heard in the fullness of ourselves and of the histories that we embody. Cambridge University, are you listening?

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