The BME Cambridge experience: a personal take

Shameera Lin discusses the microaggressions and overt racial comments that come with being a BME Cambridge student

Shameera Lin


Much like a substantial number of other black and minority ethnic (BME) individuals in Cambridge and beyond, I have been deeply moved by Churchill College lecturer Priya Gopal’s poignant response to Mary Beard concerning Prof. Beard’s myopic tweet regarding the recent Oxfam sexual exploitation scandal. This paragraph on casual racism in Cambridge particularly resonates far too deeply not to wound:

“This too is familiar to me at Cambridge: on the rare occasions I’ve bothered to raise questions of, let us say, ‘racially dodgy’ remarks that bring Cambridge or particular colleges into disrepute, I’ve been instantly shut down by what you would recognise, I am sure, as ‘snowflake’ behaviour: outrage, wounded innocence, protestations of good intentions, and finally the declaration that it’s not the racist pronouncements that are the problem but the person (me, in this instance) who calls them out.”

“I was told to ‘be grateful’ and ‘less critical’ for pointing out that Malaysian culinary heritage was being sorely misrepresented at our formal hall.”

Cambridge has been a similar experience on my end. Last Friday, after commenting on a Facebook post in my college group that ‘Malaysian tofu’ does not exist in Malaysia under any name of the sort, I was told to ‘be grateful’ and ‘less critical’ for pointing out that Malaysian culinary heritage was being sorely misrepresented at our formal hall. Although this would be a non-issue in the UK, food bears a cultural significance in Malaysia – our shared love of food brings us together more than anything else Malaysian.

Apart from the colonial-tinted narrative of a white person instructing me to show gratitude for the faux inclusivity on display (it must be noted that the person in question has since apologised), some of the responses I’ve received from non-minority ethnics have been genuinely disturbing. (‘You need to laugh it off’ is a classic.) If inclusivity genuinely was on the agenda, why were my previously-expressed concerns laughed off laconically? Tone policing hurts genuine discourse; there is something inherently disturbing about being shut down for wanting to share our experiences as marginalised voices. This was the case in the Robinson x Newnham BME open mic event, where complaints from white students caused the event to be forcibly shut down by bar staff – yet another instance of marginalised voices being robbed of agency to speak up and act out.

I have been forced to endure far too many pro-colonial remarks from people I consider friends; more than once, I have been swiftly informed that the Empire was good for the world economy when touching on the topic of postcolonial reparations. Being from a country that was colonised by Britain more than once, it strikes me as nothing short of sheer ignorance when I was told (to mildly paraphrase someone I encountered in my college) that Winston Churchill was a Prime Minister of ‘great moral character’. With a YouGov poll indicating that 59 per cent of the British public are pro-Empire, this hardly comes as a surprise. Yet, I somehow doubt the Indians would appreciate being told that the drastic drop in their GDP post-empire, makes for a salient economy. Can one really claim that the rapacious pillaging of the Empire made for a better world eventually? Who knows what the world would have been like without an empire as disgustingly harmful as the British Empire?

“I have been forced to endure far too many pro-colonial remarks from people I consider friends”

Quite frankly, I could quote any part of Priya Gopal’s piece and I, along with several others, would sadly be able to resonate with every bit. Interwoven in the fabric of Cambridge society is the depressing sight of casual racism, most of which goes around unspoken. This happens to be one of the many reasons BME-based initiatives in Cambridge (such as in theatre) are integral to our experience as Cambridge students – an essential part of utilising a good education involves using one’s voice for the right causes. Apart from giving BME students more room for expression, BME-led initiatives help allies to learn more about the struggles of being a minority ethnic in a predominantly white environment like Cambridge.


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It is heartening to see strong initiatives from student-led campaigns like FLY; there is no doubt in my mind that a sense of awareness is growing day by day. And there is no better time to have this discourse than at this very moment: let us not dodge the collective voice of the BME community. Instead, let us have an honest, open and necessary dialogue