Stop Talking and Start Listening? The Race Debate at The Cambridge Union

Anamaria Koeva 29 October 2020
Image Credits: The Cambridge Union

Britain’s conversations about race are constantly evolving; there are no clear guidelines for how one should approach the topic. This is especially the case in 2020 as racial tensions erupted worldwide in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s clear that dialogue is crucial, but is it the responsibility for white allies to insert themselves into the conversation, or to stop talking and instead, learn about their role in institutionalised racism?

The Cambridge Union recently brought together some influential speakers to answer this question. Virtually present on side proposition were two eminent writers. Farrukh Dhondy is a writer of fiction, plays and screenplays; bearer of the Samuel Beckett Award; an activist; and a past member of the British Black Panther Movement. Suny Singh is Professor of Creative Writing and Inclusion in the Arts at London Metropolitan University; a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction; and a co-founder of the Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour (amongst its winners is Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge).

On side opposition were Heidi Safia Mirza, Emeritus Professor of Equalities Studies at University College London; and Remi Adekoya, a writer, lecturer and political scientist. Their research explores identity, with a focus on intersectionality and mixed-race respectively.

The auditions for the student places were won by James Appiah (proposition), a first-year student reading Human, Social and Political Sciences at Pembroke College; and Jordan Scott (opposition), an MPhil student reading Philosophy at Wolfson.

Although the guest speakers on both sides had similar academic backgrounds, each of them discussed the motion from a personal perspective and constructed powerful arguments.

Indian-born British activist Farrukh Dhondy focused on racial violence. He started his speech by portraying the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which, he remarked, caused “a huge explosion” of demonstrations in the USA, Africa, India, UK and France. “History has not yet accepted the fact that Black Lives Matter,” he stated. He clarified that although BLM is not a movement yet, because it is lacking a strategy and organization, a change is evident with people and communities “talking for themselves, activating themselves”. The mobilisation of Black Lives Matter has caused the UK, the USA, France, South Africa to have “reached the realization that two histories are living in the same country”.

MPhil student Jordon Scott’s argument focused on the importance of encouraging communication. He rephrased the question to: “Should people, white people, stop talking?”. Only through communication, he argued, do “those who are ignorant of racial issues start considering them”. Professor Sunny Singh later opposed this statement by stating that listening is not a passive act. This, she says, is how learning happens.

Adekoya asserted that a happier relationship can be achieved if both sides listen and speak, citing the example of his parents. His Nigerian father and his Polish mother had different cultural expectations in their marriage, which could have caused long-term instability in their relationship, had the topic not been raised by their son. He continued to say that “Just because white people haven’t listened for centuries, it doesn’t mean they won’t listen now.” He urged: “Don’t imitate the behaviour of those whom we’ve been criticising!”

“Now we enjoy moral high ground and the power which comes with it,” Remi Adekoya claimed, which Professor Heidi Safia Mirza later challenged by referencing the ‘woke’ culture, saying that “to declare yourself a non-racist (…) is confessional, like going to the priest”.

Professor Sunny Singh discussed race, wealth and corridors of power from the position of a migrant woman of colour, coming from a former colony from a deliberately impoverished by the British Empire village in India, which has suffered “the aftermath of the 1857 uprising”. Therefore, “attempting to speak”, she says, “is a strange enterprise”. Bearing in mind that marginalised minorities had to “spend days building up the courage to speak”, she strongly believes that this house should stop talking and start listening. She reminded that “the Cambridge Union as a debating society is built on three pillars: an empire, on slave trade, and genocide” and passionately appealed that “there can’t be justice without equality and can be no peace without justice,” summoning to mind the “No peace, no justice” slogan, which originated from the 1986 protests against the murder of African American Michael Griffith.

Student James Appiah followed by contesting that keeping silent would be against the values of this house, however, this house “should come together on a racial divide and continue to speak.” He suggested that socio-racial dynamics can be resolved by listening and that this would happen if we “stop complaining and start explaining”. This was supported by a statement from the audience, which urged the minorities who share sets of values not to deepen the mystification, because “geographical segregation wasn’t the choice of people”.

Professor Heidi Safia Mirza, author of the bestseller Young, Female and Black (Routledge, 1992) asked who speaks and who listens when it comes to racial issues. “Can I find a voice in this place I am invited to?” Professor Mirza contended that the Cambridge Union is an elite white male space and addressed the ladies sitting on the other side of her screen (President Emaan Ullah, Vice President Jungmin Seo, Proposition Side Chair Tamkeen Nawab and Opposition Side Chair Tara Bhagat), asserting that the real power is still not in their hands, as the nature of debating itself is adversarial and is thus inherently male. She strengthened her argument by later adding that “talking is one, being heard is another matter”, professing that people of colour are “allowed in institutions, but watched in case they are too different.” At the same time that this “politics of concealment” is enacted, “brands are “monetising and cashing out pain”. She gave the example Nike’s “Don’t do it” social justice campaign in May this year.

Even though the nays had it, all speakers similarly conveyed that socio-political and economic equality depends on the actions of each one of us.