Since coming to Cambridge I’ve had numerous conversations, usually with white boys, who “just don’t get it.” Boys who have never thought critically about race or gender and are unable to see themselves as the oppressors of other minority groups. They seemingly struggle to understand the immense power and privilege that is afforded to them by virtue of what they look like. I have always been open to having conversations about what race and gender mean in real terms and how they affect the lives of individuals on a daily basis.
As sometimes the only black person in the room, I enjoy bursting the bubble of idealism and privilege that these boys exist within. I like asking hard questions because making people feel uncomfortable is a radical way to get them to recognise the oppressive system that they are complicit in. In no place is this bubble of idealism more apparent than in Cambridge. When you’ve had too much to drink after formal and you have to explain the history of racial oppression in America to a white boy who tells you “Darren Wilson is a person too” or when you drop the shocker that “reverse racism” and “sexism against men” are fallacies, it is exhausting.
Any criticism of white supremacy is often taken personally: “But, I’m a nice guy so I don’t know what you’re talking about.” “You can’t generalise.” “Not all men are like that.” Or one of my favourites is the attempt to completely erase identity: “Why do you always talk about white and black, there is only one race – the human race.”
When all your friends, who are disproportionally white, start singing “Do they Know It’s Christmas?”, you’re faced with the choice of ruining the mood by pointing out that the lyrics of that song are problematic because they reinforce an image of Africa as disease ridden, poverty stricken and in need of white saviours or just singing along. As someone who is becoming more politically active I’m trying to figure what my role in liberation is. Is it to educate white boys about what privilege is?
In a place like Cambridge, it can be tough if you're not the "norm". Credit: Kosala Bandara via Flickr
To some extent, yes – realistically, we need people who will be influential (and trust me some of these boys will be) to raise the voices of oppressed people. Not to speak for them, but to elevate their concerns. However, I am slowly coming to realise something – Do not ever feel guilty for letting that racist joke slide because you couldn’t think of something to neutralise the situation in time. It is not your job to defend your personhood when it comes under attack by ignorance. Do not waste your breath attempting to convince individuals that you too deserve respect. It is like repeatedly hitting your head against a brick wall, yes you might eventually begin to chip away at it but you do more damage to yourself in the process.
Your dignity as a human being is not up for debate. Use the energy you conserve to Organise. Protest. Speak only to people who are willing to listen to you without becoming defensive or overly argumentative; people who are genuinely interested in understanding the world from your perspective. You are allowed to be tired. You are a human being who lives in a system that tells you at every turn that your opinions are invalid, that the way you look is unacceptable and that you should simply shut up and stop complaining.
Coming from an inner city comprehensive school in London, for me diversity was a given. Where I’m from people who are radically different live on top of one another. That is not to say racism is non-existent but perhaps race as a social construct is more apparent to individuals who have to sit next to a Black British boy on the train or who are served by a Pakistani woman in a high street shop. My own experiences as a black working class girl have informed my understanding of how race, sex and class operate within a wider systematic framework.
In a place like London, diversity is a given. Credit: Piedro Figueiredo via Flickr
Since coming to Cambridge because of the stark lack of diversity and the overwhelming sense of male dominated spaces, everything is more political and it is truly a joy. There are easily accessible spaces at this university where people are willing and open to examining their own privilege and what that means for the overall goal of liberation for oppressed groups. There are groups and networks where oppressed individuals come together and share stories, offer support and relieve some of the burden of existing in a space that sometimes might not feel completely their own.
It should go without saying that the white boys I refer to in this article are well meaning, middle class, cis, heterosexual males who truly believe that they got into Cambridge purely on academic merit and nothing else. It is a mix of naivety and ignorance. I’ve often wondered if they can be blamed for their own misconceptions.
Ultimately, everyone is shaped to some extent by their environment. If they have never been exposed to the hardships others face; if they have been born into a comfortable lifestyle which refuses to look outward – why would they be concerned with the oppression of a black female? Or a working class trans woman? But they are big boys now. They’re at university. They have a responsibility to educate themselves. It is not our job as women or as people of colour to politely coax them into agreeing with us.
I’m slowly realising that educating others should not be our primary concern. Existing and attempting to have full and creative lives should. We should be generating material that helps to counteract the decades in which our voices have been silenced. You shouldn’t be tiring yourself out wondering if you took your argument too far in the debate last night, if all the boys will think of you as “the angry black girl” from now on.
Embrace the label and carry on.