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As more students from Eton than black men gain a place at Cambridge University, Hinter speaks to students from the BAME campaign about life as a black student at Oxbridge

By Catherine Lough

This week, Metro reported that more Eton graduates gained a place at Cambridge University last year than black men. 22 students from the £40,700-a-year school gained entry to Cambridge, while just 19 men of African descent and 2 of Caribbean heritage got a place.

The underlying reasons for the lack of diversity at Cambridge are often poorly understood. For instance, in May, The Telegraph reported that black students did not apply to Cambridge because the town has no Afro-Caribbean hairdressers. As Vice journalist Victoria Sanusi wrote, such a headline “flattened a complex issue and sent out a dog-whistle that black students are so under-represented at Cambridge because they’re just too fussy.”

Hinter spoke to members of Cambridge University’s student union BAME campaign, to explore the realities of life as a black student at one of Britain’s oldest – and least diverse –universities.

Hair? ‘That’s not why we don’t come here’

Rianna Davis, president of the BAME campaign, said the idea black students do not apply because of a lack of hairdressers is disingenuous.

“That’s not why we don’t come here,” she said. “It’s because you come here and you don’t see anyone who looks like you.”

For example, when she first visited Cambridge as a prospective applicant, she and her father walked from the station to the university’s humanities campus, the Sidgwick site, and saw only a handful of black faces on route.

Davis suggested the university’s inquiry into its historical links with slavery, launched earlier this year in April, is little more than an exercise in box-ticking. In an article for the Huffington Post, she wrote that the university should work more closely with the campaign to Decolonise the Curriculum, including a wider variety of non-white writers in the humanities.

Decolonise the Curriculum: ‘the rate of change is glacial’

Beatrice Obe, a third-year English student, points out that she only has the option to study post-colonial or non-white writers in one paper during third year.

“That’s the only chance I get to study authors who aren’t Shakespeare. It’s sort of, ‘Oh, you get to look at Chinua Achebe and be satisfied.’”

Freya Lewis, the BME campaign’s education officer, agrees. “The political paper is full of canonical white men,” she said. “They only added [the civil rights campaigner] W.E.B Du Bois to the Sociology paper this year.”

Davis, a Spanish and History student, says of 21 History papers, only two cover world history. “That’s two papers packed with everything that isn’t Europe.”

Regarding the university’s progress in including works from outside of the western canon, she says: “The rate of change is glacial.” In one of her history lectures, an academic even spoke of the civilising nature of missionary work in colonial Africa. “I thought, have you skipped the whole chunk where people died because of that?”

‘We need tangible change’

Attitudes from lecturers to black students can also be emotionally draining. Davis, who has Jamaican heritage, was asked to comment on the outcome of Nigerian elections as a matter of course. In one supervision, she was even asked if English is her native language.

Lewis says navigating such experiences may explain black students’ attainment gap with their white counterparts.

Beatrice Obe feels supervisors should also not expect black students to have all the answers when it comes to making the university more inclusive.

“Supervisors will ask, ‘What should we do about decolonise? Should we be studying racist texts?’ And I think, don’t ask me – I’m little!’ Obe said. “Sometimes I sit in supervisions and think, I’ve answered more questions than I’ve asked.”

Hannah Afrah, the BAME campaign’s Women’s officer, said she is expected to represent her community at all times, which can feel burdensome.

“The thing about Cambridge, our identity has been so politicised,” Afrah said. “I feel I have to represent Somalia or BAME – coming from London I’ve never had to shoulder that responsibility…My supervisors might think they’re being well-meaning, but they’ll ask me how I feel about changes in the Ghanaian school system – what do I know about that?”

Diversity can’t only be a buzzword

For these students, Cambridge will never change without appointing more diverse faculty members.

“We need tangible changes,” Lewis said. “The university has been saying for so long that they’re increasing diversity but we can’t see that, it’s a buzzword. They need to have faculty positions for Caribbean scholars and use positive discrimination. That might be unpopular but that’s what needs to be done.”

Obe points out she has only seen one black academic during three years of study, not in a lecture but while attending a talk by Angela Davis.

“I don’t think it’s often acknowledged how difficult it is to do the same degree when you’re a black person and have white academics tell you, ‘You’re the first brown student I’ve taught,” she said.

“I don’t think I could stick being an academic at this university because it would be so painful, it’s already so difficult to exist here as an undergrad. It’s like treading water.”

‘Get In Cambridge’

A Cambridge University spokesperson said: ” We have worked closely, and continue to do so on many projects, with the African Caribbean Society and other BAME student societies to enhance the student experience for black and minority ethnic community students here. “

“We have recently set up  College Discrimination and Harassment Contact roles in all Colleges, whose job it is to champion and share best practice but also to be someone students can go to if behaviour falls short.

“The Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) and the Education Committee are actively engaged in exploring and promoting diverse curriculum and inclusive courses.”

“More broadly, and in order to ensure students have the best possible experience when interacting with our staff, we are delivering training on race awareness across the institution, including piloting a Reverse Mentoring Scheme where senior White members of staff are mentored by BAME staff members.”

“Students and staff have been invited to submit bids to a new University Diversity Fund, which is considering more than 50 initiatives across the University that contribute to furthering Inclusion.”

The spokesperson highlighted the work of Robinson College alumna Courtney Daniella, who recently launched a social media campaign, ‘Get In Cambridge‘, to promote Cambridge to BAME students, busting myths that might prevent underrepresented students from applying.

The university recently appointed Sonita Alleyne as the first black female master of a college. A Fitzwilliam College alumna, she will take up the role of Master of Jesus College in October of this year.

Yet clearly, more steps need to be taken to ensure Cambridge is fully inclusive, allowing students from a wider range of ethnic and social backgrounds to access a world-class education.

Read more about racism and Oxbridge with our story Giving up Oxford: how racism affects black students.