It has been six months since I assumed office as the key student-facing sabbatical officer of the University of Cambridge Graduate Union, in my fourth stint as a student leader in the Cambridge University student unions. The role has involved campaigning on multiple fronts, including on rent, divestment, anti-racism and international student concerns, and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. In this period, I have proposed policy motions on three areas of focus: housing and living expenses, fair pay and support for teaching (and research) opportunities for students, and departmental welfare. I have also reformed the GU executive committee with the introduction of working groups for each part-time officer and the establishment of an intersectionality forum. The other major part of my period here has been representing postgraduate students in University committees. Be it the Graduate Tutors’ Committee, Environmental Sustainability Strategy Committee, Academic Standards and Enhancement Committee, University Research Ethics Committee, Societies Syndicate or even the Consultative Committee for Safety in the University of Cambridge, committees are where most of the administrative work of the University gets done with major stakeholders involved. They have had interesting topics discussed from apprenticeships for students to student finances and mental health in the various committees.
Important and interesting!
However, there are times when a certain other side comes through. A side so subtle that it may be missed in all the politeness and propriety that characterize certain formal and semi-formal interactions in the University. Notwithstanding that some of these meetings can be very technical, the committees address key points that require a student voice. That relate to the student experience. That need the perspective of those that consult and engage with students across the Collegiate University. In most meetings I have been quite active and vocal about concerns and points. People have been respectful and nice. Polite. Inclusive. Except when they have not. On paper and on the face of it, things have always been inclusive. The chairs have always given me a chance to speak. The members have listened. Yet, there have been times when in a room full of white people and myself being the only BAME person has struggled to feel included in the discussion, even if I had done as much work, if not more, and known as much about a certain topic. There have been times when I have felt the need to prove myself in the room when I needn’t have. There have been times when I have led a campaign for months and have a lot to share and build on, and a University official would look at my (white) colleagues and address them instead. Speaking on the points relevant to either what I was just saying or something related to a campaign I was helping build!
There are times when I have raised certain points, only for them to be side-lined and that too on flimsy reasons. There have been other times when the only time I was even addressed was when a very specific point was raised by me, after which the reference was taken for the same, and the discussion went right back to disregarding my presence. I could as well have worn an invisibility cloak, to come out for that point, and go right back into it, without anything or anyone being affected. There was a time when this reached a level where I left a semi-formal meeting simply because I could not bear it anymore. Not wanting to pin down any individual here, I felt like this is something that is important to share, important to talk about, important to stand up against. I would not go so far as to say that it is an entrenched racist bias in the system as much as there is still a need to have training on unconscious biases and cultural differences across the University. Last year when I saw and heard how racism even plays a role in student politics elections, on the campaign trail, and how it affected a certain election (a big part of that upset was blatant racism, that was not even subtle), I was disillusioned and yet hopeful. It seems the problem is deeper.
Racism on the surface is eradicated. Yet, there is unconscious bias at various places. Still at the very highest levels of the university, most positions are occupied by white men. I am sorry but I cannot mince any words here for political correctness. Recruitment of BAME academics, representation of BAME students and staff, and funding of BAME activities (slightly better with the University Diversity Fund) are still some of the places where a lot can be done. There are still instances when the cultural differences of BAME students are not appreciated to the level it could and should be, possibly because of lack of awareness of those differences. There is also a tendency to homogenize the needs, interests and views of the BAME community, both by those outside the community and even those who claim to represent the community. If one does not conform to some ideas and political ideologies to a certain extent (sorry but that has to be the hard Left in this case; I believe in socialism but not to the extent where anyone not conforming to my views is not allowed a chance to speak), one cannot be a `good BAME representative’. Apparently. The other-ing of people, even within the BAME community, is also a highly nuanced topic, best kept for another article. Even within campaigns such as the LGBTQ+ campaigns, the lack of BAME voices is troubling, as is the selective targeting of BAME members of campaigns (such as in the protests in the anti-Noah Carl campaign in St. Edmund’s College, when three BAME students were suspended even though they were a few of the many white and non-white participants), and that again is best left for another article. Prevent is a big issue still and a tool sometimes unfairly used.
Even among certain peers and colleagues, without disparaging or targeting anyone in particular, there are times when I have to work towards trying to be a part of the group or feel appreciated. Why should I? Why should I try to conform to archaic ideas of white-ness? Why should I stand on standards set by others? I am Indian and very proudly Indian. I am patriotic (and certain fairly white BAME individuals would have a problem with that too, tagging me as ‘ultranationalistic’) and proud of my heritage, culturally and socially. I have my set of ideas, ethics, values and views, and I would not on seven lives want to compromise on them to fit in. I do not want to fit in and do not need to fit in. And yet I am supposed to or there are those who would be all ears for my ‘concerns’ in the cold, impersonal way you would listen to a distant anecdote of Timbuktu. Why? I am not just a smiling face working away hours to please a person or to prove a point. Why should the abilities of a brown individual be questioned at every turn (even recently a member of the Cambridge University Hungarian Society asked me whether I was elected to my position!). I am as deserving as any other, if not more in some ways, to do what I currently do. And yet I am more than just my curriculum vitae, my credentials and my work. I am a human being with ideas, emotions, perspectives, and, most importantly, just my humanity. In today’s increasingly impersonal and capitalistic world, everyone is after something: proving a point, getting somewhere, achieving something. For what? We will all die and yet may not find either the theory of everything or become the richest person ever (for there can always be a beyond). And it is even worse when those standards of reaching somewhere are oriented around guidelines set by a certain community or people. I do not agree with that. I actively deny that and reject that. Period.
Even in the larger Cambridge town, there have been such disturbing cases. Only today, I was taking a knife for cutting bread to a garden party that the student unions were hosting and this van is passing by, and there is a man on the passenger seat who spits right in front of me (which I would like to believe he did, regardless of me) but his look and the way he kept looking back at me showed a certain paranoia, a certain suspicion that was baseless. I was reminded of the famous ‘I am Khan and I am not a terrorist’ line! Elsewhere, once while playing pool, I joined in with some guys at the WTS Sports club, and the club has a system of putting in coins for the light. Since I was just joining in and rather waiting for my real friend group to turn up, I did not contribute any cash. This white man who was also playing comes up to me and sarcastically asks whether I want to piggy-back on their money. As if! The gall! Such disrespect! It was not India that had piggy-backed on England for centuries but the other way around! Just putting that historical context in place. I moved away after saying that I have better things to do than that and later he seem to have mellowed down (and I could not care any less, for that).
We live in an age where colonialism is a distant memory and where the Enlightenment has hopefully made the rights and liberties of the individual a priority along with respecting the disparate identities and associated interests and concerns in society. If Cambridge must truly be inclusive and BAME friendly, we need to focus on these aspects. Not just have things on paper or in the front but back it up with training of students and staff, on cultural differences and sensitivity, and make the BAME members of the university feel more included, valued and respected.
Let us truly build an inclusive Cambridge (if we can)!