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The CREATE Campaign

I am Brown, so what?

by Mrittunjoy Guha Majumdar

We may be some way past the heyday of racism, but prejudices very much still exist today. As Angela Davis once said,

``Racism is a much more clandestine, much more hidden kind of phenomenon, but at the same time it's perhaps far more terrible than it's ever been”.

Some of the things I talk about here are uncomfortable, but we need to recognize and address these issues. Though not explicit as it has been, racism is far from solved.

Having been the Graduate Union Vice-President, I have proposed policy on housing, living expenses, departmental welfare and anti-casualisation of work in the University. I have helped reform our representation, by establishing an intersectionality forum and organizing postgraduate forums (known as Grad Opens) and attended several University committees, from Graduate Tutors’ to the Societies Syndicate. My race or background has never been visibly used to resist or oppose my ideas: people have been mostly respectful, polite and inclusive.

Yet, there have been times when I did not feel included in discussions that I could contribute to. For instance, I have been spearheading a GU campaign for months and when a university official recently spoke to the leaders of the student unions, the official did not feel the need to mention my work or give due prominence to the work I had done and focused on other points. There have been times when I have felt the need to prove myself in the room when I shouldn’t have to. If you have ever seen someone hear you, but not quite listen, you would know the frustration that arises due to that. There have been committee meetings during which people have refused to make any eye-contact. There have been times when my work has not been mentioned, even when I was the only person with relevant knowledge or experience, on the postgraduate student front. I increasingly find myself asking if this is due to not being loud enough, or due to something else.

My experiences certainly make me feel as though there is a lot of unconscious bias at Cambridge. Having a student voice in a committee or a BAME voice in a community space is a good start, but not the end-goal. There are meetings where I have raised issues, only to be side-lined without any justification. There have been meetings where I was only ever addressed when I raised a very specific point only for the discussion to go right back to disregarding my presence, with little acknowledgment of even my presence, leave aside work. I had seen this previously in student elections, on the campaign trail, with instances of subtle biases and statements that were not just hurtful but outright prejudiced, and invariably affecting results. But now it seems the problem is deeper. It is seems the problem may just be systemic as well as cultural, in many parts of the University space.  

The issue is about entrenched bias in the system. The issue is that there is still a dearth of safe spaces to speak up and address the subtle forms of racism that exists. Cambridge can be at times isolated from the rest of the United Kingdom, let alone the world. Cultural differences and differences of sensibilities are still not acknowledged in many places in the university space. Cambridge is a place where you can still see events at which a lonely bottle of lemonade is the only non-alcoholic alternative. More worryingly still, you can see it in admission patterns of students and recruitment of staff. Even within the University, harmful policies such as Prevent and double standards to the treatment of BAME members, such as in protests at a Cambridge College, where only a few BAME students out of a much larger group of protesters were targeted for disciplinary action contribute to a culture that is not welcoming to People of Colour.

There are also non-University incidents, such as a van driver spitting in my direction, which I would have brushed off, if it was not for the way he glared at me. This has been part of my experience of Cambridge. There have been days when I have come with a lot of positivity and enthusiasm to help the Collegiate University and gone back with a lot of confusion and hatred due to these occurrences. When I feel that I have not been taken seriously or taken for granted in official settings for a sustained period now, it can feel like an ingrained culture.

So, what can we do to improve the situation?

The first thing is to improve understanding of race equality and racism, and most importantly unconscious bias, in order to build staff and students’ confidence to discuss and challenge it. There must be training of students and staff on unconscious bias and awareness of cultural differences that goes beyond just knowing about other cultures superficially in society.

Training could also explain the conscious effort needed to avoid unconscious biases and to judge people for their work, personality and merit rather than their skin and ethnic background. The University must ensure all involved in the admissions process are trained and supported to reduce the effect of unconscious bias.

In an age of social media, the University must strive to effectively use various channels of communication to engage and interact with groups that are currently underrepresented. On an official level, representation of BAME staff in senior positions and senior committee membership must be improved, along with encouraging those who eligible to apply. It’s no secret that many departments don’t have a single BAME professor!

Speaking out and breaking the silence on things such as unconscious bias in the University space should not be an issue. The Graduate Union is launching a new campaign called Campaign for Race Equality and Awareness using Training and Engagement (CREATE) to work on race and unconscious bias. We will begin by working with departments and college MCRs to look at training on race equality, along with looking at best practices in colleges and standing up against instances of racial discrimination of students in the Collegiate University. We encourage everyone to join us, participate, voice opinions and share stories, to help us campaign and stand up for this important aspect of university life. You could do so by writing to me at vicepresident@gradunion.cam.ac.uk or following and messaging our Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/GraduateUnion/).

Let us try to build an inclusive Cambridge, together!