Apperception, micro-hostility and style differences are part of every black girl’s Cambridge experience. ORE OGUNBIYI writes to her fresher self, reflecting on how her skin colour has defined her time at Cambridge.
When you walk into your first supervision, you will probably be the only black girl in the room. Get used to it because it won’t get much better. But don’t let that scare you and more importantly, don’t let anyone make you feel small, or misplaced. Don’t be silent in attempts to assuage your white peers and supervisors. You’ve earned your place there, so make your presence known. Don’t ever feel the need to make yourself palatable, or bitesize.
Instead, fill the room with examples of Nkrumah and Mobutu that your supervisor thinks are ‘adventurous’, and enjoy unpacking the racism in the works of Kant that your degree so glorifies. Their discomfort is not your problem.
You will have supervisors who will call you defensive and angry, and who will project their own prejudiced stereotypes onto you as you walk into the room. Cry in private, write a killer essay, and prove them wrong. You will also have supervisors who will understand and appreciate your need to veil your work in your own experiences, who will recognise its value and reward you for it. So, bathe every essay in black girl magic and write in resistance to the Eurocentrism of academia that did not see you coming.
It’s not always easy though. The Black Jacobins you really want to read probably won’t be on your reading lists, you won’t find the support you need when you want to write your dissertation on Nigeria, and trying to go the extra mile to show your supervisors what a decolonised curriculum could look like will exhaust you. But where you can, do it anyway.
Don’t be surprised when your lecture on industrialization makes no mention of slavery, or when your white friends don’t understand why that’s a problem. Don’t be afraid to ask the unnerving questions at the end of the lecture and leave them shook.
You will arrive and feel a pressure to be someone else. You won’t realise as you subconsciously try to play up to what you think a typical Cambridge student does. You’ll change your accent, go to events you know you don’t enjoy, and try to befriend people that aren’t like you in attempts to conform – but you’ll only be able to keep this up for so long. When the real you resurfaces and you find the courage to admit to your new friends, and to yourself, that you actually hate Wednesday Cindies and VKs, you’ll be okay.
When you come back next term with braids, don’t let your housemates smell and touch your hair. It may take you a while to muster up the courage to tell people to stop, and to remind people that you are not some exotic creature to be caressed – but when you find the strength, do it anyway.
Oh. Boys? Don’t bother. Tell every aunty that is telling you that you are going to Cambridge to find yourself a husband, that much to their disappointment, it’s not going to happen. You’ll learn quickly that desirability is racialised and that not everyone loves your dark skin as much as you do, that society’s beauty standards don’t include people that look like you. So, when someone hits you with “you’re fit for a black girl”, tell them that’s not a compliment. You are beautiful, and to the people who don’t see that, even your own, let it be their loss. Find the beauty in your blackness in spite of the people who can’t.
Don’t forget that regardless, you belong here. You’ll have people who think you are here to tick a ‘diversity’ box. You will also be asked time and time again whether or not you go to the other university in Cambridge because people will have a tough time conceptualising the fact that you could possibly have earned your place here. You won’t find people who look like you memorialised on the walls and that won’t make it any easier – but don’t forget that you belong.
You will stand out and be made conscious of your difference for your whole time here and not everyone will get it. Not everyone will get what it is about existing in Cambridge as a black girl that makes it difficult or why. You will meet a lot of people who proclaim they are ‘not racist’ but don’t recognise how their inaction makes them complicit, why you value safe spaces, or even why your experience of Cambridge is necessarily different. Remember that it isn’t your duty to lecture and to explain because the emotional labour will take its toll. You are not the appointed spokesperson for black people and don’t feel the pressure to be.
Remember you are not alone. Black women may be few and far between here but find them, build a sisterhood and strengthen each other. Find shoulders to cry on because you will need them. Find support systems that work for you, and take solace in them. Communities like the African Caribbean Society will be there to make you feel at home again. Take time to look after yourself. Bake and cook jollof even amidst the stress that tries to break you.
It will get better. I don’t know if that’s because you will become immune to the blows, or because you will get stronger – but it will get better. You’ll find ways to make Cambridge work for you and you will be fine. In fact, you’ll be more than fine. You’ll make friends for life, you’ll leave your mark and eventually, you’ll enjoy it.
This article was first published in Varsity, the University of Cambridge’s independent student newspaper