First published here: The Tab Cambridge
I arrived at Gatwick Airport in England and immediately felt ‘different’ in the sea of white faces voicing ‘BBC accents’.
I spent my first night in my college room huddled under a heap of sweaters and jackets because I had no idea what a duvet was. A white metal thing with steep horizontal hills, valleys and a numbered dial sat at my bedside; but my desire to stay warm wasn’t enough to fairly judge what I hadn’t previously encountered (later confirmed as a radiator). Before I came to Cambridge University, I’d never left the Caribbean.
Graduating from Cambridge, before starting my PhD.
My friends in primary school were shades of brown: East Indian, African, Chinese and mixed children with Trini sing-song accents who, like me, knew what it meant ‘to lime’. As children, we played ketch (tag) in the sun and rested under a large tambaran (tamarind) tree. We had fun with each other, but we were also sometimes emotionally insensitive… as children often are. One little black child might mock another, “The sun will make yuh blacker!”, “You already black and ugly like a corbeaux (vulture)”, “Where yuh born, in de pitch lake?” During secondary school too, I routinely observed peers saying before Physical Education classes, “I don’t want to go in the sun and get black.”
Like me you mean?
…because I’m a darkie. I’m in the darkest ‘named skin strata’ in Trinidad and Tobago: ‘darkie’, ‘brown skin’, ‘reds’ and the fairest is ‘white’. Knowing of the damaging idea floating around in society that ‘black is ugly and stupid’, my parents placed significant effort in teaching me to love and believe in myself as a black girl. Still, though, it was difficult to ignore the underlying, or perhaps overarching context expressed in TV shows, books, movies, from peers, in the toy stores awash with white dolls, in the glorification of fair skin, straight hair, Western achievements and thin noses.
Someone said, ‘Squeeze your nose Kalifa, maybe you can stop it from being so broad.’
There was something great, even ‘better’ about white. There was something bad, ‘gutter’, about black. It was an inescapable idea; one that seemed to creep into minds even when parents tried to stop it, even when our school curriculum seemed designed to educate against it. I judged white people less harshly than black people. I made excuses for some of them. It bothered me. It tormented me.
Am I seeing particularly good qualities in someone because I’ve come to learn that white is great, or am I seeing these things because it’s true?
Over time I’ve tried to self-correct, to train myself more consciously into objectivity, to free myself from mental-slavery, as Bob Marley would say. However, then the questions became: ‘Am I seeing bad qualities in someone because they are white, or am I seeing these things because they are true?’, ‘Do I over-value ‘black’ now?’, ‘Is it even possible to self-correct?’ , ‘Is it even possible to escape the old ideas that shaped one’s mind?’
After spending over a year in Cambridge, I’ve come to realize that many people have never been escorted through experiences of people who don’t look, and haven’t lived, like themselves. Many people have been molded on the idea that ‘white is great and the West spawns greatness’ without being simultaneously immersed in the idea that ‘black is great and greatness has been spawned beyond the West too’
During my first term here, I sat in class as a young white man drew the lecturer’s attention to make the point that black people don’t have high IQs. I sat there, conscious of myself as the only black person in the room… knowing that there are many inhibiting socioeconomic, and other external factors that explain the result. The lecturer decided to explain the Flynn effect, and after class, apologized to me for not speaking further. The scenario was repeated during my second term in Cambridge, when a different white guy, in a different class – an elective outside my department – decided to contribute the point that black people aren’t that smart.
This time, the lecturer made no effort to counter anything, and I felt so drained and alone that I didn’t care to ‘fight’. I have endured ‘jokes’ here like, ‘we can see everyone else in the dark room except Kalifa’, the question ‘Is Trinidad and Tobago one of our colonies? We did a lot for you guys there before we let you get independence’, and even the suggestion that I’d be prettier if I got surgery to straighten my broad nose.
A number of people told me that I was too sensitive, to lighten up, that I take things too personally, that racism isn’t really an issue, that perhaps nothing significant was done outside the West and that’s why Western ideas are taught now, and that the pressure to tan is the same as the pressure black people face to change their racial characteristics. I became so distrusting of my own perceptions that I didn’t know which feelings were real.
Perhaps I really am too sensitive.
It was only after an Equality and Diversity University lecture, the first time that I’d been to a University event where the majority of the audience was black, that another black student, on hearing me speak about my self-distrust, responded, ‘It’s called gas lighting. You’re not alone. Many black students experience it too. You’re surrounded by so many white people who deny that what you experienced is true, and who haven’t experienced it themselves, that you begin to doubt your own sanity and feelings.’ I’d never heard of gas lighting before, but the reassurance that I wasn’t alone, or extremely sensitive and delusional, was a comfort. As it stands though, I don’t believe that all the people who made, or didn’t make, comments intended to be racist. I don’t believe that the absent white audience at the University lecture would consider themselves as simply uninterested in what their black friends are going through.
Cambridge often seems to exist in a state of racism by default rather than by intention. Most people try not to be racist. Many people see themselves as objective. However, it needs to be acknowledged that we’re products of the environments we’re brought up in. People, regardless of race, raised only ever having a personal connection to the undeserved struggles, stories, experiences, theories and greatness of white people will, as much as they try, not objectively appreciate or empathize with non-white people. The desire to not be racist isn’t enough to fairly judge what you haven’t previously encountered (radiators).
If the university environment is to move away from latent racism and toward true fairness, we all need positive engagement with diversity in ideas, stories, perspectives, experiences, achievements and peoples.