Cambridge often seems to exist in a state of racism by default rather than by intention.

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.

10704274_10154748402045487_858752445759083771_oGraduating 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.’

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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?’

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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.

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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.

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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.

Dating a white, English guy as a black Trini girl

dream david kalifa
This illustration is over a year old, and I’ve been thinking about this note for weeks now…anticipating it, dreading it, knowing that I have to do it, but also knowing that the pressure to write is fully self-imposed. I’ve started this paragraph with only glimpses of thoughts I might want to flesh out here. (pause) Perhaps I’ll write about similarities and differences: black, white and a single shade of gray… this Feb 10th, for my annual Valentine’s note.
 
It’s been an interesting journey thus far dating my boyfriend. We’re different in many ways: different in race, in beliefs, in nationalities, and it’s led to a very rich learning experience, but also to the accompanying challenges. Much more than before, I’ve come to appreciate how being black and being brought up in the Caribbean context has shaped how I view the world, the biases I perceive and my unique brand of ignorance. Being in this relationship has shattered what little belief I had in my own objectivity. I’m much more aware that I’m a subjective reflection of my past experiences, and it’s become more difficult to not look at each person as similarly inhabiting their own narrow, but rich, frame. I’ve also grown to see how him being a white guy growing up in England has shaped perspectives he has of the world on a fundamental level. We’ve had intense debates on random topics from predictions in Game of Thrones, to wrongdoing in FIFA, and when we got to the core of it, we realized that a lot of our disagreement was framed by the historical and cultural perspectives we grew up within… weighty entrenchments in colonialism, imperialism, nationalism, ethics, philosophies of life, good, origin and other experientially informed histories and ideologies that I’d not been aware were affecting our views of the world to the extent that it was.
 
I guess one of the big moments for me was when we challenged ourselves to guess the actual statistics on the occurrence of racism in the UK. I overestimated it, and he underestimated it… though he underestimated by a greater margin than my overestimation. I couldn’t hide from the reality that as much as he was my best friend, and as much as I loved him, there was a disconnect in how we receive the world based on the histories we were taught and the experiences we’ve been surrounded by. My ignorance is different to his, but I’ve become very aware of how little I know about the struggles English people, or Europeans have endured, because of my special preoccupation with ‘black’.
 
I honestly have been taken aback by how little I know, and how little we all seem to know about each others’ experiences and histories. I feel as though I’m floating, slightly disoriented, through an ocean of reality I’d never noticed before because I was trapped in a cloudy bubble of air. I’ve become so much more aware of how it can shape how we might view dilemmas or the depth of any people’s gripes and voiced struggles. So I’ve been earnestly trying to learn more about history and culture around the world. It’s been quite a journey and I’m grateful for the discussion, the thought, the maturity, the confusion, the questions it posed and the answers since found.
 
What initially drew me to David though was what I call his ‘weirdness’… it was the most in sync weirdness I’ve ever found to my own. I felt like he appreciated and understood me like no peer ever had before. However, as I’ve grown alongside him, I’ve come to cherish not only our shared ‘weird’, but also our differences… it’s pushed me to see the world, see others, learn and empathize with a sincerity, understanding and depth that I’d never before known.
 
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A formal hall

formal
My friend Jac invited me to join her and her sister Gabby at a formal hall at Clare College 🙂 . There was a pretty weird menu this time around though.
The menu:
Starter: Pig head terrine, apple gel, pickled pineapple, carrots and moult, puffed wild rice
Main: Beef cheek bonbon, parsley and pearl barley risotto, anise carrot
Dessert: Lemongrass rice pudding cake, chilli mango chutney, coconut sabayon
………
Coffee
[Lots of these formal halls happen every week at the University across different colleges. They’re basically 3 course candlelit formal dinners with wine/water.]
— To support me in my PhD studies, please hire me to do an illustration. Message me (kalifadamani@gmail.com) if interested and spread the word ^_^
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Memorials

statue2I walk past this statue perhaps once every week. Written on it is “To the men of Cambridgeshire, the Isle of Ely, the borough and University of Cambridge who served in the Great War 1914-1919 and in the World War 1939-1945”
‘The Great War’ refers to World War 1 and ‘the World War’ refers to World War 2. It stands still there with the Botanical Garden to its west, the train station to its east, the city centre to the north and the education department to the south. There isn’t a little girl on the monument…neither does it drain blood or constantly have fighter jets flying above it… but often when I walk past it, it’s those things that come to mind: the blood spilt, the people who live now because of heroism during the wars then, how scary it must have been to have bombs falling from the sky then, and how scary it must be now for those who are living through wars around the world today. There are War memorials all over the UK. It’s a bit difficult to be here and not appreciate how significant a period in history it was for Britain. It’s difficult to think of it as distant. I’ve read of the Wars and watched films about them. I know that they were horrid, but being here somehow makes that history seem much more real.
— To support me in my PhD studies, please hire me to do an illustration. Message me (kalifadamani@gmail.com) if interested and spread the word ^_^
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From Downing to Homerton

homerton_downing22.jpgA large part of my first year in Cambridge was focused around Downing College (above). I went there for lunch very often and worked next door to it at the Downing Site. Now though, I’m based next door to Homerton college (below) and have a few classes there as well. Having spent quite some time now walking past both buildings, buildings that I found very beautiful the first time I saw them, I’ve come to realise that when looking at them in recent times, some of that initial magic has been lost. I miss the feeling of seeing them and feeling joy and awe. I want it back. I want to be able to look at old buildings, that I’ve seen numerous times, with fresh eyes. I want to be able to soak in new, simple, beautiful experiences from my walks throughout the week.

So, I’ve devised a plan based on an amazing feeling I had after drawing a church from a photo reference earlier this month. After drawing the church, drawing its lines, shapes, circles, worn out brick in sketch, I walked past it again a few days later. Walking past it that time though felt different… I felt that ‘magic’ again. I looked at it and thought, ‘I remember drawing that line’, ‘Oooh, yeah, I remember studying that circle around the glass’, ‘It looks so magnificent and intricate’, and I gained an appreciation of the effort put into designing and building the church, the beauty of it, that I had never experienced before. Suddenly, that church that I’d walked past and seen so many times before looked new again… there were so many features on it that I’d never paid attention to before when looking directly at it… and I got the urge to walk up to it, take a picture of an even smaller portion of her architecture, and then study it bit by bit.

I was so surprised by how happy the church made me feel that I suddenly wanted, with a renewed vigour, to draw areas all over that I had walked past multiple times and had gotten bored of. So, I thought, yup, let’s try to draw places more… but not just draw, but to put different filters on them in photograph and try to see them in a new light. I think that it’s working. I’m enjoying being a ‘baby’ again and seeing things afresh. 🙂

——— To support me in my PhD studies, please hire me to do an illustration. Message me (kalifadamani@gmail.com) if interested and spread the word ^_^! To donate (if you don’t want to hire me): https://www.gofundme.com/tfe68rs OR Paypal:kalifadamani@gmail.com

hatch backs