The reality of being a black woman at Cambridge
Ore Ogunbiyi and Chelsea Kwakye’s new book reveals the challenges faced by black women at British universities – and calls for change. HATTIE CRISELL meets them.
In 2017, Ore Ogunbiyi published, A letter to my fresher self, in Varsity, the student newspaper of the University of Cambridge. In it, she detailed how her race had defined her years there: how she’d often been the only black girl in the room; how her housemates had insisted on smelling and touching her braids; how boys had told her she was ‘fit for a black girl’; how she’d been referred to as ‘defensive and angry’. The list goes on.
Today, meeting Ore and her fellow alumna Chelsea Kwakye – who’ve both recently turned 22 – is enough to make anyone feel like an underachiever. The pair were so prolific as president and vice president of the university’s African-Caribbean Society (ACS) — organising mentoring schemes, an access conference, and a student portrait of the ‘Black Men of Cambridge’ that went viral — that when they completed their degrees last year, they were approached by a publisher and offered a book deal. Since leaving Cambridge, Ore has completed a master’s in journalism at New York’s Columbia, while Chelsea is in the midst of a conversion course at London’s University of Law.
The book, Taking Up Space, is a survival guide for black British girls considering university, including the collected experiences of their graduate friends, and an impassioned argument for the rethinking of higher education in the UK. It’s been published by #Merky Books, the Penguin Random House imprint founded in collaboration with Stormzy.
Stormzy, Chelsea and Ore say, is very tall, very nice and very excited about their book. “It feels like genuine excitement, genuine support – it’s not just some publicity thing to him,” says Ore. In the last year he’s also funded two Cambridge scholarships for black students, and launched the #Merky Books New Writers’ Prize to ‘promote the stories that aren’t being heard’. “He’s really planting seeds and opening the door for more people to come in,” says Chelsea.
The writers met at a careers event just before university; their childhoods had been very different. Chelsea grew up working class in and around East London, her parents Ghanaian immigrants who had arrived in the UK with only 70 pence between them. Ore was born in Croydon to Nigerian parents, who are both graduates; her father is an academic. When she was seven, the family moved back to Nigeria, and she returned six years later to attend boarding school in Surrey.
She’s a passionate speaker and today does more of the talking, while Chelsea — who is taking a rare break from studying for legal examinations — is more reserved. They nod along with each other on every point, and are clearly very close (‘Everything I’ve ever written in this life, Chelsea has read before it’s gone out,’ says Ore). It didn’t take them long to find common ground at Cambridge, where they both initially struggled to feel at home. Tackling everything from relationships to mental health to academic study, Taking Up Space unpicks the many elements of British university life that are more complicated if you’re not white.
In 2016, 1.5 per cent of Cambridge’s intake and 1.2 per cent of Oxford’s was black. “Going to a university where hardly anyone looks like you signifies a massive problem,” Chelsea writes. She missed the culture of London, the places where she could get her braids done and the familiar markets selling plantain. “You feel like every single other black student knew something that you didn’t and that’s why none of them are here.”
Dating there, she writes, was a minefield. In her first year, she heard a white male student announce that, ‘Personally, I don’t find black women attractive.’ She assured him that black women probably wouldn’t find him attractive either, but nevertheless, she writes, that kind of incident takes its toll: “University is a trying time for most black girls and non-binary people when it comes to beauty, desirability and relationships. University can mean rejection, self-doubt and hopelessness.”
Then there was the degree itself. At red-brick British universities, they argue, a black student is likely to find curricula centred almost entirely around white historical figures, which is makes you feel invisible, writes Ore — but then when any topic tangentially related to black people is covered in a lecture, you become hypervisible, with white students looking to you for an opinion. “Don’t turn around and stare at me when the lecturer starts talking about the Rwandan genocide,” she writes, “because I know just as little as you do.”
She recalls the frustration of studying the industrial revolution without her lecturer acknowledging that it was supported by slavery. In literature, she adds, “You’re probably going to study more Brontë sisters than black women in your academic lifetime.”
In 2017, data showed that British universities employ more black staff as cleaners, porters and receptionists than they do as lecturers, and this has a knock-on effect. At Cambridge, Ore wanted to write her dissertation on the role of international organisations in Nigeria’s energy sector – but had to abandon this when she couldn’t find a member of staff who knew enough about it to supervise her.
When we meet, it’s just been announced that Sonita Alleyne will be the next master (head) of Ore’s alma mater, Jesus College – making her the first black person to lead an Oxbridge college. “It’s nice to think that, if I was there now, there might be some issues I would have gone to her with that I didn’t go to our last master with,” says Ore thoughtfully. The lack of diversity at elite British universities has been much reported.
The Labour MP David Lammy has been particularly vocal; when it was revealed last year that one in four Oxford colleges had failed to admit a single black British student between 2015 and 2017, he commented, “the university is clearly happy to see Oxford remain an institution defined by entrenched privilege that is the preserve of wealthy white students.”
Chelsea and Ore feel that efforts to improve the situation have focused too much on getting numbers up and not enough on helping students thrive. “We’re not just statistics and frameworks and theories — we are real people, and these are our experiences at university,” says Chelsea. “It’s sad that there isn’t much attention, investment or research that’s been put into that.” The writers’ hoped-for audience for Taking Up Space goes beyond young black women. “We need teachers to read it, to see how a lot of black girls feel failed by their teachers,” says Ore. “We need parents to read it, so that they’re not pushing their daughters to do things that they don’t want to do. We need friends who are not black to read it, to see how they can support us in those spaces in society – and black men need to read this book to understand how we feel let down by them.” Their male peers at university didn’t always use their ‘lad privilege’ to support women, she adds.
The book goes beyond Cambridge; friends who studied elsewhere are interviewed about their experiences too. There are similar problems all over the UK (“I went to the open day at Durham and there was one black girl there – and I knew her,” recalls Ore), but they believe Oxford and Cambridge have a particular responsibility because of their prestige. “If Cambridge put certain books on its English curriculum, there are other universities who are going to think, “If Cambridge sees that as academically credible, then we should too,” points out Ore. “Activism can be very hard at very old universities. But if it’s a good precedent, then why are you afraid to set it?”
I ask what advice they’d give to black girls heading to university this September. The most important thing is to find your tribe, says Ore. “The reason why the beginning of my time at Cambridge was so miserable was because I hadn’t found my people yet. Once I’d found them, I realised a lot of them were going through the same things, and then I didn’t feel so homesick. I met so many great people who supported me and whose energies I really needed to thrive.”
Looking at what they’ve achieved as a duo, this makes perfect sense.
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