this is what it’s like to fight oppression as a minority in a predominantly white university
Chelsea Kwayke and Ore Ogunbiyi, Cambridge graduates and authors of new book 'Taking Up Space: The Black Girl's Manifesto for Change', are fighting the institutional racism endemic at predominantly white universities.
Photography Ayshe Zaifoglu
Chelsea Kwayke and Ore Ogunbiyi always knew that their experience of Cambridge would be different because of their race and gender. Despite platitudes on inclusivity and improvements, the Oxbridge bubble is still predominantly white, male and upper class. But the duo, who both recently graduated, had no idea how outrageous some of their encounters with racism and sexism would be at the revered institution. “What shocks me is that you hear about the lack of representation at Oxbridge but seeing it for yourself is a completely different ball game," explains Chelsea, who read History at the university. "Being that only one sitting in a room and also realising you’re probably the only one who notices this is so stark”.
Those same experiences propelled Chelsea and Ore to action. Between them, they created Taking Up Space: The Black Girl's Manifesto for Change, a book Ore hopes will “give black women confident and validation and make them feel better when they're in these spaces”. An essential guide to university for women of colour, Taking Up Space is also published by #Merky Books, a collaboration between Penguin and British rapper Stormzy, who has a scholarship programme to send two black students to Cambridge. In their manifesto for change, the best friends detail their struggles of being a minority in a predominantly white university while exploring mental health, fitting in, being fetishised and relationships and activism on campus. In order to “strengthen the story and show that it's not just us who are going through it,” Ore says, the book also includes encounters from black and non-binary people who have attended universities in the UK.
For Ore, one incident in particular severely hindered her confidence as a student. “In my first year, a few white boys asked if they can touch and smell my hair. A white girl took a picture because she thought it's was funny and you can literally see in the picture [now in a viral article Ore wrote titled: A letter to my fresher self] that I look frightened”. Sadly, the incident is not uncommon. Chelsea explains in tough and isolated situations like this, it's extremely hard to find your voice and speak out, especially if you are the only black person in the room, halls, or class. “Anything you say could potentially be flipped and you could be seen as the ‘aggressive’ or ‘angry’ black woman,” she explains.
Reflecting on that racist incident, Ore says she is in such disbelief that her confidence was so stifled to the extent that she couldn’t defend herself. “Last week I went to Cambridge and someone tried to touch my hair again and I said ‘no’ and for me, that's progress. I am out of that place and it's become easier”.
Experiences like those will always leave marks, and it's perhaps unsurprising that the pair believe an everlasting effect from attending Cambridge that they have acquired is major imposter syndrome. It’s something that became present before they had even signed the book deal. At university, Chelsea tells how she would often ask herself: “‘Should we really be the ones writing this and can we do this?’ Within the university bubble, these conversations do happen all the time and I almost felt like there are so many people on campus who are doing so much more and have these big words.” Ore jumps in and says: “And this is the imposter syndrome we speak about in Taking Up Space. These are repercussions we are referring to… Before we have even written the book we are already saying we are not the ones to write it.”
In spite of the intense workload university (and especially Oxbridge) demands, Chelsea and Ore harnessed the negativity they'd experienced, using it as a catalyst to become involved in activism and political work on campus -- such as the Benin Bronze campaign and #BlackMenofCambridge. “If you are the only one noticing this issue you do feel this burdening responsibility to speak about it,” Chelsea says, explaining that neither of them anticipated they would have the motivation to become activists when they first started university. "If you don't want to fight, it's hard to just let it slide," Ore adds. "The burdened precede you and its the burden we didn't ask for.”
As Ore explains, fighting racial prejudice as a woman of colour at university can be a minefield. There is no set way to address inequalities when you are in a white space. Because of this, it's often down to the students themselves to lead the way and choose their own methods of igniting change. Current students at Goldsmiths, University of London, for example, have recently occupied one of their campus's key buildings, Deptford Town Hall, saying that institutional racism has undermined the experiences of BAME students. Calling themselves Goldsmiths Anti-Racist Actions, the protestors sprang to action after a student in the university's elections complained she had experienced racist abuse, having her banner removed and her poster dubbed with graffiti mocking her accent. Other forms of activism though, are not as hypervisible. “Students are writing in resistance," Ore says. "They're using their university work, personal as a vehicle to be pioneers. They're using their dissertations to break new ground, discussing people like Solange Knowles and Claudia Rankine and still getting a first. There’s no one way to do it”. “We are just doing it via a book,” adds Chelsea.
Experiences of racism, institutional or otherwise, will obviously affect life after university too. After graduating from Cambridge this year, Chelsea has now found a graduate role in the city, and is all too aware of how daunting it is that for the rest of her life she has to unapologetically occupy up space as a black woman. “That’s a privilege that we are just not given as black women, it's just sad" she says. "It's a fight that's really endless.”
Ore, who has recently graduated with a masters in journalism from Columbia University, is now hoping to enter the media as a broadcast journalist in order to tell stories with black people at the forefront. “It feels very much like the same issues that we faced at uni,” she says of entering the British media, an arena that still in 2019 is 94% white and 55% male. “It's the same people in the same circles writing stories where they think they know about us. It's reminiscent of the fact we spent our time at uni fighting people who write articles like Camilla Turner who completely misconstrued the black experience at uni, it feels not much has changed. It still feels like me vs media,” she explains.
But in infiltrating that media with their own book, Chelsea and Ore want to begin to change things, and improve experiences for the next generation of BAME students. Although Taking Up Space is primarily aimed at black women, the pair want all sorts of people to reach for it in bookstores, especially those who are on the defensive end of racism. “We want people to read this book to become aware of how can everyone else do black girls better,” Ore says.
“Let this book be your mirror, let it be what shows you that there is something wrong that I am the only black person in a room of 200 something people and there are still no black lecturers or black people on the reading list. We should not be burdened with this responsibility when we are just there to learn."
Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change is published by #Merky Books on 27 June.