Reflections on Racism within the Academy
By Simone Eringfeld
This article reflects on conversations about racism at Cambridge University, hosted by the Cambridge Quaranchats Podcast. The text is written by CPERG member and MPhil student Simone Eringfeld, who produces and hosts the podcast. Fragments of podcast episodes have been integrated into this article. These are the voices of Nia-Cerise Conteh (episode 13) and Collin Edouard (episode 14). You can listen to the full conversations on Spotify, Anchor or Apple Podcasts.
During days like these, the world can seem endlessly violent. The past few weeks have been filled with rallying cries, screams of outrage and the tears of mourning communities, releasing centuries of built-up trauma over the racial injustices that continue to shape our world. People have taken to the streets to demand justice, to march for peace and to show that Black Lives Matter. Knees of resistance touch the earth and fists fill the sky, gesturing solidarity.
The recent protests started, however, because of that other knee: the knee of white supremacy which pressed into the neck of George Floyd for what seemed like an eternity, lasting 8 minutes and 46 seconds, until he spoke his final words:
‘I can’t breathe’
Tragically, this phrase is not new, but has been uttered by countless others that preceded him, lawlessly killed for no reason other than the color of their skin. The #JusticeforGeorgeFloyd movement that followed, does not just address the murder of one individual, but the systemic racism that prevents entire communities from breathing freely. When history repeats itself time after time, and generation after generation is forced to march against the same injustices, there was never much space to breathe at all.
Nia-Cerise Conteh, MPhil student at the Faculty of Education, powerfully expresses her own desire for justice on the podcast:
Click the photos below to hear the audio.
We hear it all around us: ‘No justice, no Peace’.
These two values are intricately connected. What does this mean for us as peacebuilders? How do we relate to justice in our everyday lives and efforts to make our words, actions and relationships more peaceful? We often think of justice as something that is far removed from us, something that is dealt with by judges in distant court rooms and councils. We think of it as something to do with laws, rather than something that can be present in our everyday existence.
How can we not just not be racists, but consciously be anti-racist allies? Collin Edouard, MPhil student at the Department of Music, helps us reflect on the question of what racism is, and how we can actively work against it:
Both Nia-Cerise and Collin emphasize the importance of listening. Simultaneously, however, listening doesn’t mean we should stay silent. Practicing intentional listening must go hand in hand with speaking out against injustice. Collin, who is the founder of the #SpeakOut movement in Cambridge, stresses this point throughout.
Words however need to be supported by action. As Nia-Cerise points out, Cambridge University ‘wears diversity like a badge’. BME students appear on the covers of promotional brochures, and British rapper Stormzy, who has sponsored scholarships for Black students at Cambridge, is often referred to as a token of diversification. Yet appropriate action by the University to support its BME students, remains absent:
Cambridge’s historical ties to the trans-Atlantic slave trade further complicate the question of racial justice. If the ancestors of Black students have helped build this institution without any compensation or recognition, how does this past of exploitation continue to impact the present? Merely offering scholarships to Black students without a proper support network, as Nia-Cerise pointed out, is not sufficient. Discussions around controversial statues of slave traders and white supremacists on university campuses have lit up again, with the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford as its most recent example. Yet traces of slavery are everywhere around us, plastered into the walls that make up our lecture halls and dining rooms. In search of justice, where do we even begin?
Although these podcast conversations don’t offer final answers or solutions, they do offer starting points. We can speak out against racism, such as CPERG did here. We can have more conversations about race and listen carefully at what BME students in our community have to say, such as in articles, recent blogs and of course inside classrooms and lecture halls. We can document racism and work to expose it, by supporting local research initiatives like End Everyday Racism. We can also push for in-depth investigations into the University’s connection to slavery, as started by the Advisory Group on the Legacies of Enslavement. Finally, we can reflect on how we can make our own lives and work more just, and therefore more peaceful. Education plays a key role in all of these processes.
To close off, let me quote Nia-Cerise, who shares with us the words that give her strength to carry on. Let’s all keep striving for justice, in every meaningful way:
Listen to the full episode with Nia-Cerise Conteh here, (ep. 13: Whiteness and Racism in the Academy and Beyond)
Listen to the full episode with Collin Edouard here, (ep. 14: How to be an anti-racist ally: Speak out!)
Cambridge Quaranchats is on Facebook and Twitter @CamQuaranchats. The podcast is widely available on platforms like Spotify, Anchor and Apple podcasts. Please get in touch with questions or comments. Find me personally on Twitter @SimoneEringfeld.
Simone Eringfeld is an MPhil student in ‘Education and International Development’, researching ‘post-coronial’ futures of Higher Education. She is also a writer, podcaster and photographer. You can read and view her work here: www.simoneeringfeld.com.