I am withdrawing from my PhD program at Cambridge due to the racism I have witnessed in the English faculty and at the broader university. It is always tricky to know whether to divest one’s energy from an unjust institution or to stay and fight to improve it. In this case, I concluded that I have an imperative to leave. As a white researcher whose scholarship draws significantly on black studies, I believe that I need to earn the right to do this work. I also believe that the ethical and intellectual integrity of my research was compromised by the fact that it was situated at Cambridge. This is particularly true because, as a white student, I benefited from the structural racism of the university.
The disproportionate whiteness of the Cambridge undergraduate population has received substantial coverage in the media. Less frequently discussed is the near total absence of black students and lecturers in particular, an issue that is a particular problematic in my faculty. Currently, there are no black lecturers or postdoctoral researchers in the English faculty. This is not unique to Cambridge; it reflects broader trends across the UK. Yet if Cambridge wants to maintain its position as a leading institution within the British and global academic community, it cannot afford to cohere with these trends, let alone have them be manifest to an especially severe degree.
This is not only an ethical question; the university and English faculty are intellectually impoverished by the dramatic overrepresentation of middle- and upper-class white people among their members. In particular, the systemic exclusion of both black scholars and black thought (which are two different yet related problems) is an intellectually bankrupting exercise that will rightly make an institution both illegitimate and irrelevant.
Over the course of my two years at Cambridge, I have witnessed an accumulation of racist incidents both inside and outside my faculty. One of the first occurred when the lecturer teaching one of my MPhil seminars repeatedly read aloud the n-word during our class discussions. A friend (one of the few black students in the faculty) in the same lecturer’s undergraduate lecture noted that she did the same thing there, and wrote a very polite email to the lecturer explaining that she did not feel comfortable hearing non-black lecturers say this word aloud. Instead of receiving an apology, my friend was patronisingly told that she did not understand the context in which the word was being used.
The situation escalated to the point that this friend (along with another undergraduate student) and I had multiple meetings with the chair of the faculty, and were invited to raise the issue at the Teaching Forum. Before entering the Forum, we were aggressively warned by the chair not to turn the meeting into a “kangaroo court.” Presumably he meant that we were the prosecutors, which betrayed a shocking misunderstanding of the true power dynamics at play. As MPhil and undergraduate students, we had to be ritually invited into the Forum, which was filled with senior faculty members. Speaking in front of them was intimidating, particularly for the undergrads. It certainly felt like if anyone was on trial, it was us.
Despite the fact that we opened by saying that we were absolutely not trying to ban texts where the n-word appears, we were repeatedly accused of doing exactly this. (This echoed the rabid and untrue accusations directed at the Decolonize English group, and particularly Lola Olufemi, by The Daily Telegraph back in 2017.) Many of those present seemed simply unable to comprehend the difference between a black writer reclaiming the n-word and a nonblack Cambridge lecturer or student saying it aloud in class. We also faced hostility regarding the idea that different rules applied to black and nonblack lecturers, even though beyond Cambridge this is a widely accepted principle and for obvious reasons does not constitute a double standard.
Overall, it made me aware of two things: 1) the unreasonable and quite shocking level of hostility one can expect when trying to institute even moderate measures of racial justice in the faculty, and 2) the way Cambridge’s decentralised structure not only blocks any meaningful transformation from taking place, but is used as an excuse for not even trying (we were told that a rule regarding racial slurs was impossible because the faculty “doesn’t have rules”).
Over summer, I was further dismayed by the conversations surrounding racial profiling by porters at my college (King’s). To me, the existence of racial profiling was an obvious and ubiquitous part of life at Cambridge, and was particularly bad at King’s. Yet once again, the reaction of the college made an already bad situation worse, and betrayed how unwilling the university is to acknowledge racism, let alone take any substantial action to deal with it.
I also wanted to be part of efforts to positively transform the faculty, and was a member of both the Staff Student Decolonization Working Group and the Decolonize PhD Reading Group. Although I admire those involved in these groups, unfortunately I ultimately ended up feeling deeply pessimistic about the potential of making any real change in the faculty. We often got stuck on piecemeal, conciliatory, and even counterproductive demands, I think because anything more felt like an impossibility.
For me, the final straw came when the AHRC DTP invited a Ghanaian scholar, Akosua Adomako Ampofo, to deliver its annual lecture. The talk Prof. Ampofo gave was a lucid and straightforward analysis of the way racism — and particularly anti-blackness and anti-African prejudice — function in academia. Yet in his introduction and moderation, the director of the DTP kept calling her talk controversial and provocative, adding that he couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. This method of veiling racism through a performance of faux humility and bumbling foolishness, which is something of a tradition among the British elite classes, served to undermine the simple and important point Prof. Ampofo was making. It was yet another example of the university appearing to take one step forward only to take two steps back.
Taken in isolation, none of these incidents might seem dramatic enough to push me to leave the rare privilege of a fully-funded PhD position at what is theoretically one of the best universities in the world. Yet the ubiquity of such incidents is actually far more indicative of a suffocating and intellectually degraded environment than any single, spectacular event. I believe that the pervasive presence of racism at Cambridge damages and delegitimises the institution, and I do not want to participate in re-legitimising it by contributing my time, effort, and skills as a member of the university.
My decision to leave comes from a position of privilege, including racial privilege. Although I have been demoralised and infuriated by the racism at Cambridge, I do not feel personally undermined by it. I also do not want to suggest that those who remain at the university should necessarily be condemned for their complicity. The option of leaving is not available to everyone, and I am awed by the efforts of those who remain committed to the exhausting task of fighting for racial justice at the university.
My withdrawal is based on my belief that although all universities are ethically compromised to some degree, in comparing Cambridge to other places I have come to feel that its particular, deeply entrenched issues of racism seriously undermine its intellectual credibility. I therefore intend to reapply to finish my PhD at a different institution. Taking the risk of withdrawing before reapplying does not concern me because my commitment is to the work I am trying to do and to the traditions of thought that I have the honour of thinking with — traditions whose importance far exceeds the recognition, prestige, and comforts elite academia trains us to seek.
I’m not sure if my withdrawal will have any effect on the university or faculty. My best hope is that it will force those who are apathetic or hostile to the question of racial justice to seriously consider the extent to which racism undermines Cambridge’s competitiveness and legitimacy. Throughout my time at Cambridge I have noticed that many students and staff, even if they acknowledge the reality of racism here, do not believe it has an impact on the intellectual calibre of the institution. I have the opposite view, and it is largely for this reason that I have decided to withdraw.