Cambridge: the benevolent aggressor

Seeing all the new faces around Cambridge this past week has made me rather sentimental. Memories of fresher’s week and the whole fear-ridden first term come flooding back. I search amongst those new faces especially for brown and black faces. I search for them because I wish somebody had searched for me. Everytime I see a woman in a hijab I feel overwhelmed with excitement, and great empathy. I wish I could tell them, truly, what is in store; I wish I could squeeze their hands and let them know that I know, I do.

I think of my Fresher Self. Of how naïve she was and how brave. I wish I could tell her that it’s okay to feel how she is feeling right now. To tell her that she is not the problem, this place is. I wish I could tell her that I still can’t quite articulate the unparalleled feeling of whiteness that pervades this place. Tell her that I still arrive here and feel its suffocation descend upon my shoulders. Even arriving for my seventh term here my mood can be crushed by the throwaway comments of a suited up white man who feels the floors and walls of this place are his microphones; are his applause. I would tell her that she is everything she needs to be already. She will try to change. She will worry that she is not enough, she will hope to fit a mould that can never shift to her shape.

[image of Queens’ College Old Hall]

I know how it will go. She will fumble in grand halls and champagne receptions; she will oscillate between feeling that there is no way she could ever fit in here and feeling that if she did she wouldn’t be who she was. Her words won’t come out right.

She will see the mountain ahead of her as the same challenge as the one left behind. Spending years to prove herself, to gain acceptance in spite of “normality”, she will take the first step in this strange new territory. I wish I could tell her to stop saying “sorry”. I wish I could tell her to stop finishing her sentences with “I don’t know”.

She does know, she truly does, but she will forget. The whiteness that surrounds her will seep under her skin, wrap her in a comfortable embrace: a white lie. Only when she goes home will she remember herself. Will she remember her anger. She’ll find it on a sunny day in the park when someone asks her what it’s really like there. I wish I could tell her never to forget about it, but in not forgetting she might never remember.

I wish I could tell her that the answer to “do you think there’s still racism?” isn’t a reasoned argument explaining the institutional nature of discrimination; the answer is yes. I wish I could tell her that there are people who will not believe her life to be true, they will not hear it. But I would tell her that it is. That just because people don’t spit in her face when she walks around that town doesn’t mean they accept her. That every time she is tokenised, every time she is exoticised, every time she is victimised, stereotyped, reduced, silenced, talked over, stood in front of, excluded from, patronised, blamed or excused; every single time, a war is being waged upon her. A war which won’t call itself a war; a war which will deny it’s use of weapons, and an enemy which has convinced itself of its benevolence.

Standing for everything benevolently aggressive [image of painting of the queen hanging in Queens’ College, Cambridge]
I wish I could tell her that its okay to not love this place. She will feel ungrateful, wrong, uneasy. How can she mention how it really makes her feel when she has “made it”? She will think of her grandparents and the fact of migration. She will think of how far they have come. But she will wonder, many times, why this particular distance was deemed the best. She will feel the confusion of the contradiction that this place was not made for her; that it was made instead to restrain her, to reduce her. Portraits of royalty and of other white shadowy figures line walls and halls. She will wonder what their roles were in upholding Empire.

The references to her own culture – to other brown people and to her heritage – will come as blows. A sequence of pickpocketing; a trail of usurpation. Those benevolent aggressors not only feign their knowledge of war but simultaneously pillage her soul. They take the pretty bits mainly. The glinting gems, the colourful clothes. They smile whilst they do it and make gestures as if to help her. She is unsure – she will probably always be unsure – but interwoven within that will be sadness. They will tell her not to be sad; they will tell her none of it matters. But it does. She matters.

I wish I could tell my Fresher Self all of this. But I also wish I could tell her that she can do it. Sometimes she might not have the strength and sometimes it won’t be a matter of strength at all but stamina; but she can do it. She can make people rub their eyes simply by standing still. She can alter well-known stories simply by standing at all. She can be her own story, be a new story. A story perhaps written in a hand not seen here before, but a hand nonetheless. She can.

I wish I could tell her that. I wish I could tell anyone who will experience those things. In a place where it will be difficult to exist but where that difficulty will be ignored, you must approve of yourself and believe in your truth; I tell her that all the time now.

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4 thoughts on “Cambridge: the benevolent aggressor

  1. I can’t express how grateful I am to read this. I am the heftily-bearded working class son of first-generation Iranian immigrants. I’ve experienced a lifetime of victimisation around my ‘chav’ status as well as my Muslim heritage, and have always felt like the lunatic-in-the-room ranting on about ‘450 years of colonialism’ and ‘the establishment’. I’m due to start on the Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos at the University in October and am flooded with fear. My school and council estate were majority ethnic and so I’ve never really fully known what its like to have naive and prejudicial questions dog your footsteps and to constantly justify and make excuses for your existence (although I have in wider society of course). I’ve put my faith in Allah to help me through it, however I do also appreciate the knowledge that it’s not a path that I walk alone.

    P.S. I never EVER comment on blog posts, so this is big.

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    1. Hey there. I’m so grateful that you commented and that this post meant something to you, genuinely, it makes it all worthwhile.
      I have often written about the hard side and the silencing and the marginalisation at Cambridge but I just want to say, having read your comment, I want to send you some reassurance. Please do not be flooded with fear. You have every right to be coming to Cambridge and you have every right to experience it however you do. Try to get involved with the BME campaign from the start, like you said, you won’t be walking this path alone. I am so excited that you will be there and I wish with every bone that you will keep on ranting about those things. Know that you have your own truth and no one can take that from you. My best advice would be always believe in yourself, honestly. inshaAllah you will find your feet and make this experience your own.
      Cannot reiterate enough that you deserve this and that you DO have some incredible experiences ahead of you. Get in touch if I can be of any help. I have many great friends who study HSPS, especially quite a few people of colour and ‘woke’ people. You will have a blast and you are not alone ❤

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