I laugh at a lot of things. I laugh at things that are funny, I laugh at things that often aren’t and I laugh when I don’t know what else to do. But some things – some things aren’t funny. Some things are not so easy to shrug off even when you laugh in the face of them.
This week I was invited to attend a ceremony of congratulations and installment as a “scholar” at my college. It was based on the units used to measure success here, it wasn’t entirely up my street. I had chuckled about it in the run up, laughed that there was some bizarre initiation ceremony, but I hadn’t anticipated what actually occurred.
I hadn’t anticipated the elitist language, the ritual, and the degradation. Despite having been here for over two years I hadn’t anticipated the shock and the panic that I felt. I was told, at a stage that seemed far too late to opt-out, that we were to kneel before the “president” of the college whilst he muttered some latin words and clasped our hands. We all looked around exasperated. It sounded ridiculous. Initially, I laughed. But there was nothing inherently funny about it at all.
To walk into the Chapel and see a pyramid formation of white faces in long black gowns (fellows) behind the “president” who sat legs wide apart before a step we were to kneel upon; had me bewildered. The representation of power, of hierarchy and of initiation was horrendously uncomfortable. The non-consensual feeling of it all had me muttering to myself that this couldn’t be right, this couldn’t be okay; yet I had no choice but to follow the inevitable procession. As I got closer to my turn I tried to put on my most disdainful face; but ultimately, I was powerless.
Ultimately, as I lowered myself to my knees, I saw and felt how symbolic this was. Kneeling at the foot of this hierarchy of institutionalised white men was me; a brown woman. The power dynamic, the patriarchal and imperialist undertones of dominance and submission made me feel humiliated. This was the kind of thing people made up. I chuckled. But it wasn’t funny, it wasn’t farce. There was something deeply sinister and revealing about the whole charade.
As I stood in the sherry reception and later sat at the head table, there was a moment – when the conversation turned to mead and wine – that I felt unbearably out of place. That I felt like I had, by some accident, stumbled into a medieval performance – stumbled into the wrong century. That I was being mocked and derided. I was confused, almost ashamed.
A few weeks ago, a wise friend of mine recounted that when white friends asked her, as a black woman, “if you could live in any era, when would you want to live?” she simply had no response. What extremity of degradation and oppression would she prefer to encounter? I’ve thought about this a lot since she recalled it. Thought about how neutral a playground the past is for some and yet how live and dangerous it is for others.
Tradition, then, means different things to different people. To justify an archaic and deeply disturbing evening such as the one I encountered as “it’s always been this way” (we were told by a beaming man that the ceremony has not changed since the medieval times) is simply not enough. Tradition is a weak defence. When tradition is entwined with a history of elitism, imperialism, patriarchal power and domination, it is a very dangerous defence.
As the evening wore on I got embroiled in conversation with a fellow (a professor). Undoubtedly a fellow I get on with, but I found myself emotionally drained by our encounter. Asked to explain why I found Cambridge so disagreeable our conversation soon turned to personal defensiveness. “I hope I have never made you feel that way,” “I would be upset if you thought I hadn’t been sensitive to these nuances,” etc. I got frustrated. It was a classic. A conversation about my experience became centralised around his feelings. A discussion of power and privilege became about me having to excuse him of his.
In the end though, the most draining thing of all was that I was supposed to provide a solution. Once my “thought-provoking” experiences had had their impact, I was asked what the “one” thing I would change would be. I had to try not to roll my eyes. I suppose I understood, a little. If someone is complaining about something you’re doing you ask them what they would prefer you to do. But in this case I didn’t have the solutions. I see no contradiction in that. Why must I alone conceive of the alternative when I am also coping with the reality? How can there be “one” quick fix to an amalgamation of pain?
Black tie, gowns, wine, handshakes and kneeling; some days I could have laughed, but by the end of that night I wasn’t sure if I should cry. I couldn’t exactly articulate why, but I felt exhausted. I felt humiliated and cheapened. I suppose it could be said that it was my choice to view it in this way, it could be said that I should just accept its idiocy and laugh. But I don’t feel I can. I don’t feel that some things can be laughed off. Sometimes there is a danger in laughing. There is a danger in accepting.