A Cambridge Degree Won’t Stand Between Me and a Racist

I graduated from Cambridge just over a week ago. My graduation was one of the most special and bizarre days of my life and full of vivid memories I’m sure I’ll always cherish. Waking up the next day to find that Britain had voted to exit the EU came as a bit of a downer then… As my mum drove me home with the car packed full of my University things I felt conscious not only that it was the end of a personal era, but the end of something more.

In the week since then I’ve been contemplating a lot. Contemplating what it means to be a graduate in Brexit Britain. Contemplating what it means to be a Muslim woman in Brexit Britain. And more specifically, contemplating what it means to be someone who, because of graduating from Cambridge, has gained a lot of privilege; but because of the legitimisation of racist and Islamaphobic rhetoric post-referendum, has also gained a lot of insecurity and fear.

Today is the 27th day of Ramadan. That’s a pretty big deal for most Muslims, it means last night was a night that those who could will have spent trying to exert ourselves in prayer and contemplation. Whilst the 27th night is of particular importance, more generally it is the nights that make Ramadan special. Because the interlude between fasts lasts from sunset to dawn it is the dark hours of the day that are the busiest. There are additional nightly prayers many try to perform in this month, where they can, in congregation. I’ve been blessed enough to participate in congregational prayers quite frequently this year and in doing so come to understand my post-graduation/Brexit existence in a new and confused way.

Arriving to the mosque at 11pm is surprisingly thrilling. Whilst most streets are empty and quiet this particular one is full and buzzing. It feels like a secret night-time club that I’m a part of and standing shoulder to shoulder in prayer every night confirms that feeling. It is a feeling of community and spirituality first and foremost. A feeling which is enjoyable in the way it makes you part of a collective.

[image of a row of peopel in congregational prayer.]
Being part of the collective also brings a quiet joy in the anonymity it entails. You are one of many worshippers; one body of a mass that stream out of the gates in the middle of the night; one voice that chimes in with the others; one pair of shoes outside the door. Here no one need know who you are, what you do, where you’ve graduated from or anything else. It is peaceful, it is primarily spiritual, and it is united.

But there is another side to this feeling of collectivity too. One less joyous. I realise I am a Muslim in a new way. Not only through my own eyes but external ones. To someone watching from the outside I am part of a predominantly brown and strangely-dressed collective who enter the mosque, pray and leave the mosque. In that moment and in that existence I am primarily a Muslim before I am anything or anyone else. It sounds strange to say it or make a big deal of it because of course I am a Muslim, this is what I call myself. But I do the calling from inside myself, from within my own head where I am also uniquely individual and a simultaneity of things – just as every other one of the people there are. I know that to eyes that aren’t my own, to other eyes, and increasingly potentially malicious eyes, any of us would just be one of a number.

And this is where I get confused about everything I’ve learnt about privilege. Having graduated from Cambridge University I can hardly deny my educational privilege or deny the experience and access to things I have had that many others have not and will not. But I suppose what I am realising is that my Cambridge degree won’t save me from Islamaphobia. Sure, I’ve always known that – I didn’t go to University to combat Islamaphobia. And yet, in a long winded and indirect way, maybe I sort of did.

It is widely acknowledged that immigrants, especially those from ex-colonies, often prioritise education as a goal for their descendants. Perhaps because being barred from literacy and some particular forms of knowledge was one arm which upheld colonial rule; perhaps because of an internalisation of imperial rhetoric which posited that the relationship between colonised and coloniser reflected intellectual superiority and subservience. Whatever the reasons, education is often viewed as essential to increasing chances, to improving lifestyles and to success. Education is the tool that can make one generation of migrant children’s lives of a higher quality than the next. But surely also within this aim and this dream was the prospect and hope that education would put an end to the prejudice and disrespect shown to those people. That once educated we would be worthy of respect. That once educated our skin colour, our clothes and the places and manner in which we prayed wouldn’t matter. Being a grandchild of immigrants at University these hopes and dreams are not something you easily forget. But maybe also, to some extent, they are something you partially believe.

Will education set us free? [image of people in graduation caps.]
Maybe, to some extent, I had believed in a Cambridge degree more than I thought I had. Maybe, to some extent, I thought the privilege and the brand it bought me would be a stepping stone and a shield. But when I put on my abaya and turn up at the mosque I know that it doesn’t matter. Not in the good way, not in the anonymous way, but it doesn’t matter because I am a Muslim. No one will ever have already assumed or be unsurprised to find out where I graduated from. For me, though giving me access to a set of educational and class privileges I cannot ignore, being a graduate from Cambridge is also – and in some particular moments especially – irrelevant. The interplay of privilege with other factors is confusing and I suppose surprisingly distressing.

Of course, in the long-run and depending how I use it and what I do and where I go and numerous other factors and choices I may have, there is an undeniable privilege it bestows upon me and one which I can hopefully use to work towards helping to check intolerance in all its forms. But in my first week of post-graduation life and in the shorter-term of post-referendum Britain, these problematic feelings are sincere.

My grandfather rang the day after the EU referendum. He cautioned my mother that we should probably not leave the house for a few days and be careful when we do. In that instant I realised that anxieties of the 1960s and 1970s were resurfacing for him. Connected to that, I realised that all those hopes and dreams that may have come true in some regards had no relevance in others.

A Cambridge degree won’t protect me from Islamaphobia. A Cambridge degree won’t stand between me and a racist. A Cambridge degree won’t escort me and give me special protections when I get on public transport or enter new spaces. It won’t differentiate me when a sign reads ‘No Muslims’; it won’t defend me or arm me. I suppose I always knew that, but it is a truth worth remembering.

In post-Brexit Britain I feel more Muslim than I ever have, but not only by my own choosing.

‘Allah is your protector, and He is the best of helpers.’ – Quran (3:150)
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8 thoughts on “A Cambridge Degree Won’t Stand Between Me and a Racist

  1. Congratulations xx I have a question, is Cambridge, on whole, a safe place for Muslims? There are many other great unis out there but I thought Cam would be less racist because everyone wants to succeed. Not sure about this tho, would love some insight ❤

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    1. Hi Sara,
      Thank you.
      Regarding your question I would say yes, Cambridge is a pretty safe place to be a Muslim. Especially as a University student – the only existence there I can speak of. I never felt remarkably unsafe in Cambridge as compared to other places. For me, instead, it was just that the relatively few numbers of Muslim students and people around Cambridge made me feel more visible and more different sometimes. However, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing and difference can be a chance to share things with others. There are also groups such as the Islamic Society where there are more Muslims and sharing things you have in common can sometimes be a nice thing to have too. All in all, I wouldn’t say Cambridge is unsafe for Muslims and in fact any sense of hardship should, in my opinion, be outweighed by the fact that more people who don’t fit the Cambridge norm in *many* senses must apply. The only way for things to change is for more and different people to keep applying and coming and I would definitely recommend that you apply if you want to, I can guarantee you will find some people who you like and have things in common with and there will always be somewhere you can be safe.

      Regarding your thoughts on Cambridge being less racist because everyone wants to succeed, all I will say is that many pre-conceptions people have about Cambridge aren’t necessarily true. I, and many people I have talked to since, thought Cambridge would be full of very liberal-minded people keen to learn. However, this has not always been my experience. I think there are perhaps even a greater proportion of people at Cambridge who have not met or interacted with people who aren’t white, or who are Muslim before. Because of this I think ignorance can seem starker and more obvious. I don’t think people’s desire for success is linked to them being racist or not. Generally the type of racism you might encounter is based on the fact people haven’t thought about or unlearnt prejudices and dangerous assumptions. Those sorts of things permeate society and therefore are not really connected to the desire people have to succeed.

      Finally, it is worth always questioning what we mean by success. Many people at Cambridge University may want success in terms of a Cambridge degree; however, such academic and institutional success is only one of many and is judged by a certain standard and criteria which has its own history and bias. Therefore, I think it is crucial to bring a critical eye to Cambridge, to come with an open mind and preparedness for it to be different to what you may have been used to. But please do apply, the ways of other people and the nature of places must not be a barrier to what we want to do with our own lives. Take care and feel free to ask anything more.

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      1. Thank you for your reply, I’m definitely applying as I come from a place where people rarely apply/get rejected because they don’t have the right qualification. Thank you again ❤️

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      2. This is excellent! I’m so happy to hear it! If I can help you at all with the applications process just let me know I’d love to lend a hand! Go for it!

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      3. I’m rather flattered for you to offer help I’m so happy I’m always happy when current students make me feel like it’s possible. However….I’m rather too excited 😅 because I’m applying for ’18 entry iA so I just need to focus on getting good grades in my AS exams next year Insha’Allah🙏🏽 I appreciate you offering help and I’m surely coming back to get advice and such 🙈❤️

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Salaam,

    I am thinking of applying to Cambridge to study History. Would you be able to please recommend some reading material which you think would be beneficial for me.
    Jzk

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Salaams, First thing is look on the faculty reading lists for the papers you’re studying and they have recommendations for papers at the start. But really just read the history you like and remember you’ll never actually have to read a book cover to cover so just dip into a few books if you want, but really reading before term is not essential at all 🙂 reply with any more questions and I’ll get back to you later I’m away at the moment.

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