Cambridge & Historical Legacies of Slavery

This post is based on comments delivered at a panel discussion on Cambridge & Historical Legacies of Slavery on 28th February 2019 as part of the Centre for African Studies public lecture series on Race and African Studies.  The event discussed recent research and reparative approaches at other UK universities and debated the significance of such a project for Cambridge. As institutional interest in these issues grows, it is important to participate in and help steer these conversations. Please look out for future events which are being planned for May this year.

Confronting Whiteness

Arathi Sriprakash, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.

It has been my observation that the dominant mode of engagement in universities with matters of equality and diversity operate through the logics of benevolent inclusion.

Take the language of ‘widening participation’ and the goal for elite universities to reach so-called ‘non-traditional’ students. Much of this seems to turn on the idea that through acts of kind encouragement and generous outreach the institution is ‘letting in’ ‘non-traditional students’. Once you’re here, the message is to fit in and be ever grateful, even though we know that that universities are failing students of colour as well as staff of colour.

This narrative of charity leaves the whiteness of the university uninterrogated. It fails to address how, for example, Cambridge came to be Cambridge. Categories of ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ students are rendered intelligible precisely because of structures of racial domination.

Talking to colleagues and students of colour about how they experience higher education, it often feels to us like universities see black and brown bodies existing – being here, being ‘let in’ – only to make institutions feel better about themselves; as proof of their good intentions. We are asked to stand as proof of diversity while whiteness continues to churn around us.

So, this interest in beginning a serious, sustained examination of Cambridge’s historical entanglements with transatlantic slavery is an important opportunity to hold a mirror up to the institution. A fuller recognition of Cambridge’s history has the potential to reframe institutional responses to ‘Equality and Diversity’ – away from being a matter of ‘benevolent inclusion’ and towards a matter of reparative justice.

While I’m hopeful and excited about people coming together to learn about and confront Cambridge’s history, I’m also cautious. We need to be ready to tackle the ways in which such a project could be co-opted by institutional interests that have continually worked to re-centre whiteness. After all, the prominent engagements so far with Cambridge’s entanglements with slavery tend to be celebratory accounts of its role in slavery’s abolition. Like The Green Book, this is Oscar-winning material in white saviourhood. This project should not be used by the institution to pat itself on the back without doing the work of bringing meaningful change.

As debates about reparative justice in universities develops – within and beyond Cambridge – with all its different actors and influences, it is important we come together to ensure that at each step, in each conversation, in each plan for implementation, principles of anti-racism are made explicit and upheld. Otherwise this becomes another navel gazing exercise, one that is likely to extract significant labour from people of colour, for universities to celebrate themselves or respond with token gestures that ultimately keep their whiteness in place.

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