black cambridge alums lift the veil in new book

January 2, 2020
85 Picks

Arguably one of the the whitest of all white spaces, England’s Cambridge University is not known for its diverse student population. In fact, just 200 of the university’s 22,579 undergraduate students are Black, and that number actually doubled in the last school year. So while leaving home to study at college is a difficult, strange, and uncomfortable experience for most students, it applies to students of color tenfold. With that in mind, recent Cambridge graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi have chronicled their experiences with institutional racism, as well as their everyday interactions as Black women at this prestige college in a new book, Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto For Change.

In the book, Ore details the pressures to conform to Cambridge expectations, to become smaller as to not draw attention to what made her different from the other students, while feeling socially isolated and fetishized at the same time. “I often felt like the Black subject of intrigue,” she elaborates. “I was the only Black girl in my halls, so if I was cooking plantain in the kitchen, other students would be like, ‘Oooh, what’s that?’ Or if I came back to university with new braids, I would face a barrage of questions. People would want to smell my hair, or touch it.”

It wasn’t until Ore was able to meet and make friends with other Black students on campus that she began to find her place and a supportive community. “I found a safe space, basically – people who actually understood my position. I made a Whatsapp group for me, Chelsea and two other Black friends, and the pressure to ‘fit in’ subsided.”

And while the experience of attending an institution like Cambridge might be unrelatable to most of us, the experience of being marginalized and tokenized as a Black person in a predominately white space is a universal feeling throughout the diaspora. To hear more about Ore and Chelsea’s experiences, check out their recent interview with Cosmopolitan UK and check out their new book.