Liberal thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries justified colonial conquest by stressing the need for a civilising mission. Yet in order to civilise, they needed a blank canvas. So the history books were written, and the colonies were born: void of any history, culture, morality or intellect.
Centuries on, the portraits on our walls reinforce this colonial imagination. In my first year at Cambridge, I didn’t come across a single portrait of a person of colour. This existed in the face of stories I’d heard from family in Kolkata – the heart of the empire – about the countless Indian renaissance men (unfortunately, note “men”), independence leaders and scientists who had all received a “proper British education” at Cambridge. Where were they?
Our imperial history has meant that people of colour have been attending this institution for centuries. Yet our reluctance to acknowledge them ensures that whiteness remains supreme.
When I approached my college (Christ’s) on this issue, together with my JCR BME officer, I got a response implying that there weren’t any alumni of colour whose achievements matched the excellence of the white men. Yet what of Davidson Nicol, a 1940s groundbreaking diabetes researcher, diplomat, academic and poet from Sierra Leone; the first African fellow in Cambridge? Or Sze Szeming, Chinese co-founder of the World Health Organisation?
We were lucky; we might not have found alumni whose achievements were deemed as “excellent”. Would it have then been too radical to suggest that “inferior” achievements should be seen in a different light, owing to the structural racism, elitism and dehumanisation students of colour would have had to overcome to attain them?
After a year of talks with the college, they finally conceded, admitting that there were in fact a few small photos of women and alumni of colour lying around. Now, Sze Szeming hangs in formal hall alongside Mary Redmond (the first woman), a senior Irish lawyer. They are commissioning a portrait of Davidson Nicol, but progress is taking years. Although our outcome is just a drop in the ocean of white men, it is significant.
We’ve often had to frame our arguments in terms of access; in other words, prospective applicants of colour are likely to feel more comfortable applying if they see people who look like them represented in portraits. It’s the least that can be done at a university where black students and staff face under-representation at all levels.
But it’s about more than just access. At the end of the day, it’s about students of colour battling centuries of colonial erasure, and affirming that we, too, have a history at Cambridge.