We Have to Be Honest About 'Polite' Racism at UK Universities

A 'Telegraph' story named limited hair options as a key reason black teens don’t apply to Cambridge. We spoke to students about the reality.

05 June 2019, 8:15am

University of Cambridge alum Courtney Boateng (L) and current student Timi Sotire (Collage by Marta Parszeniew)

When south London teacher Clementine Wade asked a question during an event on Cambridge University’s campus, she probably didn’t think the response would end up in a national newspaper headline. Beyond that, she’d have had no idea that the news story wouldn’t make mention of her at all. But there it was: a Telegraph article published in early May, claiming that “Black students reluctant to apply to Cambridge University 'due to lack of Afro-Caribbean hairdressers’.”

In one breath, the headline both flattened a complex issue and sent out a dogwhistle that black students are so under-represented at Cambridge because they’re just too fussy. About hair, no less! The paper did attribute the quote to Professor Graham Virgo, the university’s senior pro-vice-Chancellor for education. But Wade? She was nowhere to be found.

As Wade tells me, she’d gone to that event to ask a question on behalf of one of her students, a bright sixth-former. She’d taken him and some of his peers on a trip to the university a few months earlier, and they’d seemed excited – but they’d also shared some reservations after talking to a black Cambridge student. “Where did you get your fade done?” Wade remembers her 16-year-old student asking. The undergrad they met had said something to the effect of: “There’s no barbershops round here”. So why did a national newspaper frame a lack of black hairdressers and hair shops as a main reason why Cambridge tends to enroll about 1 percent of black students? And what nuanced conversations do we swerve in this country about blackness and elite universities, when big issues are so easily condensed into snappy headlines?

First, let’s get into some numbers. By now, you may have felt like you’ve seen stats on black student enrolment at Oxbridge appear, then reappear, every year, like the gentle rumble of fresher’s flu in a shared flat that hasn’t been refurbed in 14 years. In any case, here we go. According to the University of Cambridge's graduate admissions office statistics, 541 people listed as "Black or Black British – African" applied to the university and 51 of them were taken on. For those described as "Black or Black British – Caribbean", 59 applied and 12 students were taken.

The Telegraph quoted Professor Virgo citing a lack of afro hairdressers as the third-biggest obstacle to black teens even thinking about, let alone applying to Cambridge, based on “some quite detailed research”. Turns out that wasn’t entirely true. A University of Cambridge spokesperson said Wade’s question about afro hairdressers “was named as one of the frequently asked questions from attendees on outreach events to access officers from the University’s student-run African Caribbean Society, but that is not the same as being identified by research as one of the top three reasons for not applying.” On top of that, clarifying his remarks to VICE, Professor Virgo said in a statement that “there was no suggestion a lack of hairdressers is a barrier” for black students but rather their “research did indicate it was a frequently-asked question”.

Don’t get me wrong, hair plays a critical role in the identity of black people like me. But, as I hear from black Cambridge students and alums, a more complex reality surrounds the perceived barriers to entering the prestigious institution. Third-year medicine student Michael Samuelson-Beulah says he can understand where the quoted comment may have stemmed from. “It’s like a ‘jokey’ and flippant thing I imagine a black student would say, but I don't think it shouldn’t be flagged as the main issue.”

As we chat, he opens up and discusses more pressing issues he’s experienced, including being racially profiled at his own college on campus. “During my first few weeks, it was a struggle for me to even get inside buildings without security looking at me weirdly,” he says. On one occasion, he remembers inviting friends over, but “security wouldn't just let them walk straight in; they will be questioned”. Students who attend other universities with a large white population may well walk smack into similar situations, he adds, so the experience isn’t just limited to Cambridge.

As I hear from third-year human, social and political science student Timi Sotire, focusing on hair leaves out bigger questions. “When talking to students who are applying to Cambridge,” she tells me, “the idea of being a victim of racism comes up and of course, racism affects every POC.” As such, the 20-year-old believes the Telegraph article, and ensuing flurry of commentary, diverts our focus from what really matters. “I think attributing the reasons why black students don't apply just down to hair makes it seem like we are not applying for trivial reasons.” It in turn “perpetuates this idea that black students are less serious than their counterparts and it’s incredibly damaging and frustrating”. Sotire did note that hair matters, as I mentioned earlier, “but I don't think it’s a big enough one to deter people from applying to Cambridge University”.

The conversation about the university’s low black student enrolment figures has remained static for about a decade now. In February 2009, the Telegraph ran a near-identical piece to those you may have read over the last couple of years. The article referred to figures showing that black students were half as likely to get into Cambridge than their white peers. "There are a lot of success stories in the growing diversity of the whole body of Cambridge,” said the director of undergrad admissions in 2009. “But there is this issue – and Cambridge I think reflects the national picture – that students from black backgrounds are not as represented as one would like them to be."

Based on what I hear from Wade, Samuelson-Beulah and Sotire, this “issue” is still largely unchanged. Representation – compounded by feeling like an outsider because of your ethnicity and often, as a double whammy, class – feels hard to define in terms as clear as ‘we can’t get our hair done.’ Instead, a sort of discomfit bleeds into several facets of student life. Every person who’s grown up as an ethnic minority knows the feeling, a prickly sort of heat that sneaks up towards the nape of your neck when you know you’re being assessed – and, so often, misunderstood – based on stereotypes linked to your ethnicity. As a 2017 University of York paper about racism at British universities puts it, institutional racism creates a system where “in his everyday interactions this individual is ‘presumed incompetent’ as his identity appears to clash with the racial prejudices and expectations of his white colleagues”. Basically, this quiet sort of racism boxes a person into an idea of who they ought to be, based on their skin colour and a history of not really bothering to ask who they are.

A race equality government audit in 2017 found that schools permanently exclude Black Caribbean students three times as often as their white peers. A January 2019 Guardian project used illuminating studies and anecdotal evidence from readers to try to pull unconscious bias into the light. Also this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry into racial harassment at universities, for students and staff alike. This sort of insidious racism runs like a silent current through British society for black people, though of course it affects Muslims, Roma people and other groups in specific ways too. Overall, the effect is the same: to create a sense that you don’t quite belong.

Courtney Boateng, a 22-year-old entrepreneur, graduated in 2018 after also reading human, social and political sciences (and making news headlines with her social media accounts of being a black undergrad at Cambridge). When we speak, she identifies the Telegraph's report as "grabbing at low hanging fruit", adding that sixth-formers are well aware of the deeper issues that face black students in predominantly white spaces. Just a few weeks ago, she says, she’d run a roundtable with students from a north London school who voiced concerns about systematic racism at places like Cambridge.

“Most of the young people I spoke to voiced concerns about being the odd one out or having to be the one to represent the entire black community,” she says, in addition to worries they shared about “having to deal with ignorance or microaggressions” and concerns about the subtitles of racism. As she says, hair is not the main issue. For Clementine Wade, that’s clear. The next time a version of her words shows up in a national newspaper, maybe she’ll be directly quoted. But maybe, more importantly, the discussion about blackness at some of England’s highest-ranked universities will address unconscious bias head-on.

@victoriasanusi / @m.parszeniew