Tuesday 25 May 2021

Some new benches in Cambridge


I spent about five years in Cambridge in a very multinational, multicultural college. There were students from all over the world. It’s is hard to think of a race, nationality or faith that was not represented. I never once witnessed an incident that even hinted at religious or racial prejudice. It is hard to even imagine a more liberal environment. If there were a place less likely to have racist microaggressions, it could only be a place where everyone was from the same religious, national and racial group.

The fact that I didn’t witness something doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist. Perhaps the African students and Indian students were continually racially abused when I wasn’t there, but they never told me about it. But in those days, we thought that racism was about using insulting language, or treating someone worse because of their race or religion. We thought that the ideal was to treat everyone the same and not to pay much attention to things like skin colour and religion. The task was to get rid of prejudice and unpleasantness between all people no matter where they were from.

Now I discover that Cambridge University thinks that it is a hotbed of racism with students and staff continually behaving in a racist fashion. It is a place so full of discrimination that it thinks it necessary that staff and students can report each other for both micro and macroaggressions. I would be surprised if there is really more racism in Cambridge now than there was some years ago. Who would dare make an off-colour joke? Who would dare eat a falafel? Who would dare even wear a keffiyeh in case someone accuses them of cultural appropriation?  

When I was in Cambridge racism was not a usual topic of conversation. I mentioned neither race nor gender, nor sexuality in my dissertation. These were simply non-issues in most subjects. But if even then before the present Enlightenment there was minimal levels of discriminatory language, how much less must there be now with everyone monitoring each other for the least transgression. Yet still Cambridge is such an oppressive, unwelcoming and discriminatory place that students and staff must tell tales on each other.

It isn’t Cambridge that has changed but rather the definitions of what makes someone a racist.

Cambridge defines racism as


Racism is a system of oppression, woven into the fabric of societies, institutions, processes, procedures, people’s values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour. It is a system of advantage that sets whiteness as the norm, manifesting in societies’ valuing and promoting (implicitly or explicitly) being white. It is a system where people from racially minoritised backgrounds are more likely than white people to face multiple obstacles in life, from being targets of direct or indirect discrimination and micro-aggressions.


Did the University use either reason or experience to come up with this definition? It’s hard to imagine an experiment that would prove racism to amount to just these characteristics and none others. But it is unclear that a native speaker of English would define racism in this way either. This Cambridge definition does not follow logically from the OED dictionary definition of racism which says nothing about whiteness. But if the Cambridge definition of racism follows neither from reason nor experience, why should anyone believe it to be true? We could cast it to the flames along with Hume except he has already been cancelled.

I’ve only ever met or heard about racist individuals, because only people rather than societies, institutions etc can be racist. To suppose that the Manchester United team can be racist while none of the players is racist is absurd. If the team is racist, it is only because the players are racist. Institutional racism therefore makes little sense, because it is pointless blaming an institution, when only the people who make up an institution can be racist or can be persuaded to cease to be racist. Blaming the group for the sins of the individual is unjust.

It becomes clear from the Cambridge definition that it thinks that racism is only something that white people can do to other races. But what if I lived in an overwhelmingly black society in Africa. In this society blackness would be the norm quite reasonably, because nearly everyone would be black. These black people would likewise most probably value and promote being black and their black culture. It may well be that I would face some prejudice living in this society. They might comment on my paleness and might be curious about my hair. I might find it difficult to make friends and people might call me names based on my skins colour. But according to Cambridge none of this would be racist.

Unfortunately, also for the Cambridge definition those countries with hardly any black people would be the least racist, because there would be no one to be prejudiced about. But the rural Aberdeenshire of my childhood was 100% white, but full of racist prejudices about the black people we had never met.  Muti-racial societies are far less prejudiced.

Worse still because monoracial countries like Japan, or parts of Eastern Europe are free from racism, the blame for racism in Britain is obviously down to the arrival here of people from other races. But if it was Windrush that brought racism to Britain, should we really be celebrating it? If racism is caused by the presence of black people in a society dominated by white people, the logical solution would appear to be unfortunate for those black people.

The Cambridge definition implies that only white people can be racist, which means that black people cannot be racist against white people, even if they act towards them in a discriminatory way and even if they use racist language towards them. It also means that black people cannot be racist against other black people. This is no doubt the reason why Sasha Johnson the Black Lives Matter activist thought she could safely call another black person the short form of the word “racoon”.

She claimed that person she called this did not understand what racism was when he objected. No doubt she was using something similar to the Cambridge definition.

Racism as a moral issue must be an issue for everyone equally. Why should white people be interested in not being racist if they discover that only they can be racist, but that black people can avoid being racist simply because of their skin colour. We are all human beings and all equally capable of prejudice, discrimination and hurtful behaviour.  To give one group of people the ability to describe others as racist, which may have serious consequences for their lives, when that group cannot itself be called racist is to have two classes of citizens.

It is to create a bench for the racists marked whites, because the definition amounts to all whites are racist and cannot do anything about it no matter how hard they try and a bench for everyone else marked colored. This is how Cambridge has made progress since I was there.