There’s a common belief among black women conscious and unconscious that we need to work twice as hard to get half as far, or [be as] good
Chelsea Kwakye (left) and Ore Ogunbiyi: ‘Even if you have no one, you have this book.’ Photo Credit : Antonio Olmos | Observer
Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi are the co-authors of Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change, the second title from #Merky Books, a partnership between Penguin and grime star Stormzy, who has also announced he is funding two Cambridge scholarships for black students in the UK. The book explores the lack of diversity in education, tackling topics including access, curriculums, mental health, relationships and activism. The two women, both 22, graduated from Cambridge University last year, Kwakye with a degree in history and Ogunbiyi in human, social and political sciences. Kwakye was born and raised in Chingford and is studying at the University of Law in preparation for a training contract with a City law firm. Ogunbiyi was born in Croydon, moved to Nigeria aged seven, then back to England aged 13, when she attended a boarding school. She has just completed a master’s in journalism at Columbia University in New York.
How did the book come about?
Chelsea Kwakye In December 2017, Ore wrote an article titled “A letter to my fresher self: surviving Cambridge as a black girl” [for the student newspaper Varsity], which detailed everything from impostor syndrome and relationships at university to stagnant curriculums. Previously, we were both heavily involved in black access to Cambridge initiatives, setting up Cambridge University African Caribbean Society’s first access conference and mentoring scheme. Earlier that year we shot the #BlackMenofCambridge campaign, which thrust us and our society into the spotlight. We gained a lot of media attention and conversation was buzzing around what it means and looks like to be black within predominately white universities and institutions.
It was my sister who suggested we write a book. Then someone from #Merky reached out to us having heard about our efforts at Cambridge and the next thing we knew we were in a meeting with Penguin.
Ore, tell us about “A Letter to My Fresher Self” in it you reassure your younger self: “you belong here”.
Ore Ogunbiyi I had just lost an election for president of my college students’ union and felt strongly I had lost to someone who did not have as much experience as me. I felt very isolated it was a difficult time and I was at a very low place when I wrote that. But I thought: how can I see some kind of bright side in this Cambridge experience and not be like, “I’m really sad because I’m a black girl in this space”? It was important to show that, yes, it was hard, but we were still surviving and thriving. I wanted to be candid with other black students about how it is difficult, but that it hasn’t all been bad and that’s what we wanted to capture in the book, too that we’ve had periods of immense joy amid trying times.
In the book, you emphasise how different your backgrounds are and include interviews with a wide range of other black female students. What was the thinking behind that?
OO Our experiences have for so long been homogenised. It’s important to show there’s diversity even within the category of black students. We did our best to ensure a diverse range of contributors, most importantly across class boundaries to make the point that there is no one black experience.
Chelsea, you talk about being a black working-class woman, and explore the relationship between race and class.
CK We’re not all starting from the same place, and I really wanted to stress that. I went to a state school [Chingford foundation school, the same school as David Beckham and Harry Kane]. My parents came to this country from Ghana with nothing. My mum is a cardiology nurse and my dad has worked in a post office depot all of his life. Their hopes and expectations for me and my brother and sister were to be good kids. I thought it important to talk about, not because of Oppression Olympics, but to stress that there are differences.
You also mention how your siblings are your idols…
CK If you know me, you know I am half my brother and half my sister. They have both had a huge influence on my life. There’s a really big age gap between me and both of them [Kwakye’s brother Louis is 10 years older, her sister Jeanette 14 years older], so we basically skipped the arguing and teenager phase and jumped straight into being best friends. I always go to them for advice and we all really value our relationship. In terms of achievements, they have always set the bar really high. They were both elite athletes.
Ore, you describe yourself as “relatively privileged” and your dad was an academic. Was that inspiring?
OO One hundred per cent, and it comes up in the book when I discuss representation. I can’t deny the fact that it had an influence on me. He did a PhD in English and dramatic literature and loved it. Growing up, I was very aware of his academic career.
You say early in the book that a teacher struggled to prounounce your name (“Not ‘or-ray’ or ‘or-ee’ or ‘or’. It’s Ore. With short e like the first e in elephant”) and contrast your experience living in Nigeria.
OO I moved to Nigeria when I was seven and then back to the UK aged 13. I had a great time in Nigeria, I went to a really good school and loved my teachers and thrived there. Initially I felt a bit out of place as I had a British accent and some people in the class made fun of me, but the Nigerian accent came eventually. The most important thing was having my name pronounced right it was so refreshing at prize day, hearing my name said correctly and not dreading that someone is going to ruin your name. [Ogunbiyi’s full name is Oreoluwa Hannah Ngozichukwuka Oluwafunmilayo]. It was really important for my confidence and identity, coming to terms with what being Nigerian meant.
Where did the impetus come from to apply to Cambridge, and why did you want to go?
OO I didn’t know what Oxford or Cambridge was until Year 11 at my school [Woldingham] when there was an announcement in assembly about girls who had got in. My brother used to go on these golf summer camps and I wanted to go on a summer camp, and thought let’s see if I can do one at Cambridge I went on a summer course and learned so much about international relations. I fell in love with the place and realised what my interests and passions were. I was like before, it was my dad’s dream, but now it’s my dream and I’m going to work super hard to get it.
CK My history teacher was influential in saying “you know what, you can definitely do it”, but I didn’t want to be disappointed. One of the PE teachers said “if you got to interview stage, you’d 100% get in”. I had quite a few people rooting for me, my whole family it was always a question of: why not? What are you scared of? Now I can admit that I was scared of the fact that it was so alien to me. I didn’t have a connection with the place. It was really competitive and there was the whole idea of: am I really good enough?
How did you two meet?
CK It’s like a love story! We met just before university at a careers event. I was quite reserved, quite shy. I remember seeing Ore and she was so confident and really determined to get her point across and I was thinking oh my God, she’s amazing, this is how I need to be if I’m going to thrive at Cambridge, I need my voice to be heard.
Why did you call the book Taking Up Space?
CK I feel like it allowed us to deconstruct what we mean by space who is space initially reserved for? Who has the ability to freely occupy space? It’s about taking up space unapologetically and saying you deserve to be in that space.
Ore, in the chapter Blacktivism, you describe being involved in the Benin bronzes repatriation campaign you succeeded in having a bronze cockerel stolen from Benin during the British-led colonial occupation of 1897 removed from display in your college.
OO A lot of learning happened in that time. It was my first year and I was already dip-diving into some very deep activism. My dad is one of the cleverest people I know and collects a lot of art and knows about these bronzes, and he was like, make sure you don’t get kicked out you need to careful. Then it was that thing of having to be grateful in a space where I had to be silent. But I was like, no this is me speaking up.
Chelsea, in the book you make the point that “there has always been a consistent and persistent desire amongst black women to be formally educated” and go on to say “our energy has never been matched by larger institutions such as universities”. Why do you think that is?
CK There’s a common belief among black women conscious and unconscious that we need to work twice as hard to get half as far, or [be as] good. I was always a firm believer in working as hard as possible just so I could be on par with average or mediocre people. I know that my race and gender disadvantage me before I even open my mouth.
I feel like the reason our energy is never matched is because we’re not seen as the archetype or the norm. In fact, we’re often seen as the exception or the “few good ones”. Therefore, a huge factor that plays into this is gratitude we’re made to feel as if we’ve been given a chance to study at the best institution and that would should be grateful for that chance.
The book draws attention to the day-to-day experience of being black at Cambridge, from the lack of black representation in the student body to the teaching staff.
OO In the chapter #AcademiaSo-White, I discuss how the problems start at school it’s possible to have gone all your school life not having explored black histories at all. It’s important to get to university and combat this idea that there’s no space for us in academia because there should be. The stats are pretty shocking 1.8% of all academic staff in the UK are black, and it’s 0.6% at professorial level. And it’s not because we’re not clever.
How does that create impostor syndrome?
OO Even though some people are telling us we’re welcome, there’s so much else telling us that we’re not, whether that be the portraits on the wall or that there are more black people being employed as cleaners and porters and receptionists than there are as academics [as revealed in 2017 data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency]. It’s important to understand impostor syndrome in that way it’s not just “I don’t feel good enough” it’s I don’t feel good enough because there are all these things telling me I don’t belong here.
Were you treated differently at Cambridge? What was it like day to day? Did you fit in?
CK What I struggled with the most was expectation. There was an expectation that I was a “professional black person”. Someone who supposedly knew everything about race or black feminism or “Africa”. I felt a constant pressure to be a representative for the whole black population because that was the burden put on my shoulders. [She was the only black woman in her 2015 history cohort.] I feel like lecturers and tutors expected you to contribute something different all the time just by virtue of being black.
Ore, you write that an aim of the book is to share in a “remarkable sisterhood”…
OO I couldn’t have survived without my girlfriends. I was lucky at my college as I had two other black girls in my year who I’m still very close with, and with Chelsea, that was our squad. We needed each other, we thrived off each other, and each others’ energies are what kept us going when things got bad and our mental health suffered and we needed a little cry. It’s about making sure that even if you have no one, you have this book and you find some kind of solace in reading about our experiences. You don’t ever want to be the black girl who’s done really well but not left the door open for everyone else to come behind you. You don’t ever want to be that person.
You write how you don’t like the term “BAME”. Why not?
OO I don’t like the term BAME because it conflates the different issues that groups face and glosses over them. Chelsea talks about access and how black international students do relatively well. There’s also an issue of conflating Africans and Caribbeans, because in access stats, Caribbean students perform worse than black Africans, so if you just talk about black students you’re conflating that. Also, anti-black racism doesn’t just come from white people. I was asked if I went to the other university in Cambridge (Anglia Ruskin) by a south Asian boy.
A chapter by Chelsea describes relationships and desirability.
CK I have a white boyfriend, and interracial relationships can be quite tricky and complicated particularly if you’re aware of the structures that surround them, such as racism and power dynamics. Joe and I have a really positive relationship, which prioritises conversations about race rather than sweeping them under the carpet. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. A few black male students felt they could comment on my relationship and what I should be doing. I learned that I wasn’t obliged to explain to anyone.
OO It’s funny to watch Love Island a friend made a point about how we’re all laughing at Yewande’s situation, but that was us at Cambridge. We all think why wouldn’t anyone want her? She’s been very quiet it feels like her light has been dimmed. It’s interesting to see how many parallels that draws with Cambridge. It’s partly society’s fault, conditioning white boys to not see black girls, specifically dark-skinned black girls, as beautiful. At Cambridge, as black women we outnumber black men. It was hard, definitely. It felt like you were dimming your light and being less you so people didn’t think you’re intimidating, or all these derogatory tropes. I had conversations with people about my own wellbeing, and self-love it got easier and more bearable. I had great friends and support systems, so I realised it wasn’t anything wrong with me but with society.
Chelsea, you write a chapter that movingly explores mental health. Was it important for you to talk about that?
CK Mental health can be awful at university. Once you add race, class and gender it [vulnerability] triples. Being open can help people understand. When we talk about mental health, it’s not frameworks or theories, it’s our lives, our experience, which we went through daily that has to sink in for people to understand the gravity of the book.
Recently, the first black person was to appointed to lead an Oxbridge college. What was your reaction?
OO At first I didn’t believe it. I got wind of it a few days before and I was like no way, someone’s messing with me, there’s no way a Cambridge college is about to put a black woman in charge. And then I saw the announcement and I was like, oh my goodness, it’s really happening. She is packed with credentials, she was voted into that position, it’s great to see that representation, and I’m proud it’s at Jesus College, where I went.
This article originally appeared on : The Guardian