Sunday 24 June 2018

‘I want to see Cambridge University breaking the silence on race’

Academic at the centre of bitter racial-profiling row involving college porters gives the Observer a walking tour to illustrate the problems she says she encounters

Exams in Cambridge are over, and although the sun is blazing down on the spires of King’s, Trinity and St John’s, many of the students are still in bed, recovering from the formal May balls the night before. But while its students were spending every night last week celebrating until the break of dawn, the university has become embroiled in an acrimonious internal row that threatens to damage its illustrious reputation.

The academic at the centre of the controversy is the Cambridge lecturer Priyamvada Gopal, and today she is showing me what happens when you walk with her around the university’s most exclusive colleges – and encounter the “porters” whose job it is to keep unwelcome visitors out.

Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge academic who is refusing to teach classes at King’s college. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
Gopal is leading the tour but, as we walk together along a cobbled street in the sunshine towards Gonville and Caius college, she confides she feels nervous. The 49-year-old – a senior academic who has been teaching English at the university for 17 years – has never been inside this particular college before, which is one of the oldest and richest in Cambridge. “Most of the older colleges I don’t try to enter because I just don’t want to go through any argy-bargy with the porters.”

We pass through without incident but later, as we enter the First Court of St John’s, a porter suspiciously asks Gopal which college she lectures at – as though he doesn’t believe she is a member of the university. But it is when she enters another college, King’s, that she typically worries most. “At times, and other people of colour have reported this too, my Cambridge University ID card has been peered at as though I might have forged it.”

Last week she suffered what she says was the 13th incident of racial profiling and aggression towards her by the porters and gatekeepers of King’s. In response, Gopal announced on Twitter she would stop tutoring King’s students. “I have been complaining formally and informally about this behaviour at King’s for at least a decade now, and I have heard over 20 to 30 testimonies from students past and present about how they have been treated, too. I thought: enough warnings, enough attempts to discuss, enough being ignored. I decided to take what symbolic action I could, that other people of colour are not in a position to take.”

She says she is sick and tired of hearing her university deny that Cambridge is a hostile place for people of colour. “People here hide and don’t speak up, even when they know something is wrong. I want to see the university breaking the silence on race. I want colleges to hold their hands up and say: yes, we have a problem around race and diversity. We will document it and we will address it and we will be seen to do so.” That would be a very modest first start, in her opinion. “Denial just makes them seem dishonest.”

 Priyamvada Gopal was refused entry to King’s by a gatekeeper. Photograph: Linda Nylind for the Guardian
She decided to speak out after being refused entry to King’s, which was closed, by a gatekeeper who she felt treated her “like a complete moron”. When she complained about this treatment to a white male college porter, she found him “incredibly belligerent and hostile from the get go”. He continued to address her as “madam”, even after she identified herself and asked to be called by her name, Dr Gopal.

She left the porter’s lodge feeling sullied. “It was incredibly humiliating.” In her opinion, the behaviour of the porters reflects a wider Cambridge problem with race and diversity that begins much higher up in the institution, and she went public to encourage King’s, and the university as a whole, to address this. Two of her colleagues in the English department have since followed her lead in refusing to teach King’s students.

Cambridge students have also come forward with their own experiences of racial profiling. “I was once asked for my college ID in the fellows’ garden at King’s, which is very unusual because it is somewhere you can only access with a college key,” said one black recent graduate of the college, who wished to remain anonymous. “I worried that, if I reported such incidents to the college as racial profiling, it would have repercussions for me – and be a waste of my time. I believe it’s an unconscious bias on the part of the porters, but it is there.”

Another black Cambridge graduate, Rianna Croxford, spoke out about how she had been denied entry to King’s last year, despite showing a range of different Cambridge University ID. After being told the gatekeeper did not believe she was truly a student at the university, she eventually arrived at Gopal’s lesson in tears. She reported it to a tutor at her college, who complained about it to King’s but expressed scepticism about whether there were any racial undertones to the incident.

Tega Akati-Udi, black, Asian and minority ethnic officer of King’s college student union, said she and her predecessor had collected a significant number of similar testimonies about racial profiling incidents at King’s over the past two years. After the union presented these testimonies to the college, unconscious bias training was eventually given to porters and gatekeepers in January. “Although progress has been slow, fewer people are coming to me now with complaints, and I find the college does act to address them. But they cannot act on complaints they don’t know about – we need to do some work to make sure people feel comfortable coming forward,” she said.

The Observer interviewed four students from black, Asian or ethnic minority backgrounds who had never encountered or observed any racism at King’s or any other college, while four other students and one academic gave accounts of racial profiling by Cambridge porters.

Donna Ferguson during her walking tour of Cambridge with Priyamvada Gopal.
Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
On Friday, undergraduate students of English at King’s issued a statement of solidarity with Gopal, urging the college to offer her a “proper apology”: “The many testimonies from black and minority ethnic students that have come in the wake of Dr Gopal’s statement make apparent that her treatment is not unique or isolated. We strongly condemn the actions of the college and fully support Dr Gopal in her decision to boycott it.”

A King’s spokeswoman said it only had a record of one complaint from Gopal in the past three years and receives fewer than three complaints annually, which “almost always relate to people being denied access”. “Our visitor guides and porters have a very challenging job during the tourist season, with literally thousands of visitors per day. It is thus very important that they behave in a professional manner at all times, which is why they have had comprehensive customer service training, including unconscious bias training.”

She added that the college had examined CCTV of the porters’ interaction with Gopal and concluded that there was no wrongdoing on the part of staff. “We acknowledge that Dr Gopal’s perception of this exchange was ‘racial profiling’, but this was simply not the case. We deny claims that our staff were rude or aggressive. The college abhors racism or discrimination of any kind and would seek to stamp it out wherever it might be found.”

(Source: The Guardian)

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