My mum and dad came to the UK from Ghana during the Margaret Thatcher years and, through them, I developed a strong sense of what it meant to be proud and Ghanaian. From an early age they made sure I never lost my connection with our mother country’s food, culture, language or customs. I’ve loved the fact that no one could pin down my identity; I never wanted to have one defining characteristic.I wanted to be complex, to be able to change my mind, have opinions and interests that didn’t necessarily make sense all the time.
When university finally came around, I imagined it as the perfect opportunity to explore whether I had any other interests to add to my melange of a personality. Regardless of who you are and where you go, your university years are transformative. They are your first taste of independence and they are the beginning of a difficult transition into adulthood.
But something my dad said to me after my first term at Cambridge stuck in my head: “If I was walking past a bus stop and I saw you sitting there, I would never believe that you went to Cambridge.”
We both knew that I didn’t fit the typical narrative of Oxbridge: privately educated, middle class and, of course, white. In fact. I was a walking conundrum – black, a woman, and working class. My university experience was never going to be ‘normal’.
As an eighteen year old, it was hard to grapple with the fact that I had entered an environment which meant that I was black before I was anything else. Not only black in being, but black in theory, stereotypes, principle and reality.
Education was a form of armour, which later would become a strategy of resistance. It was a space in which I could critique frameworks of knowledge and begin my own process of self-actualisation: I wanted to be so smart that there could never be a reason for me to fail. And I truly believed that if I worked hard enough, I could be anything that I wanted to be. But as professor of race and gender Heidi Mirza states, higher education represents a contradiction for black women. Despite black women wanting to be educated and demonstrating immense will in doing so, our energy is never matched by a corresponding enthusiasm from larger institutions like universities. We’re made to believe that we are the problem: underachieving, misunderstood and not ‘hard working’ enough. The narrative of meritocracy, which runs through the core of universities, has created a justification for inequality.
For black girls: understand that your journey through university is unique. We hope you read our book and feel empowered, comforted and validated.
For everyone else: we hope that reading this helps you to be a better friend, parent, sibling or teacher to black girls living through what we did. The thought of enriched histories, expansive curricula and inclusive environments alone should be enough to spur us all on.
Taking Up Space was written by Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi and published by Penguin Books.
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