“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” A powerful statement by Martin Luther King which defined the African-American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, and still resonates among the hearts of many who continue to promote the message of peace and equality to this date. The viral pictures of the 14 #BlackMenOfCambridgeUniversity – of which I was a part of – carries this message.
It is important that we break the negative stereotypes associated with Cambridge University, and other prestigious institutions which tell young talented people that such places are not for them. As this leads to under-representation and inequality in our country’s top universities. Unless we provide young people in the United Kingdom with positive role models, people they can aspire to become, they are likely to stray down the wrong path and recreate this vicious cycle of inequality and unde-rrepresentation in all areas of society – I say this as someone who nearly fell victim to this myself.
As a young boy studying in a comprehensive secondary school, I had natural talent in my academics. I did little to no work in class, and was always seen as the ‘class clown’ receiving countless detentions weekly, but still somehow managed to get As and Bs in my tests. There was a point where I was even temporarily excluded from school because I was with the wrong people, at the wrong time. I did all this because I had no positive role models to aspire to. I thought getting in trouble was ‘cool’, or ‘hard’ as we used to say back then, and I thought it was something expected of people like me.
However, in my final year of secondary school, my older sister received an offer to read law at the University of Cambridge, and I thought to myself, hold on, if she can do that, then why can’t I? By that moment, it was too late to rescue my GCSEs and I only managed to achieve one A* and a few As. However, I committed myself to working hard in my A-Levels, achieved amazing results and two years later I received my offer to read Politics and Anthropology at Cambridge. All because I had a one positive role model in my life.
The pictures, inspired by the #BlackMenOfYaleUniversity photos posted by Akintude Ahmad a few weeks ago, show a group of young black men telling the world that race should not define nor inhibit success. We wanted to show to the world that despite the shocking statistics – only 0.3% of students admitted into Cambridge University in 2015 were black males – everyone still has a place here, regardless of their background.
Education in the UK is meritocratic, we love this, and we celebrate this. However, we believe it is important to recognise that there are a variety of other factors that influence success in life apart from merit. We live in a country where, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, black African/Caribbean and mixed-race pupils are three times more likely to be permanently excluded than the student population as a whole.
The proportion of MPs from a BAME – black, Asian and minority ethnic – background is 6.3% even though 12% of UK citizens are from a BAME background. Only one in 16 of current FTSE 100 board members are from a BAME background, and just one in every 15 people from a BAME background is in a management position. Race can and does inhibit success, and this shouldn’t be the case.
The meritocratic nature of our education system is not being reflected in the real world, and there are a variety of factors as to why that is the case. What we hope from this campaign is to promote self-belief and higher aspirations among young students from a BAME background. Because unless we have more individuals from BAME backgrounds aspiring to study at the best institutions, we are unlikely to see true representation being reflected in other areas of society.
We recognise that there are various programmes like the Race Equality Charter being put in place by the government to rectify these discrepancies of outcomes, and allow for greater parity within the education, and higher education system. However, more work still needs to be done on a societal level to break down those psychological barriers which prevent young, talented BAME students from reaching the true heights of their ability.
The emphasis on the pictures should not be seen as a criticism of the University because this overlooks the hard work and efforts of the access officers, school liaison officers and other initiatives the University has put in place to tackle this issue. However, complacency is not the answer.
We all worked hard for our places at Cambridge, and achieved our offers and results because of this – and we hope to inspire many other people from BAME backgrounds to do the same. Otherwise, the vicious cycle of the under-representation of people of colour in prestigious education institutions and wider society will continue. Our message is simple, your background does not define your future, believe in yourself, work hard, aspire to be great, and you will.