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'Taking Up Space' - Book Review

This review is taken from Issue 1 of Bad Form, now available in print from our online store.

By Timi Soitre

I recently graduated from the University of Cambridge, and although I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to study at a world-renowned university, it is no secret that as a black woman, my experience there was deeply shaped by the racist, sexist and classist dynamics that underpin the institution. More time and resources are being dedicated to increase Cambridge University’s African-Caribbean intake, very little is being done to ensure that black women are fully supported and made to feel normal once they actually set foot in Cambridge University.

The experiences of black women have historically been marginalised, leading to black women creating their own schools of thought and terminology in order to truly capture the specificity of the black female experience. Although now used as a buzzword (and most of the time applied incorrectly), intersectionality is a conceptual framework conceived by Kimberlé Crenshaw in order to acknowledge how different forms of subjugation intersect in the lives of black women. She, and other black feminists, regularly discussed how public discourse has historically viewed oppression through a single-axis, failing to include black women in the dialogue on how to dismantle these forces, thereby normalising the normative systems which exist in order to degrade black women.

Taking up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change was written by Cambridge graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi, as a guide for black women to fight the misogynoir endemic at predominantly white universities such as Cambridge University. The book looks at the experiences of black female students studying at University through an intersectional lens, acknowledging the role that racialized and gendered systems play in constructing their experiences at higher education. The black female community in Cambridge University is incredibly strong, and we regularly spoke about issues pertaining to mental health, financial hardship, desirability, activism etc. These were normally done through private channels, such as forums, informal discussions, and if we were lucky enough to do a subject that allows it, we could bring it into our essays and dissertations. Yet most of the time, our experiences did not leave the black/POC community, and if they did, they were contained within the walls of the University.

That’s why Taking Up Space is so groundbreaking as a black woman who attended University with Ore and Chelsea. Having the experiences of myself and my friends elevated into public discourse made me feel seen. Finally, our voices will be heard, not within our small community, but for the rest of the world to hear. Reading the book, the topics mentioned felt familiar to me, and reminded me that the struggles that I endured whilst applying and attending Cambridge were of no fault of my own, but were direct legacies of centuries of racism, sexism and classism that functioned to keep women like myself in a subordinate position.

In the chapter ‘Getting In’, Chelsea mentioned that “The University of Cambridge was never on my radar at school; when I heard it mentioned, it was never in reference to me”. I remember when I got my results in Year 12 and realized I had a chance at getting in Cambridge, my history teacher told me that grades alone were not enough, that the Cambridge professors were looking for something more than just someone who can do well in exams. I asked her if she could elaborate, and she proceeded to list examples of students who she thought were ‘Oxbridge material’ – of course they were all white men who naturally sounded nasally. The section on ‘Desirability and Relationships’ where Saredo, a contributor to the book, said that “the process of desirability only happened when I unlearned all the things that I was taught to learn throughout my life” reminded me of the black-female support network I had in University, where many of us found common-ground on the acceptance that, when it came to the politics of desirability, unfortunately we were not even contenders. It was a bitter-sweet emotion as the solidarity that came with the awareness that our feelings of undesirability were a direct reflection of the wider notions surrounding racialized beauty standards, was not only a source of sadness, but also love and friendship.

This hyper-awareness of our position within the University social-ladder, which we quickly realized merely mirrored society’s hierarchy, led to many of the black women in our University to take positions of responsibility within clubs and societies, working for the betterment of people like us. Ore discusses how “as black girls, the activist instinct is bound up in our very identities”, and this is what I loved about my black-female community in Cambridge, we really had each other’s backs and dedicated so much of our time in University to support those who were like us. But what I think is hardly ever mentioned is the burden that comes with this, how managing a degree, navigating dire social situations, whilst being expected to ‘lead the revolution’ for the black community can negatively take a toll on one’s mental health. Some of my darkest moments in University were down to me balancing too many things at once, not wanting to let anyone down. “The pressure of feeling as if you’re obliged to constantly fight for your people can become a burden… try not to feel guilty for being passionate about other things… reclaim ownership over your interests”. Ore’s words really resonated with me, and I wish I had read something like this before starting University.

‘Black Excellence’ is a mantra that I think is integral in ensuring that we recognize that as black people, we are special. But it can create untold amounts of pressure in our daily lives, especially in an environment as competitive in Cambridge. This “pressure” to do everything perfectly, is not only in relation to activism but can be applied to various aspects of university, such as grades, socializing, going out, dating, etc. As black women, we are led to believe that we must be perfect in order to prove to ourselves, and the rest of the world, that we have defeated the multiple forces created to work against us. But that is not the case.

Taking Up Space eloquently reminds me that it is okay to rest and that no one is perfect. It reminds me that my time at Cambridge was unique and not mainstream, and that is no fault of my own, but down to centuries of oppression. It validated me, reassured me, encouraged me. It made me feel seen.

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