Sit down, shut up and listen to minority voices

by Ning Sang Jessica Tan on 26 October 2017

It's been two of the most intellectually stimulating, challenging and rigorous weeks of my life here as a law student at Cambridge - every day demands that I bring the best of myself, and I love that. I love waking up in a converted Victorian villa, biking to rowing practice before sunrise, and smelling fresh dew on my way to morning lecture; I love the pressure from a good kick-your-ass supervisor, the diligence required to get through all the reading, and the organizational prowess needed to meaningfully digest it.

Despite feeling empowered to thrive here, even as someone who was raised in upper class circles and who attended a feeder school to elite higher education institutions, I feel displaced and disoriented, excluded in many ways from "Cambridge” as an East Asian woman. The crevices of these hallowed halls are filled with superstitious, inaccessible and indecipherable traditions that are undeniably of historic value – yes - but perhaps Lammy's article forces us to interrogate: to what extent have such norms historically existed to actively exclude and propagate existing systems of domination?

Before Cambridge, I spent four years in California where my CV says I majored in French (and minored in Medieval Studies) at a small liberal arts school, Pomona College - but what my CV doesn't say and the most important thing that Pomona taught me was this: sit down, shut up and listen.

When I first arrived at Pomona fresh from a top international school in Hong Kong, the campus showed no sympathy for my foreign, elite and conservative upbringing that never discussed queerness, politics or abortion. I tried to express "it's not like this where I'm from", but beyond a few pats on the back, the space structurally did not care or invite my voice to be part of the conversation. For to be (meaningfully) involved in Pomona was synonymous with engaging with campus politics/power dynamics, which is integrally tied to American narratives and constructs of power that I was hopelessly illiterate to and unaware of. So I sat down, shut up, and listened to foreign narratives in hopes of finding a space at Pomona.

Second year (Fall 2014), the advent of Black Lives Matter coincided with Umbrella Movement and I was paralyzed with my inability to participate in either movement because of my status as an international student and stripped of political agency as a removed agent in both contexts. Faced with the abhorrent, complex and systemic injustice of BLM, I wanted to retreat and say "I'm not from here"; but with Umbrella Movement in full force, my city manifesting in a way completely foreign to myself, could I - with my international school education - really claim any genuine tie to the city? There was no place and I had no peace to find words to articulate my thoughts. Instead, I sat down, shut up and listened, not knowing how to be anything more than silent as I felt myself become a stranger to my city, my university, and increasingly myself.

It wasn't until the end of senior year (earlier this calendar year) that I began to seriously consider the idea that I didn't actually enjoy myself at Pomona, that I began to recognize and process through this pain of self-alienation (shoutout to Hubs n Spokes’ counseling services). I think it took a while to come to terms with this reality because it was too much to accept my own responsibility that the most important, independent and extremely expensive choice that I had made for myself, university, felt much less than ideal. It was much easier to hide behind the topic of good weather (in which no meaningful life forms actually survive). But now I'm at Cambridge, literally given a second opportunity to (re)do my undergrad -- and the helping hands of hindsight and comparison are unraveling the true value of my liberal arts education.

The cost for my feeling displaced individually must be understood in tandem with the empowerment and emancipation that many of my low-income, womxn/non-binary classmates of color experienced for the first time. The price for my discomfort was my classmates' ability to be minimally seen, heard, given an opportunity to grow personally, intellectually and professionally for the first time, in an space that puts some effort into recognizing and giving credit to their previous and continual lived experience as minorities. My self-alienation and silence as a student from extreme privilege demonstrate the extent to which the school has institutionally empowered and given voice to those that wider society systematically silence and force to self-alienate under the guise of "cultural integration", the American Dream. And it can only ever be this way: the process by which minorities are increasingly given access to elite and exclusive spaces can only be done in tandem with those who have power (white men et. al) systematically recognizing, removing and redistributing the sources of their power- to their own disadvantage and discomfort- to make space for those whose subjugation has historically and systematically served to propagate those exact powers.

While there is still so much work to be done in Claremont, I do believe - as my College’s BME (Black & Minority Ethnic) Officer - that Oxbridge has much to learn from the culture of radical inclusivity that both students and the administration embrace at liberal arts colleges in America. That I thrive and feel relatively comfortable here indicates that Cambridge is a place suited for people like myself: who come from spaces of power and have been told their whole life to continue occupying those spaces of power "because you deserve it". The natural corollary is alienation and exclusion of students from underrepresented background. Insofar as we hope to see any institutional change take place to make Oxbridge more representative and inclusive, it MUST begin with each of us honestly identifying our privileges and actively suspending the exercise of any power attached to exclusive birthrights to enable others who do not enjoy the same privileges the opportunity to occupy the same space. Especially directed at my predominantly East Asian upper (middle) class community, my question is would you join me to consider when to sit down, shut up and listen versus when to stand up, speak out and aggressively take up exclusive spaces?

Photos: Top, pictured in Pomona. Bottom: pictured with new friends at Lucy Cavendish.

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