This article is a preview from the Winter 2017 edition of New Humanist.
It’s easy to think that the front page of a newspaper lacks the power and influence it used to have. But on 25 October, the Daily Telegraph genuinely caught my eye at a newsstand. Above an unusually large photograph of a young black woman was the prominent tag line: “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors.” The story was hidden inside, and while not accurate, hinted at far greater complexity.
Lola Olufemi, Cambridge University Student Union’s women’s officer, had, it seemed obvious to me, been singled out and framed as a “disruptive” black woman wrecking the teaching of English literature at one of Britain’s great universities. I was troubled enough to tweet my concern that the page seemed to have been designed to incite online abuse. And so it turned out. Olufemi was inundated with racist and misogynistic attacks and death threats.
There are two immediate lessons from this. One that a prompt challenge, including on social media, gets a response. Cambridge University was quick to issue a statement criticising the story and explaining that Olufemi had been one of a number of students who had signed an open letter calling for the English faculty to broaden its syllabus. Olufemi also behaved with immense dignity and went on Woman’s Hour the next day to counter the falsehoods.
Lesson two is that engaging in advance with the writer of the article had not helped. Cambridge University lecturer Priyamvada Gopal had explained the goal of widening the range of writers on the English literature curriculum in an interview with the Telegraph’s education editor. But the paper chose to ignore all of that.
The wider realisation is that there appears to be an old-fashioned gender- and race-based backlash against any challenge to a lack of diversity in academia.
It’s worth looking back at the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford last year, which targeted statues of Cecil Rhodes, the British businessman with a clearly articulated imperialist vision, whose legacy endowments continue to support international students from the former colonies. Many British news outlets were quick to run stories about troublemaking students, often conflating the issue with rows about free speech, trigger warnings and the alleged inability of young people to cope with “difficult” history.
But the Indian writer Amit Chaudhuri pointed out in the Guardian that the heart of the dispute lay in the attitudes of news organisations, some politicians and the institutions themselves. It was clear in Lord Macpherson’s description of institutional racism as “unwitting” in his 1999 report into the corrupt police handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder case: “The word ‘unwitting’ is key. It points to a moral economy in which it is possible to plausibly claim, and believe, that one is not a racist, while benefiting from a system that consigns many to invisibility. In this, ‘institutional racism’ is a resurrection of the colonial order, which was by no means managed exclusively by racist individuals, but by people who believed that a skewed system was normal.”
It is the skewed system that is being challenged by campaigns such as the one at Cambridge. Defenders of the establishment are finding this uncomfortable and turning that discomfort against those asking legitimate questions. Susan Faludi’s 1991 book Backlash offers a useful manual in how we have been here before with the misreporting of the feminist advances made in the 1970s.
The way forward? It’s essential to challenge every misreported case of this kind. Universities can and should use their status to complain to the press standards body IPSO, even if it is widely regarded as toothless, and to the management of the news organisation in question. They should also consider legal action. There are defamation issues that, as Jack Monroe proved against Katie Hopkins, can be successfully challenged and might make such publications think twice in future. In the Cambridge University case, later that same day, in what appeared to be an act of panicked mitigation, the Telegraph bizarrely put up a top-ten list of BAME writers who should be on every curriculum.
There are parallel paths to changing the system. I was recently privileged to meet Doreen Lawrence and dozens of students at the scholarship scheme she supports, run by the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which gives mentoring and training to dozens of young black British men from underprivileged backgrounds. All were graduating from the nation’s top universities, including Cambridge, and heading into jobs in law, architecture and finance. I’m confident change is coming. But I worry the backlash will take careful fighting.