‘I’m sure the Oxbridge admissions tutors who are giving white students the benefit of the doubt don’t think of themselves as racist’ by Sophie Heawood 14 Feb
You know what it’s like, you’re driving to meet someone and you send them a message saying you’re 10 minutes away. And then you arrive a full hour later, because you’ve been pulled over by the police, who suspect you of dealing drugs, although they don’t actually tell you that in so many words as they go rifling through your things.
Actually, I have no idea what that feels like, never having been stopped by the police for anything, even though I’ve walked around with drugs on me several times in my life. (I was younger, foolisher, things change.) But this week, when I was waiting to interview George the Poet, a musician recently nominated for a Brit award, this is what happened to him. He’s black, he drives a decent car, he wears Nike, and says it happens all the time. Every day he leaves his London home aware that random and unwarranted police attention might divert him from his path, and that he has to remain diplomatic rather than make it worse for himself by revealing how upsetting he finds it. Me, I just leave the house, idly wondering if I’ve remembered to put my phone charger in my bag.
The report just published by race equality charity the Runnymede Trust, proving that it is harder for black and Asian students to get into the country’s most selective universities (even armed with the same A-level grades as white applicants), comes as a further kick in the teeth to optimists who want to believe that institutional racism is in decline. George the Poet, real name George Mpanga, is a Cambridge graduate: even if you make it through the university selection process, the assumptions about how you paid for that car are still waiting for you on the other side.
I’m sure the police who stopped Mpanga’s car don’t think they’re racist. I’m sure the Oxbridge admissions tutors who are giving white students the benefit of the doubt, while extending less confidence to other applicants, don’t think of themselves as racist, either. Many of them would probably say, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body”, always the first sentence uttered by someone who hasn’t had to address their assumptions. A racist bone – as if racism was an alien substance that God used to build the bad people, rather than something that any one of us is capable of at any time. Casually, quickly; a glance, a hunch.
I grew up convinced I didn’t have a racist bone in my body. In my early teens, I complained that the school uniform list said “flesh-coloured socks”, when flesh came in lots of colours. I walked to the shop for orange juice and, seeing they only had Del Monte – which, I informed the shopkeeper, was produced under an apartheid regime – I walked home empty-handed. I wrote a letter to the South African embassy to ask why Nelson Mandela was still in prison. Imagine my pride when my letter did the trick and they released him the following year!
The fact I had barely met anyone who wasn’t white, in my very white part of Yorkshire, was a side issue. Then I went to university in London, where I made friends with a girl whose family were Indian, and found myself completely gobsmacked the day she wore an Oasis T-shirt. Not, I’m ashamed to say, because she was on the other side of the Blur/Oasis divide, but because she was into indie bands at all. I look back now, mortified at what a clueless kid I was. We all have to start somewhere.
Meanwhile another friend, someone I hadn’t met yet, was listening to the Pulp song Mis-Shapes, about kids who live round here but don’t look the same as you, and thinking yes, it’s about me, the only fat, brown, indie girl in Shropshire! Then she saw the video and realised the misfits were still thin, pretty white girls. She wrote Jarvis Cocker an angry letter, and then felt so stupid she threw it in the bin.
Did the makers of that video have a racist bone in their bodies? Probably not. But like the police officer, the admissions tutor, and me, they just weren’t thinking hard enough.