What it Means to be Black in a White-Dominated Space

Ore Ogunbiyi (left) and Chelsea Kwake holding copies of their Taking up Space




 By Nehru Odeh

To be black… is to be in a constant state of rage- James Baldwin

Once in several decades, a book that not only ruffles feathers but also searches the mind of the oppressor,  the powerful and the metropole, appears on the literary scene and grips the collective imagination of a people, leaving indelible imprints on their minds. Such a book is Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manisfesto For Change. The groundbreaking book , written by Ore Ogunbiyi and Chelsea Kwakye, both first class honours graduates of University of Cambridge, draws attention to the day-to-day experience of being black at Cambridge and other white-dominated spaces –  from the lack of black representation in the student body to the teaching staff, the non-inclusiveness of the curricular, subtle forms of racism, such as racist and gendered stereotypes, racialized language and tropes and the various ways black students take up space that is not freely given in white-dominated institutions.

This is no doubt a bold offering. What the writers have succeeded in pointing out in the book is how being black in a white-dominated space determines one’s being, the many hurdles one has to scale through and  how one navigates one’s way through that  labyrinthine world.  However an underlying current runs through the whole gamut of the book and continue to tug at the minds of readers: that is, what does it mean to be black in a white-dominated space? What does it mean to be Other? What does it mean to be among the subaltern? What does it mean to be different in terms of skin colour, bodily features, accent and hair? It means a lot. It determines one’s fate and everything about one, as Kwakye puts it, blackness becomes one’s “defining characteristic.

To the writers, to be black in a white-dominated space like Cambridge is to be denied certain rights, privileges and access that others have. To be black is to be discriminated against on and off classroom. To be black is to be denied certain knowledge and truths that favour one’s history, culture and being because of a skewed and biased curricular. To be black is to have one’s intellectual abilities questioned at every slight opportunity. To be black is to be denied a level playing field when it comes to desirability and relationship. To be black is to be under pressure to excel and fit in (what the writers call imposter syndrome).

To be black is to have others gawk at your bodily features and not free to wear hair styles such as braids and Afro. To be black is to be at risk of having mental health issues because of the trauma one has gone through. To be black is to have an identity crisis and have one’s being and history erased. To be black is to be treated as a representative of other blacks and seen as a homogenized whole. To be black is to be what you are not in essence and not to be what you are. And having gone through all these because one is black one has to work hard to take up space and acquire certain rights, privileges and access.

Take up space? Yes. The reason is not far- fetched because of the ideas the book problematizes, the discourse it generates, the conversation it engenders and the fundamental issues it raises – ideas such as disparaging relationship between classes (or class inequality), the colonized and the colonizer, master and slave, the exploited and the exploited and the continuing exploitation and marginalization of the Other or what Antonio Gramsci would call the subaltern. Gramsci coined the term subaltern to identify the social groups excluded and displaced from the socio-economic institutions of society in order to deny their political voice. Black girls in white-dominated institutions in the United Kingdom are veritable examples of such social groups.

Even though most black girls were born in the metropole, they have not been integrated into the mainstream. The reason being that they are female and black in white-dominated spaces.  They still live on the fringes, are treated as second class citizens and their blackness determines their life chances and how they are treated. They still have to prove a point about their blackness, as though blackness is a criminal act. “Whiteness as a category is powerful because of how it others non-white people. Whiteness is the normative positions from which other races are defined, and being white therefore means that you can blend into the background in a way that black people can’t,” Ogunbiyi avers.

However, on Kwakye’s part, she says, “More than anything, it was a stark reminder that I had no control over my identity. As an eighteen-year old, it was hard to grapple with the fact that I had entered an environment which meant I was black before I was anything else. Not only black in being, but black in theory, stereotypes, principle and reality. It would soon become my most defining characteristic, in a place in which I had thought I would have the licence to explore every facet of my identity.”

Is it a crime to be black? one may ask. Yet according to the authors, these distinctions appear to have been wiped out on the surface, they have taken new horrendous, insidious and subtle attitudinal forms in institutions predominantly dominated by whites. The authors have brought these issues, which still exist, to the fore. They interrogate what it means to be black in a white-dominated space.  They have taken on issues such as institutional racism, black underrepresentation, lack of diversity and inclusiveness in education, sugar-coated altruism that are not genuine, racialised language and tropes and tackled topics including access, curriculum, mental health, desirability, relationships and activism. But the insidious thing about this is that the authorities and white students pretend as though they don’t exist, as though they are figments of black students’ imagination, while they pay lip service to diversity, inclusion, access and difference.

“We want to show everyone that when we talk about diversity and inclusion at university, we’re not just pointing to abstract concepts, targets, theories and ideas. We are real people and these very conversations have a direct impact on our lives and university experiences. For once, we as students have decided to grab hold of this narrative and centre our voices in a conversation that only works I it is nuanced and critical,”  the writers submit.

However what makes the duo sparkle like dazzling stars is not only their prodigiousness – Yes, their prodigiousness matters a lot – but also the fact that they are not intellectuals cocooned in the world of theories and ideas and cut off from reality but are themselves engaged in praxis and walk the talk. The book, a product of the author’s lived harrowing experiences while they were students at University of Cambridge ,where they not only made their mark but also their presence felt through activism, participation in curricular and extra-curricular activities  and membership of the African Carribean Society is an act of resistance against racial preconceptions, limitations,  limits, exclusion, subtle segregation and marginalization  in a white-dominated space.

“As black girls, the activist instinct is bound up in our very identities. The more aware we become of our oppression, the more we feel the need to light for every cause. We have to stand up for black women and battle the insidious misogynoir we face, because other black women fought before us in order for us to be there,” they maintain.

It is instructive to note that as a fresher, Ogunbiyi led a campaign that stopped the university authorities from displaying a Benin Bronze cockerel at the college hall. The bronze cockerel was taken during the 1897 British Expedition. Also in her first year, Ogunbiyi wrote an engaging article entitled A Letter To  My Fresher Self which was published in Varsity, the college magazine. The article not only generated reactions, it resonated with a lot of people. The authors also exacted change through their involvement in the #BlackMenOfCambridge viral campaign.

“I remember feeling shocked that that this cockerel had been there and I hadn’t noticed it. More shocking, though, was knowing that it was being displayed as it were a trophy to be proud of, despite the knowledge of its history,” Ogunbiyi says.

A salient aspect of this intellectual offering is that the authors, two young black girls in a predominantly white institution like University of Cambridge, are voices from the fringe who have gone out of the way to speak not only their minds and those of many others facing similar situations but also assert their presence and take up space that is not guaranteed by their white counterparts. They have come out to sound a note of warning and open the eyes of Empire to the subtle, dehumanizing experiences  black girls go through in white-dominated  spaces as soon as they step their feet there.

They are saying, “Hey, guys this is what we went through in spite of the lip service you pay to diversity, inclusion, accommodation and difference. They are saying there is no one black experience,  black girls are not one homogenous whole that should be treated as one entity but are personalities from different backgrounds  with different mannerisms, goals,  aspirations and beings. They are saying Africa is not a country. They are saying, “Hey guys whether your actions are deliberate or not, we are saying this is how we feel and we are ready to take up space, whether you like it or not.”  The Empire is indeed writing back.

“Above all, at university we realized that the concept of space means a lot to us as black women. We have never been afforded  the luxury of simply existing and being able to blend into the background. We are confidently forced to navigate university spaces that claim to support us but rarely show positive action proving that. So what do we do?” Ogunbiyi and Kwakye ask.

Take action, of course. And that is what taking up space is all about. Aside from the author’s sheer audacity and genius, what makes the book unique is the prodigious manner they have made critical theory so simple, accessible and free of arcane and bombastic language by the simple, down- to- earth manner they and other contributors tell their true stories based on their practical experiences as students.  Aside from the act that the multiplicity of voices democratizes and universalizes the ideas put forward in the book, many who pass through similar situations globally will relate to them easily.  As they have pointed out these are not theories or abstract concepts but are borne out of the experiences of real people with feelings.

The book is a wake- up call for everyone – parents, siblings and teachers to black girls alike- so that they can have a feel of the trauma black girls go through in white-dominated spaces and make a change. That way, it will benefit everyone. This book is perhaps but an eye opener and a revelation to those who don’t know what black girls go through in predominantly white institutions so that they can be abreast of the miseducation as well as the perpetuation of dehumanizing acts that go on there. And the book is a new addition to postcolonial discourse and canons of critical theory.

The book is also a gold mine and treasure trove for black girls in white- dominated spaces who the authors, forced to find voices in spaces in which people like them had often been silenced, hope will use it as a guide to take up space. “Our wish for you is that you read this and feel empowered, comforted and validated in every emotion you experience, or decision that you make,” they maintain. And they are saying, “Black girls in white-dominated spaces unite and take up space. You have nothing to lose but your chains.” What can be more reassuring and comforting than that?