Stormzy will be funding four scholarships for Black students ‘from underprivileged or disadvantaged’ backgrounds to attend Cambridge. This news has quite rightly been met with praise and celebration. There has also, however, been a strong backlash against Stormzy, and the scheme.
White people are upset; they have been excluded, apparently. Many are asking what the reaction would be if a white person was to fund such a scheme exclusively for white people – as if this was totally unheard of. Amongst other examples, only last year Oxford launched a scheme for white working-class British boys.
Such reactions reveal a deep ignorance to the histories of anti-Black racism and the structural inequalities that continue to pattern our societies. It has not been necessary to provide scholarships for white people, because, along racial lines, white people have been systematically advantaged in all areas, including education.
The backlash we have seen relies on the erasure of all of this wider, historically rooted, context. Such erasure feeds the misguided assumption that we live in a racially equitable society. It is under these fantastical conditions – in ‘a culture of racial equivalence’, as the sociologist Miri Song puts it – that Stormzy’s attempt to redress racial inequity, can be imagined as ‘racist’.
But the Stormzy scholarships cannot be understood in abstraction from the socio-historical realities that inspired them. The reality is a situation in which several Cambridge colleges admitted fewer than 10 Black British students over a 5-year period, a problem also manifest at other (so-called) ‘elite’ institutions like Oxford (it would be interesting to see how many of those that do attain an offer, come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds). Although this should be more than enough justification for the scholarships, it is only a small part of the picture.
Black young people face a range of racialised challenges that systemically impede their paths to institutions like Cambridge. From the racialised miseducation provided in schools to the over-policing of Black communities, state institutions make the path to academic success a difficult one for Black young people. When compounded by poverty and deprivation – which both disproportionately effect Black people it is – the path becomes ever more fraught. This is why Stormzy’s scholarships are specifically targeted at those at the sharp intersection of race and class disadvantage.
Not only are there problems on the path to university, but there are a plethora of problems Black students face when navigating their way through university. This is why the ‘drop-out’ rates for Black students is so high, and why a Black student entering university with the same entry grades as a white student, is likely to attain a degree that is a full classification lower.
As the ‘I too am Cambridge’ campaign (and others) made clear, Black students that attend university are often subject to a range of everyday interpersonal racisms that add a level of complexity to the university experience that white students simply do not encounter. There is also the issue of the startling underrepresentation of Black people amongst university lecturers and professors, and the Eurocentric curricula that fails not only to reflect the contributions of Black people, but also obscures how race and racism have shaped the history of modernity (ironically contributing to the social and racial conditions in which such a backlash is possible). These forces and others coalesce to render the Black body out of place in universities. This in turn perpetuates a system which lock Black people out of higher-paying jobs, and the media, industrial and political spheres of power overwhelmingly dominated by white, often Oxbridge-educated people. These is what the Stormzy scholarships seek to transform.
And still people choose to call the scholarship racist – rather than an attempt to tackle the real racism endemic in our education system. Let’s imagine that centuries of structural racism had systemically attempted to lock white people out of education, that intellect had been ideologically constructed as the preserve of Blackness, that Black people occupied all of the positions of power, and were disproportionately advantaged in all areas. Let us imagine that white bodies were subject to a range of racialised challenges in their everyday lives that made attendance at institutions like Cambridge unthinkable for most. Imagine the myopia, then, in choosing to focus your criticisms on a scholarship for four people, rather than striving to tackle the long and powerful histories of structural racism.
Calls for Black people to help themselves rather than “asking for hand-outs” have long been the response to anti-racist calls for structural change and government assistance to level the playing field. Now that Stormzy and others are putting this into action, many white people do not like it. Whilst working-class white people are right to call for a dismantling of the class structures that disadvantage them, this should not be at the expense of Black students who are struggling against race and class oppression. Class oppression can make it difficult to see (or accept) racial privilege, but this does not make it any less real, or the Stormzy scholarships any less necessary. Whilst Stormzy’s scholarships won’t produce the structural change that is needed, they are a positive step towards redressing long legacies of racial inequity. It’s a shame that too many are unwilling to see this.