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Identity, Change and Loss

photo of Naomi Kellman

Naomi Kellman, Rare’s Senior Manager for School and Universities and Founder of Target Oxbridge

‘Rah, she doesn’t sound like she’s from Croydon you know!’

I was on the bus home after shopping in Croydon town centre. It was the summer holiday of my second year at Oxford, and I’d just finished explaining to a guy that I couldn’t give him my phone number. He took it well, but turned to his friend afterwards to express surprise at my voice. My ‘Oxford voice’, as I now call it.

I grew up in Croydon and, before applying to Oxford, worried about what doing so would mean for my identity. With grandparents from Jamaica, Barbados, Nigeria and England, but surprisingly light skin, my blackness had always been a topic of discussion and intrigue. I wondered if three years at Oxford would add even more questions to those conversations. Especially if I was answering them in a new voice. A ‘posher’ voice.

The relationship between race and class is well documented, with 47% of black children growing up in poverty according to the Runnymede Trust. Voice is often seen as an indicator of class, and can often denote belonging. Having someone point out that I’d lost my Croydon voice made me fear that I’d lost part of my identity, part of what made me belong. When working with students on Target Oxbridge, the programme I run to help black students apply to Oxford and Cambridge, these fears still ring true. Students ask questions about what it is like going home after a term at Oxford or Cambridge, and whether it’s harder to fit in with family and friends. There’s a fear that embracing a new and predominantly white world will limit their access to the world they currently inhabit. There is a fear of loss.

This idea of change as loss is common in a number of other spheres. As public discussions about the decolonising of university curriculums has shown, there is a section of society that views the introduction of non-European history and writers to the curriculum as a threat to erase European history and writers. This zero-sum reading of the situation strikes me as odd. Increased inclusion does not mean the exclusion of what was already in place. It does often mean, however, a more nuanced understanding of what we thought we already knew. For example, we cannot truly understand the Industrial Revolution without understanding its economic links to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. They were not events that happened in isolation.

The work of historians like David Olusoga has shone a much needed light on the fact that black people have been a part of British history for centuries – not just since slavery, but since as far back as the Roman Empire. And some played roles within top institutions, with John Blanke acting as trumpeter for King Henry VII and Christian Cole becoming the first black student at Oxford in 1873. This history has been so hidden for so long that it’s been possible to conceive of British society and its top institutions as historically white, so much so that it can feel that we, as black people, are entering such places for the first time. The power of this more inclusive history is that it can help us to understand that we aren’t in fact going first. We are building on the legacy of those who have gone before us.

As Target Oxbridge has grown since 2012, with 81 students gaining offers, I have enjoyed watching its alumni make their mark in Oxford and Cambridge, along with the other black students they study alongside. These students have worked tirelessly on access initiatives to help younger black students to see that they can be themselves and be an Oxbridge student. One of the Target Oxbridge alumni said to me recently that: ‘We got here as a result of programmes like this, and we have to pay it forward’. By embracing their existing identities as black people, and their new identity as Oxbridge students, they have been able to affect change in both the worlds of Oxford and Cambridge, and the communities from which they have come.

Reflecting on my own experiences I came to realise that I can’t ever ‘lose’ my identity, as my identity is not something that is given to me, it is something that I play a role in shaping. I shape it through the decisions I take on what and who I identify with, as well as what I decide to read, listen to and do. I define it by the causes I choose to fight for on a daily basis, and the relationships I choose to invest in along the way. At Oxford I happened to get a new voice. At first I thought it was new because it sounded different. I now realise it was new because it was louder, more confident, and more adept at arguing for the things I believe in.