26/06/2018 12:46 PM IST | Updated 26/06/2018 5:45 PM IST

How This Indian-Origin Professor Is Calling Out Cambridge University's 'Racism'

"I want it to have blown open the veneer of civility that hides white dominance here."

Priyamvada Gopal

If you search for Priyamvada Gopal on Twitter, one of the first tweets to surface is by an anonymous handle: "Honey, you're NOT a "Doctor". You're a PhD in notoriously intellectually lightweight humanities. When you can prescribe medication, treat patients or actually have a PhD in STEM, then you're a "Doctor". You're not and never will be."

On 18 June, Gopal tweeted her decision to stop supervising students at King's College, Cambridge to protest the 'racist profiling and aggression' she faced from University porters. The porters — employees holding various administrative posts in the institution — refused to address Gopal who holds a doctorate degree as a 'Dr' though the academic insists that is the norm. Tweets such as above have, since then, flooded her social media timelines compelling her to consider taking a break and going offline.

"I supervise on postcolonial literatures for them (King's College) on a voluntary basis as I am employed by university not individual college; they have no specialist in that area. That is what I'm withdrawing until further notice," she said.

Gopal, who frequently and vocally calls out racism on her timeline, is no stranger to vilification of this nature. Formerly a student of literature in Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, she has over 20,000 followers on Twitter and has often faced backlash for protesting racism in bristling, angry words. In April this year, Daily Mail carried an article that called her a 'hate-filled don' and wondered how Cambridge could allow her to work there. That, Gopal tells HuffPost India, opened the floodgates of racist abuse directed at her.

Gopal has lived in the United Kingdom as long as she has taught there, 18 years to be precise. On the Cambridge University website, Gopal, a Reader in the department of English, identifies her primary academic interests as 'colonial and postcolonial literature and theory'. Indian academics say her work on Indian writing is English seminal, and her expertise is acknowledged at universities around the world. Despite the backlash she has faced, the academic is in no mood to back down. Here are excerpts from her interview with HuffPost India, lightly edited for clarity.

News reports say you decided to go on a strike following an altercation with a porter. Would you like to elaborate on what the altercation was about?

I was subjected to a discourteous and unprofessional tone — including raised voices — and hostile manner when being told I could not go through the college as it was shut to all but members. The same thing happened when I raised concerns about this behaviour. I repeatedly introduced myself as a member of the university's teaching staff and requested that rather than being sarcastically addressed as madam, my usual professional title be used.

During your time as an academic in the United Kingdom, how often have you faced aggressive racist behaviour from porters? Can you recollect some other incidents when they behaved disrespectfully towards you?

I've been subjected to it a few times but more to the point, scores of other people have testified to it. We now know that Kings College Students Union has been documenting cases for the last 2-3 years and passing testimonies on to the college. Students have repeatedly told me they've been subjected to it and since this controversy broke out, I've received dozens of emails also testifying to rude and hostile behaviour -- and differential manner to non-white people at the college gates, as well as elsewhere in the university.

PA Archive/PA Images
Cambridge University's Kings College and Clare College (left).

Prior to this, did you ever report aggressive behaviour of porters to the authorities?

Yes. Once verbally, one informally and once formally. After that I gave up.

Did other students and academics of colour ever complain to you about a similar pattern of behaviour they have faced? Can you recount any such incident?

I'll be writing up the testimonies but they all return to one pattern: profiling of people of colour and rude behaviour at the gates of the college. We had two students come to class last year weeping because they'd been hassled by the porters.

Have the porters never been reported to the authorities prior to this — do you get a sense that they draw their sense of entitlement, if at all, from the university's administration itself? Do the authorities actively protect them and ignore accusations of racism against them?

We have now learned that after much agitation by students and pressure from the union, the porters were given an 'unconscious bias' training but these things tend to be tick box exercises. The wider culture of exclusion and cultural/class snobbery — which ultimately comes from above — has to change and go beyond notional training exercises.

King's College seems to have 'investigated' the matter and concluded that there was no 'wrongdoing' on their part. What will be your future course of action be?

Interestingly they cleared themselves of wrongdoing AND issued a statement, doing so BEFORE speaking to me, the principal witness. What sort of investigation is that?

I stand by my decision not to teach their students — with regret because they themselves are wonderful young people who have supported my stance, ironically. Two colleagues have joined me in this. What happens next is up to King's.

A slew of articles have quoted academics saying that it's not a norm to be called a 'Dr' by porters in colleges. How have you been responding to this argument?

That's just nonsensical. Cambridge is a place which is obsessed with titles and correct forms of address. To be clear, most people call me by my first name and I've never stood on ceremony. But I have the right to be addressed professionally should I invoke it. I don't like 'madam' because of its gender and class connotations so it's bizarre to suggest that 'Dr' is somehow worse. The word 'memsahib' itself derives from 'Ma'am' which derives from 'Madam'.

Has there ever been an instance where you were not referred to as 'Dr' by a porter in the presence of others, who were?

I've never seen a porter not address a person they know by their title when asked to do so or when they don't know the person on first name terms.

An article on Sunday Times begins saying, 'Depending on your point of view, Priyamvada Gopal is either a warrior for racial justice or a professional victim with a persecution complex'. How are you dealing with stereotyping such as the latter?

I accept it as part of white supremacist culture and what comes with raising difficult questions. The stereotyping and slurs in the media are absolutely horrendous, a good instance of 'misogynoir' or a specific form of sexism directed at women of colour. It's just a reality and I do my best not to take it too personally. Clearly something is being threatened or there wouldn't be this kind of well, frankly, hysterical reaction.

In an interview to The Guardian you said that you wanted Cambridge University to 'break the silence on race'. What made you want to put your foot down this time and take this step — being referred to as 'extreme' by some — now?

I am tired of feeling helpless in the face hearing students of colour tell me stories about racism and hostility, about microaggressions and damaged mental health. This incident was the straw that broke the camel's back as it were. If nothing else comes out of this, I want it to have blown open the veneer of civility that hides white dominance here and a debate, however fierce or painful, to take place at long last.

Who or what — people, institutions — would you say have till now guarded the silence on race and discouraged conversations about it in the university?

A lot of people participate in the silence in different ways. Victims and bystanders too scared to speak up, college officials more interested in how things look than actualities, white privileged dons who have no intention of querying that privilege, white women who've raised legitimate concerns about sexism but deny racism, and PR departments more interested in spin than truth.

Have you faced more incidents of racist aggression post-Brexit in the UK? Do you feel this incident points as a broader cultural change in the country?

Without a shadow of a doubt, Brexit has emboldened racists and increased the incidence of such hostile behaviour towards those perceived as 'other.'

How would you describe the western media's coverage of the incident ?

I describe the coverage as shockingly racist, clearly targeting a person of colour for speaking up, painting her as a crazed 'squirrel-eyed' fanatic. This is not, of course, original, but part of a repeated pattern: discredit the complainant in order to deny the problem.