‘Only cos ur black x’, reads The Student Room comment as a black girl praises herself for making it into Oxford.

Race is increasingly used as a reason to explain achievements and issues disproportionately plaguing certain demographics. Not limited to sporting achievements, coded racism also taints educational achievements. Divisions based on racialised assumptions of physical features are treated as if they’re real and existing. Thus, we see the creation of socially constructed divisions that have become detrimental to the social conditions and mobility of black people.

The Fallacy Box

Forget Pogba being one of the best technicians on the field, it’s his ‘pace’, ‘power’, ‘hard running’ and ‘muscularity’ that’s made him a successful player.

A deep fallacy exists within the realm of sporting performance. It forces all black people into a box. This box labels our sporting achievements as a product of our perceived ‘natural’ physical abilities and overlooks any intelligence, logic and technical skill as being equally fundamental contributors (if not more) to our wins.

A paper published by RunRepeat, a Danish sports data company, illustrates just how entrenched racism is within football commentary. Sampling 80 games from the 2019/20 season of English Premier League, French Ligue 1, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga, more than 2000 statements about 643 different players were analysed. The study concludes that when talking about intelligence 63 per cent of praise was aimed at players with lighter skin tone, whereas 63 per cent of criticism was directed at players with darker skin tone. However, when discussing the power and strength of players, commentators were 6.6 times more likely to be discussing players with a darker skin tone.

This reductionist propensity to view black sportsmen and women’s athletic prowess as the result of genetics feeds the idea that black athletes have to do very little, owing to their ‘natural ability’. This is, of course, not the case. Just take a look at Pogba’s gruelling training schedule: Monday to Friday are filled with explosive strength training and demanding conditioning sessions. No one just wakes up and is able to run the full length of a field at pace for 90 minutes, much less control a ball in between moving obstacles. The very idea that this can come ‘naturally’ is absurd.

The oversaturation of media commentary, perceiving skill that took years of discipline and commitment as a ‘natural ability’ has a tenfold generational impact. Young, black girls and boys grow up aspiring solely to be sportsmen at the expense of other career paths because they believe there is no better alternative. Why would naïve, underdeveloped minds strive for another career if the path is not paved with ‘natural skill’. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve just got the genes. I too catch myself thinking sometimes that my strong deadlift at the gym is entirely due to my genes, rather than the hundreds of hours I’ve put into building my strength.

This is wrong. Sports performance requires a combination of biological factors as well as external ones that include your environment, your sociocultural background, and your financial status. A Channel 4 documentary attempted to compare the biological difference between African and European athletes using runners from Kenya and Denmark. It claimed a genetic advantage of having ‘birdlike legs’ helps black athletes to ‘bounce and skip’ off the ground. While there may be some truth to this, it completely overlooks the hard work of Kenyan Olympians who have had to overcome many racial and social, as well as financial hurdles just to be able to compete. Yes, genetics play a significant role. But to benefit from one’s genes, one must inevitably work hard and push that natural potential to its limit.

In because you’re Black, babe

According to data obtained by David Lammy, former Labour education minister, in 2015 one in five Cambridge colleges and one in three Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black student with A-levels. In 2020, black people made 4.8 per cent of successful applications to Cambridge, compared with 3.6 per cent the previous year. Likewise in Oxford, in 2020 3.7 per cent of intake identified as black, compared with 3.2 per cent the year before.

The improvement in these statistics makes sense, Oxbridge has been seen in the media to be working hard to diversify the socioeconomic demographic of their students through different initiatives. For instance, Cambridge offers a variety of scholarships targeted at black students to help financially support their university journey. Similarly, by forming Oxford for UK, colleges in Oxford aspire to help more local students from under-represented backgrounds make more successful applications to the university.

Great … right? Well, not according to those who believe that we only got into Oxbridge because of positive discrimination based on race. According to an Oxford dictionary definition, positive discrimination is: ‘the practice or policy of favouring individuals belonging to groups known to have been discriminated against previously’. To some, access schemes such as Target Oxbridge and the Stormzy scholarship offer black people an undue advantage in attaining one of the already scarce places.

This is poor reasoning. Not only does it take away from the sheer hard work, blood, sweat and tears of students who laboured to get into these coveted institutions. It also illuminates the real pandemic of society — the fixation on skin colour, rather than the myriad of socioeconomic forces at play.

Ethnic minority access to Oxbridge forms a very small proportion of assistance available. The overarching focus of these institutions is to admit more state school students, not necessarily black students. White working-class students are similarly as under-represented as black working-class students. The difference between these two categories is that one faces institutional obstacles whilst the other doesn’t — at least, not to the same extent. Black students who are already more likely to come from working-class households face the additional burden of discrimination when it comes to housing, accessing certain jobs, and getting healthcare.

The fact that no one would ever go up to a white person and say: ‘it’s only ‘cos you’re working class …’, is proof that positive discrimination is only ridiculed when it favours both race and class, as opposed to just class. Institutions are praised for their inclusivity with initiatives that target more working-class white kids. However, add in the element of race, and the same institutions are suddenly confronted with accusations of racial bias.

So, as a powerlifter and Cambridge undergraduate, it’s obviously my genes and black credentials that have given me these titles — right? Stop reducing the achievements of black people to their skin. We are more than our colour.

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