‘Dear World’: David Starkey does not speak for Cambridge University on Race or Gender

A few weeks ago, I heard about the ‘Dear World’ campaign, a campaign by the University of Cambridge. I heard that it was designed to publicise the amazing research different academics and faculties pursue. It was designed to get people excited, to make them feel inspired, to show them why what we do matters. It would – so the person who told me about it, buzzing with excitement – give a voice to all of us junior researchers and all of the diffident senior academics who never quite managed to explain our work.

But then, I watched the video introducing it, and my heart sank. The opening few minutes will show you why. The video opens with a classic classroom scene; a voice – humming with vibrato like a badly-tuned cello – orates the words of the title: Dear World. And onto the screen paces David Starkey, in character as a crusty professor beside a dusty chalk board, frowning furiously at the viewer. He intones, as if it were a line of Hamlet, a question that is unblushing use of REF jargon: ‘How do you measure the impact of a university?’

We then cut to a breathy series of female voiceovers, tumbling over each other eagerly, one of which suggests we could look at ‘the number of students who have led countries’. I couldn’t help but think of Cambridge’s – and Britain’s – part in empire-building. I winced to hear Starkey talk of ‘friendships that span the globe’, still more to hear him approvingly label an image of black men and women ‘having bigger ideas in Africa’ … as if Africa were a single country, in need of salvation at the hands of a largely white university half a world away.

My image of Cambridge University doesn’t have much room for David Starkey. Starkey is notorious for his misogynistic belittling of women who work in my discipline, and it’s in that context I first noticed him. But he’s also pushed the boat out with gratuitously racist remarks, which are a matter of public record, and perfectly well known to Cambridge. Why on earth is he the spokesperson for any sort of campaign – still less one that claims to be altruistic?

In my lectures, I don’t talk as much about racism as I wish I could. I do lecture a course on Middle English romance, and in that course, I talk about the ways these popular medieval fictions generate and perpetuate bigoted stereotypes – misogynistic, racist, disablist, xenophobic and Islamophobic, amongst other things – in forms that have endured to the present day. I find this course hard to teach. The first time I delivered it, last year, I limited by topic to misogyny: there, I felt on firm enough ground to discuss these texts from a personal perspective, to bring in what had always been left out in my own experience of Cambridge English Literature, to open up space to recognise rape myths and victim-blaming, to identify the tropes of the Bad Mother and the deviant sexualised woman. But I also found that, more and more, I was looking at the ways these texts dealt with race. And, while I’m a white woman who has little business lecturing anyone about racism, I found I couldn’t ignore it. I had students in my lectures who were frowning or nodding, asking questions or emailing me, trying to get a grip on what this literature they were reading was telling them about the way European and British culture has represented men and women who looked like them.

And there were too few of these students in my lectures. There were too few of them at Cambridge.

I felt that I had to talk about the gaps in the course they study, about the biases that keep us looking at literature that smooths over Britain’s history of racism, and Europe’s medieval culture of racism, which leaves a legacy right up to 2015. I had to show that the same tired old images of blackness and Judaism, the same images of foreign ‘Others’ and violent invaders and benefit-grabbing immigrants, have been the stuff of popular fiction for centuries. So, this year, I came back wanting to find a way to talk more honestly about race. I came back, and pretty soon I read about a black Oxford Rhodes scholar who was repeatedly refused entry to his college by gate keepers who assumed he must be a workman or a tourist, not a student. I read about a student here at Cambridge who was mistaken for one of the few other black women students in her college. I read about the death threats issued to my colleague, simply for publicising academic research that demonstrates the importance of black cultures in medieval Europe. It’s not my issue, but I felt angry, and I feel more angry now.

Much of the ‘Dear World’ Campaign is wonderful, and could make us all so excited to be here. But Starkey’s voice is all over it. The video implies that Starkey’s racism and misogyny can be swept under the carpet. It implies that, so long as a carefully-selected group of women and of people from ethnic minorities are shown, smilingly delivering snippets of voiceover interwoven with Starkey’s patrician tones, it’s all ok.

It’s not ok.

This video perpetuates an image of educational hierarchy, with Starkey pinning us with his gaze, breathing professorial authority, speaking sonorous RP … teaching, for goodness’ sake, using a chalk blackboard, like a relic of the good old days when closed scholarships kept Cambridge for the better class of young gentleman. Women, and people from ethnic minorities, are allowed speaking parts – but all subsumed under Starkey’s authority, their words splinted up into quick quotations pressed into service of an image that’s as much about Starkey the revered academic, as it is about the Cambridge University I know and work in.

Starkey concludes the video with all the simplicity of a speaker who has never had to question his own profound privilege. As the montage of cutting-edge research intercut with enthusiastic young students comes to a close, he orates “… and that is how you measure the impact of a university”. I beg to differ. I doubt there’s any one way to measure the impact of a university – unless you’re interested in cheap metrics and gimmicky attempts to pre-empt REF 2020 – but certainly, one way would be to stand beside students and faculty who’ve been insulted by racist comments, and to respond to this video: Dear World, no, David Starkey does not speak for us here.


18 thoughts on “‘Dear World’: David Starkey does not speak for Cambridge University on Race or Gender

  1. Very glad that you voice this so eloquently. I felt absolutely deflated when I saw that campaign. I’d love to rave about its general plan, but the video does the opposite of what it sets out to do. So very many thanks for putting this in clear words, as my reaction had been mere dumbfounded disbelief that nobody had thought he would be the least helpful spokesperson.

    • I feel exactly the same way – great idea for a campaign; terrible and insulting execution. I can’t believe no one thought it was a bad idea.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. I was revisiting this recently and your sentence: “…as if Africa were a single country, in need of salvation at the hands of a largely white university half a world away.” made me think you might be interested in this older tedtalk…with Catherine Phiri (you probably already know of her???)

    Debunking the made-for-Africa script: Catherine Phiri at TEDxEuston

    (Catherine Phiri is the managing director of Media 365, a cause-related communications which produces award-winning cause related campaigns for leading organizations and is the executive producer of Zambia’s popular drama series Love Games. A passionate advocate for HIV and AIDS awareness, Catherine executive produced Shuga, MTV’s first drama series for Africa with a HIV storyline. Early on this year Catherine was appointed the Zambian chair of the Twenty Ten Club, who’s ethos centres on enabling Black female business leaders and aspiring young entrepreneurs to achieve their potential.)

    I think your article is important and relevant and crucial to critiquing media/ownership and the selling of education globally.

    Nicely written, you.

    • Katherine, I’m so sorry, I had written a response to this days ago, but clearly it didn’t post correctly.

      Thank you so much for this, and for the support. The talk is excellent, and I have already shared it with a few people who asked me about that line.

      Very much appreciate also your link in the second post (though you’re being overly kind with the comment!).

      Thank you, as ever. 🙂

      • Please, no need to apologize. You’ve been fully engaged in important work and I’m absolutely rooting for you and your colleagues.

        We’ll work on you being able to receive compliments… I wouldn’t exaggerate when it comes to Jeanne de Montbaston… no siree bob… 🙂

  3. Oh, and I don’t know if this is of interest, as I realize you’re focusing on the UK… so my apologies if this is veering from your article, but the University in Missouri, just got rid of a president over his tolerance of racism and their political action is causing the media to call the students “fascist”. This is a link to one of my favorite teachers… (as are you):


  4. Hmm, I must admit I rather like David Starkey. Sure he’s obviously got issues, but he is entertaining, has an enthralling delivery, and is well known. I’d suggest that as the purpose of this video would seem to be to attract attention and publicity, he was probably the best person for the job. He certainly pulls the video together well.

    Which isn’t to say that your points are not valid, but in the real world context of what the aims of the video are I’d suggest he was the best person for the job.

    • Really? The ‘best’ person for the job?! I find that very hard to accept. He writes popular history – which is great, and engaging, but is a poor match with the content of the video, which focuses on groundbreaking work that everyone can understand. His script is class-bound and edging on racism, and his opinions sound misogynistic to me. I’d even suggest that the only reason he seems to ‘pull the video together’ is that he provides a familiar image of elitist education: the video conflates age, race and masculinity with gravitas.

      I think the ‘real world context’ of this video is very far from what you’re seeing here. Do you think that women students are not part of the ‘real world’? Or parents of students who are of ethnic minorities? And what about people watching this video and expecting it might show them how university research relates to them – are they only part of the ‘real world’ if they can sympathise with what Starkey represents? I’m really shocked by the idea that such a narrow section of the population could ever represent the ‘real world’.

      The people who object to this video are no less ‘real’ for not embodying the public stereotypical image of ‘Cambridge’.

  5. I am sick of Cambridge’s endless pleas for donations anyway, but this is particularly ill-judged. A few years ago my own Cambridge college used a particularly right-wing journalist of a similar vintage and views to head up their fundraising campaign. I complained and I suspect others did too, as he disappeared rather quickly.

  6. Pingback: Open Letter: David Starkey Does Not Speak for Cambridge University | Jeanne de Montbaston

  7. I urge you to look at Johnson Banks’s website and their various thoughts for the week. They are the company behind this video and the mindless cute ‘Dear World’ campaign. Even if Cambridge needed “branding” the decision to employ this firm is appalling. Truly this emperor has no clothes, no matter how much money they have taken from Cambridge.

    And congratulations to you on the courtesy with which you have treated The American Conservative and his comments about SJWs.

    • Thank you – that’s really useful.

      And thank you too for that kind comment. It was really nice to be able to reply on that forum and to get a thoughtful response – it makes me feel fairly hopeful!

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