Kenneth Ramchand – ‘One may be safe from violence, but one is exposed to a more subtle variation of the colour bar’

Primary source material reproduced from Kenneth Ramchand, ‘The Colour Problem at the University: A West Indian’s Changing Attitudes’, in H. Tajfel & J.L. Dawson (eds.) Disappointed Guests: Essays by African, Asian and West Indian Students (Oxford, 1965), pp.27-35.

Trinidadian scholar Kenneth Ramchand studied at Edinburgh between 1959 and 1963, completing a PhD on Caribbean Literature. He published some reflections on his time as a student in 1965 as part of the edited volume Disappointed Guests: Essays by African, Asian and West Indian Students.

As I stood on the deck of the S.S. Antiles, Trinidad grew smaller and smaller, and I of the big dreams reminded myself of my obligations:

‘Boy, you goin’ to England, ah want you to eat book, don’t let nobody beat you in exams nuh.’

‘Woman like bush up dey, partner. They like the black boys too bad.’

‘You better watch out, you hear, dey beatin’ black fellers with all kind of a bicycle chain up there dese days.’

[…] Soon, I was on the train to Waverley, Edinburgh. In my single compartment I began to think of home, but half-way to the Scottish capital, a middle-aged man with dirty nostrils and no hair silently joined me. He seemed annoyed with himself for having intruded on my privacy, and so, all the way to Waverley he sat there looking sick (he in his corner, I in mine) in penitential silence.

[…] My real concern at first was to avoid the bicycle chains and to watch out for the sex-starved females. As neither threatened on this first day, I wrote to Trinidad to say that I had arrived safely. I paused to look at my skin for signs of the disease, but I was as black as ever. I decided not to make that report yet. One never knew: perhaps next morning I would wake up to find myself infected.

The weeks passed and the fear of the bicycle chain diminished. Violence, it seemed, occurred only in Nottingham where the workers were fighting for women and wages. In the liberal atmosphere of an ancient university on can always avoid violence by not walking too late at night.*

[…] My next move was to join the West Indian Association. For a year I stuck firmly to the group. for a year I had lunch with West Indians, coffee with West Indians, dates with West Indians and I attended purely West Indian parties. At the lectures I had one friend – a brave little girl whom I got to know and like well over the years. But, as in those early days I never dared disturb the universe, our relationship remained firmly platonic. Among the men, a war veteran, with memories of pre-war cricket, was my only ally.

For a variety of reasons, women at the university are reluctant to form relationships with coloured students. It seemed natural at first, to expect that since one spent so much time at the university, one’s friends both male and female would come from the university, for it is here, we are told, that personal contacts are made, here that minds meet. It became apparent, however, that there existed a tribe of nurses, au pair girls, typists, shop-assistants, one or two divorcees, a few erring wives, a nympho-maniac and various rejected university girls who satisfied the emotional needs of the coloured students. Many of these girls are decent girls, and the degree of promiscuity varies. Many are intelligent people. Some are victims of their own loneliness, and some are victims of the coloured man’s loneliness. Many are unloved. Some are loved for a time. A few become happy wives. The overall impression, however, is that a hasty sexual connexion has taken the place of any settled human relationship between black men and white women.

The deep malaise in the man-woman relationship involving coloured men and white women is paralleled by a total absence of relationships between white men and coloured women […] No doubt, the

prevailing attitude that white men only associate with black women for possible exotic sexual thrills, is a kind of deterrent to many white students. Probably too, if there were more black women at the university, the chances of a white man-black woman relationship would be increased, at least statistically […] sexual rivalry takes the form of contemptuous non-competition and boycott.

One of the main factors behind the reluctance of the female is the intransigence of the male. The white man-black man relationship is rare, and the black man-white woman relationship is heavily censored. Thus it comes about that the macabre sexual relationship outside the university (already described) has to carry those strains that might have been borne easily within the campus, as well as the strains set up by a lack of man-man contact. The sexual connexion quickly becomes a desperate struggle in the dark to hold on to sanity. It becomes a cure for all ills. It becomes a furious masturbation. The gradual revelation of the weakness of human relationships between white and black students at the university, and the realization that this state of affairs has created a grotesque parody of the man-woman relationship, are the major discoveries of the West Indian student […]

One may be safe from violence, but one is exposed to a more subtle variation of the colour bar. This new knowledge has brought a touchiness to the eater of the forbidden fruit, which, with increasing insight into the motives of his fellow white student, translates itself into a desperate kind of self-scrutiny [….] The West Indian is becoming more and more aware of himself as being cast in the role of performer. The audience is physically close but the social distance is great […]

At Edinburgh, the West Indian calypso is the most popular student band: all, performers. Other West Indians either play cricket or sing calypso. Those who cannot sing are disc-jockeys. It is regrettable that these appointed roles are accepted so readily. But the temptation is great […]

At a party last year, I was introduced to an obscure gentleman:

‘Do you play in the band?’

‘No.’ (With resentment.)

‘Do you play cricket, then?’

‘No.’ (Amused.)

Long silence.


He had scrutinized my personality and found it wanting. One is either a performer or one has no personality.

*Last summer, a Jamaican student returning home late at night from a visit to some domino-playing friends was assaulted by a gang of youths.