I TOO AM OXFORD: Black students took part in a campaign last year to share their experiences
A REPORT surveying the experiences of 70 black and minority ethnic (BME) students at Oxford University has raised concerns that it is failing to address a culture of institutional racism that has left black students feeling isolated.
The 100 Voices 2 Report from Oxford University Student Union’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (CRAE) – made public for the first time last week – identified four key themes underpinning their negative experiences.
This included a lack of diversity in the student body, an experience of isolation, a pervasive culture that struggled to welcome difference in race and ethnicity and a curriculum that failed to capture the diversity of non-Western thought, people and cultures.
When asked: ‘Have you ever felt uncomfortable/unwelcome because of your ethnicity?’ nearly 60 per cent of BME participants replied ‘yes’.
In a personal anecdote, an unnamed student explained: “I feel like sometimes porters are especially distrustful and cautious when they see a black face.
“In one incident in particular, I showed my Bod [university ID] card as requested but the porter insisted on me handing it in and then collecting it when I left the college. I had never heard of porters doing this before and no one I know has been asked to do the same.”
Other examples presented suggested a culture of ignorance that made BAME students particularly uncomfortable, coupled with a lack of ‘safe spaces’ to discuss experiences of racism.
“Last year, a pair of students blacked up…apparently completely unaware that this offensive,” said a respondent.
“I think that fact that the college system potentially isolates people of colour doesn't help either. It's hard to speak up about something being racist when you may be the only person of colour in that [common room] meeting,” added another student.
According to the university’s admissions figures, in 2014 it accepted roughly 24 students from black British African or Caribbean backgrounds from the 238 that applied.
OFFENSIVE: The Colonial Comeback cocktail was marketed at a debate on reparations
In a statement to The Voice, an Oxford university spokesperson said: “Following the interviews which fed into the 100 Voices 2 Report, in 2014 we held a joint summit where university staff and members of the student union and the student-led Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality discussed issues raised by students and agreed a set of concrete steps, including substantial work to review its curriculum in several subject areas with an eye to ethnicity and diversity, working in consultation with minority ethnic students.”
Rising tension amongst the student body was amplified after the Oxford Union, a student body organisation and home to one of Britain’s oldest debating societies, attempted to market a controversial cocktail called the ‘Colonial Comeback’.
The concoction, sold at the union bar, was advertised with the shackled hands of a black slave to coincide with a debate on whether or not Britain should pay reparations to its former colonies.
After issuing an apology, the union passed a motion declaring it was institutionally racist and commentators have called for the university to recognise that it too is guilty, albeit of less obvious offences.
In a gathering movement called Rhodes Must Fall Oxford in reference to British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, the group wrote on its Facebook page: “While the University hides behind the fact that it has no jurisdiction over the union, it must be pointed out that union members are students of the university – whose opinions are significantly influenced by the university, its curriculum, and overall institutional architecture.
“Yesterday, the Oxford Union acknowledged that it is institutionally racist. When will the University of Oxford have the courage to follow suit?”
In a statement, an Oxford University spokesman said identifying and addressing ways in which it could better ensure students felt safe and well represented at Oxford was a top priority.
She added: "There is no place at Oxford for the kind of crass and insensitive attitude that the material produced by the Oxford Union suggests.
"If students were to display such material on university premises, the university would immediately take action. While we are confident that it in no way represents the vast majority of Oxford students, racially insensitive comments or behaviour of this or any kind are unacceptable at Oxford and its colleges."
RHODES MUST FALL: Students at the University of Cape Town deface a statue as it is removed from the campus
FOR THE most part, I am loving my time studying French and Italian at the University of Oxford.
I am doing a course I enjoy and which constantly challenges me. I am involved in a wealth of extra-curricular activities, such as church, the Christian Union and choir.
And each term I get the opportunity to see inspirational people such as Baroness Lawrence and Malala Yousafzai. I am profoundly grateful for these experiences.
However, Oxford also represents a lot of things that I’d rather not be associated with.
Institutional racism is sadly evident in all ranks of the elitist Oxford system. Studies show white students are twice more likely to be offered a place than ethnic minority students with the same grades.
Only 3.9 per cent of Oxford professors are of ethnic minority background and, as far as I know, there is no black professor at all in my department.
As a black student, I am most definitely in the minority.
I am one of only three black people accepted for study in my year at college, the only black student in my year across the university studying Italian, and one of about five enrolled on the French course.
In spite of this, I’ve found that in general those I relate with on a personal level have no problem with my difference.
I cannot say the same of many of my friends, who have been told such things as “you’re only here because you fill the black quota”.
Students deal with cultural ignorance and insidious racism regularly, from fellow students and even from tutors, as highlighted by last year’s I Too, Am Oxford campaign and substantiated by the internal Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality.
I believe the deeply ingrained structural racism that the university upholds is to blame.
Let me tell you one of the university’s best-kept secrets: Oxford University is enshrined to one of the most radical racists that ever lived.
Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist behind the colonisation of much of southern Africa and the establishment of the apartheid regime in South Africa, is held in high regard here.
There’s Rhodes House, the Rhodes library and, of course, the Rhodes scholarships – which ironically are often offered to exceptional students from former colonies.
The colonialist’s former college, Oriel, has him immortalised in a statue at its exterior, where he looks down on all from the Rhodes Building.
Codrington Library at All Souls College was built using the thousands of pounds a plantation owner had garnered through his slaves in Barbados.
It is deeply damaging and beyond belief that the university fails to acknowledge these facts, simply turning a blind eye to its links to some of the worst atrocities humanity has ever seen.
In an environment such as this is it any wonder that racism is so pervasive?
The Oxford Union, the debating society managed by students of the university, has become notorious for marginalising the BAME community.
A few months ago, they invited France’s Front National leader Marine Le Pen, known far and wide for her racist and xenophobic views, to speak uninterrupted for nearly an hour.
The union failed to accept that in allowing such views to be aired, it was giving Le Pen a platform. Instead, it championed her right to free speech.
Many of my black friends now refuse to come to union events because racist remarks are all too common.
I wrote this column hours after the Union bar concocted a cocktail called The Colonial Comeback and advertised it with an image of black hands in chains.
It is clear that institutional racism is a big problem here and BAME students face countless struggles on account of their race.
Oxford needs a culture overhaul. And it must start now.
Ruth Akinradewo is a second-year student
at Oxford University, where she is studying
French and Italian. She is a writer and posts
on her own blog The Change Channel.