St Hugh’s hasn’t had a good year of it. First the controversy over rejected postgrad Damien Shannon and the rules on financial guarantees, and now the scandal involving freshers blacking up to portray ‘Ni**as in Paris’ for a ‘Song Titles’ bop. For a college that likes to characterise itself as Wadham’s slightly less cool little sister, this paints a distressing picture of institutional prejudice and privilege. So what conclusions can we draw from the latest scandal?
When The Cherwell broke the news, it provoked debate by leaving the names of the students involved off its online report. Most of my peers seem to agree that this was fair: as the case of youth police and crime commissioner Paris Brown showed a month or so ago, teenage witlessness recorded on the internet has a nasty habit of coming back to bite its perpetrator later on. There’s a general feeling that, idiotic as the costumes were, those involved should have a chance to learn from the incident rather than having their entire lives affected by one act of staggering thoughtlessness.
However, while this is a humane way of dealing with the issue (it’s still not known what disciplinary measures, if any, will be taken by the college itself), it misses the larger point that it’s the casual nature of the offence that makes it so disturbing. A bop costume specifically intended to mock black students would be universally condemned: simple maliciousness is easily dealt with. But the general lack of cultural awareness implicit in these costumes is, if anything, even more disturbing: the fact that someone intelligent enough to get into Oxford failed to realise blackface is a racist tradition is quite frightening considering how frequently Oxford students end up in positions of real power.
This leads on to the wider question of whether the University as a whole is institutionally racist. Let’s be frank: yes, it is. Any institution that admits fewer than forty black students a year, and where the acceptance rate for black applicants in 2010 was 8.8%, compared to 24.1%
of white applicants, cannot possibly claim to be a racially just system. Of course it’s possible to quibble forever about whether or not it’s the university’s job to correct pre-existing societal inequalities. However, one would hope that, as well as providing an education, a university would attempt to instil its students with a sense of decency towards people from all walks of life. And here it is failing miserably.
One junior dean was described in Hugh’s college paper, The Swan, as saying that they would not usually ask someone to leave the bop over a costume unless another student complained. The idea that blacking up is only an issue if someone takes offence suggests a wilful blindness to the bigger problems that racism causes in society. Blacking up in itself is relatively harmless, if objectionable, but if offensive jokes are disregarded as nothing more than that by the college authorities, students may never make the link between them and the kind of discrimination and violence that black people experience in the workplace and on the streets.
Many Oxford students, if not the majority, are privileged white kids. They have a responsibility to educate themselves about race, but the university also has a responsibility to make sure that acceptable standards of behaviour are enforced and that its students don’t graduate still thinking that there’s anything funny about blacking up. Because if the best university in the world can’t make people understand that racism is still an issue, who or what can?