The preamble of the ‘We are all Oxford’ campaign insists that it does not oppose the work of ‘I, too, am Oxford’. And yet actions speak louder than words. One cannot disclaim an action’s impact in the real world. If after the successful ‘I need feminism because…’ photo-shoot, another had taken place, consisting of a group of people of which half were male arguing that sexism wasn’t really all that much of a problem, it would have been abhorrent. Whilst racism and sexism are different and often not comparable as oppressions and social entities, the situation is analogous. It should not be in dispute that people who are incapable structurally of experiencing a certain form of discrimination should not try to deny the experiences of those who are. The OUSU support that the campaign got was also worrying (OUSU have now apologised for not initially sharing the original photo-shoot, but not for posting the link to ‘We are all Oxford’).
It is worth a look at what some of the whiteboard messages of ‘We are all Oxford’ had to say. The first two point out that common rooms have equal opportunities representatives and that one student’s course and college is 50% ethnic minority. Responding to personal experiences with a reminder of the existence of formal structures is not appropriate. Having equalities representatives is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the absence of discrimination. To throw statistics back at people who have provided stories of their experiences is to debate at cross-purposes, on different fields.
The ‘celebration of diversity’ statements in fact do more to reinforce a damaging narrative; that of ‘other’ cultures as attractions and products to be sampled and appreciated by a trendy metropolitan elite. I am aware that the campaign set out to be a vindication of Oxford in general, but it is framed explicitly in terms of the ‘I, too, am Oxford’ initiative. Therefore it is a non sequitur to refer to the Moritz-Heyman scholarships, access and outreach events or the presence of ‘state school’ students. (Those whiteboard messages open several other quite messy cans of words, but are less the issue here.) The message saying that ‘brains not background’ open Oxford’s doors encapsulates the problem. It is a vacuous platitude, connoting a world in which anyone who works hard can acquire ‘brains.’ It ignores the linkage between background and academic success, and the subconscious judgments that are continually made every day based on the background we perceive someone as coming from.
‘We are all Oxford’ is far more damaging to access than its counterpart. It will be very few potential applicants from non-white backgrounds that are unaware of the existence of racism in wider society. If anything, the fact that students are campaigning against racism and creating spaces to share their experience would give potential applicants confidence. It would give them far more confidence than a campaign that drowns the voices of those who have spoken up beneath defensive assertions that everything is fine really.
Even if this is not the case, the response should be to step up our attempts to tackle racism on campus, not to go on the defensive. Access initiatives should not be about creating an image of Oxford as a utopia. That is patronising, and even with most fourteen-year olds, won’t work. Oxbridge as a national institution is rooted in race and class privilege, and this does express itself in so many of our rituals and traditions. Even at its most progressive, it serves to recruit a layer of ordinary people to join the elite rather than challenging elitism. Indeed, its record on access can be attributed in significant part to the school system and other national and international social and political factors. That does not mean access work should be a counter-polemic against negative perceptions, one that consists of presenting an image of a perfect community. We get nowhere by being disingenuous.
Fortunately society has progressed to a point where those who would use public platforms to make vicious racial slurs are confined, for the most part, to an obnoxious far-right minority. The problem to be confronted now is complacence. ‘Racism’ is acknowledged almost universally to be a bad thing, and yet a great deal of our anti-racism can either be little more than performative, or indeed myopic. It is not enough to simply say that ‘I don’t discriminate.’ We have to acknowledge that the racialisation of social discourse arises in far more subtle ways than BNP rallies.
Mainstream political debate about immigration and the behaviour of the police are examples of this, but so are many of the daily social interactions we have, and the perceptions and ideas that filter through to us in quiet ways. We cannot ignore this because it makes some people uncomfortable, or it does not suit Oxford’s media strategy. We certainly should not endorse campaigns that serve only to speak over and whitewash the voices of those students of colour who have been confident enough to speak out about what they have faced.
Above all, there is nothing in the ‘We are all Oxford’ campaign that gives cause for celebration. The fact that some people do not feel discriminated against, and the fact that Oxford as a community is taking some steps to counter its history as a bastion of wealthy white male educational privilege is hardly worth lauding. It would be an even more sorry state of affairs if such initiatives did not exist. Whether or not well-intentioned people were involved in the campaign, they should by now acknowledge that it was misguided.
Coming up in the Oxford Student: Alex Wilson, founder of ‘We Are All Oxford’, responds to students’ criticism of the campaign.
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Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that a professional photographer was paid to perform the photoshoot. This is not true and we apologise to “We Are All Oxford ” for the inaccuracy.