The Oxford Union in crisis: reactions to “Colonial Comeback” scandal

The Oxford Union have declared themselves “instiutionally racist” following Tuesday’s meeting of the Standing Committee.

This move came following widespread condemnation of a poster found in the Union bar, advertising a themed cocktail for a debate over reparations to Britain’s formed colonies. The cocktail, publicised under the name “The Colonial Comeback”, was illustrated on one poster with an image of black hands bound by chains, and the second with an image of Africa.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the Union also condemned the cocktail and all materials associated with it as racist. Both of these motions passed unanimously, with the vote conducted through an open ballott.

Alongside the Standing Committee and ordinary members of the Oxford Union, several representives from Oxford liberation groups were present, including members of Rhodes Must Fall and OUSU’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (CRAE).

Due to legal concerns over employment law, the Union President was unable to give any details about the indvidual who had been indentified as being responsible for the cocktail name and poster.

This was challenged by several individuals during the course of the four hour meeting. Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, a representitive of Oxford University International Society and Rhodes Must Fall stated : “if we can’t talk about it, then we can only talk about the president. So she has to talk to person A [who was responsible] and tell them to resign…we need the President to be in solidarity with us”.

Mpofu-Walsh also stated that unless action was taken, then Rhodes Must Fall would “take action to insist for the resignation of the Union President”.

Olivia Merrett, Union President, responded: “I am not going to resign”.

During the course of the meeting, members of the Standing Committee each gave testimony of their experiences of the 28th May. Both Merrett and Stuart Webber, Union Librarian, stated that they had no knowledge of the second poster which was later removed from the bar, believing that the “matter had been dealt with” before they entered the chamber.

Zuleyka Shahin, Union Treasurer, described being “visibly shaken up” after seeing the poster, and said that she felt “intimidated” during discussions following the debate as the extent of the issue became known.

Officers were challenged for ‘serious dereliction of duty” in failing to combat the issue, as well as being encouraged to produce a fuller apology.

The Union were also accused of attempting to cover their mistakes rather than making a genuine apology for the content of the poster.

Standing Committee members were challenged over how they would have reacted if the cocktail name had been “the Facist Comeback”, illustrated with an image of a concentration camp.

During a further meeting, held on Wednesday, an apology was drafted which also committed the Union to taking proactive steps to combat racism in the society and Oxford as a whole.

There was also some discusion over whether the Union should personally apologise to individuals of colour on the committee, as well as allegations made that individual Union members felt “threatened”during the course of the events.

Image/Isaac Kang