On seeing the poster used to advertise the Union’s ‘Colonial Comeback’ cocktail spread across the media the day after the debate, I felt two distinct emotions: disgust and disappointment.
The poster is nothing short of disgraceful; it’s insensitive and denigrates the oppression of people through the institution of colonialism. Being originally from West Africa made the poster even more personally abhorrent. How many of my ancestors had been kidnapped and dragged to unknown lands in chains? How much wealth was extracted from my ancestral land? After the disgust, the disappointment I felt was almost overwhelming.
The BME Officer position at the Oxford Union has been added to the roster of appointed positions at the Union this Trinity term. The position supposedly aims at making the Union more inclusive. How could this happen with a BME Officer at the Union? Why did no one made a comment before the poster went to print? This debacle just confirmed my suspicion that the introduction of the position might have been steered by good intentions, but has turned out to be nothing more than a marketing gimmick.
It was therefore with relief that I greeted the news that the Oxford Union acknowledges to be institutionally racist. It means that the Union has realised that it has a problem and will work hard to solve it.
I do appreciate the formal apology that was made to Esther Odejimi, the ex-BME officer who resigned after the poster debacle, and the apology made to the general public. I also welcome the decision to have members of Standing Committee have racial awareness training, to be delivered by OUSU/CRAE representatives. Nevertheless I cannot help but be sceptical about this. For my part, I can only envision two possible outcomes to this scandal.
The first possible outcome is one of doom and gloom: things will not change despite the steps that the Union has taken. If this could happen with a BME Officer position existing in the committee, and if the person that created the poster lacked the good judgement need to realize how offensive their poster was, training and apologies might mean little.
It is unlikely that the Union will suffer from the scandal. Given the history of the Union, it’s unlikely to be long before another scandal comes around to make people forget about this one. And even if that happens, the Union will likely survive unscathed. It is globally renowned for its debates and speakers events and for being a pillar of tradition as debating societies go. Speakers are unlikely to boycott the Union, and so are students. In fact, they will all applaud the Union for their ‘courage’ to come out as institutionally racist. Thus, the Union will make a good situation out of a terrible PR scandal.
The steps to be taken and the position of BME officer – clearly here to stay – might become tokens, trump cards to show how inclusive and great the Union is. Whether people at the echelon of the Union will change is questionable: they might see the racial awareness training as a box to tick to ascend to power.
This possible outcome could unfortunately happen. I sincerely hope that this course of action won’t occur.
The only ‘positive’ thing about this scandal is that it sparked a conversation. That’s the first step in the direction of change. Many people I know, as BME students, have always felt uncomfortable about the Union. I had never truly figured out what they meant until now. Some will be forever repelled by the Union, but others will see the efforts of the Union as a positive. Who knows, they might want to get involved and drive that change and lead to a more inclusive Union for all.
Despite my sceptical nature, I have no problems acknowledging that the Union took a huge risk by declaring itself institutionally racist, and I do appreciate the efforts and the steps that have been put in place so far. More needs to be done, and progress should perhaps be checked to ensure that the Union will cease to be an institutionally racist institution. If that does not happen, many will fail to believe that the Union is truly trying to change for the better.
The Union has spoken: it says that it is institutionally racist. Let’s hope they will walk the walk and let this opportunity for change be more than just words.