Diversity in the Dreaming Spires: three #PresidentsOfColour on the Bullingdon Club photo recreation, current Oxford access landscape and community belonging following last year’s undergraduate admissions statistics

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Image credit: Manish Binukrishnan

It’s nearly half a year since the Oxford published its first Annual Admissions Report, which made headlines in University and national circles for the disparities in the demographics of students admitted as undergraduates to Oxford. 

Less than a month after the report’s publication, a community of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Junior Common Room (JCR) presidents published a photograph recreating an older snapshot of the Bullingdon Club, distributed to reaffirm that minorities do indeed belong and contribute powerfully to the University ecosystem. Four months on, we now speak to some of them about the inclusion landscape as it currently stands at Oxford. Manish Binukrishnan, current president of Brasenose JCR, is a third-year Economics and Management student; Carolina Earle, outgoing president of Pembroke JCR, is a third-year History and English student; and Ebrubaoghene Abel-Unokan, current resident of The Queen’s College JCR, is a second-year English Language and Literature student. 

I ask what motivated them to run for the position of JCR president. Manish replies: “I really love Brasenose, so thought this seemed like the perfect chance to actually do something about it. You do get to make a lot of change, and develop a lot as a person as well. I knew the old president and it seems like since he ran for [JCR president] he became a lot more confident. It seemed like a good opportunity for Brasenose – hopefully! – and for me as well.”

Carolina’s response is similar: “I just love Pembroke […] I had such a fantastic first year that at the end of it you do almost want to make it better. Being in a [JCR President] situation, you kind of have the ability to make an active change. I think that was my motivation.”

So, too, is Ebruba’s response: “I think it’s definitely – like the others said – a sense of wanting to give back something to the college, or as much as it’s given me. I wanted to make the environment that we sought out in Freshers as welcoming as the one that existed for us. On a more personal level, I wanted or felt like it would allow me to develop skills I didn’t really have previously.”

Discussing this brings us to one of the most popular PresCom initiatives the Oxford community has experienced thus far: the #PresidentsOfColour initiative that saw BAME JCR presidents recreating a photo of the Bullingdon Club in response to Oxford’s recently-released admissions statistics. I ask about how the photo was conceptualised, and the presidents’ thoughts on the entire process. I’m told that Josh Tulloch, president of Lady Margaret Hall’s JCR, conceptualised and organised the shoot. Manish affirms that he was “really up for it because it seemed like a really quick way to make an impact”. 

“The way the photography and the set up were done was very professional, which I think is a small part of it – when you compositionally see the two together, it hits you quite hard”, Carolina adds. “The reach it was amazing. One of the best things I heard was that Farheen [the former VP Welfare & Equal Opportunities officer at Oxford SU] said that someone had actually contacted her after she had seen this photograph, asking about how she could apply to Oxford. You think it’s just a picture and a statement – as much as it’s revisiting and revising history, it’s also projecting the image of Oxford forward”, she adds.

Ebruba continues, discussing the notion that “[w]hat it symbolises, to the various powers that govern Oxford is as important as the impact. Occasionally, when access initiatives happen, there’s a certain amount of wanting to push the blame. I think that to have something as materially powerful as the photo – and the fact that it actually motivated some people to want to apply and come to a place and see themselves here – demonstrated […] that there is more that can and should be done in terms of changing the image at Oxford. The way it looked 30 or 40 or 100 years ago doesn’t hold as much sway over the university now, as it did back then”. 

It’s a natural segue into discussing similar photography initiatives taken up at Yale and Cambridge, which similarly sought to acknowledge the space minorities deserve on campuses that were previously affiliated with a well-defined sociopolitical and socioeconomic elite. The PresCom photo series Humans of Oxford University comes up for discussion, which I’m told was conceptualised by the Regent’s Park College JCR president. On that, Manish comments: “It’s not just about being able to get in here: there’s so much opportunity, that you can succeed here.”

It’s important to realise that despite and because of the impact of these initiatives, the JCR presidents are also full-time Oxford students, and that the presidents I’m speaking with today alongside many of their peers (myself included) do belong to minority groups. Carolina is fast to recognise that a network of student organisations such as the ACS “do forge a strong sense of belonging. But, I’d say at the same time, you do have moments where you are kind of aware of the fact that you’re looked at a certain way”. Ebruba recalls a conversation he had with another JCR president, remarking on the notion that “whether you like it or not, you do represent [the] minority you belong to on some level […] People are looking at you and making a value judgment based on how you comport yourself in public, and I think the increased visibility that comes with that is something that a lot of people struggle with”. 

Adding to that the inherent visibility of the position of JCR president, I ask what the opportunities and challenges of such conspicuity might be. Carolina cites Hope Oloye, her presidential predecessor, as a driving influence: “She became a goal for me – a woman of colour, driven and kind and to have her lead the JCR – just the fact that she was in that position made a massive difference. She wasn’t just a great girl at Pembroke – she was Pembroke’s JCR leader – the face of the College, pushing for so many initiatives, and it was so inspiring to me. It was definitely a factor in me wanting to take up that helm and that space […] That visibility, seeing it from the outside, really inspired me and I hope it’s shown that you can not just ‘do Oxford’ but actually take all the opportunities […] It’s something you can take on with both hands. My successor, Roshan, continues that legacy – there’s a new kind of image of what the JCR can be here, and what minorities can do.”

Ebruba continues, admitting that “It’s a little intimidating at times […] I did a fair bit of access work with the ACS in my first year and through an Admissions Office”. On the current access landscape, he adds that it’s crucial to “[make] Oxford a more hospitable place for these people once they arrive”, and not just through the preceding process. “With this position, I have a chance to contribute to making Oxford a better place to exist in and move through as a person of colour”, he says. 

Carolina continues, providing insight into the various procedures and protocols JCR presidents often move through when implementing initiatives. “There are certain steps you have to take, but it’s kind of about balancing that responsibility and also the massive effort it takes to get anything through – the REACH scholarship for example, which our JCR put through”. 

Manish adds: “So I think the biggest thing that [the role] does is it sort of shows – and I hope I’ve done this – is that when you get into a position of power as a person of colour, it’s not just because you’re a person of colour or a token, but because you can create positive change. You do hear a lot about the great work that all the JCR presidents are doing […] Such a big part of admissions is encouraging people to flourish and believing that they can flourish”. 

We move to talking about particular highlights from the terms they’ve served: Ebruba has just taken up the role, while Manish and Carolina have been in office for most or all of their term. Manish mentions that “Portraiture often comes up in JCRs. At least at Brasenose, there’s definitely a long way to go, but I have found the Governing Body very receptive towards that. The best thing for me was that I was in a meeting with all the freshers and the staff, and the Principal opened his speech and finished with just talking about diversity and I thought that was pretty powerful – I didn’t expect it. I think it’s kind of cool that diversity is – and it should be – much more on the agenda. For example, we got the College to put aside £6000 for having portraits of diverse alumni.”

Carolina picks up from our previous conversations about the REACH scholarship: “Funding a degree from Oxford is fantastic. That kind of scholarship is contributed to by members of the JCR – it’s a symbol of that collaboration and willingness to help others. It was also not just our JCR but several – as a whole, it brought together a lot of peoples’ work.”

To counterbalance, we do keep some time discussing current opportunities to improve the access landscape at Oxford. Ebruba mentions the importance of bringing younger students to Oxford and a centralised access system; Manish in turn recommends mentorship but recognises its resource-dependence, though he’s altogether hopeful about the willingness that exists within the student community. 

I mention the notion that detractors could argue that visibility initiatives – such as the #PresidentsOfColour photo – are less effective and meaningful than concrete access schemes. Manish acknowledges that “It’s probably both – but there also needs to be more done on the access front. I still do think that’s happening, so if there are any detractors I’d refer them to what we’re currently doing”.

Carolina similarly says that “Both are needed – visibility does go quite far. On a personal level, visibility speaks to people that you’re often trying to speak to. You need the schemes and the actual actions before it means anything. You also need for little actions to touch even a few people – and I think visibility gets that.”

Ebruba responds, noting of some specific comments on the #PresidentsOfColour photo that questioned the emphasis on diversity as misplaced. “There’s some anxiety about Oxford being diverse all of a sudden – but it’s an anxiety that people of colour or women or LGBTQ+ individuals would experience, and it punctuates our entire existence here. It’s not that I want for that anxiety, but I want for, through these experiences and through increased visibility, people to understand that the way things are and the way things ought to be are completely separate things. Making space to make Oxford more diverse isn’t at the detriment of everyone else. It’s levelling the playing field”. In Carolina’s own words, it’s a “positive disruption”. 

The current cohort of freshers, who arrived little over a week ago, come here knowing Oxford’s dismal record on access, as outlined in the Annual Admissions Report. I ask the presidents for any words of advice to the newest members of the community.

Manish begins: “Really just seize opportunities. I feel like people come in with preconceptions that ‘this isn’t for me’. First of all, you made it to Oxford – despite the institutional barriers, you can go places, so I think you should carry that on in everything else that you do. If you want to run for JCR president, you absolutely should.”

Carolina adds: “When times get rough – and they do – just remember where you started. You were wanted as much as you wanted Oxford – go back to that passion and that’ll take you far.”

Ebruba concludes: “Remember where you come from. The experiences and the life and background that shapes you and who you are is of so much cultural value to you in a place like Oxford, and when you do inevitably have that moment where you want to go home, I think it’s holding onto that culture that gives you what will allow you to carry on.”