Black students tell Oxford: when will you learn?

Oxford University was rocked by a series of race scandals last week, amidst heightened discussion on race after the killing of George Floyd. The Oxford Student has collected evidence and testimony from a variety of sources, to understand a tumultuous week many believe has shown systemic racism continues to be a problem at the university.

It began with a mundane Zoom meeting that quickly turned sour. On Sunday 31st May a Christ Church student running for the ‘cake rep’ Junior Common Room (composed of college undergraduates, abbreviated as JCR) position, a role that entails providing a cake for each JCR member, made a joke arguing that ‘flour shortages’ were the cause of racism, and a comparable trouble to the death of George Floyd. The Oxford Student understands that more than one student was involved in the joke, with one student allegedly writing the speech for the cake rep candidate to recite.

Minutes from the meeting show that a black student, Melanie Onovo, asked “what all candidates have to say about flour shortages being compared to George Floyd.” The candidate involved repeated the essence of the statement whilst others kept their comments brief, either declining to comment or saying the joke was “too soon”.

Later, a written comment submitted by a fourth candidate who could not make the meeting condemned at length the “horrific tragedy” of the death of George Floyd, concluding: “As for the lack of flour, no one will die from waiting for a Victoria Sponge Cake.”

Despite other members of the JCR wishing to express their opposition to the comments of the cake rep candidate at the time, the former JCR Returning Officer stated it was “not appropriate… [to] make a point or statement at the end of the hustings,” or make “political points” in husts, instead advocating the usage of the JCR page or Facebook.

He told The Oxford Student: “My decision-making during hustings was based on the standing orders of the JCR, I realise now that I made the wrong decision to stay so close to the standing orders, but I made this decision with good intentions.”

The JCR President made clear his intention at the end of the meeting to “treat the incident privately, to make clear that this behaviour is misguided”, whilst condemning the candidate’s “repugnant joke” considering the “travesty of American police brutality”.

Only a day later, officers of the ‘Elevate’ slate planning to run in the Union’s elections (i.e., those running for President, Librarian, Treasurer and Secretary), were made aware of disturbing messages sent by a member of their slate.

In recordings obtained by The Oxford Student, the Elevate slate’s former Librarian candidate, Olly Boyland, described the initial reaction of the slate during the Union’s Access Committee  meeting, held on Friday 5th June.

The messages referenced the George Floyd protests, giving them as a rationale for students to register to vote in the Union elections. Upon viewing them, Boyland claimed the Elevate slate officers condemned the remarks and decided a swift apology was needed from the original candidate to those who had received the message.

He later stated that the officers “created a template which we instructed every member of the slate to use for messaging, obviously this was not followed by [the candidate]”.

He went on to tell The Oxford Student that worse than the candidate’s refusal to adhere to the template “was her subsequent refusal to offer an adequate apology and her unwillingness to acknowledge how hurtful and damaging the messages were. However, it was an error of judgement to spend our time trying to reason with her. We should instead have dropped her from the slate as soon as we became aware of the messages, which is why I dropped out of the election on Wednesday.

“I have tried to be as open and transparent with what happened, including fully explaining the relevant events to Access Committee on Friday. Further, I offered an apology to the committee for not dealing with the situation swiftly or firmly enough, and for the pain caused by that.”

The next day, on Tuesday, the officers of the slate were made aware that Onovo, a former Treasurer for the Union, was demanding that the candidate give a public apology or she would go public with her grievances. According to Boyland, at this point the officers of the slate knew this was a “very serious situation”.

The candidate created a draft apology on Tuesday, that was deemed insufficient by both Onovo and the members of the Elevate slate; the Presidential candidate for the slate, Harry Deacon, was then reportedly up throughout the night on Wednesday morning attempting to craft a second apology and make the candidate “aware” that what they had done was wrong.

The candidate was then sacked from the slate on Wednesday morning, but not before a second apology was sent to Onovo. Following this, on Wednesday morning, Onovo went public with the offending messages sent by the candidate, as well as the first apology made by the candidate. An open letter condemning the messages was also written by Mo Iman, a former-LGTBQ+ Officer and Standing Committee member for The Union.

Facing near certain electoral defeat due to the scandal, the officers of the Elevate slate decided to drop out of the race that day.

In the same afternoon, four days after the initial incident, an article co-written by Onovo was published, detailing the events of the Christ Church JCR husts. Soon after this, a template statement was created, which was used to call on JCRs across the university to condemn the actions of the Christ Church JCR and call for the resignation of the former Returning Officer.

The eventful Wednesday was concluded with a Black Lives Matter rally held in Oxford at South Parks.

The university itself soon became mired in scandal. Early on Thursday 4th June, HuffPost UK published a report revealing that Oxford had delayed the release of admissions data due to “world events”, according to leaked emails, spawning backlash.

The reasoning for the decision was unclear, with a university spokesperson at first claiming releasing the statistics would lead to them being “buried by all the other news this week”. However, a statement later released by the university said “it felt deeply inappropriate to publish content that could distract from the important challenges and debate facing our society at this time and try to draw attention to our own progress on the figures.”

That Thursday afternoon the heads of Oxford Colleges published an open letter in The Guardian, saying they stand with students in fighting against racism. Ken Macdonald, the Warden for Wadham, said in an email to students he only did so “reluctantly, I have to confess, because I fear that words come cheap.”

Meanwhile, throughout the day, motions across the university were tabled in JCRs condemning the actions at Christ Church. Most focused on condemning the comments at the husts and the treatment of Onovo, as well as the actions of the Christ Church JCR President, Jarnail Atwal, for an “abuse” of his power in trying to discourage other JCR Presidents from tabling similar motions. They also condemned the former Returning Officer for not challenging the comments further when they were made.

Finally, outrage was directed at the Christ Church censors, responsible for student discipline and welfare, in many motions and in an open letter released on Thursday, for “appalling” measures taken against Onovo upon her deciding to take the matter public. One of the original creators of the letter, Adi Kesaia Toganivalu, told The Oxford Student:

“I believe the Christ Church censors failed in their duty of care to Melanie Onovo. They did not provide welfare resources in the immediate aftermath. Instead, they called her and asked her for the “rationale” [in] going public and accused her of bullying another student.

“In prioritising damage control they made her culpable, rather than support her. They had the audacity to ask her for her opinion in their public statement. This was not her job. In a college-wide email they alluded to taking legal action against her. Two other students wrote an email to the censors, expressing our disgust at their failings. We are yet to hear a response.”

Atwal told The Oxford Student: “I am not afraid to defend the integrity and decency of the censors with whom I have worked closely over a year. I am staggered at how quickly disinformation has spread”.

A Christ Church JCR member told The Oxford Student the questioning of Onovo’s “rationale” was an attempt to compile an understanding of the series of events, that the implication it was dismissive of her concerns was a “mischaracterisation” and that it was meant to consider the “welfare” of the former Returning Officer.

Under pressure, the former Returning Officer eventually resigned on Thursday with an email sent to the Christ Church JCR emphasising that “it is clear that procedure should not trump the addressing of racial injustices.” They told The Oxford Student: “I resigned for a number of reasons. Firstly, because I was asked to by the JCR committee, although I feel they didn’t make explicitly clear to me why they had asked me to resign. Secondly, I thought that I had become a distraction from the election itself, and didn’t want to take any attention away from the candidates.

“Thirdly, over the last week, responding to the aftermath of hustings was making me unable to revise for my exams. I have since apologised to the members of the JCR for making a mistake in my judgment during hustings. Having resigned, I feel more comfortable commenting on the candidates who stood in the election and I was shocked and disgusted by the remarks made.

“However, I do feel that it’s unfortunate that the amount of attention I have received has at times been a distraction from the greater issue of a reprehensible racist comment being made. I was disappointed to learn that other college JCRs had called for my resignation before they had been made fully aware of all of the facts surrounding this scandal.”

The next day, on Friday 5th, the Oxford Afro-Caribbean Society (ACS) published an open letter to the University addressing the events of the past day, calling for much more action from the university to address anti-black racism.

Later, the Oxford Union Access Committee met to discuss the week’s events. Deacon, who was also Union Librarian at the time, apologised multiple times for his handling of the controversial Union messages, including not dropping the candidate who sent the messages from the slate earlier.

Despite stating in the meeting that he was not planning to resign, saying he wanted to make sure a similar scandal could never happen again, he later reversed this decision, resigning on Saturday, telling The Oxford Student: “I believe that leadership positions bring with them significant responsibility and I thought it appropriate not only to withdraw from the election but on reflection, to resign from my position as Librarian of the Union.”

Many students look on this week as a continuation of Oxford’s long history of scandals around race, from a blind black man being dragged from the Oxford Union chamber and the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, to the turning down of a scholarship for black students from rapper Stormzy. Perhaps more than ever, Oxford remains mired in questions around the commitment of its students and institutions to the welfare and safety of black people.