Letter

An open letter by Christ Church Voices for Change

This article has been updated on 03/07/2020 with Christ Church’s statement in response, which appears below the article.

This is an open letter in response to the statements issued by Christ Church exec committee and censors regarding the handling of the controversy following last Sunday’s hustings. It is accompanied by a petition which is accepting signatures.

Christ Church Voices for Change is a student advocacy group composed of BAME members of the Christ Church JCR and allies. It seeks to work with the JCR to raise the issues of, and seek solutions to, systemic racism within the college. This letter has been published with the support of Oxford ACS.

Content warning: mental health and traumatic discrimination against Black individuals 

We recognise that the recent statement by the Christ Church JCR Executive Committee is an attempt to make reparations, yet we are alarmed at its contents and believe it only begins to scratch the surface of the issues this college faces on several counts.

The JCR Executive rightfully condemned the events of our hustings on 31/05/2020, where, in our opinion, a racist speech was delivered by a member of our college. Yet, the Executive has thus far failed to condemn the wider student response to this event. We refuse to let this issue be swept under the carpet. Following the hustings, Black members of our JCR were subject to, what we feel was, abhorrent abuse and apparent gaslighting after speaking out about the systemic failings that we feel had occurred during and after the hustings took place. In the immediate aftermath of the hustings, Melanie Onovo, a Black member of our JCR, spoke out against the failings of members of the JCR Committee to properly mediate the hustings and condemn the speech that had been made. Melanie had attempted to speak out during the meeting, but was prevented from doing so, when her microphone was muted by the Returning Officer. In seeking apologies from those involved, for their complicity in allowing the speech to go unchallenged, Melanie began to receive accusations of bullying and harassment. We refuse to call these accusations anything other than what we believe them to be – gaslighting. While some of the individuals involved have publicly apologised, this event and subsequent discourse in the JCR highlights a grave need for active steps towards anti-racism education in Christ Church.

Melanie displayed immense bravery in speaking up against her accusers, some of whom suggested on the JCR’s Facebook group that she was trying to reinforce a “harmful and horribly archaic racial dialectic of division” and conduct a “witch-hunt”. They displayed more concern for the framing of a discourse about racism than actually listening to a Black person’s expression of racial oppression; at the extreme, Melanie was told that what she was experiencing was not “horrific racial abuse”. These damaging words from white JCR members, which received substantial support in the form of ‘likes’, signal a clear systemic issue that we feel pervades the JCR community. The posts were crafted in a way that claimed support for the BLM movement as a veil for hurtful comments aimed at Black members of the community – one JCR member described Melanie as “alienating”. The performative nature of these statements seems clear given the authors have not, at time of writing, joined the newly formed advocacy group, ‘Christ Church Voices for Change’. We echo the Oxford ACS, who have called on the University to “consider what is going wrong” rather than criticising Black students who have spoken up against their treatment. We call for the JCR Executive to condemn this reprehensible rhetoric within the college community.

We are incredibly disappointed in our JCR Executive’s failure to criticise the actions of our Censors. In a JCR-wide email, our JCR President stated that through the criticisms they had received, the Censors had been “abused” and treated unfairly. On the contrary, we believe that the Censors have often been rightly criticised for their handling of the situation. We would like to remind the JCR President that his first duty is “to administer and promote the interests of JCR members,” not to protect the Censors. In correspondence with Melanie, now published online, the Censors sought her approval for a statement to be made by the college. Melanie publicly criticised them for treating her like a “PR manager” instead of first supporting her welfare. We share the concerns raised by ACS about the conduct of the Censors with regards to employing accusatory lines of questioning. Her experience of alienation, which continued as a result of certain members of the JCR’s public responses, seriously endangered her own welfare. We believe that these alleged actions were not only wholly inappropriate, but that they showed a clear lack of regard for student wellbeing as well as an inherent failure to properly engage the wider Black community in Christ Church. In affirming that the Censors are “people of integrity, decency, competence, and honesty”, we hold that the JCR President fails to acknowledge our view that none of these attributes make one immune from perpetuating systemic racism. Racism does not present itself solely through intentional and conscious behaviours, but also within often unintentional actions that serve to delegitimise Black voices and to prioritise white comfort. As stated by the ACS, the college’s response “demonstrates a profound lack of understanding and devaluing of the Black female experience”. 

We were also troubled by the sentiments of the JCR President, who alongside the JCR Executive’s letter to JCR members via email, stated “This for me is an issue beyond student politics, it is now one of my own personal morality.” This appeared to dismiss the struggles of Black students as mere student politics, and to imply that this only became an issue of personal morality for him when the Censors were criticised. We believe his personal sentiments seem to undermine the integrity of his commitment to be a voice for students, as he appears entirely unwilling to criticise the Censors in any capacity. Furthermore, the JCR President’s statement that he is “crystal clear” with regards to his opinion shows a disingenuous commitment to listening to the concerns of the student body, including Black students. This is just one example of rigid and unsympathetic language expressed by some JCR members with regards to this issue, with others professing they “don’t really care” if they are challenged on their views, or that their message is directed to anyone “who is open-minded enough to listen”, seemingly disregarding genuine concerns raised as irrelevant to their personal agenda.

Without a thorough and faithful analysis of the multiple failings we believe to have occurred, our college will not be able to rid itself of what we feel is institutional racism. As highlighted throughout this letter, through the statements made by members of the JCR, the Censors, and the JCR President, the narrative has repeatedly been centred away from Black voices. Many white students have self-professedly attempted to “explain” racism to their Black peers, or have emphasised how hurt they have been by students who have attempted to highlight the implicit biases that their narratives have displayed. Likewise, we maintain language used by the Censors and the JCR President have displayed a failure to listen to Black student voices, and a failure to understand the problem this college faces. Until the college recognises the extent to which systemic racism pervades throughout this institution, it will not be able to enact meaningful change. We call on the JCR Executive and the Censors to acknowledge their failings. It is simply not enough to be nice people. They must acknowledge the voices of Black members and actively consider their welfare before protecting the reputation of the college.

We call on both the JCR Executive and the Censors to issue a thorough apology addressing the issues we have raised in this letter. 

Finally, we call on them to work with and take seriously student groups such as Christ Church Voices for Change to enact lasting solutions and structural change. We propose the following as a pressing starting point: 

  • To be more open and transparent in Censorial and Executive courses of action taken to address issues such as this.
  • To establish more clearly and to widely circulate a welfare procedure for incidents of this kind, as well as to actively reach out to the Christ Church community when a college-wide incident is reported.
  • To give Black Members of the Christ Church community clear and open opportunities to be heard in measures such as the Equality and Diversity Subcommittee.

Sincerely,

               Christ Church Voices for Change 

The petition is found here.

Statement from Christ Church: 01/07/2020

Christ Church is a firm supporter of student journalism, and of freedom of expression. However, as an educational charity, we have an obligation to ensure that the reputation of the organisation, its staff and students, is not permanently affected by false allegations that can circulate forever online. We are, therefore, grateful for our recent, frank discussions with the Editors of the Oxford Blue, in which we have made clear our very serious disappointment that Christ Church was not originally approached to corroborate a number of Oxford Blue stories following an incident at the JCR hustings on 31 May 2020. We hope that their decision to publish this statement from Christ Church helps to clarify matters, now and in the future.

We have repeatedly stated on our website, in messages to our students, and on Twitter, our clear and unambiguous condemnation of the deeply offensive remarks that were made at the JCR hustings on the evening of 31 May. There has been no attempt to minimise what happened and disciplinary proceedings are now underway in regards to the remarks made at the hustings and related matters. We also fully support the necessary steps the JCR Exec is taking to learn from these events. In our public statements and private conversations, we explicitly praised those who spoke out at the hustings. Any allegations to the contrary are simply not true.

While we cannot disclose specific details (in order to respect student confidentiality) please rest assured that support was offered from the early morning on 1 June onwards by our Welfare team, the College GP, and other qualified professionals. We also asked a BAME counsellor to help. Our support is ongoing. Again, any allegations you may have heard to the contrary are simply untrue.

Christ Church is committed not just to words, but also to action. Anti-bias and consent workshops have been mandatory for freshers since 2017, with attendance taken since the start of the current academic year. Christ Church’s Equality and Diversity Committee was established in 2019. At its very first meeting, it created a working party to Diversify the Visual Environment, which seeks to contextualise existing images, and commission new portraits reflecting diversity: ethnicity, gender, sexuality and ability. We also support access initiatives that focus on under-represented groups, including Target OxbridgeOpportunity OxfordDebate MateOxford for North East, and IntoUniversity. Our students are planning to raise funds during the 2020 Christ Church Regatta for the Fulham Reach Boat Club, a charity that encourages greater diversity in sport. Since 2014, our custodians have participated in mandatory anti-bias training at least once per year. A selection of relevant materials is being prepared for tutors to read and then share with their students. And we are currently negotiating a new scholarship that would be earmarked for Black, Asian and minority ethnic graduate students.

The steps taken thus far are part of an ongoing process—more must and will be done. On 12 June, we announced a new partnership with Femi Otitoju, founder of Challenge Consultancy, to develop a series of listening events in the coming weeks for all students and all staff, both academic and non-academic. This has the full support of Christ Church’s Governing Body and JCR Executive. These sessions will help us find new ways to talk about race, to listen and learn, and to identify further steps to address issues around racial equality, diversity, and inclusion. These meetings will help us develop a long-term action plan that will review our training provision and set new goals intended to make a real impact.

A worldwide movement to tackle racism at its root has now emerged. We want to make sure that Christ Church—all of Christ Church—plays an energetic role in finding new ways forward within the College and, more broadly, across the University. Our aim is to build a culture together where every single student and member of staff has the tools to stand up for our core values of tolerance and equality. 

This article was amended at 21:59 on 7th June 2020 to also include Christ Church Voice for Change’s petition link at the bottom.