Today, Melanie Onovo and Kesaia Toganivalu, undergraduates at Christ Church and Magdalen College respectively, appeared on BBC News to discuss their efforts to tackle racist and classist discrimination at Oxford University.
This interview follows numerous incidents relating to Christ Church, including a racially insensitive joke made at JCR hustings which compared the death of George Floyd to flour shortages. This joke was made immediately after an emergency motion proposed by Melanie Onovo to donate £720 to the Minnesota Freedom Fund and associated charities. The Returning Officer chairing the meeting then muted everyone and said that, “I have a few messages of people wanting to make a message or point or statement at the end of hustings – in my opinion, it is not appropriate, so if you would like to do, please do so through the JCR page or Facebook.” This prevented anyone from challenging the joke made.
The Blue then reported on a former Christ Church College Boat Club Committee member defiling an image of George Floyd at a party in the USA, and referring to members of the college as “state school c**ts”. This individual had written the hustings speech for the candidate who gave it.
In the interview, Onovo commented on “a pattern of racist behaviour” which showed “a lack of remorse” by members of her college, and noted that 19% of MPs are Oxbridge graduates, and the institution therefore must act to show that such behaviour will not be tolerated in our society.
The incidents have prompted Onovo to start a Youtube Channel, to provide a platform for students to share and challenge racist actions they have experienced. The platform is described on its page as, “for the explicit purpose of platforming the voices of marginalised communities and genuine allyship to challenge and combat the deep rooted racism and prejudice in the world without any fear.” Two videos have now been released on the page, the first titled “I WAS RACIALLY ABUSED BY OXFORD UNIVERSITY- BREAKING MY SILENCE” and the second “A DAY IN THE LIFE OF OXFORD UNIVERSITY | DRUG ABUSE AT OXFORD UNIVERSITY”. The first of these now has over 10,000 views.
Both Onovo and Toganivalu have been key advocates of an Open Letter to the Proctors calling on Oxford University to take action to tackle racist and classist discrimination. Regarding the two incidents mentioned above, the letter notes, “In addition to our belief that the incidents outlined warrant investigation and action by the University Proctors, we have little confidence in the Christ Church non-academic disciplinary procedure. We believe that the College has a history of addressing issues of race insufficiently.” The letter concludes, “We believe that the only adequate response to the hateful actions described is the permanent expulsion of the individual in question. Only through this response can the institution demonstrate to both its students and the global community that racism can not and will not be tolerated at the University of Oxford.” Toganivalu said in the interview that the motivation behind the petition was to “unite the anger and upset of students in a tangible way that the University could not ignore”.
Ms Onovo commented:
“The University of Oxford has taken an ostensible approach of zero tolerance on racism and classism at Oxford when in reality they let instances of racism go unpunished. Oxford University needs to take real action against racism and discrimination to be able to create an inclusive environment for its most vulnerable students.”
Christ Church College commented on the incidents mentioned:
“Christ Church does not tolerate racism or discrimination in any form. We have unequivocally condemned the remarks that were made at the JCR Hustings on May 31. Disciplinary proceedings are underway in regards to the remarks and other related matters. Until the investigation has been completed and all the relevant evidence has been considered, it would not be appropriate to comment further.
Christ Church is committed to combatting racism and prejudice of all kinds through concrete action. Last month, we announced a new partnership with Femi Otitoju, founder of Challenge Consultancy, to develop a series of listening events for all students and all staff, academic as well as non-academic. 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. The process 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.”
Oxford University has been reached for comment.