Not long before the deadline to accept my Oxford offer, I was still strongly considering rejecting the dreaming spires. It took my particularly determined History teacher, who kept me behind after the end of the day, stared me down and said, “People from your background need to go to Oxford to change it,”- or something to that effect – to change my mind. The point is, she was intimidating and I eventually made Oxford my firm choice. Besides, the academic opportunities and financial support seemed almost unparalleled, and at the end of the day I applied out of my interest in academia. Surely it wouldn’t live up to my worst expectations?
The second night of Freshers Week, at the dinner with our tutors, one of my fellow historians at my college asked, “So how should I talk to someone like you who is from a disadvantaged background?” I stared down at my mushroom Wellington, marvelling at how little time it had taken for me to become a foreign curiosity rather than a fellow student in his eyes. “Never ask any of us that question again,” I smiled back. Another one of my peers in college later admitted to me that they could quite easily go through their entire university experience without associating with someone outside of London private school bubbles (and that there are some who choose to do so).
In Michaelmas of first year I made the poor decision to attend a crew date where between sconces such as, “I sconce anyone from a council house!” and, “I sconce anyone who went to a state school!” (The horror! The shame!) I heard the person next to me strike up a conversation with another about their old public school serving ‘austerity lunches’ of jacket potatoes. Again, I stared down at the table, reminiscing about how I ate jacket potato and beans for five straight years in high school, and had to remind myself that these were the experiences of an elite minority I was being exposed to at Oxford, not a representation of the rest of the country at large. Jacket potatoes are normal. Jacket potatoes are good. A drunken sneer towards me of “Why would anyone want to live in the North? It’s a shithole,” topped off the evening. I decided against verbalising my response out loud.
The unshakeable feeling of being perceived in such a manner is a millstone which I constantly have around my neck. Even though I know many people at Oxford mean well and intend no prejudice against me, I will admit to steering clear of debates and discussion groups, fearful of that strange sensation of others attempting to analyse and describe, say, issues of class, and realising that this is my lived experience which they can only know of in the abstract.
When I open my mouth in a tutorial, I am extremely self-conscious about my accent and fear the assumptions my tutor and tutorial partners will make about me on the basis of it, that is, if they aren’t amused by natural instinct to preface every point I make with, “I may have gotten the wrong idea about this but -”. True, this is probably my anxiety and impostor syndrome coming into play more than anything, but they are small examples of how I find it difficult to escape my assumption that I am here as the token poor northerner.
However, there are examples at other universities,and I’m sure here at Oxford, as my own personal experience cannot possibly account for anybody else’s experience of classism here. A student at Durham has compiled a report on the Northern Student Experience, and the comments are sobering; by comparison my personal anecdotes are nothing compared to what others have experienced. In addition, the revelation from the aforementioned university that some students had a competition to sleep with poorest student they could find highlighted the disgusting dehumanisation that sheltered young people are capable of at these institutions when the issue of toxic, private school masculinity is not confronted, from the rugby teams to the drinking and debating societies.
That deep hesitation about accepting my offer is a common experience, which some may find surprising. Beyond the glossy advertising and outreach initiatives there is that lingering suspicion that Oxford is not all that it claims to be regarding inclusivity, whether that be regarding race, gender and sexuality, disabilities, internationalism or class. As a queer mixed race woman I am no stranger to prejudice and bigotry, but the classism (and consequently how it intersects with my gender, sexuality and ethnicity) is novel to me, and discussions initiated by first hand experience of the problem are rare at this university. Yet despite all that I have said, I still feel an unease about bringing class into the discussion. Whenever I have mentioned potential class-based welfare support as in idea to people, often their initial response is that it would create an unhelpful ‘us versus them’ dynamic, but when I point out that they would be perfectly fine with female and non-binary groups, or ethnic minority groups, they lack a logical explanation for their concerns.
Since those initial experiences I mentioned, I have found myself trudging through my degree with one eyebrow permanently raised, eye roll at the ready as and when necessitated. Indeed, there is an observable reticence on some students who themselves had been the intended audience of such outreach to continue with such work uncritically, whilst also being painfully aware of the possible prejudice and other difficulties which await those who are successful in their applications. Many of us, including myself, are Crankstart Scholars from low-income backgrounds and are required to do volunteering, often in the form of access and outreach, in order to receive our scholarship benefits. I think back to the words of my History teacher, and remember that people like myself are here to change the culture of the university. Yet this is an aim (or burden) which many of my peers do not have to contend with. Ultimately, I would prefer to not have to contend with it either.
I am not ashamed about who I am. My formative years shaped my interests in the study of history, but they also shaped my dulcet northern accent, my dour sense of humour, and desire to change things, even on a small level, for the better. I wouldn’t give any of that up for the world.
Image source: Samuel Musarika – Flickr