Shariq Haidery sits down with The Oxford Blue to talk about his experience being a fresher at Oxford during another pandemic-hit term. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. 

I’m a first year PPE student at St Hugh’s from Rochdale (Manchester for any Southerner). I’m also a former powerlifting champion and, may I add, a big fan of cats. 

Do you think being a BAME student has had a big influence on your experience of Oxford? 

Academics wise, being a BAME student hasn’t so much impacted how I go about my studies, as it has impacted the content of my studies. Although it is tough that I am the only BAME student on my course at my college, that hasn’t had any effect  on how I approach my work, for example essay writing. I do feel, however, especially as a philosophy student, that being a member of the BAME community has had a pretty big impact on my academic interests. Being a BAME student, it is odd studying a subject like philosophy, where I have to learn about philosophers who had influential racist ideas, without acknowledging their racism. I think a lot of philosophy students and tutors end up idolising these problematic individuals, like Kant, without ever considering the historic impact their ideas have had on the BAME community. Anyway, like I said this is something I’m really interested in as a topic in philosophy, a kind of meta-philosophy? I’m not entirely sure, but if anyone reading this is interested, I’d recommend coming to the PPE Society Panel this Friday where we will be discussing this very issue. 

With respect to the social side of things here at Oxford, I feel as though being a member of the BAME community has had a huge impact on my experience in Oxford. Initially, just coming here was such a huge culture shock. Rochdale, where I am from, is a diverse place. Even though it is a small town, it is a melting pot of different immigrant communities. I don’t have to go far before I come across someone of a similar background. However, at Hugh’s (and I’m sure this varies college-to-college) there are few people from my background in my year. Being the only British-Pakistani student at my college does weigh quite heavily on my mind. I constantly feel this pressure to represent all my desi people out there. It may sound weird, but because of pressures like that I honestly feel like I can’t really be myself in front of people I meet for the first time,  for fear of making a poor first impression. 

You have spoken about how being a member of the BAME community impacts your experience at Oxford, what role has your identity as Northerner played? 

Being a Northern BAME student here at Oxford honestly feels like I’m a double minority. As a BAME student at Oxford it is hard enough with very few people to relate to your life experiences and understand your feelings of alienation and otherness. It is, however, doubly difficult when there is a disconnect between yourself and the other BAME students given most BAME students here haven’t left the M25 bubble. 

Is there anything you would change about the University to make it a more accommodating place? 

There is a lot of work to be done, but in terms of making the student body more diverse and representative, steps are being taken in the right direction. For example, whether it is access schemes, open days, foundation years or scholarships for BAME students all these are helping to make the undergraduate population more diverse, which in turn will have a knock on effect and make the environment at Oxford more accommodating for BAME students.  

However, making the student body more diverse is not quite the same as making the university a more accommodating place for BAME students. It is for example, very hit and miss college-to-college when it comes to dealing with racism. I don’t need to highlight the countless stories of porters harassing BAME students at a variety of colleges, but that is just one example of how the university has failed to create an accommodating environment for BAME students. Even at Hugh’s, a relatively good college when it comes to dealing with racism, I’ve had weird and confrontational experiences with other students about whether I am a student at the college. I think colleges could also do much better when it comes to creating a framework that BAME students can report incidents of racism.  

I’m sure other BAME students feel this too, but whenever I have experienced some form of racism there is always such a great deal of hesitation to report it. Colleges always like to tout stats like their ‘two incidents of racism over the past year’ but they are bogus claims. The only reason reports of racism are low is because BAME students often aren’t comfortable enough to report incidents. This can be for a variety of reasons including a fear of ostracization, or the uncertainty of how the appropriate authorities will deal with racism. I’m not really sure what sort of system can help alleviate these issues but I know the University and colleges can certainly do better. 

How have you engaged with the Oxford community this term? 

I had a pretty rough vacation, so I have kind of just thrown myself into as many extracurricular activities as possible to keep myself busy. For example, I am the Middle East Events officer for OxSID and made an interesting podcast. 

How about the Oxford Union? What led you to get involved? 

Before coming to Oxford, I, like others I’m sure, watched the various debates, panels and speakers hosted by the Union. It was always going to be something that I got involved in if I got into Oxford.  

What has been your experience of the Oxford Union thus far, particularly around diversity?

It’s difficult to give an answer to that question since everything for me has been online, so I’ve not been confronted with the lack of diversity the Union has been known for. It is definitely an issue, and I know individuals who have had issues in that regard. But if you ask me in a year’s time, I’d probably be able to give you a much more accurate answer. 

How about outside of the university bubble? 

My experience outside the University has mostly been up in Summertown (as St Hugh’s college is located close to Summertown). It is so starkly different to where I am from. I have stopped doing my shopping there now. I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb whenever I go shopping in my Adidas tracksuit. I just cycle into town now.  

You can find Shariq Haidery on Facebook if you’d like to hear more details of his experiences or his candidacy in the Oxford Union. 

Molayo is a Christian and musician outside his studies and role as Senior News Editor. He likes to write on a range of topics, from Oxford news to international affairs. Having grown up in London, he has grown up amidst diversity and is a strong advocate of letting all voices be heard.