Posted inInvestigations

Is Oxford trying to be less racist? I spent the whole summer trying to find out…

See full research collated from each college here:

It is well known that Oxford has a reputation for having entrenched issues of racism. This is in part due to its colonial past, in part due to the student body and faculty being predominantly middle to upper-class (which can be attributed, at least in part, to the admissions process) and in part due to educational inequalities in the UK which mean there are very few people of colour able to challenge these attitudes. Students of colour will be familiar with the variety of negative experiences that result from this environment. These range from being harassed or denied access by porters, to hearing racial slurs being used far too casually by our peers, to feeling ‘othered’ because we make up such a meagre minority. 

I’m sure that many BAME students will agree with me when I say that uneasiness and uncertainty about how they would be received has been on their minds since they arrived. That, along with my bull-headed persistence in creating extra work for myself (because two essays and a problem sheet every week is clearly not enough) propelled me into the process of interviewing as many Oxford college principals as I could, focusing mainly on what their colleges were doing to promote anti-racism, but also their views and motivations for making these changes. My aim was twofold. First, I wanted to find out what each college was doing to tackle racism (i.e., respond to racist incidents in a way that led to significant reductions in their occurrence) and champion anti-racism (create a college environment that makes it difficult for racism to thrive). Second, I wanted to share that information so that no college could claim ignorance. 

That endeavour has resulted in this article, in which I aim to highlight the best initiatives and ideas I have heard from different Colleges, and university-wide, as well as those I found ineffective. What I have found is that many colleges are making superficial changes, which are unlikely to change the culture long-term, but can be referenced to assuage accusations of racism. On the other hand, some colleges are genuinely trying to make change, identifying, and attempting to lessen the obstacles that prevent BAME students from attending Oxford. I hope the examples below give a good indication of the two groups.  Be aware that regardless of whether your college is featured in either of these lists, or not, they all still have a long way to go. Being featured here should inspire neither complacency nor despondency. 

Worcester’s Decolonisation Reading Group 

I would like to start by mentioning Worcester College, which ran a fantastic Decolonisation Reading Group during Trinity Term of 2021, spearheaded by Rea Duxbury, and organised by her as well as Marchella Ward, with support from Michael Mayo, the college’s Equalities Officer. It covered topics such as Speaking and Language, Representation and Dismantling Whiteness. This course was made available to all university students and Worcester’s offer holders for whom a concerted effort was made to ensure that they felt as included – the first five minutes of each meeting were reserved so that only Freshers and offer holders had space to share their thoughts. Michael emphasised the importance of making the course available to potential students, stating that it tells “[them] that this is what we value”. I completely agree with this sentiment; the attitudes of members of a college (and Oxford, on a wider level) are the most important factor in shaping its culture, and demonstrating this attitude consistently makes students of colour feel more supported and safer, whilst making it clear to White students that anti-racism is paramount and should be upheld. While I am aware that many other colleges have similar courses, I think Worcester’s particular approach should be emulated by others.   

Jesus and New College’s Scholarships 

I would also like to mention the scholarships that both Jesus and New College have introduced in the past year to support a Black British undergraduate student throughout any course at Oxford. These scholarships are important as they help to tackle the financial problems that disproportionally affect Black students as well as incentivising students who may be discouraged by the relative costs of an education here. These scholarships are also complemented by the Black Academic Futures Scholarship that several other colleges are participating in. This Scholarship is arguably more important in the long-term as it makes postgraduate education more accessible for Black students, thereby increasing their numbers and creating a more diverse pool of academics. This is something that Oxford, and the UK in general, desperately needs. New College has also introduced its own version of this Postgrad Scholarship, called the Dummett Fellowship, which does a similar job and should be commended.  

Turl Street Social (Jesus) 

Another initiative I would like to highlight is that of the JCR BAME representative of Jesus College to hold an event for all BAME students in Turl Street colleges, i.e., Jesus, Exeter, Lincoln (and potentially Brasenose). I think this is a lovely idea as it bolsters the support network of BAME students in nearby colleges, which is especially necessary after COVID. I also think it is important because in my experience, Black students at Oxford tend to flee from their colleges and instead find refuge in the Afro-Caribbean Society, meaning that they often miss out on the intended benefits of the collegiate system. Events like these mean that, while students of colour can still take comfort in their cultural societies, they can also find their community a little bit closer to home. I personally liked this idea so much that I suggested a similar thing to my BAME rep, and I would advise those outside Turl Street to do the same. 

St. Hilda’s Admissions and Access Help  

The final college worth mentioning is St Hilda’s because of their proactive attempt to increase access to prospective Black students by identifying that they are most likely to apply for Medicine and Law and providing specialised help for Medicine applications. This type of direct and specialised support shows a real effort to change the demographic of their college. Furthermore, Hilda’s’ Principal – Georgina Paul – also stated that they are planning an initiative to suggest the possibility of applying to non-standard courses rather than feeling pressure to apply for the standard, incredibly competitive ones. This could increase their chance of receiving an offer; it has been shown that the courses Black students choose to apply to contribute to the reason there are such few of us. One factor that I think is fundamental to this discussion is that economic stability is likely to be much more important to Black students when picking career choices than to their White counterparts. Therefore, it is important to emphasize that non-standard courses undertaken at Oxford can lead to an equal level of success as the more widely celebrated paths. Overall, I think this idea is very thoughtful and I would be pleased to see other colleges adopt it. 

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list of all of the commendable policies that colleges have introduced. There are many, many more including mentorship schemes, Open Days, and even hiring external officers to listen and voice students’ concerns. In addition, there are some amazing university-wide initiatives, such as the new Oxford Foundry Fellowship for students of colour, which I was lucky enough to participate in over the summer, and the Oxford and Colonialism project that many colleges have participated in, to interrogate their history and the sources of their wealth. Most colleges also offer anti-bias training to at least some of their staff/students, although most of them could do it more frequently and open it up to all members. Essentially, lots of positive things are being done to promote anti-racism in Oxford. Nevertheless, there are also some policies that seem counterproductive to me. In an attempt to be constructive while also being critical, I am going to mention two of them and suggest other methods that might have tackled the same issues more effectively. The intent is not to condemn, but rather to demonstrate the kinds of policies that can be ineffective.  

Christ Church’s Persistent Porter Problem

The first of these is Christ Church’s commitment to checking all Bod cards on entry into the college. At first glance (at least to me) this policy seemed entirely unrelated to racism and so I asked for clarification on why it had been mentioned. I was told that it had been introduced in response to porters predominantly challenging BAME students/faculty about whether they were actually college members when they tried to enter – an issue that, unfortunately, many colleges face. However, I think that this solution is hugely ineffective as it doesn’t tackle the root cause of this issue – the notion that porters perceive it to be unlikely that people of colour actually belong at Christ Church. While I understand the intention of the proposed solution, I think it does little to make Christ Church a more welcoming environment and therefore the following solutions seem to me far more effective:

  1. Encourage porters to improve their relationships with students so they are more likely to recognise those that are actually members of the college 
  2. Hire porters of colour (which also helps with the previous point)  
  3. Make anti-bias tests a part of the hiring process for porters to screen out those with strong prejudices  

Christ Church has subsequently made it clear that they are trying to employ all of these policies “Specifically, the three measures that you list have already been introduced by Christ Church. We actively recruit staff from the BAME community; we use blind shortlisting; and staff, including porters, have recently (October 2021) undertaken a refresher course in unconscious bias”. I would like to highlight that while these policies are much more conducive to a positive college environment, the fact that Bodcard checks are being introduced directly in response to porters challenging the presence of students of colour,  makes it more difficult for students to feel at home in College. 

Oriel’s Commission on Race

The second of these is Oriel’s commitment from their Independent Commission into Rhodes and Related Issues to “Enact a 2016 decision to have an annual lecture on a topic related to the Rhodes legacy, race, or colonialism”. I would like to point out first that Oriel has a substantial list of measures they are undertaking to offset the preservation of the Cecil Rhodes statue and that I find them all to be admirable, although I can’t say the same for the preservation of the statue itself. What I actually find to be problematic is the fact that it was necessary for the committee to enact a decision that had already been made four years earlier, because it hadn’t yet been realised. As far as I’m concerned, this almost entirely invalidates anything else that the Committee has decided because it sets a precedent that they don’t undertake measures that they have decided on. Time will tell whether this is actually the case.   

Concluding Thoughts 

The process of writing this article has led me on an extensive journey throughout Oxford’s various institutions, allowing my voice to be heard at forums that I never thought I would have a place in. From this, I have learned that there are some principals at Oxford who have a genuine commitment and passion to make it a better place for students of colour. I have also learned that there are some principals who were good at appearing to be passionate, but this didn’t stand up when contextualised with some of their other actions. Rather than focusing on these individuals themselves, I chose to focus on the policies/actions of their colleges as I believe that to be more constructive. However, I would like to highlight the principal of St Hugh’s, Elish Angiolini, for her genuine passion and willingness to use all available resources to improve life for her students of colour. A first-year student at Hugh’s, Akin Akinlabi, described her as “one of those people who genuinely appreciate diversity…kind and humble,”. I would also like to highlight the principal of Hertford, Tom Fletcher, who was very eager to implement suggestions I made to improve the culture there and is leading Oxford in initiatives to help refugees. 

Furthermore, I would like to note that just because a college principal is devoted to diversity and inclusion, or just because it has a host of initiatives to tackle these issues, doesn’t mean that the College is necessarily a welcoming/comfortable place for Black students. This was the case with a friend of mine at Jesus, Morenike Akinnawonu, who described being there as “lonely” and feeling like “a minority within a minority” despite the extensive, and overwhelmingly positive list of policies that Jesus had implemented. For that reason, I would encourage every one of you who reads this article to identify your needs or the needs of your friends in the BAME community – e.g., more students/faculty of colour, better welfare for POC, more effective disciplinary procedures etc., find out what your college is (or isn’t) doing to meet them using the attached document, and apply pressure to them where you see fit. Every one of us has a responsibility to make this university as comfortable and welcoming for people of all backgrounds as possible.

I’m not a student at every college, so I won’t attempt to tell you what your college needs. But I can tell you, as someone who started this project while I was still a Fresher, that it is much easier to get in front of the relevant people than you think. And if you find that that isn’t the case, I’m always happy to help; it’s a lot easier to email me than your college’s Dean.