A Tale of Two Campaigns
Following the lead of Harvard students, a group of Oxford University Black and Minority Ethnic students launched “I, too, am Oxford” The group explained that their project was “inspired by the recent ‘I, too, am Harvard’ initiative. The Harvard project resonated with a sense of communal disaffection that students of colour at Oxford have with the University. The sharing of the Buzzfeed article ‘I, too, am Harvard’ on the online Oxford based race forum, ‘Skin Deep’ led to students quickly self organising a photoshoot within the same week. A message that was consistently reaffirmed throughout the day was that students in their daily encounters at Oxford are made to feel different and Othered from the Oxford community. Hopefully this project will demonstrate that despite there being a greater number of students of colour studying at Oxford now than there has ever been before, there are still issues that need to be discussed. In participating in ‘I, too, am Oxford,’ students of colour are demanding that a discussion on race be taken seriously and that real institutional change occur.”
One might have thought that the reaction to this campaign might have been concern at the experiences faced by BME students and solidarity in tackling the issues raised. What was not expected however was the launch of an alternative campaign ‘We are all Oxford’. The campaign states: “We, as a mixed group of students from the University of Oxford, believe that Oxford has been misrepresented in the media following the ‘I, too, am Oxford’ Campaign. We are concerned that the negative portrayal of an ethnic minority student’s experience at the university will discourage prospective ethnic minority students from applying. We would like to emphasise that we do not aim to undermine the original campaign and we are not working against them. We acknowledge that racism exists at the University of Oxford and it needs to be challenged, but we believe that the university is working hard to tackle these prejudices and misguided perceptions. Our aim is to present the full picture. We have heard from those who have suffered negative experiences here, which we all agree need to be voiced and challenged. We want to show people that many ethnic minorities have an overall positive experience here at the University of Oxford. We want to show that the university selects on academic excellence and actively tries to attract people from all walks of life. We want to show that the university makes a conscious effort to make people from all ethnic minority groups feel welcome. We want to show that we are all Oxford.” One wonders if the predominantly white organisers of the alternative campaign actually considered their words and actions. The organisers of the ‘We are all Oxford’ (WAAO) say they back the original intentions of the ‘I too am Oxford’ campaign but in an interview with the Metro newspaper WAAO’s organiser Alexandra Wilson has hardly helped that assertion: “Our aim is to present the full picture. In response to criticism of our campaign as ‘diluting’ the original message we would like to clarify that we all fully support the original intentions of ‘I too am Oxford’. It is important that people feel able to voice their negative experiences and there are many ways this can be achieved within the university, as well as externally through the media – as the campaign chose to do. Many of the people who have taken part in the ‘We are all Oxford’ response have been subject to racial abuse (including myself). We just want people to recognize that Oxford does not encourage or tolerate it, and this type of ignorance is not representative of the institution. Unfortunately, we will find racism across England and we all agree that we need to challenge the offenders. However, we believe that it is important for us to emphasise that it is ignorant individuals at the university rather than the university culture. Racism is not more prevalent at the University of Oxford than elsewhere and the university is working hard to actively tackle it. We do not want to dilute the message that racism is a problem that needs to be voiced and challenged. However, we do want to emphasise that the majority of ethnic minority students studying here will not be consistently made to feel ‘different and othered’.” Not surprisingly the supporters of the ‘I too am Oxford’ campaign have not exactly felt supported by WAAO. Tyler Alabanza-Behard, former Chair of OUSU’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality said: “Though WAAO ‘aims’ not to ‘work against’ ITAO – because of their shared form and similar titles, the two exist in direct dialogue. However the dialogue instigated by WAAO is neither appropriate nor meaningful. Instead of truly engaging with the crucial issues raised by ITAO, the counter-campaign hijacks a conversation about race and seeks to assuage its message by trumpeting supposedly-impressive access statistics. Beyond this, WAAO embarrasses itself with its lack of diversity. Even if it may have good ‘intentions’, it has the effect and impact of white folks commandeering or even rewriting the expressive power of ITAO. With its saccharine, Helen Lovejoy logic ("think of the children!’’), WAAO also patronises the prospective applicants for whom it is intended. It fears that ITAO will ‘discourage’ BME students from applying, but that’s not an argument I can at all purchase. Many race and privilege conscious applicants will in fact be inspired by the work of ITAO; check Black Twitter if you want proof. In its existence, ITAO makes visible that there are a large number of students who are not only committed to addressing racism, but are also unafraid to hold the University to account in the process. For the many young adults already engaged in social justice work pre-university, ITAO advertises Oxford as a place where students of colour – underrepresented though we may be - actively push back against institutional inequality. And that’s a good thing.” It certainly disappointing that rather than show solidarity the organisers of WAAO appear to want to down play and negate the racism experienced by fellow students.