Racism at Oxford!…with Three Real-Life Examples!

Musa Okwonga

tbp choir2 Racism at Oxford!...with Three Real Life Examples!

I don’t write about racism very often; and, fortunately enough, I don’t have to think about it too often.   But, every now and again, it demands my attention.  It’s funny; there is so much writing on the Internet that I have taken the approach of keeping my counsel unless I think I can add a genuinely fresh perspective.  Yet when I read Ekow Eshun’s piece in last night’s Evening Standard, I felt such a welling of anger that I found my fingers rattling away at the keyboard far faster than I could control them.

I felt a welling of anger because there will be several black people out there reading articles about racism at Oxford and thinking that things haven’t changed much since the days when white people rode the streets in white hoods after dusk.  And some of them may be considering making an application to Oxford or Cambridge, and some of them may think better of it, and that would be a colossal shame.

For those who didn’t read Mr. Eshun’s piece, here’s a link.  For those who don’t have time, Mr. Eshun’s article roundly criticises the lack of black students at Oxford and Cambridge; it attributes that lack, in large part, to racism; and it draws a conclusion with which I agree, in that “we are all poorer, regardless of background”, in a society where prejudice stops people from achieving their full potential.  But, but, but.  The article – and the one which inspired it, written by David Lammy MP – is dangerously reductive in tone.  It simplifies the issue of racism which – though not particularly complex – has its roots elsewhere.

So that this doesn’t turn into an endless cascade of polemic against Messrs. Eshun and Lammy, let’s put the case for the defence.  I can reveal, if not exclusively, that there is racism at Oxford; I experienced it.  On one occasion, I was followed through a friend’s college by one of the college porters, who oversee college security; it was 3pm, and I was going to deliver a birthday card, and I was shadowed every step of the way as if I were dropping off a batch of Class As.  On another occasion, one of my friends was barred from admission to a college whilst all his white friends were allowed in, and when he reacted angrily he was told that he was “behaving like an ape”.  And, on yet another occasion, I received racist abuse from a current member of the Houses of Parliament.  (Not to worry, though; I am sure that his abuse was merely tongue-in-cheek, since no-one’s actually racist these days, just “ironic”.)

But that’s what these were.  Occasions; three of them in four years in Oxford.   And they were outnumbered by the overwhelming number of exceptional friends, tutors and colleagues who could not have been more supportive of me in my time there.  People like Professor Mark Freedland, one of the world’s great academics, who encouraged me to stay in college whilst I wrestled with a thorough hatred of my undergraduate degree.  Or Dr. Simon Whittaker, a man of intimidating intellect, and who – if you hadn’t done your week’s reading – would unleash a terrifying glare that could outduel the Sun.  People like Liz FisherTimothy Endicott.   Rachel Craufurd SmithPaul Craig.  (All white, in case you don’t have time to click all the links…and that’s probably too many nice white people for one paragraph, so I think I’ll stop there.)

Back to the point.  These racist occasions are well outnumbered by the occasions of racism that I’ve suffered at the hands of policemen in London, when I was humiliatingly stop-searched for what, I am certain in at least one case, was purely for sport.  That racism was so bad that I no longer wear hoodies, or any other clothing that might cause people to feel anxious when they see me wandering along on a dark night.   Now, this doesn’t make any of the Oxford incidents less racist; but it makes my former university far more accepting than other environments in which black students will find themselves.

So, is Oxford racist?  No.  Does it contain racists?  Yes.  So why, then, am I angry with Mr. Eshun’s piece?  Because in choosing a narrowness of target, it allows others in society to shirk their responsibilities for the appalling – and yes, it is appalling – lack of black students at Oxbridge.  The section of his article which really set me off was this:

“In the past two years, Oxford has held nine “access” events at Eton while last year turning away almost all of the 292 black applicants who achieved three A grades at A-level.  But why does this matter? After all, it’s not as if promising black students are owed a place at Oxbridge by right.  It matters because it shouldn’t be too much to ask that Oxford and Cambridge, which between hem receive around £400 million a year of public money, do their job and actively go in search of the most able candidates from across the whole of society rather than shrugging their shoulders and perpetuating the status quo.”

I will declare an interest.  I attended Eton College; and when I was there, there were no more than two or three black students there out of around 1270.  The reason for that, as far as I could see, was not racial but economic.  School fees were £12,500 a year when I was there; of which my mother, a doctor who is a single mother of five, paid 50%.  Just twelve years later, school fees have more than doubled; looking at Eton’s own website, they have risen to £29,862 per year.  If there are more black students at Eton now, that’s not necessarily a reflection of greater social progress.  They are either geniuses who’ve received full scholarships, or – more likely – their parents are high-flying executives or part of the wealthy elite.

The reason I mention this is that it’s not just about black students who can’t get into Oxbridge, but poor ones.  Why are only 492 black students nationwide getting 3 As at A-level?  Having been in the state system until the age of 11, I can safely say that the problem started long before that age.  Inadequate schooling in poor students’ formative years leave them so far behind their richer colleagues that, when Oxbridge come calling, they often lack the grades or the confidence to answer the door.  I am sure the same is true for poor white students, or poor students of any other ethnicity for that matter.

I think Mr. Eshun and Mr. Lammy know this – as for Mr. Lammy, he implied as much in his article – but I think they have grossly simplified the issue, which is a shame.  There is plenty of racism out there in the UK; it’s just not so prominent in the places that they are somewhat sensationally pointing.

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  • Expatnhappy

    It requires a good deal of intellectual and cultural self confidence even to apply for Oxbridge and there are always a thousand reasons for not exposing oneself to possible humiliation (and serious debt). However the loudest voices against making the effort are those who insist that the system is biased against black people, poor people etc., when really it is only biased against those who would benefit least from being exposed to the intellectual demands that are made of all undergraduates. Those demands are made of students no matter what backgrounds or ethnicity the students may have. There are few holds barred. Either you can “get” the astro-physics lectures or you cannot; you have either read and remembered something about all or most of the works of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dickens, Austin, Eliot, Keats, Auden etc etc or you have not. There are no remedial classes Oxbridge is a place of study rather more than education: many of the most brilliant dons are not teachers at all in the conventional sense. Thus what is required to get more diversity into Oxbridge is to put the fire and ambition into the applicants: to tell them (as it is true) that neither racism nor snobbery nor indeed reverse snobbery will keep any child who is sufficiently ambitious, self aware and intellectually gifted from Oxford or Cambridge: being from a social or ethnic minority would usually be regarded as a “plus”, but it is no more than a decoration: it is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of entry.

  • SENSE_Media

    There will always be people with enough self-confidence to be able to embrace the culture of another race, without feeling as if their own identities are being threatened.

    After reading this, Musa, I count you as one of them.


  • Joseph_Abrahams

    Excellent article Musa! I am BLACK and at an Oxbridge college.

  • son_of_tud_BLOCKED_4_F-word

    Not only Oxford and Cambridge. When I was at Edinburgh back in the 90’s the one black student in the year had the experience attending a lecture where a member of the Medical Faculty spoke about ‘inferior races’. The fact that a lecturer held such views is bad enough; for him to share them amongst staff would be outrageous, but to stand up in front of 200 students and feel able to express them with impunity beggars belief. I will never forget that day.

    If racism cannot be eliminated from the seats of education what hope is there?

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