By AMAL CHEEMA ’17
A stoic South Asian woman holds up a whiteboard as she leans against a stone building on the campus of Oxford University in England. The board reads, “‘Wow, your English is great!’…‘Thanks — I was born in London.’” Throughout the “I Too, Am Oxford” Tumblr page, there are many more photos of minority students at Oxford.
A black woman stands with a whiteboard that states, “No, I’m not on scholarship from Africa,” and another minority student captions her photo, “You do know they only accepted you because you’re black #coolstorybro.”
In order to promote racial awareness, over 90 Oxford students participated in the “I Too, Am Oxford” campaign.
Fearing that minorities would be discouraged from applying to the university, a group of students began a second photo initiative on campus. Featuring 16 posts on its own Tumblr, the “We Are All Oxford” website shows students clutching whiteboards with encouraging statements, including “Our JCRs (College Student Bodies) have equal opps reps: ethnic minorities, LGBTQ, international students” and “The Moritz-Heyman Scholarship Programme offers extensive financial support to students from low income households.”
However, the largest problem with “We Are All Oxford” is that it compares statistics and institutional structures to personal experiences of racism. The well-intentioned campaign aims to provide the full picture, but it inadvertently speaks over people that have felt isolated and cornered because of others’ perceptions of their identities.
The “I Too, Am Oxford” campaign encompasses photos featuring racist remarks, micro-aggressions and communal discontent. Oxford’s minority-identifying students, primarily of African or Asian descent, launched the photo-shoot campaign, inspired by the Harvard initiative, “I, Too, Am Harvard,” in early March. Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence, an undergraduate student at Harvard College, created the Harvard photo initiative to illustrate the personal experiences of over 60 black students.
Expanding to include more minority groups, the “I Too, Am Oxford” project seeks to express the need for campus discussion on issues relating to identity and the need for real institutional change. Although the Tumblr blog does not elaborate on what the change may entail, it does emphasize the desire for open dialogue.
The advent of the second blog has triggered controversy, posing the question of whether or not the blog attempts to nullify student’s experiences of racism on campus. While “We Are All Oxford” does not deny the presence of racism on Oxford’s campus, it does provoke a more general question relevant to any college campus.
“My view is that the ‘We Are All Oxford’ Tumblr is misguided — if probably well-intentioned — and that denying experiences of racism is not the correct way to improve access to the university,” stated the Oxford University Student Union President Tom Rutland.
Oxford African-Caribbean Society President Hope Levy-Shepherd echoed this sentiment, critiquing it as “well-meaning” but “unacceptable.” Although it is important to remember what systems have been put in place to ameliorate racism on campuses, the approach of “We Are All Oxford” fails because it refuses to work in unison with “I Too, Am Oxford” from the start.
Its mission statement begins its preamble with, “Oxford has been misrepresented in the media following the ‘I Too, Am Oxford’ campaign,” rendering the former campaign a “misrepresentation” and devaluing the personal experiences of those featured as contributions to “misrepresentation.”
Furthermore, the project’s focus on statistics and institutions simply comes across as, “We did everything to fix racism — stop complaining,” silencing future discussions. Above all, the approach of the campaign places Oxford’s media strategy of promoting an image of racial inclusion above experiences of racism. The campaign implies that presenting Oxford as racially inclusive is far more important by challenging the existing prejudices.
If minorities are told to stop complaining and that they should be grateful for the gains already made, there will inevitably be tolerance developed for racism. Neither Oxford nor any institution is perfectly diverse. According to statistics gathered by Britain’s Labor Party, Oxford accepted 32 black students in 2011, constituting a 10-year high. There were 3,200 places available. Whites were twice as likely to be accepted than blacks, and 89 percent of Oxford’s student body came from upper or middle class families.
While there are institutions in place to promote diversity, there is minimal diversity at Oxford, as expressed by “I Too, Am Oxford.” However, even if there are many minorities on campus, the presence of diversity does not necessitate open engagement and conversation. There has to be a drive to promote more conversation and understanding through dialogue and awareness campaigns. Regardless of these institutional improvements, campaigns should more fervently focus on what can be improved.
The inherent nature of racism holds that one person has the right to threaten or devalue someone’s existence. At Wellesley, we revere our political correctness not out of fear of offending but out of love of respect. In many of the club meetings or classes I have attended, we as a community work toward open dialogue that maintains a diversity of opinions and an inviting atmosphere to clarify questions.
According to the U.S. News and World Report, Wellesley has been in the top four for ethnic diversity among private liberal arts college for most of this century. However, our environment is not perfect. There should always be a constant drive and recommitment to become better by becoming more educated, as well as more responsible of our language and our actions.
Above all, we should take advantage of and engage with our diversity. We can do that by considering opinions of equal worth are contrary to our own and ceaselessly inquiring of our weaknesses.
In any revelation of racism or subtle micro-aggression, the subsequent question should never be “What do we already have in place?” but rather, “What can we do to make our environment better?”