Oxford ‘needs cultural shift’ to support BME students, study says

Black and minority ethnic undergraduates report experiencing racial slurs and isolation

May 28, 2015
Gargoyle at St Mary's Church, Oxford
Source: Alamy
Cultural ‘others’: BME students at Oxford still feel isolated and uncomfortable

The University of Oxford needs to do more to challenge racism and to make black and minority ethnic students feel more included, claims a long-awaited report finally released into the public domain.

Drawing on interviews with 70 black and minority ethnic students at Oxford, the study by the Oxford University Student Union’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (CRAE) highlights what it calls a number of “experiences of racism and discrimination” faced by undergraduates.

In one instance, a black undergraduate reported having been present when racial slurs had been used in an apparently humorous context to “see how I would react”, according to the report, 100 Voices Campaign 2: Black and Minority Ethnic Students of Oxford Speak Out.

Another undergraduate said that there was “a culture of making racist jokes or comments which, because they are considered amusing or ironic, are tolerated”.

“If you voice your discomfort, you are accused of not having a sense of humour, being over-sensitive or accusing somebody unjustly of being racist,” the student said.

A different respondent said: “I’ve never brought my culture into college in a serious way that hasn’t been mocked”, adding that “to feel popular and adapt, I have to bring as little of ‘that [culturally “other”] side of myself’ as possible”.

A further interviewee blamed Oxford’s college system for their sense of isolation, saying they struggled to meet other BME students because “when you have a lot of friends outside of college, you’re almost seen as a traitor in some sense”.

Another said that there were “very few institutional spaces in Oxford where you can have a regular black gathering that is supported and funded and has its own infrastructure or history”.

The report, which has been shared internally at Oxford since March 2014 but only now has been released publicly, calls for a “cultural shift” at the university to support ethnic minority students. It also contains the results – already publicly available – of a survey that found that 59.3 per cent of BME respondents had at some point felt uncomfortable or unwelcome at Oxford because of their race or ethnicity.

Although Oxford had begun to take steps to address the problems, Marc Shi, chairman of CRAE, said the group had published the full report as “[the university had not taken] concerns seriously enough given the speed it is moving to address them”.

An Oxford spokesman said that the university “neither tolerates nor condones racial harassment or abuse in any form, and we are committed to addressing and preventing exclusionary behaviour”.

He said the institution welcomed the work by Oxford students on the issue, including their input into a race summit last year, which he said had led to “concrete outcomes” on the diversification of curricula.

A university-wide series of events scheduled for 2015-16 would include student-led events, faculty-led round tables, input from external institutions and a series of high-profile speakers, he added.

“Oxford is committed both to supporting potential and current ethnic minority students and to ensuring an appreciation of cultural diversity is fully embedded in the wider university community,” the spokesman said. “Recruiting the best and the brightest from all corners of the UK and the wider world means ensuring prospective students know we value and welcome those from all backgrounds.”


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