As a person of colour of South African heritage who was lucky enough to go to Oxford, I was ashamed to read of the Oxford Union’s decision last night to back the Rhodes Must Fall campaign by 245 votes to 212
My reason for opposing this campaign isn’t because I disapprove of trying to expunge politically incorrect individuals from the historical record, although I do, obviously. Nor is it because it seems completely arbitrary to single out Cecil Rhodes for this treatment when the same objections could equally well be made to statues of Winston Churchill and George Washington, although that’s a good argument too. Rather, it’s because accusing Oxford of “institutional racism” discourages other black students from applying to one of the greatest universities in the world.
Back in the mid-1990s, I enjoyed four intellectually liberating, life-affirming years at Oxford, all played out against a backdrop of medieval quadrangles, ornate domes and manicured lawns and never once witnessed any racist behaviour by my tutors or the students.
Like the overwhelming majority of British Oxonians from working class, immigrant backgrounds, I look back with profound affection on my time there and am grateful for the many gifts it gave me, such as an enduring love of the classics, a belief in the universal currency of debate and ideas, a commitment to expanding my cultural and intellectual horizons and a passion for theatre. So it pains me to see my alma mater traduced as “racist” by the Rhodes Must Fall campaigners.
Not only was my Oxford — and that of my friends — untainted by racism, but the weekly tutorials I had were the first time in my life when I didn’t feel judged on anything except my intellectual ability. I cannot think of a more tolerant, supportive, inclusive and loving environment than Lincoln and Wadham, where I spent most of my time as an undergraduate. Being at Oxford taught me to cherish my mind and to fall in love with learning for learning’s sake – a rare privilege in today’s corporate world.
I know from my own experience that these baseless accusations of “racism” are very off-putting to young people of colour. As an undergraduate, I worked with the Oxford Access Scheme to encourage applicants from “non-traditional backgrounds” and for the last decade I’ve volunteered as a youth mentor with Leaders of Tomorrow, a charity in Peckham that works with inner-city kids, encouraging them to apply to universities like Oxford.
A good deal of my work, then and now, involves convincing sceptical young black students that Oxford isn’t racist and they won’t be discriminated against in the admissions process. I’m always amazed by how entrenched this myth is because I know it not to be true. In the time I’ve worked on broadening access to Oxford, the university authorities have done a great deal to encourage people from diverse backgrounds to apply. Oxford is resolutely committed to widening access. The view of the colleges and university alike is that they want the most intellectually able students to apply, regardless of background, class or colour. As I continually tell my kids in Peckham, there has never been a better time to be young, bright and black.
A visit to Oxford earlier this week, in which I spoke to dons, students and outreach officers, brought home to me just how demoralising the Rhodes Must Fall campaign has been to those trying to diversify the student body. There was no question in their mind that it has discouraged many young people from applying. How many bright young men and women from Tottenham, Hackney, Moss Side or Toxteth have been put off by these silver-tongued activists, who decry the “racism” of Oxford while enjoying all the benefits it provides? Surely, those who enjoy these advantages have a responsibility to see others from similar backgrounds enjoy them too? I desperately want my gifted mentees to have access to the same gilded intellectual and social opportunities that I had.
I’m certainly not saying everything’s rosy in the garden. Is Oxford as diverse and multicultural as it should be? No, but that has nothing to do with “institutional racism”. Rather, the single biggest reason that only 24 black British students were admitted to Oxford as undergraduates last year is probably because so few black students apply. To be sure, some of the blame must be shouldered by the poverty of aspiration sadly afflicting many in Britain’s African-Caribbean communities, as well as the low quality of schools in Britain’s most disadvantaged areas and the fact that, when black students do apply to Oxford, it tends to be for massively over-subscribed subjects, like law and medicine. But the lion’s share of responsibility must be borne by the left-wing activists who caricature Oxford as a “racist” university where black students will never be welcome or feel at ease.
Is Oxford wholly devoid of prejudice? No, of course not. But contrary to the myths peddled by these rabble-rousers, Oxford is not a seething hotbed of bigotry that’s full of swivel-eyed loons, cravated toffs and cross-burning racists. Sure, there are a few throwbacks with antediluvian views, as there will be in any large group of people. But the truth is that the overwhelming majority of students at Oxford are down-to-earth, affable and non-judgemental. They are there because they’re bright, driven and passionate about their subject, not because of daddy’s connections. If we want to diversity the student body, we need to challenge the stereotype of Oxford as a finishing school for the white ruling class, not affirm it.
Rather than pull down statues of Cecil Rhodes, why not put up statues of some high-achieving black Oxonians? I’m thinking of the ground-breaking Guyanese barrister Edward Nelson, who studied there in the late 1890s, Richard Rive, the coloured South African novelist who undertook graduate research at Magdalen in the 1970s, and Caryl Phillips, the award-winning novelist from St. Kitts who read English at Queen’s College in the 1980s. I’d love to see statues of these intellectual behemoths in Oxford alongside Rhodes.
Knowledge empowers and enables us to grow as human beings. An education worth its name humanises and liberates, not embitters and enslaves. We should not wish to tear down statues, libraries or any other remnants of the colonial era. Instead, let an awareness of man’s inhumanity to man in the past be part of our education today in the hope that our generation can and will do better.
It is not Rhodes who must fall, but the myth of Oxford as a bastion of white upper class privilege. Only then will the university become truly diverse.