Christ Church Porters have been accused of racially discriminatory conduct towards students at Oxford University. The reported behaviour by a number of porters has led one member of the College to complain that they have been “seemingly outright racist”.
In one incident after matriculation on October 18th, a porter asked a group of black students attempting to enter the college whether they were “construction workers”. The students were allowed to enter only after one of them, Field Brown, an African American native of Mississippi and Rhodes Scholar at the college, showed his bod card.
Paul Amayo, a Kenyan Rhodes Scholar completing a DPhil in Engineering at Linacre, was another of the students involved. He told Cherwell, “I thought it was quite rude and disrespectful not only to assume but to ask us (who were invited guests to the college) that, specifically as Field had been in Christ Church for over two weeks at that moment and regularly went in and out for meals there.
“Even if he was not remembered, the comment about working there was completely unnecessary and only happened because all three of us were black, the people who went before us were not asked any such questions.”
Brown, meanwhile, remarked, “Although there was no malicious intent in the porter’s question, it felt like I had not left Mississippi. I cannot escape the skin I’m in. Even in Oxord, a lot of people are still just going to see you as black.”
In the early evening on the same date, Brown took four other guests, three of them of Hispanic appearance, to visit Christ Church’s fabled Tom Quad and take pictures at Mercury Fountain. Before long, a porter asked to see the students’ bod cards. Mr Brown obliged and explained that the others were his guests.
However in a tone that Mr Brown described as “firm and intimidating”, the porter insisted the guests leave, as “visiting hours are over.” Though Mr Brown had intended to take his guests to the College bar or buttery, the porter maintained that “you have to be a student of Christ Church” to remain in the College.”
The College’s Regulations (known as the “Blue Book”) do not prohibit members from bringing their guests into the College. On the contrary, “members of the House and their bona fide guests” are explicitly permitted in the Undercroft Bar and Buttery.
Against the backdrop of “numerous occasions” upon which College porters have asked Mr Brown, but not his white colleagues, to show identification, the Rhodes scholar described the experience as “dehumanising”.
Referring to tough Arizona laws requiring immigrants in the US state to carry their registration papers at all times, Brown said, “ I gained an insight into how Hispanic people in Arizona feel about those laws.”
Alex Diaz, a Latino American Rhodes scholar at New College, who was one of Field Brown’s guests, was circumspect. He commented, “I do not know what was behind the porter’s request for us to leave Christ Church. It very well could have been race, or it could have been a whole host of other reasons.
“With that said, I studied unconscious prejudice during undergrad, and can easily see how implicit bias may have coloured his decision to target us and ask us to leave.”
He added, “Being a Latino in the United States, I know firsthand the feeling of alienation and have been on the receiving end of demeaning comments such as ‘are you even a citizen’ and much worse. The incident at Christ Church pales in comparison to what I (and am sure Field) have been through, but it was still humiliating to feel as if we didn’t belong at this university.”
Three days later, Mr Brown brought two guests to visit his College. Both were white women on vacation from the United States. Neither visitor had ever previously been to Oxford. Though the women were allowed entry, the Christ Church scholar himself was again asked to show his Bod card. It was “confirmation”, said Brown, “that something’s wrong.”
Rhiana Gunn-Wright and Ayo Odutayo, co-convenors of the Black Rhodes Scholars Association, remarked, “While we were not with Field during the events specified, we share his hurt and outrage.”
They added, “No student at Oxford should be treated differently based on their race and ethnicity or any other aspect of their identity.”
Responding to allegations of discriminatory behaviour, the Very Revd. Prof. Martyn Percy, Dean of Christ Church, commented, “We are sorry that some members of the University appear to have felt it inappropriate to be asked to show their University cards. At the beginning of any academic year, it is normal practice for our Custodians and Porters to ask to see proof of identity on a regular basis for the first month or so.
“This is an especially busy time for tourism, and there are still large numbers of visitors walking around. As a newcomer to Christ Church myself, I have also been asked to show my ID on entry on several occasions, and I applaud the thorough and professional approach taken by our porters and custodians.
“Our staff are drawn from a very wide range of ethnic backgrounds. They do a superb job in welcoming students, visitors, tourists and worshippers from all over the world.”
Mary Eaton, Registrar at Rhodes House, stated, “The Rhodes Trust abhors racism in all its forms. We have spoken to Field and understand his concerns about these incidents. We urge all parties to come together to seek resolution.”
Brown was also conciliatory. He stressed that he did not wish to “demonise” his College, commenting, “I have enjoyed 98 per cent of my time there and have never had a problem with any of the students.”