Critical responses to the now-viral, ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’ campaign have triggered controversy across the university.
The Tumblr campaign, in which BME Oxford students are pictured holding whiteboards quoting racial prejudice which they have experienced, was inspired by the similar, ‘I, Too, Am Harvard’ campaign.
Comments include, “All the post-colonial and other critical theories you study does NOT entitle you to speak for me or over me,” and, “No, I’m not on a scholarship from Africa”.
The blog has received widespread media attention, and was covered by Buzzfeed, the Guardian, the Huffington Post and New Statesman.
The initiative has attracted criticism within Oxford for failing to represent fairly the treatment of race within the university. Luke Buckley, a graduate student at Wadham, challenged the campaign on the Facebook group “Skin Deep”, an Oxford student forum for the discussion of race issues.
He told Cherwell, “In soliciting views from ‘people of colour’ the campaign scores a tragic own goal insofar as it reinforces the idea that there is something essential or unique about being of a particular skin colour. Furthermore, it necessarily proposes that having a certain skin colour entitles you to rights that are denied to other people on this basis. This is rank hypocrisy.”
He added, “More gravely, it reinforces the very phenomena that it tries to ameliorate. It necessarily implies that there is something common to the condition of “being of colour” which ironically excludes not only people who aren’t “of colour” but also those who are “of colour” but who don’t identify with a similar set of experiences or perhaps feel uncomfortable with the divisive terminology.
“Oppression functions upon precisely this principle: the exclusion of people on the basis of an arbitrary characteristic from meaningful participation in the demos. To suggest a common voice is to suggest a yoke to which all must submit or be excluded. Surely the point should be to move beyond these sanctimonious and self serving campaigns which presuppose and thereby reproduce the very division they try to move beyond —to forgo the squalid comfort of identity and forge the possibility of relations that transcend it.”
An alternative Tumblr blog, ‘We Are All Oxford’ has since been set up. The introduction to the blog states, “We, as a mixed group of students from the University of Oxford, believe that Oxford has been misrepresented in the media following the ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’ Campaign. We are concerned that the negative portrayal of an ethnic minority student’s experience at the university will discourage prospective ethnic minority students from applying.”
Similar in format to ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’, the students pictured hold signs describing their positive experiences, including, “Half of my year of PPE at Univ are ETHNIC MINORITIES!” and, “We spend £5.6 million on outreach each year”.
‘We Are All Oxford’ does stress that it is not working against the earlier campaign, with its tumblr page also stressing that, “We would like to emphasise that we do not aim to undermine the original campaign and we are not working against them. We acknowledge that racism exists at the University of Oxford and it needs to be challenged, but we believe that the university is working hard to tackle these prejudices and misguided perceptions.”
Some students have opted to be involved in both campaigns, one even using ‘We Are All Oxford’ to explain that, “My statement was not meant to represent my entire experience, but to highlight some issues. My overall experience is very positive.”
Members of the ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’ Facebook group have defended the initial campaign. Risham Nadeem said, “It’s amazing how positive the response has been to the photos we’ve released. Having said this, the fact that there are some people who are undermining the project and claiming that racism isn’t a problem in Oxford is upsetting. You can’t look at these photos and think there isn’t a problem with the way students of colour are treated.This photo series highlights why, in this day and age, we still need to talk about race.”
Amy Bickersteth, also a member of the group, said, “Firstly, I think it’s important to acknowledge the students and general readers who understand and appreciate the premise of the project, and its result. I can’t help but feel disappointed, however, in comments that belittle the project by arguing that the incidents cited on the blog are “petty” or “exaggerated”, that everyone suffers from prejudice and so BME students can’t “complain”, or that prejudice exists everywhere, and so Oxford students in particular do not have the right to say anything.”
Students contacted from outside the campaign have expressed mixed reactions. Elle Tait, a first-year lawyer, said, “While it’s good to encourage discussion and an image campaign can have a very striking impact, it’s prone to be taken out of context and people can draw extreme conclusions that they wouldn’t do from speaking to the people in the pictures.”
Samuel Kim, a first-year medic, said, “One of the biggest race-related problems facing Oxford is access. I’m worried that this campaign could reinforce negative stereotypes and discourage BME students from applying.
Correction: The original article mistakedly cited Luke Buckley as the initiator of the “We are all Oxford” blog. We apologise for the mistake and for any discomfort caused.