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Being black at Oxford

Are you an incoming fresher? Are you black? Do you have questions about what life at Oxford can mean for you? Where to get your hair done? Where to buy seasoned food? If so, you’ve come to the right place. This is my Unofficial Official Guide to Being Black at Oxford. 

First, I’m going to answer a few questions that I’m sure you’re bursting to ask, so we’ll take them one at a time. 

  1. Is there racism? 

Unfortunately, racism tends to be everywhere. That’s the problem with systematic structures, they tend to be, well, systematic. And because it’s systematic it tends to be everywhere, both where you least expect it and where you most expect it. A number of you will have heard rumours about racism in Oxford, some true and some wildly exaggerated, and you’re probably very worried because of it. I know I was. I’m not here to sugar-coat it; ultimately, yes, there is racism at Oxford. You will likely experience it, just like you may likely experience racism at any university. But that’s not the end of it. Oxford boasts a proactive black community of both students and a few tutors, not to mention the many allies we have among the university staff and the students. If you were to experience racism, there are always safe channels to report it to: your tutor, the Oxford African Caribbean Society (ACS), and the Student Union’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality. And you can always fall back on the black community at Oxford for support. 

… Which brings us to our next question. 

  1. Will I be the only black person in my college?  

There’s no singular answer for this one. It constantly varies every year. Typically, smaller colleges like Regent’s Park and Teddy Hall aren’t likely to have black students due to their already small student population. However, some big colleges (not naming names for this one sorry!) also fall short on their number of black undergraduates. Don’t fret though; even if you do find yourself in this unfortunate predicament, no one really stays only in college. Most colleges (with the exception of St Hugh’s and Lady Margaret Hall) are jam-packed next to each other in the city centre. You can’t even go to Tesco in your bonnet without being caught by a fellow black student like a rat on the highway. My advice is not to worry about it. You’ll make friends both in and out of college, and will likely rarely spend time within the walls of your college, as there are so many other things to do in Oxford than stay locked up in a 500-year-old library. 

  1. How different will the university community be to my home community? How will I make friends? 

So different. If you’re coming from a community where there’s a lot of diversity, Oxford can be a real culture shock for you. I personally came from a community where there wasn’t really a drinking culture (I live with my mum and she’s never drunk alcohol in her life), so being thrust into a space where drinking is not just the norm, but feels like it’s the only way to socialise was a shock to me. It’s very easy to lose yourself for the sake of trying to fit in. The trick is to be selective with the crowds you hang out with. Chill with people who you feel safe with, who will defend you. Ask yourself if your non-black friends would step in to defend you if you experienced a hate crime. Do they respect your boundaries? If you tell them no, do they plead and beg until you say yes, or do they respect your decision? There are a lot of societies in Oxford; I recommend joining all the ones you’re interested in while in Freshers’ Week and using that opportunity to make friends. Shameless promotion but join ACS, because if you’re looking for a place to make great friends, it’s at their events – I’ve met some of the best people in the whole world there.

  1. Where can I get my hair done? 

Nowhere. Well, that’s kind of a lie. I’ve heard of barber shops out in Cowley. Apparently, they’re not too bad. For those of you wanting to get braids, unfortunately, your odds are dire. There is one shop to buy black hair products in Cowley, but the prices are extortionate. £16 for simple Eco Styler?! As for actually doing the braids, I once had a black cab driver who had lived in Oxford for ten years ask me where in Oxford I got my braids done, because she still hadn’t found a good braider. It broke my heart to tell her I went back to London to do my hair. But a train to London is only an hour and the Oxford Tube (coach service) is only £11. Your options are a train or bus to London or Reading, or learning to braid yourself I suppose.  

  1. Where can I get African or Caribbean food? 

Cowley is about to be your best friend if you really want African or Caribbean food. But it’s quite the trek – probably at least a 30-minute walk from central colleges, so you’ve got to save your trip to Heat or Spiced Roots for those crippling homesickness moments.  

  1. How hard is it to deal with imposter syndrome? Did I just get in because I’m black? 

Honestly, very hard. A lot of people in Oxford have had a head start in life that a lot of us haven’t had the privilege of receiving. Even if you weren’t privately educated, or your parents weren’t born here, or they didn’t go to university, you wouldn’t have gotten an offer from Oxford if you didn’t deserve to be here. These tutors have better things to do than teach students that they have no interest in teaching, so believe me when I tell you your tutors chose you because they wanted to teach you. You have the grades, you passed your interviews and admissions tests, and you’ve impressed them with your submitted work. You’ve probably done more than most other people to get admission to Oxford, don’t sell yourself short because Garry from Slough thinks that black people are benefitting from some kind of affirmative action scheme in Oxford. That affirmative action scheme does not exist. There is no such thing. Students in universities in the U.K. are chosen pretty much entirely on merit, and that most definitely, and especially, includes you.  

  1. Does it get easier with time? 

It does for some, and it doesn’t for others. I’ll be honest, if I had a pound for every time I doubted myself in Oxford, I would have enough to pay off my student loans. We’re in an institution that was never built to accommodate students like us, people of colour, working class, first-gen, etc. But none of that means I don’t deserve this, I worked my butt off to get here, and so did you. The only thing you can do is do Oxford your way, you don’t need to conform to the white upper-class way of social life and academics, it’s okay to be entirely you. Oxford has had many rich white men come and go, doing everything pretty much the same way, so I can assure you that Oxford needs a change of pace.   

So, to conclude, Oxford is hard, and it’s even harder for people like you and me. This university was built over 1,000 years ago, while the first black person didn’t set foot in Oxford until 1873. But just because it isn’t built for us, it doesn’t mean we can’t make it for us. My best advice? Be yourself, wear that bonnet, wear that durag, use whatever vernacular you’re familiar with, because at the end of the day, Oxford chose you, not their invented idea of you. 

Image credit: John Diez via Pexels.

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