One of the “I, too, am Oxford” campaign images. Photo: itooamoxford.tumblr.com
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The “I, too, am Oxford” whiteboards aren’t perfect, but they’re better than nothing

Of course, whiteboards do not have the space for the full complexity of the arguments about racial insensitivity, not do they represent everybody’s experiences, but they can start an important discussion about the micro-aggressions that make it difficult to express offence.

I distinctly remember the first time anyone called me a Paki. I was at university and it was a friend, speaking in jest. He saw my shock, and assured me that “the Paki” had been the nickname for the only Pakistani boy at his school, and that “he’d liked it”. The clear suggestion was that I was being oversensitive. I let it go.

In the grand scheme of racist comments, it wasn’t the worst thing that’s ever happened, but it was distressing for a number of reasons. First, that at 18, I didn’t feel comfortable standing my ground and saying more. Second, the sudden, shocking sense that people – friends – might see me not only as different, but worthy of pejorative names. 

It was that sense, of abruptly being “othered”, that the “I, too, am Oxford” and “I, too, am Cambridge” campaigns depict. Inspired by the “I, too, am Harvard” photo-series in the US, the campaigns feature students of colour holding up whiteboards explaining the various micro-aggressions they experience daily. “The first time anyone called me a Paki was at Cambridge,” says one. “These parts of my identity shouldn’t be mutually exclusive,” says another. “No, I am not here on an access scheme,” reads a third. You get the picture.

It didn’t take long for a counter-campaign to spring up. “We are all Oxford” states on its website that Oxford has been “misrepresented” and expresses concern that “the negative portrayal of an ethnic minority student’s experience at the university will discourage prospective ethnic minority students from applying”. Their whiteboards make statements such as “the only thing the tutors care about is what you bring to the table”. In my experience, that was certainly true – but it doesn’t detract from the original campaign, which focused on other students.

Of course, whiteboards do not have the space for the full complexity of the arguments about racial insensitivity, about prejudice at elite institutions, or about where curiosity ends and offensiveness begins – and nor did the original campaign pretend to. But those whiteboards serve the important purpose of articulating the small instances – the mundane comments, not always intended to offend – that are difficult to confront in the moment, but add up to a painful whole.

When I saw the photographs last week, I was overwhelmed by how strongly I identified with them. Not because I had a terrible time at Oxford; I didn’t. I had a brilliant experience there, socially and academically, and would encourage anyone – state school, ethnic minority, and otherwise – to apply. But at the same time, there were moments where other students made me feel uncomfortable, as if my race was an issue that I couldn’t understand.

The crux of the matter is that these things should be spoken about. After the original campaign was launched, I had some interesting discussions with fellow Oxbridge alumni. Some pointed out that comments about race were often the result of ignorance, not raging prejudice or the desire to hurt. No doubt that is often true, but that makes it all the more important to educate and raise awareness of where the boundary of acceptable behavior lies. Nor does ignorance excuse everything: the willingness to learn is also crucial. The friend I mentioned might have called me a Paki because he was not used to diversity, but it was his choice to tell me to relax rather than think about why I might be hurt or offended.

If you have a lot of people from cloistered backgrounds or exclusive schools, as Oxford and Cambridge do, it is likely that some of these issues will arise. Of course racially insensitive comments are not unique to Oxbridge (I’d hope that most people reading the campaigns would recognize that) – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be discussed at all. That’s the same mentality that says that female foreign correspondents shouldn’t speak out about sexual assault in case it discourages editors from sending women to warzones. Keeping quiet to avoid putting people off does not address the root of the problem.

I still feel angry when I remember some of the things that were said to me while I was at university, and my own silence. The reason I didn’t speak up was not a desire to preserve the university’s good name, of course. It was because I was young and lacked the confidence to challenge comments that made me uncomfortable; because I didn’t want to be seen as over-sensitive or the “touchy ethnic minority” and differentiate myself more; because growing up in an ethnically diverse area of London and being fair-skinned enough to have never experienced overt racism, I had not established coping mechanisms or arguments for these situations. The whiteboards may not relate to everyone’s experience (“my voice is not the voice of all black people,” reads one). But they do kick-start a discussion that needs to be had, and – for me, most importantly – they give ethnic minority students a way of expressing the fact that sometimes it is OK to be offended.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear