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.