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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle