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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2016

’Are you a construction worker?’

By Donald Brown

Life as a black Rhodes scholar

A BBC interviewer once asked Stuart Hall, the celebrated Jamaican cultural theorist, about his time as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford in the early 1950s. Had it lived up to his expectations? Had it looked the way that it was supposed to look? Hall said that it had looked fine, but it hadn’t felt the way that it was supposed to. He had been sure that he could be successful there, but had also known that he would never truly be a part of Oxford’s ethos because “it’s the summit of something else. It’s distilled Englishness.”

More than 50 years later, it strikes me that little has changed. My joy at winning a Rhodes scholarship to study at Christ Church was seriously diminished even before I arrived last October. The welcome newsletter I was sent by the Graduate Common Room used Ebonics to explain aspects of college life. For example, the prayer before dinner in hall was explained in the following terms: “Dem colleges generally require some swaggerific undergrad to stand up and say a piece in Latin before dem kids is allowed to eat. Showing off one’s knowledge of Latin is the Oxford equivalent of Kanye poppin’ bottles all over a gaggle of groupies or Drake makin’ it rain in da club.”

Then, when I arrived at Christ Church and went to the graduate common room kitchen for the first time, I was confronted by various posters featuring black celebrities reminding people in gangsta language to pay for their drinks and to not steal from the kitchen. I know that these were meant as jokes but, to me, ridiculing the way that black people stereotypically (but never actually) talk amounts to a subtle form of racism. It feels akin to the minstrelsy that occurred during the Jim Crow segregation era in the southern US, from where I hail.

In addition, during my first term I was continually singled out and asked for identification when entering the college grounds. By contrast, I did not see many white students asked. Three separate instances in particular convinced me that this was a real problem. The first was when I and two of my Kenyan friends were stopped and asked if we were “construction workers.” Another time I was with two white visitors from the US: they were allowed entry without question, yet I, the Christ Church scholar, was again asked to show my university card.

The third instance was when I was with three Hispanic friends, whom I wanted to take to the Christ Church bar. After I showed the security staff — known in Christ Church as custodians — my ID, I was told that I could stay, but my friends had to leave. I replied that they were my guests, but the custodian told us that visiting hours were over and escorted us off the site. College regulations (known as the “Blue Book”) make it quite clear that “members of the (college) and their bona fide guests” are permitted in the “Undercroft Bar and Buttery.”

Someone wrote an article about my experience in a student newspaper. After it was published, the college authorities wanted to talk to me. I assumed that things would get better at this point. I thought that they would be upset by what had occurred and embarrassed about what I saw as manifestations of institutionalised racism.

But their response was hugely disappointing. The dean published a statement that read: “We are sorry that some members of the university appear to have felt it inappropriate to be asked to show their university cards. At the beginning of any academic year, it is normal practice for our custodians and porters to ask to see proof of identity on a regular basis for the first month or so. This is an especially busy time for tourism, and there are still large numbers of visitors walking around. As a newcomer to Christ Church myself, I have also been asked to show my ID on entry on several occasions, and I applaud the thorough and professional approach taken by our porters and custodians. Our staff are drawn from a very wide range of ethnic backgrounds. They do a superb job in welcoming students, visitors, tourists and worshippers from all over the world.”

This statement disregarded my lived experience as a black student who has been the victim of numerous dehumanising experiences. It not only trivialises a very real and serious issue but, even more worryingly, betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of institutionalised racial oppression. Racism is a cultural and social structure whereby prejudice and power combine to form social constructs, legislation and widespread bias. It manifests itself as implicit bias as much as explicit hate. Therefore, policies that are ostensibly race-neutral, when left unchecked, are selectively enforced in ways that perpetuate racism by causing disproportionate harm to non-whites.

One college officer was very polite when he spoke to me, but he made it clear that he could not be sure whether the custodians had done anything that could be considered racist. Moreover, he voiced concern that my article had upset the custodians — which, in turn, upset the whole network of relations at Christ Church. He would not even concede that subconscious racism could have played a factor in any of my humiliating experiences. It reminded me of what happened in 1958 when Anthony Smith — a white student — petitioned the university to act after being confronted with signs saying “No Coloureds” in the windows of university-approved landladies. According to Stephen Tuck’s book The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union, the university authorities rebuked him for “disturbing good relations between the university and the landladies” and declined to remove the offending landladies from its list. (It did issue non-discrimination guidelines, but evidence suggests that these were not vigorously enforced before the university relinquished control of city lodging in 1970.)

Another meeting with college authorities amounted to more of the same. The official also appeared to blame me for upsetting the custodians and told me to go through the proper chain of command if I ever had more problems, adding that the media like to make Christ Church look bad.

As Hall realised, Oxford-Englishness has an imperial whiteness connotation to it that implicitly excludes non-whites. Let us not forget that Rhodes scholarships were established precisely to bring — as Cecil Rhodes himself put it — those parts that are at present “inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings” under “Anglo-Saxon influence.”

I am sure that the Christ Church administration believes in racial equality, but my view as a black student is that it unconsciously sanctions a racist atmosphere by failing to take a sufficiently active stance against it — leaving individuals like me to do the work. Structural and institutional racism must be contested within the chain of command, and people in positions of privilege must be prepared to indict one another when failings are identified.

Following that first term, things were better. My ethnic minority friends were no longer denied entry — although I was asked if I was a construction worker two further times, and the whole experience has left a lasting impression on me. I really hope that, as more students of dark complexion arrive at Christ Church, the college has learned from my experience last year and that no one has an experience like mine. I trust that my speaking out has opened the college authorities’ eyes to the lived experiences of ethnic minority students, and convinced them of the necessity to work actively to uproot the racist legacy that they have inherited.

Donald Brown is a Rhodes scholar at Christ Church, Oxford. He is studying for an MPhil in modern British and European history.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime.


Regrets: The college’s response

Christ Church explains how it acted after receiving Donald Brown’s complaint.

Following Mr Brown’s complaint in the autumn of 2014, we acted swiftly in reviewing our existing training on equality and diversity. As a result, we provided additional training for our staff.

We also met with Mr Brown on a number of occasions, where he received apologies in person from both the junior censor and the dean. He also received an unequivocal written apology.

Although we dispute some of Mr Brown’s claims, we have nonetheless addressed the wider issues this incident has raised, and are forming a group to review our practice. We recognise the need to be constantly vigilant in our efforts to identify and eradicate discriminatory practices, including forms of unconscious racism to which Mr Brown refers.

Mr Brown is a valued member of Christ Church, and he continues to study with us.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2015 edition of Times Higher Education. Reprinted with permission.