By most standards, 2014 has been a big year for issues concerning race at Oxford. March saw ‘I, too, am Oxford’ go viral as non-white students took to Tumblr, wielding placards inscribed with incensed one-liners. Within weeks, a university-wide Race Equality Summit had been set up with Oxford’s own powers-that-be joining the conversation.
You have probably also heard that just before the end of term, the same people behind the ‘I, too’ campaign launched a zine off the back of their earlier success. Entitled Skin Deep, it essentially spells out the core philosophy powering the placards in its call for “a post race writing… which claims that race is a fiction, which is only ever given substance via the illusion of performance, action, and utterance”.
For some, this “race as fiction” approach goes a long way in explaining their experience of Otherness. Unsurprisingly, it has proven particularly relevant to those who have an Occidental suffix like ‘-British’ appended to their identities; after all, if you have been bred in the same socio-political petri dish as most white Oxonians, it is perfectly conceivable that, for you, the particularities conveyed by an ‘ethnic’ background really do start and stop at the skin.
No surprises, then, that a significant portion of the ‘I, too’ and Skin Deep campaigners are long-term citizens of the West, who resent being told what great English they speak when they have spent their entire lives based in New York or London. Other campaigners, whilst not British, are nevertheless the sort of global elite who have embraced the West conclusively enough to protest, against all appearances, that yes English is their first language.
In cases like these, race may genuinely be a form of unhelpful fiction that deserves to be overlooked. But personally, as an international student, I cannot help but feel a little alienated by the assimilative racial programmes du jour which argue that people ought to be treated like they’re all ‘the same’ inside, regardless of ethnic particularities.
Like other non-Brits I’ve spoken to, I get nervous about what the word ‘same’ is meant to imply in this context: that there exists some ideal version of ‘Oxford’ that I’m supposed to have the capacity to ‘be(come)’, in spite of my tinted skin and completely un-English background. Far too often, I have seen the phrase ‘the same’ elaborated into an irrational expectation that under the skin, all Oxonians ultimately are — or even worse, ought to conform to — some combination of British, white, and middle-class.
It has been precisely this expectation of underlying, unrelenting sameness that has produced some of my most unsettling experiences here at Oxford. Truth be told, I can live with being asked regularly if English is my first language; I have an accent that is clearly not local, a fact which makes this assumption somewhat more understandable.
But I cannot, as I have discovered, live with friends and tutors who insist on belittling non-European forms of belief or social organisation to my face, on the blanket assumption that the whole world buys into — or worse still, should want to buy into — their own society’s myths (If you’re a working adult who still lives with your parents, then you must be a sponge; if you take the occasional dose of Traditional Chinese Medicine then you must be superstitious, or living in the dark ages).
Similarly, I felt wronged when a university supervisor informed me point blank, one day, that I was on the “wrong side of History” for erring on the side of so-called Asian-style democracy, rather than agreeing with his fancifully liberal and privileged British abstractions about what a Southeast Asian utopia should look like (Whose history was I on the wrong side of? His?).
On a less subtle note, I also remember feeling mildly disturbed when a British friend once proclaimed, half tongue-in-cheek, that he could form a real friendship with me only because I was Singaporean, and therefore “just an English person with yellow skin on” (“Actually,” I told him, “I’m very yellow on the inside too.”).
As I see it, then, the logic of ‘race as fiction’ applies to some of us here at Oxford more than it does, or should do, to others. On the one hand, there is admittedly no doubt that it works well if you do count yourself as British at heart, like many of this year’s most vocal campaigners. There’s also a certain amount of truth in its foundational premise that race does not make a person — I am well aware that my ethnicity is not the sum of my personality, and I feel a little slighted whenever people assume straight off the bat that I read physics or do kung fu.
But on the other hand, it is perhaps worth asking ourselves just how far this attitude can be applied to the entirety of the international student community since, in many cases, race does signify a whole plethora of genuine cultural differences for them.
How far can you treat everyone like they are the same, before coming across as disrespectful in your refusal to acknowledge genuine points of uniqueness rooted in ethnicity, and the expression of this through performative social beliefs? What is this ‘same’ that we’re all meant secretly to be, anyway; is it shorthand for ‘culturally British’?
And what if, horror of horrors, the very skin colour you want to brush aside turns out to be the best route to approaching someone who does not identify with your culture, and wants people to take a more active interest in his own?
In Oxford, of all places, the legitimisation of ethnocultural differences ought to be the basis from which genuine cross-cultural understanding can develop. I, for one, feel that if my skin makes me seem culturally distinct from the average British person, then it is only doing a good job of telling the truth.
I am different on the inside, and would much rather have this fact cast out into the open and be treated positively as the Other that I am, rather than as the standardised, generically British person whom people would prefer me to be.