It’s hard to forget that the buildings in which you stand were built off the backs of racial subjugations and slavery. The endless portraits of white meant that occupy our colleges further emphasise that most blatant point – Oxford wasn’t made for people like me. And yet, every now and then, we hear stories such as the one coming out of All Souls College about its ‘heroic’ attempts to redress their slave-built legacy through an annual scholarship scheme, which would fund graduates from Caribbean countries to study at Oxford, in addition to providing a five-year grant for a higher education college in Barbados. Seems great, right? Indeed, it is a step in the right direction, but given all that needs to be done in order to make Oxford a truly diverse, egalitarian institution, this move is little more than a token gesture.
Ever since last June, when student protests brought to attention the college’s colonial legacy, eyes have been on All Souls to see how they would distinguish themselves from their humiliating title of ‘All Slaves College’. The college’s library, opened in 1751 and de- signed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor, still bears the name of Christopher Codrington, a former fellow of the college and slave owner/sugar plantation magnate who gifted the college £10,000 in his will. For context, this sum would be worth around £1.5 million in today’s money. So for a college which is still benefitting from the financial rewards of the slave trade, it was necessary that they do something to abstract themselves from their colonial legacy by providing some (very visible) gesture to get the campaigners off their backs.
The scholarship provides them with the perfect solution: they get to retain the library’s name and its marble statue of Codrington, while seeming to acknowledge the bitter roots of their ever-increasing fortune.
As Shreya Lakhani of Common Ground notes, “the people we celebrate are reflections of our past but also expressions of our present day values.” All Souls’ failure to remove the Codrington statue and change the library’s name is indicative of an institution which defends its backwards customs and practices as a simple continuation of its tradition and heritage, all the while attempting to extricate itself from the growing controversy.
It is hard not to draw a parallel between this and the politically-charged debate around the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oriel College, which still remains after much public controversy. Rhodes, a British imperialist and architect of apartheid within the Cape Colony (now South Africa), created the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship programme which is awarded to full-time postgraduates of the University, although it was initially intended for “young colonists” to continue the British imperial legacy. Just like in the case of the Rhodes statue, arguments for the renaming of the Codrington library and the removal of the Codrington statue to a more suitable location (such as a museum) have been repeatedly shot down by critics who claim that this would be an erasure of history. Their arguments fail to see that the removal of a statue from a place of glorification and academic excellence to a more historically-sensitive setting is the least we can do to combat the institution’s colonial legacy, which to this day continues to make BME students highly uncomfortable.
The appalling lack of diversity within the University as a whole serves to emphasise the issue. Oxford needs to fundamentally address issues of racial diversity and academic white-washing. Although many colleges have great access schemes which aim to at- tract applicants from historically disadvantaged backgrounds, the University could be doing a lot more to tackle the racial diversification of the institution through changes to the admissions process (such as centralised, rather than college-based, undergraduate admissions).
Furthermore, certain curricular within the University need to be addressed for their lack of BME-inclusivitity – in particular the humanities need to seriously redress the balance when it comes to what they teach. Rather than having an almost entirely Eurocentric approach to history, for example, a greater focus on those countries which Britain has historically- subjugated would provide students with a more well-rounded understanding of both UK history and the wider world. Scholarship programmes make good newspaper titles, but actually attempting to diversify Oxford and its curricula is what will enable change.
I am not trying to say that we haven’t made any progress – things are much better than they were 30 years ago, and continue to improve daily. But as advocates for a more inclusive and equal university, we ought to be wary of simply commending colleges into complacency for their token gestures.
Moreover, we have to see universal policy change rather than individual recompenses from certain colleges, in order to create a culturally-sensitive and diverse student body within every part of this university. We need to con- tinue to scrutinise the institutions which, to this day, rest on their imperial legacies, because without being challenged, nothing will ever change.