This week in Features Leanne Yau exposed widespread racial profiling of students of colour by porters employed by Oxford colleges. Accusations were received from 14 students from 11 colleges, some of them containing multiple and ongoing accounts of discrimination dating back years. Unable to recount every example in the feature, Cherwell has collated every story it received prior to publishing the feature. Many colleges provided comment, and their responses are attached to the accounts. As per their wishes, some students will remain anonymous.
In addition, five Oxfesses and Oxfeuds which report similar incidents have been imbedded as well as the articles which detail the discrimination faced by a Christ Church Rhodes Scholar in 2014.
I took a degree in Radiation Biology, a 1 Year Master’s course, at Oxford for the year 2016-17, for which I was at Balliol College. The college has a main site and a separate Postgraduate Centre at Holywell Manor (where the MCR is), about ten minutes walk away. The latter has a card entry system, so porters never profiled people (there was no need to). They did also, however, seem to be much friendlier towards me in general than those at the Main Site.
When I arrived as a fresher, I very quickly continued my interest in student theatre by directing Balliol’s Drama Cuppers entry in Michaelmas. As a result of this and going to halls very often for dinner (I still cannot cook), I would walk into main site of Balliol at least every other day. From late September when I arrived until early December, despite entering the college that frequently, I would estimate I was stopped and asked for ID by the porters at least 50% of the time I tried to enter. Since I was a fresher and new to the collegiate system, I assumed this was normal. It was only when my then girlfriend walked in with me and saw this happen to me (whilst she, a white postgraduate also at Balliol was not asked for ID) did I realise something was wrong. She asked me if I was often asked for ID and I said yes, and she replied that this had never once happened to her, despite also being a fresher.
I asked various white friends at Balliol (it’s a very white college) if they had ever been asked for ID; all of them replied that they had not, and in fact expressed shock that I had been.
I want to emphasise that this was often not a case of porters making absolutely sure I was a student, but rather assuming that I must have been a tourist, or simply someone who was not allowed to be there. I was asked multiple times for ID by every single porter of the 5 plus that perform shifts. Often, they would act completely bewildered at my walking in, asking: “Sorry, can I help you?” as though I were lost or trying to sneak in, and when I produced my ID be visibly in shock that I was actually a student here.
As a British person of Arab ethnicity, I cannot imagine how difficult the incoming recipient of the Balliol Refugee Scholarship will find this problem when studying at the same college, bearing in mind that I have lived in this country all my life and English is my mother tongue. It actually angers me that they have used this to portray the college as being wonderfully progressive and liberal; the actions of the people whose job it is to act as the first port of call at the college proves that this isn’t really the case.
It also frustrates me when people at Oxford complain that the lack of diversity is simply due to a lack of applications. If BME students that are already at the university are treated in this way by their own colleges, do they expect them to give ringing endorsements of Oxford to their friends back home? This idea that Oxford as an institution is doing all it can to combat the horrendous lack of diversity amongst is intake is evidently untrue.
I regret sorely not emailing someone at the college about this, but I also remember feeling very much that no one would care. This wasn’t a case of students being discriminatory and requiring discipline; it’s a different issue when you are accusing staff of discriminatory actions.
I’m a third-year British student, originally from South Korea, studying at Balliol. I’ve always been really conscious of greeting the porters every time I pass the lodge to differentiate myself from the tourists, especially those of my ethnicity, who visit our college every day. I absolutely adore one of our porters, who is a favourite amongst all the students here and puts a smile on our faces without fail. Some of the other porters are not so friendly.
Constantly throughout my first two years at Oxford, porters would stop me at the entrance, shouting “Oi! Excuse me!” out their window and asking me “Where are you going?” or “Who are you?”. I would always reply that I live and study in Balliol, the same two porters would fumble for a lousy excuse that they couldn’t see my face. I understand there are tourists who try to barge in, but after seeing me every day, you’d think that they would recognise a familiar face.
Then in third year, on Lunar New Year, I went to grab the music room keys from the porters’ lodge. One of the night porters asked me if I was Chinese, and I explained that I was from South Korea. Then he proceeded to say “Kung hay fat choi,” despite the fact that he knew it was a phrase in mandarin, and I’d already clarified that I’m neither Chinese, nor do I celebrate “Chinese new year”.
I don’t expect our porters to know everything about every culture, but it would be helpful if they could be more sensitive to the fact that we each have different backgrounds and different beliefs, just as not all English people do not celebrate Easter.
One evening last term I invited a few friends from other colleges to visit the Lindsay bar. We are all Asian. I’m not particularly sure about the rules here, but I’ve seen other Balliol students bringing friends from other colleges to Balliol at similar hours. The night porter stopped me and very rudely, without saying anything or asking for any information, pointed me with his judging looks to the ‘no visitors’ board. I appreciate it that he tried to safeguard college, however, first, any reasonable person could tell from the situation that I, as a member of college, was just inviting my friends to my college. I highly doubt that he would do the same with a different group. Even if taking friends to college at 9pm is forbidden by college rules, I felt offended by his rude behaviour. It would have been better if he said or asked anything, instead of just lazily pointing to a board with his looks.
After explaining the situation, my friends entered. Immediately he accused my friends of stepping on the grass in the front quad, while in fact none of them were and none of them would. I found it a weird thing for him to say. He presumed that we would misbehave and step on the grass without taking a good look – if this is the case, I wonder what he thinks of us. After I said they were not on the grass, he didn’t even apologize to me or say anything.
I think I am upset with the fact that he didn’t think my friends and I deserved being treated with politeness. I wouldn’t say I directly felt discrimination from this experience, but definitely micro-aggression. I hope this is somewhat helpful. Again, thank you for collecting our stories!
“Balliol College and all its staff are committed to maintaining a community in which everyone is treated equally and fairly. Only one of these complaints has ever been brought to our attention, through an anonymous student survey. We immediately investigated and took action as far as we were able given limited information. We would always want students to feel they can bring such concerns to our attention and we have a robust student complaint procedure which can be used to deal with them whenever college is informed.”
Christ Church College:
Was in Christ Church front garden with a Malaysian friend taking photos. Three Caucasians were there doing the same. A porter angrily asked me and my friend to go back onto the visitors’ path because he thought we were tourists. But the Caucasians nearby didn’t get the same treatment! The porter demanded to see my bod card. I irritatingly showed the porter my staff card. He walked away embarrassingly… So much for equality. Yes I’m asian and teach at Oxford, deal with it.
I have been bod carded several times when I go in to visit my friends or go to tutes, even when I’m holding a laptop, wearing college stash or heading in with non-Asian friends.
Christ Church’s response:
“At Christ Church, we strive to be an inclusive and diverse society and we take any allegations of unprofessional behaviour in this respect very seriously. We work hard to train staff about unconscious bias, with our procedures strengthened after we received a complaint in Autumn 2014. This training is an important part of our induction process for new staff and of ongoing training for staff in post. We also encourage students, staff and visitors to report any incidents to us, which we will investigate.”
Anonymous 2nd year, Asian descent
There’s this one porter who always stares at me suspiciously when he’s on duty and I walk into college during the day. One particular week, I got carded without fail by this guy for “security reasons” – but the groups of white students walking in front of me never did. Whenever I borrow a key from him, he’s always bossy and demands that it’s returned on time, something I know he doesn’t do with my white friends. Now, whenever I enter college and see him I make an extra show of striding in purposefully, just so I don’t have to deal with his nonsense. It makes me feel like I don’t belong.
“Exeter College is committed to promoting equality. We plan to introduce training on such matters to all non-academic staff in the near future. We have not received a complaint pertaining to this issue. Any student who feels that they have been treated unfairly at Exeter is encouraged to come forward to discuss the issue in confidence.”
Porters are, despite some may have you believe due to the non-academic nature of their work, an important part of Oxford and college life. They are likely to be the first people you encounter as you arrive with your boxes, dreams, and expectations of what life here is going to be like. They are part of the whole Harry-Potter-type fantasy; deliciously charming, old fashioned and ever so helpful. So you want to be on good terms with them. It comes as a slap in the face when it looks like that will not happen.
Plausible deniability is the name of the game. Dog-whistles such as ‘security concerns’ and ‘just checking’, which seem to be disproportionately applied to non-white students compared to the yet overwhelmingly dominant in numbers white ones. The first couple of times I was asked to show my Bod Card (I was going to get some packages at the lodge; I always use my card to get in college), I assumed that it was because they did not know me yet. Rationalise, this is what you do. You do not want to be ‘That Person’ who sees racial bias everywhere, even though you know far a fact that this is your reality. Everyone wants to assume the best and those who do not have your best interests at heart take advantage of that. They also benefit from apathy from others, including the college hierarchy.
Soon enough, it became apparent that being asked for their card had positively never happened to any of my new friends who happened to be white, but was very much familiar to those who were not. I wish I was halfway surprised.
In my college, it is common to meet friends of friends of friends during JCR or MCR Bops or Liquid Lounge. The attendance is such that it is doubtful that all of them were on the sacrosanct List if one had to be provided to the Lodge. I have myself invited people from my course or friends from other colleges to these events, and never had any problem getting any of them in, despite their absence from the List if List there was. Until some of these friends were male and black. One of them was on the list, but I still had to swear that I would take full responsibility for them (to the point of having to sign something off to that effect) and was told that the Deans would be alerted. Meanwhile, my white friend, who was with me at the time, casually strolled out the Lodge.
Nowadays, I limit my interaction with porters to getting packages. I do not use the lodge to walk into college. And when I feel like one of them is on some suspicious stuff, it becomes apparent in my facial expressions and my behaviour that I am not here for this and will not tolerate any of this while keeping nice and smiley. I am not here to entertain misplaced suspicions. I’m here to study, to flourish as an individual and a young adult. Oxford truly is a bubble, but more so for some students than other for sure.
Make no mistake; I am not saying that security concerns do not exist. It just seems apparent that some porters are more eager to vet some students than others. Ever ask yourself why is that?
Magdalen did not respond when asked for comment.
I was walking through the porters’ lodge into college some time last year when it happened. A porter barked aggressively “Can I help you”, to which I responded that I am a student of the college. He then rudely demanded to see my Bod Card – I obliged. After which, I proceeded to leave, and he grew ruder still, demanding that I stop without justification. He was not only grossly impolite, but also overstepped his duties. I reported this to the relevant authorities in Merton, who were most sympathetic. After a meeting with the domestic bursar, I was promised that inquiries would be made “with the intention that this does not continue”. I have not been updated with the steps taken to address this issue, but it is worth noting that I have not been so rudely accosted since.
“At Merton our Porters work in a very busy and public facing role. On a daily basis the Lodge team meet and assist a significant number of Fellows, students, staff and visitors from all over the world. In doing so the Porters also have a primary responsibility for the security and safety of college members and premises. We have clear expectations of the professional standards that our Porters (and other staff) work to. We also welcome any feedback, which is used in our efforts to continuously review, develop and improve the services provided to the college.
“Merton is an inclusive international community in which great importance is placed upon equality and diversity – this is underpinned by college policies and monitored through the termly meetings of the Equality Forum, which reports directly to Governing Body.”
I’ve been stopped by the college porters and asked for my Bod Card several times since I came to Oxford. Given the large groups of Chinese tourists in Oxford, as well as the racial diversity of the student body in general, I do understand why a porter might look at me and think I’m a tourist. But it’s not like tourists here are only Asian ones, and it gets really frustrating when it happens after three terms and almost daily interactions with the porters. It’s even more humiliating when you’re with a group of friends and you’re the only one who is treated differently because of your appearance. It seemed to send a message, unintentional I’m sure, that I didn’t properly fit in, from the very people who are supposed to be keeping me safe. The question of checking Bod Cards should not be one of race – it should either apply to all students equally, or not at all.
New College did not respond when asked for comment.
One of the Oriel porters, who I knew definitely knew me, because he had spent a good 45 minutes with me a few days earlier doing first aid on an injury I had (can’t disclose the specific injury because it would definitely give me away). Even if he didn’t recognize me very well before, he 100% had to recognize me after watching me bleed out for about 45 minutes. Anyway, a few days after that, me and another friend of mine (both of South Asian descent) were walking through the main gate of oriel and he stopped us and insisted we show Bod Cards to make sure we weren’t “tourists.” The whole time I was thinking, dude like we just had this very extensive interaction a few days ago, how the fuck do you not recognise me. Fairly confident my friend and I would not have been accosted by the porter if we were Caucasian.
“Oriel seeks to provide a welcoming and inclusive environment for all our students and staff. We have not received a complaint about this issue, but if a student has concerns about an interaction within the College then we would urge them to notify us so we can look into it.”
Anonymous, first-year of Indian descent
I was going to queen’s for singing lesson (my singing lessons are at different colleges every week). I went to the porter to ask him where the room was and explained I had a singing lesson and told him her name as well. But he seemed really suspicious. He asked which college I was from repeatedly and asked to see my Bod Card. This is when he asked where I’m “really” from. I was a bit taken aback but just answered the name of my college again. He continued to scrutinised my bod card for some reason and this uncomfortable exchange ended up making me late for my lesson as well. There were two students behind me (both Caucasian) who I noticed asked for directions and they were sent through without a single question.
“The College is committed to inclusivity and condemns discrimination in any form. Our lodge staff are expected to be welcoming and open. Although security checks are necessary, these are not imposed based on race or any other criteria; the porters ask any visitor they do not know for identification. We have a diverse team of porters who are themselves not all British, native English speakers or Caucasian, and we actively seek to recruit a diverse team. We introduce our members of staff to the Equal Opportunities Policy and promote equality of opportunity, including training to avoid discrimination. The College has already planned further training on implicit bias. We have received no report of this incident and encourage any such incidents to be reported to College in future so that they can be properly investigated.”
St John’s College:
There is a porter at my college that has, for four years, repeatedly come chasing after me (literally, sometimes) whenever I walk into college. This includes whenever I walk with a certain white friend of mine, who herself finds no problem when she walks in with her white (even non-Oxford) friends! I tell myself this porter just has horrendous facial recognition skills, but it gets harder to believe every time… I thought this was perhaps only this one porter, or just me, but having heard from others online it is becoming clear this is a major problem in Oxford, unfortunately made even more difficult to really talk about due to the divided structure of the colleges.
St John’s response:
“The College is committed to avoiding any form of discrimination and takes equality matters very seriously. Part of that commitment is that all front-line staff are required to undergo equality and cultural/race awareness training.
“No formal complaints about race-related incidents have been received recently and the College does not recognise the accusation you refer to. The College will of course investigate in the event of a complaint being made and has processes in place to do so.”
St Peter’s College:
I had a tutorial at St. Peter’s college at 10am on a Thursday. It was not my college and was in a different location from where I usually have my tute, so when my tutorial parter (who is a white female) and I arrived at the lodge, I asked the porter for directions.
“Hi, may I know where staircase X room X is please?”
“Why? What are you there for?”
“I’m here for a tutorial”
The porter gave me a sceptical look which I was completely not expecting (I was not expecting him to even ask what I was there for), and did not proceed to tell me the directions immediately. There was a moment of awkward silence where he seemed to be deciding whether or not I was really an Oxford student, until he saw my tute partner and he showed us the directions without further hesitation.
I felt quite uncomfortable that not only did he ask me why I wanted directions to that room (this never happened with any of my other tutes, and knowing the specific address should generally evidence someone’s invitation/affiliation to members of the college), he also did not seem to believe me when I said I was there for a tutorial.
St Peter’s responses:
“The Porters have attended unconscious bias training . St Peter’s is committed to diversity and wishes all to be treated well.”
“We regret if any uncomfortableness was felt. The porters wish to be friendly and welcoming to all who come to the college to study.”
I live in a house-style apartment and I have to open two doors to get to my room; both doors require the same key. One time I came home and I was able to open the outer door of my apartment but not my room door. So I called the porter to come take a look. He took a look at the key and kept insisting that there is no way this one key open both doors despite me telling him that I have used it for about a year. He started to get really suspicious and even asked me to show my ID to prove that I am a student at Wolfson before he opened the door to my room for me. This incident is weird because I had said ‘hello’ to this porter several times while roaming about in the college and asked him about my mail as well. So I found it very uncomfortable that he was suspicious of me being a student at college.
Wolfson did not respond when ask for comment.
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If you have been affected by this issue, please email Leanne Yau at email@example.com, with the subject line ‘Porters’, and your college.