“From late September when I arrived until early December, despite entering the college frequently, I would estimate I was stopped and asked for ID by the porters at least 50% of the time I tried to enter,” Hasan Al-Habib tells me.
“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.”
The ‘Race’ section of the Oxford University website on Equality and Diversity claims that the University is working to ensure that the Oxford community is “inclusive and welcoming for everyone, whatever their background, to ensure equality of opportunity and experience for all”.
Oxford clearly has a diversity issue, and yet – if we are to take the University’s word for it – this is something Oxford is, at least, attempting to change. Though we are still miles from where we should be, Oxford’s students and staff are more diverse than they were fifty years ago: a project was launched in 2014 as part of the Race Equality Summit to diversify the curriculum, and there are various scholarships, access conferences, and admissions programmes specifically designed for students of colour. But, as Al-Habib’s testimony demonstrates, there remains a pervading sense of unbelonging amongst students of colour, something which is cemented by their treatment from some college porters. Cherwell has collated 14 submissions from students of colour across eleven Oxford colleges, and there are a total of six Oxfesses and Oxfeuds specifically on the subject, some with hundreds of likes and comments. Clearly, the issue is a prominent one.
There is no denying that porters have a respectable security role, and are perfectly entitled to check ID for people that they do not recognise. With porters seeing hundreds of people passing through the college each day, the job is undeniably difficult. A porter carding an unfamiliar student may not constitute racial discrimination in and of itself, but the accounts I received do show a bias toward carding students of colour. Al-Habib, a former master’s student, told Cherwell, “When a friend from my old university came to visit me at Oxford…I remember very vividly walking into Balliol with her and being called back to identify myself. She, someone who wasn’t even a student at Oxford, never mind at Balliol, was allowed to walk straight through.” At Magdalen, a student described how they never had problems getting friends into college events, “until some of these friends were male and black”.
Andrea Wong, a student at New College, notes how “humiliating” it felt when she was “treated differently because of [her] appearance”: “It seemed to send a message…that I didn’t properly fit in, from the very people who are supposed to be keeping me safe”. Similarly, Elaine Wong was carded despite “holding a laptop and wearing college stash” on her way to a tutorial at Christ Church. An Asian member of academic staff wrote that while taking photos with a Malaysian friend on the front quad of Christ Church, they were “angrily asked…to go back on the visitor’s path” by the porter. Two Caucasian students taking photos on the same quad were allowed to carry on. This is not the first time the college has been accused of racial profiling, with allegations of racism against some Christ Church porters made in 2014.
To make matters worse, it appears that some college porters have a sustained disinterest in recognising students of colour from their own college, even after repeated interactions. At St. John’s, a student wrote that for four consecutive years, a certain porter would “come chasing after [him] (literally, sometimes)” whenever he entered his college. He wrote, “I tell myself this porter just has horrendous facial recognition skills, but it gets harder to believe every time.”
At Balliol, a third-year Korean student was similarly frustrated, adding, “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?’” At Exeter, a second-year student reported: “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 every day without fail by this guy for ‘security reasons’ – but the groups of white students walking in front of me never did.”
In addition to singling out students of colour and failing to recognise who they are, even after years of contact, some porters have been accused of needlessly intimidating or disrespecting students. A student of Indian descent wrote in about her experience at Queen’s where, after asking for directions to a room and giving the name of her teacher for a singing lesson, the porter seemed “really suspicious”. After repeatedly asking for her college and Bod card, he asked her, “Where are you really from?” Such a question seemed more suited to the gates of border control than those of an Oxford college, and the student described feeling “taken aback” and “uncomfortable” by this exchange.
A 2015 article by a black Rhodes Scholar in Times Higher Education detailed how a Christ Church porter assumed that he and two Kenyan friends were “construction workers”. A particularly damning account by a Chinese student noted how porters had spoken to them “really loudly and slowly” and gestured in an exaggerated manner, to indicate that they had to pay to enter college. The fact that some porters deem it acceptable to assume that people of colour cannot speak English is entirely unnecessary, and the high numbers of Asian tourists is no excuse for such egregious and condescending displays of discrimination.
The fact that students of colour are automatically assumed not to belong, or even to be a security threat by some porters, has a severely negative impact on their university experience. At an institution which has historically been overwhelmingly white, making generalised assumptions and taking unjustified security measures against ethnic minorities only reaffirms the insecurities that are already lying underneath. One student protested: “I am not here to entertain misplaced suspicions. I’m here to study, to flourish as an individual and a young adult.” Many students of colour experience imposter syndrome, meaning they feel a constant anxiety that they will be exposed as ‘frauds’ who do not belong.
Additionally, with all the access programmes that are available to ethnic minorities, many find it difficult to accept that it was their individual achievements, and not just the university’s efforts at inclusivity, that got them places at Oxford. An Oxford student who attended UNIQ Summer School in 2016 felt that “the main reason I was picked was because I ticked the boxes of being a black male, who is state educated, living in a low socioeconomic area who is also a young carer”. This sentiment is one familiar to many. With this in mind, being overtly racially profiled by college porters abruptly rejects any sense of feeling welcome in college, a place students are supposed to call home.
A submission to Oxfess explained it succinctly: “Being made to feel alien in your own college, in a study space that you literally frequented everyday for the past fortnight – that is something that makes students of colour occasionally (or, perpetually) question whether they truly belong at this university.” It is clear that some porters have not been made aware of how their actions – racially motivated or not – may affect others. Students of colour have also been unwilling to speak out about their experiences, for fear of not being believed or being ridiculed for their suspicions. Al-Habib expressed his regret that he did not report what happened to him, but added that he failed to do so because he felt that no-one would care. Many of the students who wrote to me expressed similar sentiments.
Only one person who wrote to Cherwell, Valerian Chen, reported his experience to the relevant authorities in college. Chen had complained after being “aggressively” questioned and carded by a Merton College porter, saying that the porter “was not only grossly impolite, but also overstepped his duties”. He highlighted the fact that the college had been sympathetic to his complaint, and he was mostly happy with how they had handled it. However, despite promises that inquiries would be made “with the intention that this does not continue”, he was not updated on the outcome of the issue, though he has noted that he has not been stopped since then. While it is important for students of colour to vocalise such issues, the problem of institutionalised racism and a lack of diversity cannot be resolved so easily.
Plenty of college bars have lists of underage undergrads (with names and pictures) to prevent them from underage drinking. An Oxfess suggested that each college create a list of students of colour for porters to reference in order to avoid future incidents of profiling. However, this misses the point. The problem is not so much a porter’s bad memory, but widespread institutional racism that supposes certain non-white students require a special category in order to be remembered.
It would also be of little help to students visiting other colleges for tutorials, co-curricular events or any other aspect of university life. Porters should instead be made aware that certain methods of gatekeeping can feel alienating to students of colour, who may already be prone to imposter syndrome. It is not an overreaction to feel unwelcome or unwanted when students of colour perceive that they are being aggressively profiled. Porters should not be letting people into college based on their race, but on whether or not they are a familiar face, and yet, white tourists are being allowed in without question, while students of colour are stopped multiple times and asked inappropriate, invasive questions that have nothing to do with security enforcement.
If current students of colour are unable to endorse Oxford’s claims of being a hub of acceptance and diversity to non-students, the university cannot expect to have greater diversity in applications. The fact that Oxford SU supported a pledge for Oxford to be a “sanctuary campus” for immigrants, when its students of colour are harassed and othered by the gatekeepers to their own colleges, is indicative of the university’s short-sightedness when trying to improve access.
A great deal of university money has been spent on outreach and events, but if Oxford does not look inward and scrutinise the many ways in which systemic discrimination has been allowed to perpetuate, such attempts are futile.
Racial profiling, perpetuated by some college porters creates many problems for current students, threatening their sense of identity as members of college and alienating them from their white counterparts, but it also creates problems for the university as a whole, which is already struggling to encourage applications from ethnic minorities.
If Oxford wants to make good on its claims of inclusiveness and diversity, it has a responsibility to examine the small, everyday interactions students of colour have with other members of the University, and ensure that a sense of belonging is created for both current students and potential candidates.
The sheer volume of these anecdotes from students across the University and the overwhelming response to the writing of this article has made it clear that these experiences of profiling are not isolated incidents. The University of Oxford must do better by its students of colour, not just so that more students will apply, but so that they will want to stay once they are here.
If you have been affected by this issue, please email Leanne Yau at email@example.com, with the subject line ‘Porters’, and your college.
See all accounts collated by Leanne, published in full here: http://cherwell.org/2018/04/24/racism-amongst-college-porters-must-be-dislodged-appendix/