“It is with great pleasure that I call upon Mr. Malcolm X to speak fifth, in favour of the motion.” With these words, Malcolm X was introduced to the audience sitting in the chamber of the Oxford Union Debating Society. In the history of a society that has consistently seen significant controversy, marketing itself as a “bastion of free speech”, there is no doubt that this December 1964 debate, on the motion of, “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” was one of its most notable. In the speech that followed, Malcolm X spoke on racial politics, apartheid, protest and his definition of extremism.

He had been invited for President Eric Anthony Abrahams’ farewell debate. Abrahams was a Jamaican Rhodes Scholar, who had beaten out a Christ Church Etonian for the Presidential position. Alongside ex-Treasurer Tariq Ali (who also attended the debate), he had been ‘gated’ by the University a week previously for participation in an anti-apartheid protest. 

Malcolm X’s first words were motivated by the speaker who had preceded him. He wryly joked that: “Mr. Chairman, tonight is the first night that I’ve ever had the opportunity to be as near to conservatives as I am.” According to Ali, Humphry Berkeley, a Conservative MP, mocked his name, personal identity, and his politics calling him ‘America’s leading exponent of apartheid’, and ridiculing ‘X’, questioning why not ‘C’, or ‘Z’. Malcolm took no qualms with responding: “The speaker who preceded me is one of the best excuses that I know to prove our point…I don’t say that about him personally, but that type. He’s right, X is not my real name, but if you study history you’ll find why no black man in the Western hemisphere knows his real name.”

His speech has been seen as one of the best articulations of his ideology and politics, showcasing his ability to engage and interact with his audience. Undeniably, this is one of the most significant visits in the Union’s history. The motivations of the committee and officers play an important role in the diversity of its speakers. Had the President not been a person of colour, who saw Malcolm as a personal and political role model, it is perhaps unlikely that Malcolm would have been invited to speak. An audience member questioned his attack on Berekley’s mocking points, questioning Malcolm’s ‘treatment’ of the MP. His response was simple: “You make my point! That as long as a white man does it, it’s alright, a black man is supposed to have no feelings. But when a black man strikes back he’s an extremist, he’s supposed to sit passively and have no feelings, be nonviolent, and love his enemy no matter what kind of attack, verbal or otherwise, he’s supposed to take it. But if he stands up in any way and tries to defend himself, then he’s an extremist.”

The Union has the platform, and the prestige, to be the centre of such historical moments. Yet it’s been embroiled in scandal after scandal, and the petty politics of committee continue to dominate its reputation. 

Its public image can only be good as those who are its representatives: our own Prime Minister is one of its most prominent alumni, alongside numerous other prominent politicians, journalists and public figures who have expressed problematic comments on race. From Johnson labelling Muslim women ‘letterboxes’, to Michael Gove mocking Stormzy’s speech, to Jacob-Rees Mogg posting videos by members of the AfD – the current Conservative generation were raised and trained at the Oxford Union. Simon Kuper’s 2019 article in the Financial Times describing the Union elite during his own time at Oxford makes the image of the origins of the Tory Brexiteer mafia all too obvious. 

It is impossible, therefore, to separate the institution from those who have held positions of power within it. Most recently, in the treatment of Ebenezer Azamati, a blind Ghanaian student, the society received international attention with its failure to quickly address the issue. In a disciplinary hearing, Azamati’s membership was suspended for two terms for violent misconduct. Azamati had been dragged out of the chamber for attempting to sit on a seat he had earlier reserved, given he was unsure about the possibility of accessible seating – when challenged by a security guard, he refused to leave, and was forcibly ejected from the chamber. After enormous pressure – a legal challenge from QC Helen Mountfield, a successful motion of impeachment and national and international media scrutiny – President Brendan McGrath resigned. 

In 2015, after the debate on whether the British Empire owes former colonies reparations, the Union advertised a cocktail named ‘The Colonial Comeback’. The picture on the poster was of a pair of hands in chains. BME officer Esther Odejimi resigned following the controversy stating that she felt the creation of her role ‘was just an act of political correctness’. Odejimi did not respond to a request for comment.

The Union’s relationship with racial minorities is fraught, but all faith should not be lost – slow, but consistent changes provide fragments of hope for the future of the society. The appointment of an Ethnic Minorities officer in 2015 to represent the interests of BAME members of the Union signalled the beginning of an awareness that they had a wider responsibility to stand for people of all backgrounds. Fluctuating levels of BAME committee members are exhibited in recent years, but the current level of around 38% self-identifying Black and Minority Ethnic students on committee surpass the level of overall University representation (which, as of 2019, is at a dire 22%). 

In defence of the Union’s position as the ‘bastion of free speech’, there is evidence of a wide-ranging variety of opinions present in its recent history. Panels on Uighur Muslims, the Holocaust, and Shamima Begum all give the impression of an engaged, dynamic Oxford Union which promotes meaningful and necessary discourse. 

Within the last decade, visits from black icons — ranging from Al Sharpton to ASAP Rocky — evoke an Abrahams era Union: ready to give a platform for a worthy purpose. In November 2016, the Union’s famed red chamber was graced with the presence of Black Lives Matter activists. The event brought the mothers of sons lost to racially charged shootings across the Atlantic to share their pain and pursuit of justice. Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, united the chamber in tears as recounted her son’s tragic death at the hands of George Zimmerman. Sybrina did not let anyone forget that her “17-year-old son had everything to live for, and the mistake he made, the only mistake he made, was the colour of his skin.”

Jeremy Bararia, the only black member on Standing Committee in Michaelmas term, and one of the first to resign during the Azamati affair, informed Cherwell that if the Union is to change “it needs to be more progressive in the amount of representation in the senior leadership.” Bararia rightly stated that, “looking at the scope of backgrounds that this term’s officers come from, there’s definitely a real step in the right direction.” 

“Quite a lot of people have come up to me and asked whether I think the Union is still very ‘white male’, and then I then tell them it’s an all-women officer team and half women of colour – they’re shocked.” Former President Sara Dube, a woman of South Asian descent, told Cherwell. Certainly, the senior leadership this term is far from the white-male-Etonian archetype of the 1980s, and these glimmers of progress suggest that Union has come far.

Yet, a fuller picture is less promising. The all-female, half-BAME officer team is partially explained by a series of resignations which led to a multitude of promotions and reshuffles. Former Union Treasurer, Melanie Onovo, gives a depressing insight into the stark reality behind the image of diversity. She tells Cherwell her time at the Union has felt more like “kind of being a token, like a coloured person who was needed for a slate, and that’s got me to where I am.” For Onovo, whose election was in the wake of the Azamati affair, “it has sometimes felt that other people on committee see me that way, and don’t see me as someone who is capable of making any real change here…just as someone who fit a narrative at a time.” 

Dube, whose “Rise” slate won her election in a bloody three-way battle, concedes that her diverse committee is “not a sign that [the Union] has come very far,” by way of being an inclusive space. Looking at past committees, Dube concluded “stuff like this happens in cycles, I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if next year there were all male officers again.” A sad fact, given that looking back to the forces that brought Malcolm X to the Union shows us that who is on the committee is essential to upholding the right values. In contrast to Sara’s 27% BAME term card, Brendan McGrath’s was only 17%.

With that said, Onovo reminds us that the “arbitrary power” put into the hands of the President extends beyond their term. The termly members’ consultation on Union Accessibility, which Dube started, found that members’ greatest concern about the Union’s atmosphere was the profile of the speakers. They accuse the Union of promoting a hostile environment by way of platforming speakers who often actively work to make ethnic minorities feel unwelcome. The BAME officers from Michaelmas 2019 and Hilary 2020 were contacted for comment.

Onovo says the effect goes further; to Presidents of the past, she said: “You’ve hosted Steven Bannon and you’ve proved we platform racists, but what does that do to the future invitations of minorities and left-wing speakers who may feel unable to speak in an institution that has also hosted people who are directly oppositional to their existence and their identity?”

The Union must recognise that “free speech” cannot come at the cost of silencing the speech of another. This was made clear, as Cherwell reported, in the invitation of Katie Hopkins: Labour MP Naz Shah stepped down from the debate and Historian Evan Smith rejected the invitation to speak in the debate outright, stating: “the long history of previous invitations extended to racists and fascists by the Oxford Union” as the reason for his refusal. 

Dube has maintained a commitment to the diversity of speakers, inviting Indian LGBT+ Rights lawyers and the founder of the MeToo movement. She acknowledges it will be a slow process to make everyone feel welcome, “not just in changing the profile of speakers, but in terms of changing the perception of the profile of speakers we have.” The media haven’t aided the good forces at work: invites to Steve Bannon and Tommy Robinson get international news coverage, whereas events like the Black Lives Matter Panel are scarcely reported on even within Oxford’s student journalism. 

Nonetheless, simply diversifying the profile of the speakers is far from enough. As the Colonial Comeback affair illustrates, despite how progressive events inside the chamber are, attitudes outside the chamber define the atmosphere. As The Guardian reported, black students are no strangers to interrogation upon entry to the Union, and Nazi salutes at social events hardly indicate that minorities are welcome. Onovo discloses that change can only come from “changing the culture and structure here.” Rightly, she spreads the burden for the Union’s failures to champion all speech from the committee, to the staff and the members. Dube worked hard to remedy the institutional elements following the Azamati incident by way of compulsory workshops on diversity and coordination with the Disability Advisory Service.

The nature of the Oxford Union, however, makes this slow process an even more difficult goal. The eight-week life-span of a committee — where from the second week most are well into their election campaigns for the next term — does not foster an environment where real change is sustainable. As Dube identified, “cycles” of surface level change occur, and are quickly forgotten. The aftermath of the Colonial Comeback incident suggests a dismal pattern: inherent racism came to surface, and was supposedly eradicated by racial awareness workshops. Commitment to these workshops was evidently forgotten, and four years later, the Union appears to be no further along in dealing with its institutional racism. Evidently, it fails to live up to the significant role in discourse it has the potential to play.

“Whether I feel like a token or not”, says Onovo, “I’ve been able to reach officership of the Oxford Union, which is something that would have been impossible for someone like me not very long ago.” These important markers, nonetheless, often disguise how deep the Union’s institutional discrimination lies – until, a truly unfortunate event, like the handling of Mr. Azamati, makes it too difficult to ignore. “There are so many people…who are averse to change here who make it very hard to do the very big things that need to happen at the Union,” Onovo said, “even if it would be possible to start a conversation that is continued after you leave…what is the incentive for anyone to really do that? They have their manifesto claims, they get elected, they do their university work, and then they leave.”

A stepping stone for conservative politicians, a networking opportunity, another job, a chance to see celebrities, or a few bullet points at the end of CV: this is the Oxford Union for most of those involved. But if the label of “the last bastion of free speech” is to mean something, the committee, administrative staff, and members should recognise the Oxford Union’s international and historic reputation. This does not mean it needs to embrace a policy of no-platforming, but commitment to accessible policy, a diverse committee, and fair representation of high profile speakers is a good place to start. A Cherwell editorial from 1964 sums it up: “The Union still drags along, with a few furtive bleats of ‘change’, which never seem to materialise once the Presidential Elections are out of the way.” Let’s hope the Union of future terms can shake off this apathy.

Cover image credit: Alamy