‘I’m never going to feel like I belong here!’ It was almost a year ago when those words flew out of my mouth. I was sitting in front of my supervisor, trying desperately to stop the streams of tears that were running uncontrollably down my face. It was a low moment, a very low moment. I cried to the point of not being able to breathe and all I could think about was how pathetic I felt in that moment. But this deep and dark moment was also a massive realisation.
As a BAME woman, I feel just as helpless as I did when I first matriculated. I have felt that my needs as a BAME person haven’t always been met and at times I have not felt protected by the people who are in theory the most appropriate and powerful people to enforce positive change. Especially when I was an undergraduate, I kept silent. I saw problems around me and decided to suppress them and “fit in”, whatever that meant. Part of this came from the fact that I felt like I was outnumbered. There weren’t many BAME people in my College and I feared being categorised as an ‘angry brown girl’ who was being overly sensitive. More poignantly, I felt like I didn’t have the right to complain. I was a First-gen student who had come from a state school background and lived on free school meals. In my head, it was an absolute miracle studying at Oxford. My whole ride was supported by bursaries and scholarships. For that reason, I was lucky to be at Oxford; I didn’t feel like I had earned my place or that I deserved to be there like everyone else. I should’ve been grateful to be able to walk around Oxford and any critique of the institution would somehow reflect more poorly on me. How wrong I was.
Part of the issue I’ve had with Oxford is from the people at the top who fail to address the fact that when it comes to issues of equality, diversity and inclusion, there is not just an admissions issue, but also a massive cultural problem that has been swept under the carpet. In fact, when I attended a panel discussion about diversity early this year I put this view across to the panellists. I told them that Oxford has a major cultural issue and that six years haven’t changed my complex relationship with it. What I got in return was gaslighting, a dismissive comment about Oxford being a “hotel” where no one feels comfortable and a lecture about how it was my responsibility as a BAME woman to change the culture at Oxford. This coming from speakers who, a few minutes earlier, suggested that Oxford needed to ‘listen to the students’. In my response, I didn’t raise any new issues; these have been raised by many marginalized students before me and yet here we are, still demanding for Oxford to address cultural problems.
This is the main issue I have had with Oxford, this idea that it is up to me, and others like me, to change things. What the people at the top sometimes fail to understand is that there is a deep and heavy emotional burden attached to students who pioneer various equality, diversity and inclusivity initiatives in the University. I know this because in the past year I have felt this. Within the past twelve months I have introduced a few different initiatives and facilities. Admittedly, these have been funded by my College and, alongside the hard work of other students, I have contributed to making the College a more welcoming and inclusive place. It is a great feeling knowing that these have been put in place, however it didn’t come without its difficulties: microaggressions, prejudice views and resistance from some people who simply do not want to give up tradition and move with the times. Not to mention the fact that my College was happy to promote everything that I had done while knowing full well that I carry out this work for countless hours without any form of recognition or payment. The lack of recognition almost felt like a slap in my face.
All this time I have felt like I’ve been trying to knock down a high brick wall with my bare hands whilst also juggling a deep disillusionment. Of course, I know that there are many people from different minority groups facing a similar plight at the University. The added Collegiate system has also run the risk of BAME people’s experiences being rather inconsistent, especially in terms of welfare provisions. In a messed up way, this collective feeling of dissatisfaction has been slightly reassuring; I’m not alone. But I know that this is unacceptable. There have been people who have used this disappointment to keep fighting. In very tough times, I have been reminded that as painfully slow as change can be, it is happening and there are plenty of people who are doing everything they can to make Oxford a better place for current and future staff and students. I hold on to that bit of hope. A fantastic alumna of my College once told me to hone my anger and channel it into something positive. Once I’ve had some time to heal from this year, I do want to dust myself off and keep fighting the good fight, if not for me, for others after me. Matters of equality, diversity and inclusion are part of a collective mission.
To point out the glaringly obvious, a lot of great work is being done by staff and students, but we still have a long way to go. That’s progress for you: there’s always room for improvement and as a collective we need to constantly be tearing down the rigid and structures to open up space for marginalised groups. I can only speak from my own experiences as one BAME woman in Oxford. In my view, students, staff, fellows and alumni need to be working together more closely. The University needs to do more than just getting BAME people and other disadvantaged students into Oxford. The support needs to continue when they’re actually at Oxford and to recognise the unfair responsibility placed on them to carry out activism within the University.
A year after my meltdown, I’m deeply saddened by the fact that I probably haven’t come any closer to feeling like I belong here. As much as I have loved certain moments of my time at Oxford, I don’t think I’ll ever feel completely comfortable and happy here. But that doesn’t mean that I have given up; I will still keep fighting the good fight. I live in hope that one day there will be more people like me studying at Oxford and secondly, that they’ll feel genuinely part of the community, not on the edge of it.