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Oxford SU President-Elect criticised for Holocaust pun and ‘racist’ Instagram post

CW: antisemitism, racism, transphobia.

Rashmi Samant, the current Oxford University Student Union President-Elect, has faced controversy after a social media post which punned on the Holocaust was discovered. This follows previous controversy regarding Samant captioning an image of herself in Malaysia with “Ching Chang”, comparing Cecil Rhodes to Hitler in a Student Union presidential debate hosted by the Oxford Blue, and separating “women” and “transwomen” in an Instagram caption.

In one Instagram post from 5 June 2017 seen by Cherwell, Samant posed in the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which is dedicated to the Jewish victims of the Second World War. The image is captioned: “The memorial *CASTS* a *HOLLOW* dream of the past atrocities and deeds. Reflecting on it gives us the power to live with the past vouching for a bettecr future. #holocaustMemorial #uniqueArchitecture” (emphasis included in original caption), punning on the Holocaust. According to the official website of Berlin, this memorial – known to most as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – includes “2711 rectangular blocks of concrete laid out in grid formation, recalling tombstones” and the space provides “an ideal setting for quiet contemplation”.

One student, Ethan, chose to message Samant to explain his concerns with this post. In messages seen by Cherwell, Samant responded: “I completely condemn the Holocaust in that caption and am not being insensitive. It is upto [sic] the interpreter. I am by the end of the day [sic] a non-native English student. I wouldn’t even dare to be insensitive about something like that”. When told that her actions were perceived as insensitive, Samant replied: “I don’t agree with you there. I’m sorry I cannot change your opinion. I hope you have a good day and a happy Lunar new year”. Ethan told Cherwell: “The main problem I have with her responses is that she focused her election slate around inclusion and acceptance, but when she was called out for ignorance, she has made no effort to recognise her mistakes… Nobody at Oxford wants to be told how to be more accepting and inclusive by a person who won’t make the effort to do that herself”.

Samant told Cherwell: “I would first like to begin with an apology for the insensitivity this language shows. I have since had personal experiences, conversations, and learning opportunities that have allowed me to see how this language is not appropriate, and I fully accept my error in not appropriately researching topics before posting about them. In the almost five years since this post, I have changed as a person, scholar, and activist; I am sure many other people have experienced drastic change in themselves and their personal lives in a five-year period. I reaffirm my commitment outlined in my campaign manifesto to continually learning, changing, and bettering myself to serve in this position as well as possible.”

This information comes after Samant has already faced controversy for celebrating “women, transwomen and men” while campaigning in one Instagram post, and captioned another of her in Malaysia with “Ching Chang”. Samant apologised for the former caption and attempted to explain the latter,  writing that a South East Asian friend “took a dig at my insistence on being vegetarian with that caption. Apparently in Mandarin the phrase literally translates to “eat that plant”… that was the “joke” apparently and the group played on my need to have the perfect rhyming captions to sell it to me. I should have known better”. However, Mandarin speakers on social media have contested this, claiming that “ching” cannot be written in pinyin (the romanisation system for Mandarin) and that this translation is in fact a reverse Google Translation of the phrase rather than one which would be used by a native speaker.

Jackie, a Chinese student, told Cherwell: “To know that she shows no remorse for the use of a phrase which has been used to make fun of Chinese people for our whole lives and… shows no accountability for what she says is awful – and when called out on it, she instead deleted her account rather than apologising. For the Chinese community in Oxford to have an SU president that is so set on refusing to listen to the students she represents and refusing to apologise for her racism is really disappointing, especially as institutional racism was an issue she highlighted in her manifesto”. Samant did not elaborate on these incidents in discussion with Cherwell. 

In a statement to Cherwell, the Oxford University Chinese Society said: “We condemn any act of racism in any form at any time. Racism is completely inconsistent with the values of the Oxford University Chinese Society. We urge Rashmi to stop making excuses and formally apologise for her insensitivity. She should face the consequences of her actions, and we will not accept a SU president who discriminates against any group of people”

In an event for the Oxford Blue, streamed on 8 February 2021 and uploaded onto YouTube the next day, Rashmi Samant commented on Oriel’s statue of Cecil Rhodes: “If an organisation would come up to you and give you a heap of money to set up a scholarship and say ‘I want to name this the Hitler fund or the Hitler scholarship’, would you do it?” When pressed on her choice to compare Cecil Rhodes by an audience member, she urged those watching to “give the will of Cecil Rhodes a read… because it’s a wonderful piece of literature that everybody should read”. She continued: “nobody erected him [Hitler] statues or wrote wonderful things about him or established anything about him, that’s why we still remember him for what he did, but by doing things like that we stopped remembering people for what they did and we start developing this psychology that maybe what they did was not so bad”. 

Isaac, a Jewish student at Queen’s, told Cherwell: “I think that equating Rhodes with Hitler is deeply disrespectful to the six million Jews and five million non-Jews who were systematically murdered under the Nazi regime (not to mention the many other millions that died as a result of the Second World War).”

Responding to these events, the President and Vice-President of the Oxford University Jewish Society told Cherwell they were “extremely concerned by SU President-Elect Rashmi Samant’s past social media posts, which she has alarmingly failed to apologise for. Her caption of a photo at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial exhibited severe insensitivity and ignorance, as did her ill-thought-out parallel between Cecil Rhodes and Adolf Hitler. Furthermore, we stand in full solidarity with the trans community and East and South East Asians, who have been hurt and distressed by other offensive comments made by Samant.”

Samant did not respond to these allegations but stated:  “I am confident that the support for my campaign and platform, as shown by the largest voter turnout in SU history, reflects excitement for the points listed in my manifesto, and with productive conversations about inclusivity and diversity these plans have the ability to create real change. “

When asked why she deleted her Instagram – the platform on which her previous apology was made – Samant stated: “I would also like to make clear that these conversations are important, but only have the possibility to create real change if they are had in productive settings. Social media, while a great tool for socially organizing and connecting, is not the ideal place to have these conversations as they are often oriented around hateful language and personal attacks that do not lead to actual change at our university. My choice to temporarily deactivate certain accounts is one I made to focus on family issues that I put on hold in the midst of this campaign. I am always open to hearing comments or ideas on how to address pertinent issues in our community from University students via my email, but I will not engage with personal attacks made in private messages from anonymous accounts. I am still a student studying for my course, as well as a human being facing pressures and issues like my peers.”

In her manifesto, Samant pledged to “Reform Oxford”, highlighting the “racial injustices for members of the Black, Asian, & Minority Ethnic (BAME) community)” and claiming that she is “empathetic towards the struggles faced by marginalised groups”. She planned to “lobby the University” to “remove all statues proven to be imperialist”, along with decolonising the syllabi, and tackling “institutional homophobia and transphobia, first through conducting a university-wide consultation with the LGTBQ+ community”.  She also claimed she would lobby to increase funding for mental health and to lobby the Conference of Colleges to divest their entire financial portfolio from fossil fuels as soon as possible. She was elected at the first stage of voting with 1996 votes or a 53% vote share.

The Oxford University Student Union, OUCS, Jsoc and the Oxford SU LGBTQ+ Campaign have been approached for comment.

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