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JCRs and societies respond to SU President-Elect controversy

Societies and college JCRs have responded to allegations made against the SU President-Elect, with some calling for her to resign.

CW: racism, transphobia, antisemitism.

Numerous college JCRs have voted to support a Motion of No Confidence in the Student Union (SU) President-Elect Rashmi Samant following a series of social media posts which have sparked controversy while student-led groups, including the SU LGBTQ+ Campaign and the Oxford International Society, have called on her to resign and apologise.

Cherwell has seen motions approved by Hertford, Magdalen Colleges’ JCRs, and Wadham College’s SU to support a Motion of No Confidence at an SU Council Meeting. 70% of those present at Magdalen’s general meeting voted for the College to use their three representative votes to back the motion. Oriel College will debate whether to support a Motion of No Confidence on February 15th.

Section 28.4 of the SU Bye-Laws says that a Motion of No Confidence requires two thirds of the Student Council to vote in favour during two consecutive Meetings of Council. A referendum of SU members will then be called, where a No Confidence motion can be passed by a simple majority.

The motions have been prompted by a series of controversial posts made by Samant on Instagram, which emerged after she was elected to the Presidency with 53% of the vote share. Samant’s manifesto emphasised her commitment to “tackle institutional homophobia and transphobia”, and to decolonise the curriculum.

Samant faced controversy for an Instagram post from December 2019, taken in Malaysia, which was captioned “Ching Chang”. The motion presented at the Hertford JCR described this as a “sinophobic hallmark”. When questioned on the appropriateness of the caption, Samant explained that it was a reference to a joke a South East Asian friend had made about her vegetarianism: “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”. This translation has been called into question by Mandarin speakers on social media, who noted the word “ching” cannot be spelled in pinyin, the system which romanises Mandarin characters.

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”.

Samant has also been criticised for an Instagram post captioned with the phrase “women, transwomen [sic] and men”, which has been as criticised for being transphobic for “inappropriately distinguishing” between cis women and trans women. In a statement on Facebook, the SU LGBTQ+ Campaign said they were “alarmed by the recent revelations about the Oxford SU President-Elect. Although we understand that her remarks on the trans community may have come from a place of ignorance, we find her repeated insensitivity to race and her unwillingness to apologise when called out for this far more concerning. The LGBTQ+ Campaign stands in complete solidarity with CRAE, and with all students of colour on this issue, and affirms the need for her to step down and make an immediate, formal apology.”

An Instagram post from June 5th 2017 seen by Cherwell shows Samant at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, and was captioned with a pun on the word ‘Holocaust’: “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 better future. #holocaustMemorial #uniqueArchitecture”. When questioned on Instagram, Samant said she “wouldn’t even dare to be insensitive about something like that” and that while she believed it was “upto [sic] the interpreter”, her caption was not insensitive. Samant told the student she “completely condemn[s] the Holocaust”. When approached by Cherwell, Samant apologised for “the insensitivity this language shows” and noted “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.”

In a hustings event hosted by the Oxford Blue, Samant also compared Cecil Rhodes to Hitler, asking “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 questioned further, Samant elaborated on her point, saying that “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”.

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.”

The SU Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality issued a lengthy statement on Facebook making a “firm recommendation that the President-Elect should stand down from her position”. They continued that “the repetitive and sustained nature of Ms. Samant’s actions suggest considerable ignorance at best, but active discrimination at worst… the President-Elect has demonstrated unwillingness to take accountability for her actions, which we believe to be a crucial aspect of self-education and making amends…. [and] although CRAE believes that individuals can make mistakes, learn, and move on, Ms. Samant is not currently fit to represent the student body of this university. Our community is diverse but various groups continue to be marginalised and we do not believe that she can represent them effectively.” Elaborating further, they stated: “although we cannot assume the intentions of Ms. Samant, we believe that it is ultimately the impact of her actions that are important here: she has hurt the East-Asian, Jewish, and trans communities. Not only did she post racially insensitive captions on social media, but she has also proceeded to deny the harm caused by her actions when questioned.” They further noted that “the President-Elect made a distinction between trans women and women, thereby implying that trans women are not women and perpetuating trans-exclusionary ideology. CRAE stands in solidarity with the Oxford LGBTQ+ community and unequivocally condemns this… She has disappointed all those who put faith in her with their votes.” The statement concluded: “If Ms. Samant truly intends to grow, self-educate, and better herself, she must show remorse and recognise that she is not currently capable of representing the groups to whom she has caused offence. As such, we expect her immediate letter of resignation and a formal apology to the East-Asian, Jewish, and trans communities.”

Oxford International Society also posted a statement on Facebook, writing that: “For a candidate who campaigned for inclusivity, it is crushing to understand this was insincere in nature. Her Anti-Semitic, transphobic and racist social media posts were horrific, and the refusal to take accountability for hurting students highlights that she should not take up the SU Presidency… If she really cares for the student population, she would recognise that her actions are unacceptable and will resign immediately. We urge the President-Elect to resign and apologise.”

Rashmi Samant and the Student Union have been approached for comment.

Image: Matthew Waring via unsplash.com

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