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Anti-racism workshops aren’t a waste, they’re essential

Shariq Haidery responds to the scrutiny of anti-racism efforts in universities by the press and government.

CW: racism.

Stories about Oxford and the various policy decisions its constituent colleges make periodically find their way into the national press.  I did not, however, expect to find one about my college and a workshop it put on attacked by the Daily Mail. St Hugh’s College set up a workshop, called ‘It’s All About Race’ at the start of this year to further educate its undergraduate students on racism and how we can tackle it going forward. The Daily Mail article criticises St Hugh’s College for putting on this anti-racism workshop and has a statement from a member of St Hugh’s about how the workshop was a “colossal waste of time and money”.

Before I go on to respond to the anonymous member of St Hugh’s who claims “I have seen no inkling of racism since I have been here,” I would like to clarify a few of the concerns the article expresses about the workshop. Firstly, the article does labour the point that the workshop is meant to “question ingrained attitudes” and frames this as a negative. My own response to this is that the workshop was intended to question ingrained attitudes and have people rethink their perspective. Indeed, this is only logical if the ingrained attitudes in question would be detrimental to the well-being of other members of the college, which racist attitudes obviously would be. As someone who deeply regrets the use of homophobic, antisemitic, transphobic, and racist language when they were younger, I wish I had been able to attend workshops like the one put on by Hugh’s sooner to get rid of the biases that were ingrained into me by my upbringing in a family that were hostile to anyone who was not a Pakistani Muslim. It was not until I went to high school and had my biases challenged by friends that were Jewish, Black, gay, or transgender that made me question the implicit or explicit attitudes I had. Even then, this process took pretty much till the end of secondary school. Workshops like the one put on by Hugh’s would have accelerated this process by directly challenging the way I viewed the world.

The second thing I would like to highlight is how the article consistently refers to the government’s ‘scepticism’ of anti-racism. It does so as if the government is an unbiased and purely latitudinarian entity. One only needs to look at those to whom Boris Johnson has given power and the views they hold to understand the ideological reasoning that lies behind the government’s scepticism. For example, Munira Mirza, who Boris appointed to head his commission on racial inequality in the wake of the death of George Floyd, claims that systemic and institutional racism is not a “reality” but rather a “perception”. She also claims that anti-racism is a “grievance culture”. Is it really surprising that we hear such a sceptical line from the government given the clear ideological aversion Boris and co. have regarding anti-racist activism?

Now that I have clarified a few things mentioned in the article, I want to respond to the anonymous claims. They say, and I quote, “Oxford is increasingly out of touch with the real world. I have seen no inkling of racism since I have been here.” I’m sorry – what planet have you been living on? I honestly find it hard to believe that anyone could make such an assertion in good faith. There is clearly a disconnect between a statement like “I have seen no inkling of racism” and the reality of what BAME students at St Hugh’s have experienced.

I know for a fact awful racial slurs have been used by JCR members. I know for a fact that students have made racist and disparaging jokes about a specific ethnicity or race. I know for a fact that deeply problematic jokes about the BAME community here in Hugh’s have been made. I’d classify these as ‘primary’ incidents of racism, i.e. clearly racist behaviour. The anti-racism workshop obviously helps to solve these issues. A known response to this is that while anti-racism helps solve these issues, simply not being racist would achieve the same. Therefore, shouldn’t we abandon anti-racism and stick to just not being racist if it prevents these primary incidents of racism?

Whilst not being racist might solve these primary incidents, the attitudes that lie behind them remain. This in turn can lead to what I would call ‘secondary’ incidents of racism. These are matters that aren’t explicitly racist, unlike primary incidents. This includes things such as defending racist jokes or harassing other students about whether or not they go to a college. Anti-racism and anti-racist training help to root out the attitudes that help perpetuate these secondary incidents, which in turn prop up the environment where primary incidents of racism occur. Thus, although it may be right to say just not being racist may lead to fewer reports of primary incidents of racism in the short term, in the long term not being actively anti-racist perpetuates a hostile environment for BAME students where secondary incidents go unchallenged and this can lead back to primary incidents.

Before I sign off, whoever this member of St Hugh’s is should be appalled by the social divisions they have helped to inflame. A significant chunk of the commenters on the Daily Mail article are racists who now feel vindicated in their view of Oxford and wider society at large. The article and the Hugh’s member portray such a false picture of how things actually are here at Oxford that it is no wonder this false description perpetuates the image, among Daily Mail readers, that Oxford is a bastion of overzealous wokeness that simply doesn’t work. In reality, Oxford and Hugh’s specifically are taking the right steps in fostering a more accommodating environment for BAME students and making us feel as though the university is a place for us, too. Whilst I am angered by the comments, I do not simply mean to demean my fellow Hughsie’s belief. I hope to express my genuine hurt at their ignorance. Only by addressing my own views and behaviour was I able to develop as a person. If I wasn’t challenged, and instead denied the existence of discrimination that I helped to perpetuate, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

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