Oxford Continues to Defend Colonialism at Every Opportunity – A Response from Common Ground

As members of Common Ground Oxford, we stand in solidarity with all those condemning Nigel Biggar’s article in The Times on 30th November, ‘Don’t Feel Guilty About Our Colonial History’. The inaccuracy displayed by Biggar, as well as a conspicuous lack of rigour, must not go unchallenged. He implies that colonised societies had no political order prior to colonisation, invoking a racist, hackneyed, and fictional trope about the nature of pre-colonial societies. Colonial conquest destroyed pre-existing orders. The cry “to moderate our post-imperial guilt” is most damaging. With 44% of Britons proud of British colonialism, and 43% of the British population believing colonisation was a good thing, the only force that needs to be moderated is the force of historical amnesia of which Biggar’s article provides a chilling example. Biggar’s intentions are revealed in the links drawn between colonisation and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; by whitewashing the British Empire, Biggar seeks to justify a post-colonial agenda of interference that destabilizes developing nations. He is not simply asking the British to not feel guilty about their colonial history, but asserting that Britain should still feel confident in its right to meddle in other countries’ affairs.

We now read with concern and horror that Nigel Biggar is co-leading a project on ‘Ethics and Empire’, with the goal “to measure apologies and critiques of empire against historical data from antiquity to modernity across the globe”. We believe Nigel Biggar has shown himself to be an inauspicious and inappropriate leader for this project. In a speech at the Oxford Union on whether the Rhodes statue should be relocated, Biggar was the only speaker who chose simply to defend Cecil Rhodes. He talked of Cecil Rhodes as one of “our heroes”. He insisted that Rhodes “was not racist”, a statement that can only be based on either a naively narrow view of what racism is, or a fundamental ignorance of historical evidence.

It is said that “[f]urther details of the project will be available soon.” As part of these details, we request that the following questions be answered:

  • Who is funding the project on ‘Ethics and Empire’?
  • Is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Louise Richardson, proud of this, perhaps the most major initiative announced since the Rhodes Must Fall campaign?
  • Is this what is needed at the University of Oxford – a project led by someone pushing to “moderate our post-imperial guilt” – when Oxford continues to memorialise celebrating slave-owners such as Christopher Codrington and imperialists such as Cecil Rhodes, and when Oxford continues to fail to act to address current-day racism, as demonstrated by the fact that nearly 1 in 3 Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black British student in the last year?
  • What input did students and faculty of colour have in the design of this project?
  • Will black students, students of colour, and students with families affected by colonisation have a role to play in this project? If not, why not?

Many more questions could be asked, and much more could be said, about this project. But the proud announcement of this project, following on the heels of Biggar’s bigoted article, reflects a university that has shown itself to be singularly incapable of reckoning with its colonial past – and singularly incapable of taking responsibility for how that past continues to shape its present and its future.

If the University of Oxford, our University, wanted to reckon properly with that past – and its impact on the present and future – it would not stand idly by in the face of Biggar’s commendation of imperialists and apologies for colonialism.


Useful links:

Ethics and Empire: An Open Letter from Oxford Scholars

Oxford historians object to empire project – BBC News

Response from Oxford Centre for Global History

Oxford University Africa Society’s Statement

Response from Dr. Kim Wagner (Queen Mary University of London)


Review: ‘Colonialism and Climate Change’

By Amelia Cooper.

A panel held at Common Ground’s inaugural symposium welcomed Dalia Gebrial, a campaigner who currently works for People & Planet, and Leon Sealey-Huggins, an academic who focuses on the social relations of climate change, to speak alongside Asad Rehman, Executive Director of War on Want, at a panel chaired by student campaigner Lily MacTaggart. Their shared message was clear: the discourse on climate change requires a radical overhaul, and should be reframed as a question of climate justice.

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Review: Towards a Decolonised Curriculum Panel Discussion

By Naomi Packer.

Sitting in the audience of this panel the first thing that strikes me is that everyone on it is female. Furthermore, the majority are women of colour. For a brief moment I acknowledge how rare it is to be faced with a panel of all-female academics. The panel is comprised of exceptional women: Eden Bailey, the outgoing OUSU VP for Access and Outreach, Ankhi Mukherjee, Oxford Professor of English and World Literatures, and Melz Owusu, grime artist and ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ campaigner doing her masters in Philosophy at the University Leeds.  All of them are inspiring; none of them are without strong opinions on the way in which minorities have been marginalised by the British curricula.

When considering whether the subaltern can speak at Oxford, Ankhi Mukherjee notes that we should bear in mind three questions. Firstly, who is welcome to speak; secondly, what knowledge is valued; and thirdly, why are some aspects of our curricula questioned while others remained unchallenged? These questions proceed to guide the discussion.

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Review: ‘Learning from Anti-Colonial Struggles’ – Karma Nabulsi’s Keynote Speech

By Naomi Packer.

Karma Nabulsi begins her keynote address by outlining some of the key issues at stake. How do campaigners come to agree on what de-colonisation means, and how do universities engage with this change? Nabulsi posits that answers to these questions are found in the anti-colonial struggles of the past, and, in particular, in the stories of those who directly fought against inequality through creating what she describes as “a true solidarity.” “In order to move forward,” she states, “we simply need to open the road behind us.”

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Review: Taking the Decolonisation Project Forward Panel

By Ebubechi Okpalugo.


Firmly nestled within the end of term buzz, ‘Making Rhodes History: Taking the Decolonisation Project Forward’ opened up a multi-faceted discussion of the legacy of imperialism, exploring, but importantly going beyond, Rhodes Must Fall Oxford (RMF).  The eclectic voices of 6 panellists and one mediator ranged from a previous Rhodes scholar to the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum.  The panel was chaired by All Souls student Max Harris, and took place at Christ Church college.

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Oxford students and academics support Jason Osamede Okundaye

Students and academics from the University of Oxford have rallied together from across disciplines, colleges and departments to sign an open letter in a show of solidarity with Jason Osamede Okundaye, a Cambridge University student.

If you are a student or academic at Oxford, and want to show Jason your support, fill out the google form here.

Read the letter below:

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Review: Oxford University and the British Class System Panel

By Eimer McAuley.

40% of students from 7% of schools. The statistic that headlines Common Ground’s panel discussion presents the extent of social inequality as an inescapable, inarguable fact.

It makes me wonder why, so often, in conversations about social inequality at Oxford, I feel like a raving conspiracy theorist. The University’s catalogue of efforts in outreach, the argument that Oxbridge is a scapegoat for wider issues of inequality in education, and the importance of maintaining an academic standard of the ‘best and brightest’, are all easily mounted defences, which suggest that the demographics of the student body aren’t the fault of the University.

So, sitting in front of the leading experts in education and access, I’m eager to hear why institutional classism and racism are so evident in Oxbridge admissions, and get some answers as to what should be done about it.

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Undressing – an extract

Filmed and produced by Ella Gannon, with Beth Davies-Kumadiro. Featuring Femi Nylander, after his final exam at Oxford 2016. ‘Cocktails with Orpheus’ by Terence Hayes is read by Gazelle Mba.


Video: ‘Can the Subaltern Speak at Oxford? Towards a Decolonised Curriculum’ Panel Discussion

In our globalised and multicultural world, “diversity” is a given. Decolonisation is not. Our curricula should reflect and represent a plethora of voices and perspectives, but they don’t. Here at Oxford, the scholars we are taught to admire and emulate in our work overwhelmingly come from a narrow identity and this produces a narrow understanding of the world. Institutionally, the voices of people of colour are written out of academia; working-class voices, trans voices, and female voices are silenced. This silencing – on our reading lists, in our tutorials – is a violent form of erasure. N.B. A token mention of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ does not constitute a decolonised curriculum!

Common Ground want to explore what it means to have our curricula dominated by the white, western, European male gaze, and work out how to shatter the suffocating paradigm it creates.

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