Extinction Rebellion in the History of Non-Violence

By Professor Faisal Devji.

By its very name, Extinction Rebellion links animals, as the conventional candidates for extinction, to the human-beings who still retain sole possession of rebellion. Are humans meant to fear their possible relegation to animality by such an association, or joyfully acknowledge it? This ambiguity lies at the heart of a movement that puts into question the relationship of the human and non-human, one whose co-dependency is only betrayed by the false identity of anthropomorphism. 

Assimilating the animal to humanity only strengthens the latter’s dominance over other species, something that has precipitated our ecological crisis. Identifying humans and animals also excludes other forms of plant and organic life as being less worthy of care. But this makes no ecological sense; the latter are more important to life’s maintenance than the former. Yet recognizing the connectedness of all life forms destroys rather than enables any kind of identity with them. 

The ambiguity of Extinction Rebellion’s name allows us neither to assimilate nor identify with animals or other life forms. This was the way in which Gandhi, the most important precursor of today’s ecological thinking, envisioned our relationship with the non-human: rejecting industrial capitalism’s environmentally destructive cult of limitless desire and limitless growth for an equality that was premised upon restricting both. Gandhi also attended to the relationship between human and animal that comprised the foundation of all exploitation. 

Gandhi understood even humanity’s most transcendent form, a universal and inclusive identity, to be a violent one. The celebrated empathy that defined such a conception, after all, depended upon biological notions of similarity and similitude no different in kind from those that characterise racist and other exclusionary identities. Only by repudiating a humanity residing in shared linguistic, sexual and dietary relations is non-violence possible. As Gandhi pointed out, such biological relations defining the species have historically divided rather than united human beings.

Only because no generalised sexual, linguistic or dietary communion exists between humans and animals can their relations become non-violent. The animal has to be cared for not because it is like us, but because we cannot share any carnal, communicative or commensal relationship with it. Instead of taking human relations as a model for the relations we should have with animals, Gandhi did the opposite by renouncing the sliding-scale logic of similarity and similitude that made human narcissism a threat for itself and others.    

paper cut-out collage of Extinction Rebellion protest signs
“Extinction Rebellion” by Isabella Lill

Our care for animals as much as fellow human-beings occurs in the absence of any sure knowledge about or identity with them, revealing its most pure manifestation in sacrifice. And sacrifice was crucial for Gandhi not because it was made in the name of some larger identity, but because it was against the interests of humanity. He held that the self-interest we recognize as bad at an individual level does not cease to be so at a collective one. Interest itself is a capitalist principle that converts everything it names into a form of property to be defended against others.

For Gandhi, service and sacrifice defined human relations more than self-interest, and he pointed out how no society could survive without the voluntary sacrifice of its members for one another. The problem is that these relations have increasingly been confined to ever more narrow circuits, such as those between lovers, parents, children and occasionally between coreligionists or citizens. Even here they have been corrupted by self-interest, construed as the sacrifice of smaller for larger identities.

Yet, unlike the ancient pedigree enjoyed by sacrifice, interest is a product of modern capitalism whose naturalisation required strenuous efforts over many decades if not centuries. If sacrifice, in Gandhi’s view, has to be recovered in non-cooperation, civil disobedience and even death, this can only be done at the expense of the self-interest that seeks to supplant it. Extinction Rebellion, too, cannot rely on the notion of interest, however broadly conceived, without falling back into the logic that produced the crisis it wants to address.

The emergence of a global arena after the Cold War led to the crisis of interest, which the huge disparity of power in the new geopolitics rendered irrelevant. While the ‘suicidal’ militancy of al-Qaeda and ISIS represents the return of sacrifice in its most perverse form, new urban rebellions and occupations also mark the sites of its emergence. Environmentalism, too, means sacrificing the interest of ‘convenience’ and its carbon footprint.

Sacrifice also entails abandoning rights, which are linked to self-interest and humanization in forms like ‘animal rights.’ Moreover, the principal right, that to life, provides the very basis of self-interest, which Gandhi refused for a duty whose primary and so ‘disinterested’ virtue is death. Today, preferring duty over rights and death over life has been bowdlerized in Islamic militancy. Even terrorists recognize with Gandhi that duties are individual and inalienable but not rights, which must be guaranteed by the state and its narrative of life, identity and interest.   

Yet self-interest is precisely what prevents action on issues like climate change, even when we seek to expand its penumbra to cover the entire human race. Interest only becomes possible plurally and competitively—there can be no interest of humanity unless it is against the non-human or even the inhuman selected from among us. Gandhi argued that it was always the desire for life as self-interest’s principal form that led to the violence and the death of others, whereas the duty of sacrifice protected life precisely by disdaining it.

While the rivalrous relationship of interests was made visible to Gandhi by the colonial state’s politics of divide et impera, in one way or another they hold true for any liberal dispensation. So how should Extinction Rebellion engage a state that remains the only legitimate political agent of the international order without succumbing to its logic of life and identity, rights and interest? The movement should be kept outside the state’s conceptual realm as far as possible.

This can be done by expanding the role of duty and sacrifice in social life outside the state’s language of rights and interest. Emphasizing the movement’s non-violent character also allows the violence of sacrifice and death that is now formative of all action in the global arena to be subsumed and sublimated. But this is only possible by refusing to be trapped within an apocalyptic vision of the future, which by calling for instrumental action to ‘solve’ the crisis discards duty and sacrifice to revive the narrative of life and interest, similarity and similitude.

Gandhi famously separated means from ends, not simply in order to prevent the former being justified by the latter in potentially violent ways, but since he thought instrumental action of the kind favoured by political and economic agents to be violent by definition. Trying to control or produce the future through such action is a futile enterprise not simply because it is impossible, but because it closes off other possibilities while having to deal with the unintended consequences that turn even successful acts into new problems.

The task of non-violence is not to force specific outcomes but create new circumstances. These possibilities allow instrumental actors, such as states, opportunities they cannot themselves produce. In the post-Cold War global arena within which our ecological catastrophe must be addressed, instrumental action is difficult. Environmentalism has thus become sacrificial by adopting individual and collective practices of renunciation that cannot by themselves halt extinction. These now require expansion from lifestyle choices to a rebellion that creates new circumstances for political action.  

Faisal Devji is a Professor of Indian History at the University of Oxford.

paper collage Extinction Rebellion logo

Note from the Editors

We would like to note the complexities of Mohandas Gandhi’s legacy. While Gandhi is primarily celebrated for his role in the fight for Indian independence, there is also a well-documented history of his exploitation of young women, classist attitudes toward “lower caste” Indians, and virulent anti-African racism.

To learn more, here are some suggested articles:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-34265882

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/jan/27/mohandas-gandhi-women-india

https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766083651/gandhi-is-deeply-revered-but-his-attitudes-on-race-and-sex-are-under-scrutiny

The mixed-race household: a transnational project

hair being braided

By Sophia Staffiero

The metamorphosing space of the mixed-race household (referring, here, to both residents with dual heritage and migrants) has always been a locus of hybridity and innovation. It is a ‘third space,’ characterised by questions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘otherness.’ Though traditionally, the movement of mixed-race/migrant bodies have been a point of interest in understanding how cultures travel across national boundaries, as we shall see, the movement of migrant objects (as much as people) through time and space plays a central role in the building of the ‘mixed-race’ household. Our discussion will therefore focus on how foreign objects interact with new environments to either redirect our attention to other places that concurrently exist (below the surface) in diasporic spaces or extend their skins to make mixed bodies feel ‘at home’. Using Sara Ahmed’s Queer phenomenology, an analytical approach to the enquiry of queer studies and phenomenological research, I will divulge exactly how the meeting of cultures within the mixed-race household may act as a microcosm for our increasingly globalised world.  

What is the ‘mixed-race’ household?

When considering the mixed-race household, we must first acknowledge that the mixed-race body has not historically been recognised to exist (see Naomi Zack, 1993). The concept of the ‘one drop rule,’ a socio-legal marker of racial classification, decrees that individuals with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan African ancestry are to be considered black or ‘coloured’. This rule suggests that ‘race’ is a purely biological phenomenon with no social component and that whiteness can be ‘diluted’ in a way that blackness cannot. According to this logic, it seems impossible to inherit more than one racial line, yet the existence of the mixed-race household defies such schema, aligning itself neither ‘here’ nor ‘there’ but rather, drawing upon several sources to create a third space. 

The idea of a ‘third space,’ derived principally from Homi Bhabha’s hybridity theory, describes the construction of culture and identity within the settings of colonial friction and inequity. For Bhabha, hybridity is a process whereby the colonial powers’ failed attempts to impose upon and assimilate the colonised (the ‘Other’) into their own framework results in the formation of a familiar, but ultimately new culture. He contends that this new hybrid culture, which emerges from the interlacing of coloniser and colonised societies, by its very nature, challenges the legitimacy of any essentialist cultural identity: ‘Hybridity is positioned as an antidote to essentialism.’ I would argue that Bhabha’s original definition is still very much applicable to our post-colonial society in which individuals draw upon multiple funds to both establish their identity and make sense of an ever-shifting world. In this regard, cultural hybridity, as represented by the mixed-race household, is an ‘in-between’ place which brings together (oftentimes) contradictory philosophies, practices, and discourses. Through this ‘remixing’ of cultural knowledge other cultures are often annexed, translated, and re-historicised for the purpose of integration. We see this process manifested through the sensory experience of the mixed-race person and migrant’s mixed home: the familiar smell of certain spices, the mixture of languages that fall upon ears, the visual presence and symbolism of certain objects all work to transport us elsewhere and to redirect our attention to the surfacing of other worlds. 

The mixed-race household is therefore an inherently diasporic space. It may be filled with the celebration at the meeting of several cultures or with the longing for an imagined home, or perhaps, both. 

mother braiding child's hair
Artist: Lucy King

The Scattering of Migrant objects 

Diasporic spaces are sculpted, in part, by objects’ histories. As diasporic bodies ‘scatter’ through space, the scattering of migrant objects and the re-emergence of such objects in new environments creates different impressions on both objects and space. This symbiotic conditioning of objects and space allows objects to extend into space and, in turn, space moulds itself around foreign objects and forges new orientations. 

In the process of inhabitation, individuals acquire orientation devices as a means of extending bodies into spaces and to ‘create new folds, or new contours of what we would call liveable or inhabitable space.’ It is especially within the mixed home that such orientation devices, namely cultural objects, are present. Salih’s ethnographic research of Moroccan migrant women’s experiences in Italy exemplifies the central contribution of cultural objects to the conceptualisation of home in unfamiliar terrain. ‘Home,’ here, is understood to be both physical space as well as a conceptualisation of belonging: these women give significance to their homes through the objects that constitute that space. In her findings, Salih depicts how objects recalling the Moroccan and Muslim world (covers for couches, pictures with Quranic writings, a tajin etc.) are not merely used to superficially decorate their Italian homes, but also to signal their double belonging. Thus, for diasporic communities, such uprooted objects ‘gather as lines of connection to spaces that are lived as homes but are no longer inhabited. Objects comes to embody such lost homes.’ While the migrant objects redirect our attention to other worlds, the presence of such objects does not necessarily allow us to perceive the entirety of such worlds. Rather, such objects grant us access to a limited insight into the worlds from which they emerge. This is only possible through the act of evoking, requiring us to not merely interact with what we presently perceive, but also with the histories out of which objects emerge. As Ahmed suggests:

‘objects also have their own horizons: worlds from which they emerge and which surround them. The horizon is about how objects surface, how they emerge, which shapes their surface and the direction they face, or what direction we face, when we face them. So if we follow such objects, we enter different worlds.’ 

Contact with objects surpasses mere spatial proximity insofar as objects (which are personifications of their histories) begin to take the shape of the spaces (and cultures) within which they dwell. The interaction between their past history and new surroundings creates cultural forms that do not easily fit into one category or the other. Tolia-Kelly (2004) crucially reminds us that diasporic objects are not only a source of longing and loss, but that it is often the case that such objects afford the creation of new identities in our everyday “textures.” As Ahmed claims, ‘such objects keep the “impressions” of the past alive, and in so doing they make new impressions in the very weave or fabric of the present.’ When bodies use objects as orientation devices, overtime those objects may cease to be discerned simply as orientation devices and instead, they become bodily extensions. Levitt and Glick-Schiller’s work on transnationalism highlights the important distinction between ‘ways of being,’ or social relations and practices individuals engage in that do not intentionally reflect their identities, and ‘ways of belonging,’ or the consciousness of being embedded in a network as demonstrated through intentional actions. It is arguably through the intentional placing of diasporic objects that a dual ‘way of belonging’ is established. 

While this section has predominately focused on the ways in which objects leave their impressions on spaces (leading to the reorientations of the bodies which inhabit them), it is also important to note that spaces may also remould objects. In the case of the Moroccan women in Italy, we may wish to ask ourselves, how does the ‘Italian’ space domesticate ‘foreign’ objects? While the placing of Moroccan objects alongside Italian objects results in the hybridity of home, this practice raises some important questions from Salih – is the transnational construction of ‘home’ enough for women to overcome their sense of estrangement? And is it possible to concurrently inhabit two countries?

I would argue that the lines are not so clear-cut and that mixed orientations allow for the renegotiation of the interactions between body and place. 

hair being braided
Artist: Lucy King

What are the implications of the ‘mixed-race’ household? 

From Ahmed’s phenomenological stance, we are reminded that spaces are not external to bodies, but rather, spaces are like a ‘second skin that unfolds in the folds of the body.’ By this we mean that the lived histories of spaces have the power to influence how our bodies act and react in those spaces. We may therefore discern how the ‘mixed-race’ household, as an extension of bodies, is also a liminal space, which conveys perceived notions of foreign ‘borders’ (cultural, economic, political) within the receiving country. According to Brah, the concept ‘diaspora’ and ‘border’ are so closely intertwined that the notions of ‘diasporic space’ presupposes the idea of borders. In this regard, we may consider the mixed home as a meeting of borders, with the mixed-race/migrant body, along with the objects manifesting as ‘liquid’ borders.  

Through the continual drawing upon multiple sources and the renegotiation of identity, the ‘mixed-race’ home becomes a physical manifestation of transnationalism. Transnationalism, which has widely been described as globalisation from ‘below’, opposes the canonical notion of assimilation into one culture by offering individuals the option of two (or more) societies or cultures to draw upon, not only for the formation of identity, but also for economic and political opportunities. Applying, then, a transnational lens to our examination of the mixed-race household, we may view individuals’ inhabitancies as unifying more than one locality. The aforementioned example of Moroccan women’s residence in Italy sees objects flow not only from Morocco to Italy, but in reverse too. When these women carry with them to Morocco those goods to which they have become accustomed in Italy (e.g. baby foods, nappies, Parmesan cheese), they also transport the mixed home across the ocean. Subsequently, social (and political) activities sprawl across state boundaries leading to the creation of a single field of social relations. In this sense, transnationalism acts as simultaneity, debunking the assumption that people must be ‘loyal’ to one nation-state or that individuals can only feel ‘at home’ in one place. The on-going Kashmiri protests in the UK against the Indian government (which have been taking place since August 2019) demonstrates how individuals’ loyalty to more than one nation-state further binds and influences international politics. The current issue at hand is a humanitarian crisis in which Kashmiri nationals and the Kashmiri diaspora strongly believe that they should be given the right of self-determination over the disputed territory. In order to pressurise the Labour party to take a more ‘neutral’ stance in acknowledging that this is a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan, some Indian groups in the UK called upon their community to strategically vote for the Conservative party: a successful tactic which compelled the Labour party to publicly announce their changed stance on the matter (Wintour, 2019). Transnationalism therefore does not only lead to the deterritorialisation of states (through the simultaneity of incorporating activities, rituals, institutions typically located transnationally and elsewhere), but it also challenges previous conflations of geographic space and social identity. Moreover, it shows that integration is compatible with transnational migration. 

The mixed-race household is therefore one of the cradles for mixed orientation, an orientation that comes into being through the fissures of arriving and departing, paving the way for the bridging of many seemingly disconnected worlds, which truly breathe and grow in close proximity.


Bibliography

Ahmed, S. (2004) Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bhabha, H. (1994) The Location of Culture. London: Routledge

Bhabha, H. (1994a) ‘Frontlines/Borderposts,’ in Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question  (ed). A., Bammer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) Vol.15: pp.269-272.  

Brah, A. (1996) Cartographies of diaspora: contesting identities. London: Routledge. 

Dworkin, Shari ‘Race, Sexuality, and the ‘One Drop Rule,’ The Society Page. (2019) <https://thesocietypages.org/sexuality/2009/10/18/race-sexuality-and-the-one-drop-rule-more-thoughts-about-interracial-couples-and-marriage/> {Accessed 6 November 2019}

Garner, S. (2007) Whiteness: An Introduction. Oxon: Routledge. 

Levitt, P. & Glick-Schiller, N. (2004) ‘Conceptualising Simultaneity: A transnational Social Field Perspective on Society,’ in International Migration Review, Vol. 38, No. 3: pp.1002-1039.

Meredith, P. (1998) Hybridity in the Third Space: Rethinking Bi-cultural Politics in Aotearoa/ New Zealand (New Zealand: University of Waikato).

Portes, A. & DeWind, J. (2004) ‘A Cross-Atlantic Dialogue: The Progress of Research and Theory in the Study of International Migration,’ in The International Migration Review, Vol. 38, No. 3: pp.828-851. 

Salih, R. (2001) ‘Moroccan migrant women: transnationalism, nation-states and gender,’ Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies Vol. 27, No. 4: pp.655-671. 

Tolia-Kelly, D. (2004) ‘Locating Processes of Identification: Studying the Precipitates of Re-Memory through Artefacts in the British Asian Home,’ in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Vol. 29: pp.314-29.  

Wintour, P. (2019) The Guardian: Kashmir: Labour shifts policy after backlash by Indian-heritage voters (available online): <https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/nov/12/kashmir-labour-shifts-policy-after-backlash-by-indian-heritage-voters> {Accessed 9 January 2020}.

Who are ‘we’?

By William Golden

The 2016 EU referendum has unleashed a deluge of soundbites about Britain’s place in the world. The self-delusions of the country’s elite have been put on show, revealing the anachronistic assumptions they rest on. In October 2017, Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said of Brexit: “This is Magna Carta … it’s the bill of rights, it’s Waterloo, it’s Agincourt, it’s Crecy. We win all of these things.”  Such gloriana rhetoric puts Rees-Mogg in good company with other Brexiteers, including David Davis, Liam Fox, and Boris Johnson. His appeal to the victories of the Hundred Years War exemplifies the role a reactionary interpretation of history plays in modern British politics. When Rees-Mogg says, “We win all of these things?” he is not talking about his experiences on French battlefields, despite his medieval media persona. Instead, with the first-person ‘we’ he identifies himself (and his audience) with the great triumphs of British military and constitutional history.

It isn’t an unusual turn of phrase. Talking about Britain’s past like it’s your favourite football team’s record in the FA Cup is a fairly common way of discussing history. For many people, statements like ‘We beat Napoleon’ or ‘We won the First World War’ seem harmless, a natural or casual way to talk about Britain’s past. However, the way we talk about the past influences how we think about it. The use of ‘we’ suggests an eternal British community, reaching back through the centuries. It personalises a historical narrative, a national story which becomes central to British identity. Ultimately, this personalisation prevents a critical understanding of the past. As long as we think of history as a story of what ‘we’ did, a list of national achievements for the likes of Rees-Mogg to use to congratulate ourselves, it is impossible to confront the realities of the UK’s colonial past and the consequences of its legacy today.

Like any other national identity, Britishness is a socially constructed category which allows millions of people who have never met to feel they belong to the same community. In order for a national community to exist, there must be some feature its members hold in common upon which they can base this identification. This ‘unifying principle’ could be linguistic, religious, ethnic, or even political. Often, it takes the form of a shared historical identity. The ubiquity of the historical ‘we’ demonstrates the deep-roots of a historicised national community in modern Britain. These historical narratives play a huge role in how British people view both themselves and their nation’s place in the world. In this worldview, how we understand our history has a lot of influence over how we view the present.

people playing basketball
Photo by Imogen Osborn

The ‘we’ view of history is inherently nostalgic. It grounds British identity in a rose-tinted narrative, a white-washed, Downton Abbey story in which Britain is a utopian ‘sceptred isle’, a plucky underdog facing off against hostile forces or, perhaps most egregiously, a ‘great trading nation’ responsible for bringing free trade and constitutional democracy to the rest of the world. Many nations ground their identities in history, but it is especially dangerous in a country so oblivious to its imperial past and so unaware of the extent to which its economic and political power rests on a legacy of exploitation both at home and abroad. In linking ourselves so intimately through our speech to this sentimental folk-history fairy tale, we prevent any meaningful introspection on its continued consequences.

This nostalgia infects our national mood. In a 2018 YouGov/BBC poll, three times as many people believed Britain’s best days lay behind it than the number who thought they were yet to come. It is easy to see the consequences displayed in our politics. For many Leavers, Brexit is a chance to resurrect this greater Britain – demonstrated in the constant invocation of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’. When writing in favour of a ‘Leave’ vote in 2016, Boris Johnson bemoaned: “We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen, and with a much smaller domestic population and relatively tiny civil service.” “Are we really”, he questioned, “unable to do trade deals?” Here, Johnson makes explicit the assumptions in ‘we’; the assumption that Britain is an enduring historical community which can return to a bucolic golden age. He also demonstrates another striking feature of the ‘we’ mentality: amnesia surrounding the true nature of the British Empire.

In the 21st century, British views on the Empire have evolved from Kipling and Tennyson’s jingoistic celebrations of colonialism. However, a true acknowledgement of the crimes of the Empire and their continued consequences is a long way off. A 2014 YouGov poll found that 59% of the British public think the Empire is ‘more something to be proud of [than] ashamed of’ with only 19% believing the reverse. Even among 18-24-year olds, 48% are proud of the British Empire. When asked if countries colonised by Britain were better off from their experience, 49% believed colonised countries had benefited. Notably, 23% and 36% of respondents answered ‘Don’t know’ to questions about Britain’s imperial legacy. It is clear that the British public have not come to terms with the realities of colonialism. I think this must in part be due to identification with the colonisers. When the actions of Victorian imperialists are spoken of in terms of ‘we’, it is perhaps harder to speak critically about the realities of Empire – ‘we built the railways’, ‘we brought them democracy’. It is clear that the myths of British supremacy remain deeply ingrained. The personalisation of history, where British people identify so closely with our national historical myth, must contribute to this stubbornness.

Photo by Kush Patel

This conflation of modern British identity with history of the British state creates an exclusive group, tying belonging to connection to the nation’s historical narrative. This is most obvious in attempts to expand ‘we’, such as the moves to recognise the contributions of soldiers from the Empire and the Commonwealth in the First World War. While such moves to expand ‘Our Island Story’ in the face of the whitewashing of our history are welcome, even when these initiatives are successful they tie belonging to past service to the British state. Recognising that 1.5 million Indian volunteers fought in the First World War is important, but when used as an argument to support multiculturalism in modern Britain it reinforces the assumption that those with deeper familial roots here have a greater claim to belonging. It reinforces the nostalgic worldview which grounds identity in the past and provides support to reactionary and colonialist ideas of what Britain is and what it should be. If the argument for a broader, multicultural British identity is grounded in past solidarity, colonial misconceptions about Britain’s past will be even harder to displace.

Talking about history in this personalised way promotes uncritical historical narratives, preventing a true confrontation of Britain’s colonial past and providing support for those who want to promote nostalgic, reactionary politics. With our understanding of history so intimately linked to our national identity, language which supports the assumptions of those who want to whitewash this past must be confronted. In order to confront the realities of British history, we need to change the ways we talk about it. 

“How the Other Half Lives”: The ethics and politics of social documentary photography, from Riis to the present

By Cara Turner.

In a New York tenement at the end of the nineteenth century, men sleep crowded together on the floor and on a ramshackle bunk bed, alongside their trunks and work boots. I was shocked when I first saw Jacob Riis’s photograph of lodgers in a crowded Bayard Street tenement, the reaction Riis intended in 1890 when he published the photobook How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. By exposing the dirty, crowded and dangerous living conditions in New York City slums, Riis helped influence social change to tackle the problems created by overpopulation and property speculation. Amongst other socially concerned journalists of the time, Riis’s name stands out, given his pioneering approach of combining his writings with social documentary photography. Confronted by photos of hardship and conditions so far outside their daily experience, the middle and upper classes were encouraged to act. At last, rather than simply reading journalistic accounts, Riis’s photographs in all their visual immediacy presented them with the reality of ‘The Other Half’ – or at least, the seeming reality. For Susan Sontag, “The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge.” Is it not problematic that we now see Riis’s photographs as documents, as a reality, when any photograph is a construction? Should we continue to celebrate Riis’s approach and legacy, or should we challenge his othering of the urban poor?

Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). ‘Lodgers in a crowded Bayard Street tenement – “Five Cents a Spot,”‘ 1888-1889. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.4.158.

To look at the photograph of the Bayard Street tenement is not only shocking but uncomfortable. As the viewer, we feel we are intruding on these sleeping men – or rather, that we are seeing them from the perspective of Riis, the intruder: the man on the right is caught in Riis’s flash, his face shining and his eyes on the verge of flickering open. Though Riis was using social documentary photography for ethical ends, we might question the ethics of using subjects as objects: in trying to humanise the onlooker, Riis removes the individuality and the agency of the Bayard Street men. However, many of the photographs in How the Other Half Lives capture more active subjects. In Riis’s portrait of a twelve-year old boy pulling threads in a sweatshop circa 1889, the young worker engages the camera with a steady, penetrating gaze; the men standing behind him all do the same. Is the dynamic different? Perhaps. Yet another assertion from Sontag still stands: 

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects.”

Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). ‘Twelve-Year-Old Boy Pulling Threads in a Sweat Shop’, 1888-1889. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.4.152.

The twelve-year old boy is aware of Riis’s camera and he looks back with a gaze that is almost challenging. And yet the camera is triumphant: it has turned him into an object for the interpretation of viewers as the book has been passed down over the generations. Sitting working, surrounded by older men in the sweatshop, we see a vulnerable young boy forced by his circumstances to go into work too young. As the photograph is placed alongside Riis’s writing on the social problems of poor housing and poverty in New York, we see the photograph of the boy as a victim of social problems: he is defined by his situation, rather than being presented as an individual. He is a synecdoche for the exploited children of New York’s urban poor in the late nineteenth century; in turning the boy into an object, has Riis violated him, as Sontag suggests? 

I wondered whether to reconsider my judgement when I discovered that Riis himself, a migrant from Denmark, had experienced hardship, unemployment and homelessness in New York. Can we say, then, that his was an ‘insider’ perspective, and if so, should this change our ethical judgements of the photographs? Keith Gandal’s 1997 study, The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane and the Spectacle of the Slum, highlights that as a photographer, Riis “was not relating to the poor as a reformer, a clergyman, a charity worker, or a policeman, and they did not treat him as any of these.” Instead, Gandal notes, Riis’s subjects were often intrigued by the camera and generally liked having their photographs taken. But were they aware of how Riis meant to present them, what the photos would be used for, and how viewers would perceive them? Riis employs stereotypes such as ‘the tough’ (corresponding to the contemporary notion of a ‘thug’), which he illustrates with examples of ‘typical toughs’, two portraits resembling mugshots. Rather than capturing the men as individuals, as they might see themselves, he captures them as examples of a type imposed on poor men. Working in conjunction with his descriptions of how ‘the tough’ operated, his mugshots cater to the intrigue of the upper classes, eager to learn about the supposedly strange, criminal and degenerate nature of such a type. In photographing these men, Riis appropriates them: he presents them in a manner that allows him to use their image for his purpose. Though Riis, too, may have spent nights sleeping on floors, he does not tell the stories of his subjects with sensitivity to their individuality and breadth of experience. For Sontag, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing appropriated”: is there no escape from appropriation?  

Tish Murtha, image from the ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ series (1979) © Ella Murtha, all rights reserved.

Appropriation through social photography is a narrative that continues to unfold. Martin Parr’s colourful, fun shots of working-class British life exemplify the changing nature of the problem: where Riis’s photographs appropriated and generalised to catalyse social change, Parr seeks to capture the aesthetics of working-class life in a way that could be seen to veer towards fetishisation. Yet there are examples which point to different potentials for social documentary photography, many of which have been exhibited at Newcastle’s Side Gallery. Side was the first gallery in the country dedicated to social photography, and for a long time the only one, until the Martin Parr Foundation opened in Bristol. One photographer whose work the gallery has returned to multiple times is Tish Murtha. Born in 1956, Murtha grew up in an industrial area near Newcastle which was hard hit by unemployment. After studying at the School of Documentary Photography at Newport College of Art, Murtha continued to document her working-class roots. Sarah Moroz wrote in The New York Times that Murtha’s “relentless vision can be characterized by a single trait: empathy.” This empathy is manifested through Murtha’s sensitivity to capturing a range of moods. One of her series, Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979), captures kids who had been rejected from marching bands but continued to practice. The children’s eccentricity and their pleasure in play comes through despite being shadowed by the backdrops of bleak wastelands and street corners, and the result is a sense of poignancy – their present and future hardship and lack of possibilities lingers. In one photograph, children in the background push over a car whilst those in the foreground sit playing; through the juxtaposition between calm and chaos, Murtha has captured the range of moods and energies felt by these children. The shots in this series, and Murtha’s photographs in general, channel a playfulness absent from Riis’s work: Murtha show us smiles, energetic movement and eccentric games. She captures enough background to show that the children live in hardship, but they are not defined by it. Murtha’s empathy is different to Riis’s: in her photographs, we see individuals, idiosyncrasies and breadth of experience.

Rut Blees Luxemburg, ‘A Modern Project, Highrise,’ 1995, courtesy of the artist.

The increasing democratisation and ubiquity of photography has opened doors for working class photographers to tell a more diverse range of stories through the medium. The High Rise Project, based in Leeds, aims to explore the history of social housing and the lived experience of communities. The initiative of bringing together professional photographers and artists and communities has much potential, facilitating the sharing of skills, experiences, information, and ideas. Whilst Riis and Murtha visually foregrounded people, the High Rise Project spotlights architecture and space, much like Rut Blees Luxemburg, who shot her photo of an east London tower block in 1995 as part of an exploration of modernist architecture and its application in social housing in Britain. A Modern Project, Highrise captures a complicated world: euphoria, intensity and futurism burst out of monotone, concrete banality. You can see why it was used by The Streets for their album, Original Pirate Material. The album’s content and style reflect the complexity and multifaceted experience of British working-class life: there’s boredom and hopelessness, but also humour and euphoria. Since Riis’s far more black-and-white depiction of abject poverty, social photography has come a long way. Although Sontag highlights the omnipresent problematics of photography in general, we can now see the potential for social photography to convey experience in a way that is more empathetic and open to diversity of experience. And yet Riis opened the door for this. Problematic as it may be, his photograph of the Bayard Street tenement has been and still is pervasive, and its uncomfortable aspects make it cut all the deeper.

Social documentary photography is a minefield: problematics of appropriation, the gaze, method and aims abound; but it’s also a rich field for new perspectives.

Merantau to the pluriversity

By Aizuddin Mohamed Anuar

The concept of merantau in Malay cosmology denotes the act of movement—sailing, walking, or adventuring—to other lands away from home, in search of a different life. After gaining independence from the British, the young nation state that evolved to become Malaysia looked to education as a means for attaining economic development. Kassim (1995) observed that over time, as the economy expanded, university qualification increasingly became a necessary form of differentiation in the labour market. In this modern light, merantau became associated with young people from rural areas bearing parental hopes and dreams for a better life through the movement from the traditional kampung (village) to the city for a university education. 

This notion of merantau is best captured in Malay poetry. Consider the following excerpt from a poem entitled Pesan lelaki kecil kepada gadis kampus (The humble man’s advice for the campus girl) by Sazalee Yacob (2003) (part of the Malay Language curriculum in secondary schools): 

Kuhantar kau mengecapi angin baruudara lain dari kampung bendang kuningmubumantara asing dari yang sering kaumesraiyang sama sekali berbezadengan suasana suntimukau nikmatilah angin dan udara ilmu itumemesrai azimat dan tangkaldari tangga gading.I send you off on winds anewthe air unlike golden meadows of the kampunga land foreign to that you often consortits difference altogether starkagainst your girlish timesimbibe the wind and air of that knowledgeconsort with the amulet and talismanfrom the ivory steps. 

The imagery in this poem signifies the necessity to merantau in search of knowledge—a village father ushers his young daughter up the ivory tower, placing hope in its magical promise of a land so unlike the girl’s childhood kampung (village). The prospect of a better life means leaving the rural for the urban. A university education requires sacrificial exile, a severing of homely familiarity, because amulets and talismans await elsewhere, at the foot of the ivory tower. 

The concept of merantau also suggests the magnetic pull to return. Songs such as Balik Kampung (Returning to the Village) and Dendang Perantau (The Sojourner’s Refrain) are Malay allegories that distil this longing for home. Nevertheless, one does not return on a whim, not without a tribute to offer the elders and the village folk. Another Malay proverb displayed in many educational institutions is telling: pergi dengan harapan, pulang dengan kejayaan (leave with hope, return with success). For young people leaving their rural homelands for university, the return in merantau is thus contingent upon success. To journey back without it is to lose face.

*

I conceived this piece in the thick of graduation season in Malaysia. It is a time of the year for joyous celebration. Such elaborate occasions are indicative of the massification of higher education in the country. It is also a time of optimism. The public hungers for heart-warming stories of graduation success, to renew the oscillating faith in education’s power for social mobility. The stories often juxtapose rural beginnings with towering academic successes in urban universities—the sons and daughters of gardeners, goat herders, penebar roti canai (tosser of local flatbread) with first-class degrees abound. The more hard-won the battle, the more rapturous the reception. It is crucial to render the stark contrast in the same sentence, to allow both realities to inhabit the same space. Otherwise, the stories lose their sheen of wonder. 

The celebrated narrative is that despite such humble beginnings, these young people rose above. But the pernicious message we have come to internalise is this: given their background, these rural young people are not supposed to succeed. To be clear, these are magnificent successes born of hard work under extraordinary, alienating circumstances. I do not overlook these achievements and I join in the celebration of the indomitable nature of the human spirit. I am, however, at once fascinated and troubled by the fetishistic framing of these successes. Year after year, such narratives continue to capture our imagination because they defy a norm that we fail to interrogate. Their arcs neatly align with pergi dengan harapan, pulang dengan kejayaan (leave with hope, return with success).  We consume these stories in earnest, willing them to universality. We live to believe in the power of education until the next graduation season.

But what of the untold stories of rural students in urban higher education? The structural problem is shrouded in obscurity, eclipsed by newsworthy success stories of a few individuals. To uncover it requires engagement with a sociology of absences, interrogating how the “colonialism of power, knowledge, and being, operates together with capitalism and patriarchy to produce…certain groups of people and forms of social life as non-existent, invisible, radically inferior, or radically dangerous” (Santos, 2018, p. 25). Undertaking this line of inquiry requires us to pay close attention to questions such as: How and why are rural students set up to fail in higher education? In the parable of the kampung (village) girl consorting with the amulet and talisman from the ivory tower, how likely is it a case of yang dikejar tak dapat, yang dikendong berciciran (what is pursued is not grasped, what is already carried is lost)?

*

The project of development, progress, and modernity in Malaysia privileges the urban, cosmopolitan way of life. Our staggering rate of urbanisation is one marker of this. In the name of development, the government persists in the deficit framing of rural communities as backward and trailing behind their urban counterparts. It is not surprising then that the Rural Development Policy launched in 2019 includes a section on changing the mindset of rural communities towards a ‘first class mentality’. Burdened by these assumptions, rural students may encounter multiple forms of alienation when they merantau to urban spaces for university education. They are stigmatised with coded labels that denote backwardness, such as budak kampung (youngster from the village). Often, their rich experiences are undervalued, their dialects ridiculed, and their lives complicated by unspoken institutional rules. The spatial separation from family and the loneliness that ensues can be overwhelming. 

These challenges are magnified by the financial burden of life in the city. As a result of intense rural migration to cities, the spectre of urban poverty looms above like an omen. Yet, rural students persist with precarity because they have hope for the future. One student recalls: 

I spent two days without eating as I ran out of money. My father came to visit me with some rambutan and apologised as he too did not have any money to give me… I hope that with my qualification, I can land a job that secures my future so that I can help my parents and younger siblings.  

(Rafidi, 2019)

In the pursuit of success in higher education, is individual hope enough—without confronting the colonial, oppressive structures of universities? Universities are spaces where rural students are forced to engage in mimicry of their urban(e) counterparts, only to fail by design and so expose themselves to blame. Ultimately, they are held responsible for their inability to sufficiently adapt to university life, for lacking the strength to survive the project of development, and for failing to match the ‘industriousness’ of their urban counterparts. That this vilification is reminiscent of modern Malay capitalism’s hostile relationship with rural poverty—attributed to rural folks’ ‘laziness’—is no accident (Maaruf, 2014). 

Photo by Hamidah Saleem

A retired professor in development economics, with whom I recently spoke, opined that the Malaysian education system is urban-biased. Education is meant to prepare the modern worker for industrial, urban spaces.  The rural populace is only useful insofar as they supply food and labour that fuel these urban metropoles. Rural, indigenous students in particular, partake in mainstream education against overwhelming odds, at the same time losing their identity and worldviews away from their ancestral homes. They leave formal education to enter a liminal, ambivalent space where the promise of social mobility is broken and their indigenous bearings are lost. Stories that reflect this reality rarely make the news, for they shatter the neat arc of education for social mobility. When they do grab our attention as special reports, the framing is one of crisis and pity—enough to shock briefly, but soon forgotten. We choose instead to consume feel-good graduation stories of the select few in earnest, willing them to universality. We live to believe in the power of education until the next graduation season.

Are rural students and urban universities doomed to a perennially strained relationship? In higher education literature, rural and indigenous students are sometimes included under the broader category of ‘non-traditional’ students, alongside mature students and students with caring responsibilities. In relation to rural students, even the qualifier ‘non-traditional’ here seems an ironic inversion, given that traditional is often synonymous with rural, as modern is with urban. This qualifier further demonstrates how rural students typically do not belong in universities, which were traditionally the court of the urban, metropolitan elite. It seems that rather than adopting ad hoc solutions to integrate ‘non-traditional’ students into the urban university, thus fossilising the status quo; mending this relationship requires a radical reimagination of what the university can and must be as a space.

*

Higher education in Malaysia traces its origins to the colonial period prior to independence, starting with the establishment of University of Malaya in 1949, then located in Singapore. In Malaysia’s postcolonial beginnings, universities produced technocrats and professionals who would steer the new nation forward. Gradually, the role of universities evolved to address economic disparity among ethnic groups through their potential to spur social mobility. While the former aim ushered in neo-colonialism, reproducing class hierarchies that persist to this day, the latter increasingly imagines universities as cogs in the neo-liberal, capitalist machine. Today, the university is first and foremost a utilitarian means to a job in the modern capitalist economy. Kader (2012) argues that “universities provide the foot-soldiers, generals and the intellectual, cultural and ideological underpinning for this predatory system which has produced global poverty as well as human and environmental degradation” (p. 52). Burdened with the weight of massive graduate unemployment of late, Malaysian universities are blamed for their inability to meet industry needs, further exposing their role in the capitalist project.

How can universities be reclaimed from these deeply embedded colonialist and capitalist logics? Santos (2018) envisions the creation of the polyphonic university—one constructed out of multiple voices, including those that do not subscribe to conventional ways of the university and its credentialing processes. Such a university will evolve to become a pluriversity, genuinely valorising multiple ways of knowing to create ecologies of knowledge and “questioning the seemingly all-powerful drive towards commodification of knowledge and the capitalist industrialization of the university” (Santos, 2018, p. 279). In the context of rural students’ participation in university, it entails a genuine commitment to honouring the cultural resources and worldviews they bring—recognising the potential for collaborative knowledge creation both inside and outside the institution. This runs counter to current practices, which corrode rural students’ agency and co-opt them into urban sensibilities as they merantau to find rather than co-create knowledge.  

To imagine a pluriversity entails confronting the following challenges Santos (2018) poses, which no doubt will bring further sets of questions unimaginable in the current university model:

Can non-PhD holders known for their practical knowledge be part of PhD committees and even pass judgment on the research undertaken by PhD students when their dissertations deal with topics with which they are familiar?

Can the classroom be polyphonic, involving two teachers, a scientific and artisanal one, such as a medical professor and a traditional healer?

Can books or other teaching tools be co-authored by teachers of both scientific and artisanal knowledge?

How much time will both teachers and students spend inside the university and outside?

(p. 280-281)

Reimagining the university—at a time when its traditional form is ironically under attack by the capitalist system it has long served—requires acknowledging its colonial and capitalist leanings. Rather than placing blame upon rural students for failing to integrate, the more urgent task is to collectively, in the polyphony of our voices, confront and deconstruct the university as a space by questioning whose interest it ultimately serves. This calls for a critical eye to unravel the colonial and capitalist undertones of ‘conventional’ university education, pointing to a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ which is crucial for the project of reimagination. To do so is to heed the father’s advice in another excerpt of the poem Pesan lelaki kecil kepada gadis kampus (The humble man’s advice for the campus girl) thatI introduced in the beginning:

Di awan kampus yang sarat ilmuhadir sihir angin bernafas apidi pohon kampus yang tegar statusberceracak selumbar noda mengabur fikirdi padang kampus yang hijau pertimbangantumbuh gunung ego menghalau pekerti.In the campus clouds pregnant with knowledgeblack magic breathes fire upon the windin the campus trees of suretyseductive splinters shroud the mindin the campus green of fine judgementrises mount ego that banishes character.

Note: all translations are author’s own.

References

Abdul Kader, M. (2012), Integrating the Sacred into University Education. In C. Alvares & S. S. Faruqi (Eds.), Decolonising the University: The Emerging Quest for Non-Eurocentric Paradigms (pp. 85-94). Pulau Pinang: Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Kassim, M. (1994). Peluang Pendidikan Tinggi Bagi Pelajar Melayu Luar Bandar: Kajian Kes USM. The Asia Pacific Journal of Educators and Education (formerly known as Journal of Educators and Education), 13 (1). pp. 1-17.

Maaruf, S. (2014). Malay Ideas on Development: From Feudal Lord to Capitalist. Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Centre.

Rafidi, R. (2019, September 25). Financial struggles at university. New Straits Times. Retrieved from https://www.nst.com.my/education/2019/09/524435/financial-struggles-university.

Santos, B. de S. (2018). The End of the Cognitive Empire: The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Yacob, S. (2003, October 19). Pesan Lelaki Kecil Kepada Gadis Kampus. Mingguan Malaysia, p. 30.

Pull up the tune: the politics of time, space and the rewind

By Imogen Malpas.

It’s 2am in the bowels of a London musical establishment. The ceiling is sweating, all around you clothes are coming off, and the sound system is rattling your vital organs. Then the DJ cues up the next tune and things start to get crazy: just as the bassline kicks in and the crowd starts to roar, the music stops dead and the high-pitched sound of the rewind cuts through the noise as the track starts again to even louder screams from the inhabitants of the dance floor, who, by this point, are levitating in both mind and body at least in part from the sheer energy of the room.

For the non-club-goers among you, welcome to the rewind: the act/art of stopping a song, taking it back to the beginning – pull up – and starting it again. Doesn’t sound like much work? That’s like saying it’s not much work to have a conversation with hundreds of people at the same time. The rewind is an element of DJ practice that allows the performer and the audience to speak to one another, and if you’ve ever been on the dancefloor when it happens, you’ll know that timing, energy, and mood is crucial: easy ‘til you try it. Done right, the rewind changes everything – it’s like applying a spark plug to everything at once. People scream. The crowd goes wild with joy. It feels a bit like church. Done wrong, it’s a self-indulgent mess when the DJ is too caught up in their own ego to care about if the crowd is having fun or not. But as Harold Heath points out, a tune should only get a rewind if it’s that good – and everybody knows it.

In his all-encompassing article on the history of the rewind, ‘Wheel It Up: History Of The Rewind,’ Laurent Fintoni writes that the rewind is “the great equalizer”, smashing the wall between performer and listeners as the crowd surges up to the speakers and an entirely new energy flow roars into being. The rewind has an almost mind-bending power to chop up the linear flow of spacetime and bring back the moment to be re-lived as many times as the crowd asks for (and it can be a lot of times). By the way, nobody is ever going to agree on who performed the first rewind: legend says that in 1967 Kingston radio operator Ruddy Redwood was given a dub plate without the vocal from Treasure Isle studio. When he took this “accidental instrumental” to the dance, the crowd quite simply lost it. Rumour has it that it was played for half an hour without a break, rewound every time the people demanded.

But the rewind doesn’t just shake up time and space in the club. It has a history that reverberates all the way across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, where it flourished among the dance halls of 1960s Jamaica before travelling in the minds and suitcases of Jamaican immigrants to Britain. This is the origin story of soundsystem culture: born in Jamaica, homegrown in the UK, now the proud mother of drum & bass, dub, garage, grime, drill… and showing no signs of slowing her extraordinary birth rate.

image showing record player, dancing feet, plant frond, sound waves, speaker, wifi symbol, and sunglasses
Art by Fred Seddon

This landscape is complex to navigate, and I was lucky enough to have as my guide the polymath that is Mykaell Riley – former vocalist of Grammy-award-winning Steel Pulse, longtime music writer and producer, and director of the Black Music Research Unit at Westminster University (and that’s about a quarter of what he’s up to). His current brainchild is the Bass Culture Research project, a three-year multidisciplinary exploration of the impact of Jamaican and Jamaican-influenced music on British culture. For Riley, the rewind is not just about an individual moment in the club, but about a deeper relationship between culture, artistic output and translation: the need to go backwards in order to capture something that’s essential for moving forwards. He explains that as early as 1968, in reggae culture, the final mix of a track began a new and curious existence: the moment in time when it was released suddenly became re-accessible, as artists began to journey back to tracks and give them new lives through their own musical interpretations. Everyone thought the track was over, when really, it was only just beginning. Today, we might call this a remix: grabbing something from the past and bringing it into the future, with the audience coming along for the ride. Modern-day sample culture, Riley argues, goes all the way back to that period, a time when a paradigm was established which the rest of the world is still learning from now.

Tapping into that residual memory can be incredibly powerful; we’ve all heard a new track that samples an old one and immediately draws us back into our memory bank. Whole generations still gravitate towards certain chord progressions. But this is where things start to get complex. These artists making musical jumps backwards and forwards through time and space did so within the context of their cultural heritage, allowing the original music to constantly inform what they were making with it. But the technology we use today – that allows us to make these jumps with almost unbelievable ease (if you’ve ever tried to show your grandparents Spotify or YouTube, you’ll know what I mean) – is starting to erode the vital relationship between time, culture and music. We are becoming unmoored. Riley faces these fears head on. “Have we got to a point where the whole idea of the rewind is happening at such a pace that it has less resonance and impact on the listener? It still has that magic, yes, but it’s less effective, so we stay with it less: and everything is slightly more transient.”

It might seem easy at first glance to dismiss this as mere technophobia, but the problem runs far deeper. Without anchoring the music that we rework, add to, and take from in its cultural context, we risk unravelling the process of cultural integration that was and is so very vital to British music. The simple fact is that today’s UK pop scene wouldn’t exist without the legacy of black artists. From the ska scene in the 1970s and its overwhelming influence on punk culture, to jungle and garage emerging from the two-tone and reggae movements in the 1990s, popular British music since the Windrush generation has emerged from the kitchens of black Caribbean soundsystem culture. But at some point, that music started being presented as a stand-alone dish that had been cooked up by white artists. “We recognise pop as a major expression of cultural creativity from white British youth,” Riley explains, “when in fact pop has always borrowed from black culture, but without being acknowledged. So a DJ could grow up in the UK and be remixing dubstep and not know what that has to do with reggae. Students have actually said to me – what has [dubstep] got to do with reggae?”

We’ve seen this happen elsewhere. You might be familiar with the genre tropical house – from the title of an auto-generated Spotify playlist if nothing else – and with its connotations of generic club nights and mostly white bikini-clad models on the cover of YouTube playlists, it’s the epitome of a genre that seems to have arisen out of nowhere in particular and is now the command of your typical white male DJ (think Kygo). Yet, as Georgina Quach writes, tropical house takes many of its most significant elements directly from dancehall, a Jamaican genre born from the country’s electrifying youth culture and inextricably linked with forms of resistance articulated by its most disenfranchised residents. The ‘tricky stuff’ – cultural baggage, sexually liberated lyricism, unpalatable beats – have simply been smoothed away, whilst the rest is synced up with the mainstream. Nice and easy.

For Riley, unsurprisingly, this isn’t good enough: the myriad contributions of black culture must be contextualised and credited before all else. “Unless we can honour those contributions, we’ll be moving towards the breakdown and the loss of everything that we’ve gained, and homogeneity will be the order of the day,” he warns. The problem is that this process of acknowledgement – which is complex and requires the active attention of the listener – is precisely what tech makes so easy to avoid. Homogeneity and passivity are perhaps the hallmark of the YouTube and Spotify playlists through which so many people now discover music, and with their nondescript cover images and crowd-pleasing selections, there’s no space for context. Because of the effort involved and the comparative rarity of the release, a remix used to allow musicians and listeners to develop a relationship with both the original and its new form. Now, with a library of half a million songs in each of our pockets, that relationship has been permanently disrupted. Time and context have become meaningless, says Riley, because “the world now has access to time travel, so we’re jumping through time with no real relationship with time as a consequence.” 

The rise of the algorithm has only hastened this breakdown. For Riley, “even the word ‘rewind’ is now used totally out of context, disconnected from its cultural source: it’s just a term that will describe a particular collection of tracks assembled by an algorithm from a playlist.” (Consider Spotify’s Summer Rewind: now compare it with the scene described at the beginning of this piece.) What’s more, the algorithm’s convenience makes it all too easy to forget what its existence signifies: a loss of choice. It’s a black box into which culture, time, politics and – crucially – self-determination are inexorably sucked, and ‘songs to listen to by the pool’ are popped out. It’s an incredibly subversive procedure dressed in exceptionally insipid clothes: the more boring and generic it seems, the more dangerous it’s likely to be. “You may not even be aware of the extent to which your knowledge and choices have been curtailed,” warns Riley. As we go forward in time and in tech, it’s a curtailment that is only increasing.

Who is it that stands to benefit from all of this? We might find the answer to that question by asking another: Why are artists and their peers, whose performances were being violently shut down by the Met police, headlining Glastonbury two years later? For the media, it’s proof that if you work hard enough at your craft, you can overcome even the most disadvantaged of backgrounds. For Riley, it’s because of money. As grime made its way out of the underground scene, streaming data patterns started to show that its main listener demographic was, unexpectedly, white youth. Suddenly, a genre that had been cold-shouldered by big labels for its ostensible association with violence started to look a lot like a cash cow: as festival lineups across the country began to be populated with grime artists, ticket sales shot up. “That change can only happen if it has been sanctified by the system,” Riley explains, “[and if] the data changes again, these artists would be sacrificed on the altar of money.” This is the descent of music into cash-driven data analytics lining the pockets of the big dogs of the music industry: music “without personality, without history, without provenance.” 

So what happens if this keeps happening? It’s about more than music: the future of British cultural integration is at stake. Multiculturalism is at a fragile moment in our country’s history, and without crediting the culture that helped build us, there’s nowhere to go but backwards – into an unravelling of all that has been fought for. “If you assume it’s all yours,” says Riley, “you’re not recognising what you are pulling together, and there will be a disconnection.” It’s within our power to slow this process, but only if we as a generation make the effort to consciously acknowledge the reference points embedded within black culture that, like a constellation, pull together to define not only the British music scene but modern Britain itself.

Bibliography

Fintoni, L. (2015). Wheel It Up: History Of The Rewind. [Blog] Cuepoint. Available at https://medium.com/cuepoint/wheel-it-up-history-of-the-rewind-21fdcff243d9

Heath, H. (2018). Reload! A History Of The Rewind. [Blog] DJ Techtools. Available at https://djtechtools.com/2018/08/31/reload-a-history-of-the-rewind/

Quach, G. (2019). Sampling, Stealing and Influence: Music and Cultural Appropriation. [Blog] The Oxford Student. Available at https://www.oxfordstudent.com/2019/03/08/sampling-stealing-and-influence-music-and-cultural-appropriation/

To Be A Difficult Question

By Jack Sagar.

When I was seven, I used to imagine my father at the end of the street. He would be standing under the lamppost, by the tree I thought looked like a phoenix, just waiting for me to reach him. It began as a way of tricking myself into running faster — just picture your dad at the end of the street, I thought to myself — but then it seemed to become a genuine yearning. I would reach the lampost, struggling to catch myself against it, just for his image to disappear as quietly as it had arrived. 

I might have stopped running, and imagining my father to be where he simply wasn’t, but I did not stop thinking about him. Where was he? — my mother, by no fault of her own, did not really know. ‘Somewhere near Tunis,’ she would hazard a guess. Their love had unfolded from 1996 to 1998 — my auntie, with my mum, making the most of the perks of being a travel agent, took trips to Tunisia every other month. This was a time when the Tunisian state was negotiating its identity with the forces of emerging feminist voices, both of which were resistant to rising Islamic fundamentalism within Tunisia. I’d like to think that my mother grappled with the complexities of the Tunisia she found herself and my father in, the one which made their relationship possible. But I suspect my mother knew what my father thought, and I gather that his politics was unsurprising given his age —  my father, with a contrarian ‘free spirit’ which looked a lot like my auntie’s youthful love of the cheap wine.

But it is 1998 and I am born. I come crashing into the world in the back of a taxi, a full head of jet black hair appearing after a birth just short of 40 minutes. ‘Jack’ was the most popular name of the year, and Google was to be ‘born’ less than two weeks after. I cannot know exactly what happened, but it was a mutual decision that I would not see my father until I was 18. It was better for me that way — he would write, until he wouldn’t, and the countdown would begin. We would usher a new millennium and a new decade atop of that long before my father and I spoke for the first time. 

I had always looked for him online, mainly on Facebook. I would try his first name followed by his surname and I would try it the other way around. My mum would try too. I always hoped he would find me. Two months after my 18th birthday, whilst complaining about boy troubles over the phone to a friend, I would receive a Facebook notification from an account named ‘Ang Ang’. The small icon beside the name was enough for me to know:  my father had sent me a friend request. We had such similar faces. I would soon learn that ‘Ang Ang’ was a nickname — Angel, Angel, his friends call him.

 ***

Anglophone philosophical answers to questions about race and identity — questions which this tradition has spent most of its time neglecting — are broadly criteriological. They attempt to isolate the necessary and sufficient criteria under which one must ‘fall’ to be a woman or non-white, for instance. But my identity is not a cluster of properties I bear like those concrete, intrinsic properties, height or eye colour. My identity has a history, one in which my inquiry and perspective on is not ‘detached’ but immersed. I am part of the history as it unfolds. Whatever I say today becomes my history eventually; whatever I am eventually will be a complicated product of it all. This is to say, my identity is not some ahistorical fact for which we can develop logical checkboxes; it is history unfolding, whether I look at that history or ignore it.

This is not to say that we don’t all, on an everyday basis, apply a rough set of (explicit or implicit) criteria to judge whether an individual belongs to a given identity group. To some degree, the development of these principles regarding identity does protective work. It defends the boundaries and realities of those who may not be in the best position to protect themselves alone. It allows us to distribute our trust and resources, as well as reminds us whose voice to trust more than others on particular matters — standpoint epistemology shows that people have epistemic privileges in virtue of their being part of a particular social group. What I am resisting, however, is a theorist’s localisation of authority — epistemic and moral — to the academy, or the Tunisians in Tunisia. That it would be morally as well as epistemically invalid for me to say ‘I am Tunisian’ does not seem to me the right result. 

I am asking the question of whether I can ‘become’ Tunisian — can I go to Tunisia, engage with its culture, make friends in the place of family, learn Arabic as my parents had already intended for me? This, to some of my friends, is a clear-cut issue. Your father is Tunisian; you are Tunisian — there is nothing suspicious about your desire to embrace your Tunisian heritage. Other friends, when I have mentioned wanting to attend more BAME events in college and university, have rolled their eyes at me. I am white-passing, culturally white. I suppose the worry is that I am as ethically dubious as the ‘transracial’ Rachel Dolezal. But the deeper question is: Is it my right to ask and to answer? 

image showing pride flag, picture of lamppost, mirror, and Tunisian passport
‘Where & Who am I’ by Juliet Shapiro

As Amia Srinivasan recently told the Financial Times, when you can solve philosophical problems it can be tempting to approach all problems that way. Her reservation, however, is that not all problems take that ‘shape’. Here, I find inspiration for a couple of points. The first, alongside the question of anyone’s personal identity, is a question of the identity of philosophy or the philosopher. There are those for whom philosophy is a science, like mathematics or physics, whereby applying the methods of logic and conceptual analysis will produce determinate answers. And there are those for whom philosophy was about asking the important questions, not to find answers exactly but a certain sort of authenticity through applying doubt, irony, phenomenology, dialectics. 

I myself am sympathetic to a sort of ‘pragmatism’ about truth. Unlike the analytic philosopher, if that title designates any specific person at all, I take the truth to be something we achieve in virtue of achieving a morally and politically better world — that what is ‘true’ is what we can be confident in when we have formed a world we want to be part of. This is not my qualm with Anglophone approaches to identity, although it may have helped me to see it — as did Srinivasan’s image of ‘shape’. I worry about their inability to make room for the personal dimension, or shape, of these questions of identity. A presentation of these criteria as picking out mind-independent features of the objective world is harmful to those who are unable to protect their identity, such that there is an answer of who we are independent of who we take ourselves to be. One needn’t be a pragmatist of sorts to take this line, but it ties the truth of who you are to your ‘truest’ self — which is, I take it to be, about who you would most like to become.

There is a slight degree of truth to this independence principle. Someone like Dolezal, I suspect, can never make up for what isn’t there in her history. Were my father not Tunisian and were I not raised by my mother on the premise I would one day learn Arabic and go to Tunisia and be united with my whole family, I would not have a leg to stand on. But these things did happen, and how I relate to them is, to some degree, my prerogative. It is not that I am making claims in a vacuum — even though I have been trained in analytic philosophy. Nor would my claims transcend their context had I been raised in Tunisia. But to think that we have reached such a vacuum, I suspect, gives rise to a second worry. These approaches to identity are alienating to those for whom identity is a real psychological challenge.

I say this as someone with two diagnosed mental health conditions — not exactly psychically separable, but diagnostically so — that makes identity problematic. I am talking really about the dissociative, as well as the obsessive-compulsive. This is the point at which the intentional structure of self and of world degrade and, in touch with broadening possibilities, one’s entire being is a difficult question. To be a difficult question brings with it all-consuming anxieties, like whether one’s asking of questions or making of claims lacks a certain sort of right, a certain sort of innocence. Other extant things — each of which you struggle to bring clearly into view — feel to be a reminder of just how mad, bad, and dangerous you are. If only you could be something else? It reminds me of the worry that Srinivasan shared with the Oxford Review of Books for how vulnerable people can lose their knowledge when met by a skeptical representative of those in a greater position of power. Not only must tutors responsibly wield their power in relation to vulnerable students when they dismiss or demean their work, philosophers must become more sensitive to how metaphilosophical norms make not only certain thoughts but certain identities harder to express. I have wanted to give up on my heritage for what I wanted to call ‘philosophical’ concerns. For those concerned with the interplay between the political and pedagogical should also be painstakingly aware of the relationship between oppression and psychological trauma. My mental health conditions did not appear in a vacuum either.

My father and I did not maintain a relationship for long. As I’ve spent 1700 words saying, identity is complicated — he could accept me as his son, he said, only if I would pray to keep my homosexuality at bay. I told him this was an ultimatum he could not win, and I cut connection seconds later. But I am not a liminal case, a difficult question, because I find myself at an intersection; nor am I a liminal case, a difficult question, because I have not crossed everyone’s mind. I am a reasonable answer to a question with a shape of many edges, many dimensions, a question that I have asked. I am gay; I am young; I am mentally ill; I am naive; I am not a philosopher (though I might like to be); and I am, after all, a Tunisian man. 

The Stones of the University of Oxford

By Professor Danny Dorling.

‘Oxford’ by Isabella Lill

The stones that make up Oxford University are dense, much denser than any normal stone. These stones are more than their base material. They are not just the Corallian Limestone first cut in Oxfordshire quarries in the 1300s and transported into the city by ox cart; they have long since metamorphosed into something far more potent. A mineral that can apparently endlessly suck in money and sweat, labour and blood, while not seeming to undergo any significant change to its outward appearance. The stone from those same quarries was used to build Eton College, Blenheim Palace, and Windsor Castle; flourishing there too with later rises in those institutions riches, but not quite to the extent that the stones of the University of Oxford have changed over time from within. For a start, there were far more of them in Oxford. By 1756, the University was enormous, but what happened within was largely hidden from sight.

Map of Oxford used to illustrate a list of Oxford professors of poetry from 1708-1999.

The University of Oxford was not built as the giant medieval cathedrals in mainland Europe were – designed to tower over the surrounding countryside and inspire awe, wonder, and subservience. The University was built to be hidden away in a valley, a secret hollow between the hills, a gravel bank at the confluence of two small rivers. It was built to be defended, a place in which to hide away from the material world – the world outside which existed to serve it and its higher purposes; its motto: Dominus illuminatio mea (the Lord is my light).

Over time, the stones grew denser as the financial surplus grew greater. The local quarries were emptied out. Far away, in Wales, coal and slate mines were slowly emptied by children and adults working in the dark. Farms were bequeathed to colleges with names such as Jesus. For centuries, the farm labourers’ efforts filled the colleges’ coffers and slowly further saturated the wealth within its walls.

The culture of getting something for nothing, continuously and in perpetuity, became well established. The plantations of Ireland and later of the empire were brought into the levy of many of the colleges and became part of a global flood of tribute. The stones grew heavier; the towers rose higher and spread across the gravel bank.

painting of Shotover Hill, Oxford
‘View of Oxford from Shotover Hill in Floodtime, When the Water was Out, 10th January’ by John Baptist Malchair, 1791.

In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh describes 1920s Oxford as “a city of aquatint”. (Aquatint is a printing technique that produces areas of tone, rather than lines, so that colours blend more easily.) When the  British Empire was at its peak, the University was populated by students whose wealth was often derived from their family’s investments in that empire. However, Oxford’s intake changed as the British Empire’s power waned, triggering the subsequent increase in income equality that saw a rising proportion of state school admissions to the University. Oxford, both the city and university, began to change.

graph showing undergraduates admitted to the University of Oxford from state schools 1927-2018
Hann, C. and Dorling, D. (2019) A Changed Institution, The Oxford Magazine, No.411, pp.4-6, 0th Week. Michaelmas Term 2019.

By the 1980s the tide had turned again, away from growing equality, away from a rising state school intake, and away from a diminishing Oxford influence on the nations of the UK. Oxford returned to the building up of unequal wealth, defence of snobbery and eugenic thinking that only a few had great potential. 

Recently, it’s become apparent that we are close to seeing the end of this trend. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of British undergraduate offer-holders rose from 60.5% to 69%, with the 2020 figure expected to translate into 67% of places. However, although these figures look promising, we must account for the fact that very few of these state school students come from normal homes when measured by income. The median child in the UK grows up in a household that survives on a total household income of £21,840 per annum after tax and before paying for housing, food, travel, clothes and all other essentials.

In Britain today, a child’s A level results are mainly determined by the school they attend – not by inherent ability, or by how hard they work. A child of below average ability (in the second quartile at age eight, to be precise) is three times more likely to receive AAA+ at A level if they are sent to a private school than a child of above average ability who is sent to a state school. That child of privilege is six times more likely to receive AAA+ than a child of similar ability who is not wealthy. As a result, England’s ‘top universities’ – which require such A level results for admission – are more likely to offer places to the less able children of the rich.

I, too, was a median child. As a boy in the 1970s, I would play on Shotover Hill. The trees had grown high by then and there were no clear views of the University. The city had grown up around it. More people now worked in the car factory at the foot of the hill than served at college tables, but the University continued to accumulate wealth and become progressively more cloistered. In the 1980s, the Bursar of Magdalen College built a moat around his college lands to keep teenagers like me out. In his memoirs, he wrote about those locals he saw as miscreants, which also recount his predecessor visiting a local school in Temple Cowley and pointing out a boy with the ideal servile demeanour to work in his college. This boy would later become the College’s head porter. By contrast, as I grew up in the city throughout the 1980s, Oxford gave succour to teenagers who – their egos expanded and confidence boosted – would later become prime minister after prime minister after prime minister. The stones had infected their minds. I later learned that what I saw was not new, but rather part of an unbroken chain that goes back centuries. A few months ago, I heard the word ‘miscreants’ yet again being used by a college fellow to describe Oxford residents.

Boris Johnson, when he was a teenager in the city, was inspired by  Margaret Thatcher – the then prime minister. Thatcher, in turn, looked up at Winston Churchill’s portrait and saw her destiny whilst studying in Oxford in the 1940s. Churchill, similarly, looked to the Oxford-educated prime minister of his teenage years, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, when he was in Sandhurst in the 1880s. Cecil, in turn, looked to Robert Peel – the first modern Conservative, according to A. J. P. Taylor – for inspiration whilst a teenager studying at Christ Church (Oxford) in 1847. Peel himself, as a teenager at Christ Church in 1805, had Pitt the Younger as a role model. And today, a teenager amid the stones of Oxford University will be looking up at Johnson and feeling the very same weight of destiny upon their shoulders – that which continues the unbroken line whereby a tiny few rule over the many. 

Those who taught the generation now in power in Britain were, at the very same time, building up endowments and laying down wine for their successors – wine often still being drunk today. They were defending and deepening their justification for a place apart. It was a time when things could have changed for the better but, instead, Britain became progressively more cloistered, more divided. The colleges took in more women and more children from state schools, but the aim was to co-opt and cultivate, not to diversify. The progressives of the past were now few and far between. The stones of Oxford became a Petri dish for the new, more brutal, more callous future. Today that could change again – and possibly for the better – but to change requires facing up to what you are and what you produce, and knowing what lies deep within the stones. The same stones which were mainly shaped by local people to build palaces for newcomers to live and be educated in for the good of themselves.

As inequalities in income and wealth began to rise again, Oxford University accepted many more millions in donations, in return for putting the name of a man on a building. In 2017, Bo Rothstein, a then Professor of Government and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, resigned from the University citing Blavatnik’s donation to Trump’s inauguration, which he called “incomprehensible and irresponsible”. In 2019, the University accepted a £150 million donation from Stephen Schwarzman, current CEO of the Blackstone Group and former chairman and Head of Mergers and Acquisitions at Lehman Brothers. Questioning the legitimacy of the ways in which Blavatnik and Schwarzman made and continue to make their money results in threats, most recently from the latter billionaire’s spokesman. Today, the old men’s money is used to renew the old stones.

There have been many times in the past when the city of Oxford and its people would rally against the desires of the University; however, Oxford City Council now has a leaflet that informs residents about cheaper areas outside of the city centre, while colleges continue to expand their accommodation in central Oxford. But who will come to live beneath the new stones, and what will they be taught? The slogan on the leaflet reads, ‘Building a world class city for everyone’. But the city of Oxford is increasingly for the select few.

The future of Oxford could be so different to what the University has planned for the city. Oxford could be the greenest city in Europe, but because of the 40,000 people who drive over its greenbelt each day, it is one of the least green. Today, as its University supports the construction of a motorway to Cambridge, the city serves to exemplify just how ignorant people in power can be made by money.  It is so important to unearth the University’s past, to show how much it has contributed to and profited from exploitation, and to illustrate how it is currently in danger of becoming the pet project of Trump’s billionaires because if we don’t, we may not see a better future in our lifetimes. The Oxford-Cambridge Expressway need not be built.

Oxford City Council leaflet explaining the Oxford Link
Oxford City council leaflet published in 2019.

A plaque occasionally appears on a college wall acknowledging the fact that a college building was financed through slavery, but that is about as far as change around here goes. The stone statue of Rhodes has not fallen; it remains the highest statue on the high street. The University will not be able to make any really significant strides in access and diversity until those in charge acknowledge the problem with putting Rhodes on a pedestal. Although the proportions of state school and ethnic minority students that Oxford admits at undergraduate level are on the rise, changes such as those which have recently come into effect at elite Scottish Universities – which now admit students from lower socio-economic backgrounds with ABB while requiring those with higher socio-economic backgrounds  to gain AAA+ – tend to still be viewed as an impossibility at Oxford. 

map showing changes in urban cover in Oxford from pre-war to 2013
Eco-systems.org.uk

Oxford is built on a swamp. It is built on the land between and around the rivers. The settlement was here long before the University appropriated its name, and the settlement will be here long after the collection of buildings in its centre are no longer the apex of such money and power. Our world is at peak inequality. In Oxford today, the most common way to die for young people is to die homeless. Most homeless people who recently died in Oxford went to school here; they were locals. As adults, many lived in hiding, including in tents in the undergrowth. 

Oxford University is changing. It is waking up to its past and, slowly, some within it are writing a better version of its history. Many of the portraits on its walls are being taken down, partly to try to hide the culpability, partly in the hope of creating something better. The people of this city are beginning to imagine what a world class home for everyone who lives and works in it would actually look like. One in which people who worked in the city could also live in the city, as almost all of the car workers did when I was a child. The University could decide that there is more to having a soul than simply selling something when the price is right. 

It’s time to begin to lighten the stones. It’s time to work out how to be good without believing that it is mutually exclusive to being rich. Dear Oxford University; take down the statue of Rhodes and move him indoors, where he can be looked down on rather than up to. Begin to question the stories you have been told, because far too many are untrue. Work out how to finance the University of Oxford from sources that do not include the most disreputable of donors, investments in the most unethical of funds, or some of the highest university fees in Europe. If another source of finance is needed to preserve the old buildings, then look to the tourists – they will come to see the stones for many decades to come. Plan for a city that is green and open, not grey and exclusive. Accept students from normal backgrounds again, from median income households and average state schools. Ask how reparations can be made for all that has been done that was wrong. There is no need to hide behind the stones anymore, unless you are ashamed of what is within.

Danny Dorling is an English social geographer and the Halford Mackinder Professor of Geography at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

“Be a passenger”: An interview with ACS Access Officer Mary Bonsu

Common Ground Journal Co-Editor Neetu Singh speaks with ACS Access Officer Mary Bonsu about BLM, the ‘BAME’ acronym, and what Oxford University should do to support Black students.

Neetu Singh: What does the Black Lives Matter movement mean to you?

Mary Bonsu: I think that the Black Lives Matter movement is multifaceted, but at its core, it is about dismantling and destroying the insidious racism within our society at all levels. It is a call for justice. It is the people’s recognition of all the black lives that have been wrongfully lost at the hands of police brutality because the system refuses to acknowledge the value of their lives for us. The movement tells society, those black lives do hold value and you will recognise that worth.

Beyond the very necessary and essential calls for systemic change, the Black Lives Matter movement has provided a platform for black voices that are often ignored and silenced by the system. Dealing with the violence and evil of racism on a day to day basis is beyond tiring. BLM allows black people to express the pain that we have endured for generations through protest, through art, through social media, through their jobs and so forth.

Mary Bonsu / produced by Deniz de Barros
Mary Bonsu / produced by Deniz de Barros

NS: What should the Black Lives Matter movement mean to non-black allies?

MB: Black people and non-black people do not relate to the Black Lives Matter movement in the same way because having your very existence attacked and devalued is different from supporting the demographic whose existence is under attack. However, in terms of the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, the movement should mean the same as it does to black people for non-black allies. Non-black allies should want protests, should want change, should want accountability. These are goals that are universal and should be desirable for anyone in society.

NS: Should we dismantle the ‘BAME’ acronym? Why?

MB: The term BAME is infuriating because it does not make sense in any way, nor is it helpful. It is a title that minorities have just accepted because it has been the authoritative norm. BAME essentially means anyone who is not white. An array of identities that face a variety of issues are bundled together. It confuses and angers me because it is so obvious that addressing anti-blackness without specifically looking at black experiences is illogical.

There’s this myth that the differences in the difficulties faced by minority communities are nuanced. There’s an attitude that “ah it’s all racism either way”. This stems from the fact that minorities can relate to each other on broader issues of racism and colourism. We share a lot of common pain and frustration. This has led to a lazy approach by institutions when addressing racism.

You must be specific about the causes of the problems that each community faces. There are issues such as police brutality which are particularly prevalent in the black community. The only way to address that is to recognise the differences in history and other factors and attitudes surrounding gender, sexuality, wealth distribution, and education between minorities. The issues that we face can vary to a large degree and need to be addressed through an honest and specific appreciation of the roots of those issues.

I have seen some defend the term BAME saying that it is helpful for data collection purposes. Oxford’s admissions statistics show exactly why that is not true. It is often a way for institutions such as Oxford to claim that they are diverse whilst the “B” in “BAME” is on mute.

NS: In three words, what should white people and people of Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds do to help the Black community?

MB: Be a passenger.

Black people are steering this movement. You are the passengers. Where “allies” often go wrong is that they try to dictate the movement.  Black people know what we face on a day to day basis. Black people know what anti-black racism is. Black people know what we need from our society to address this. Do not talk over us. Do not hijack the moment. Do not try to silence our voices. Do not instruct black people on how they should be dealing with racism. Do not ask black people to call out racism in a “nice” way that is palatable to your tastes. Do not demonise black people for calling out racism in a public way because you want us to be silent about racism so that you can comfortably ignore it.

In 2020, the concepts of racial privilege are well known and education is widely available – if you still don’t know how you can use your privilege to help black people, then do your Googles and educate yourself. When a black person does choose to share their experience with you, sit back and listen, do not distance yourself from the racism. Think about how your behaviour has contributed to their experience and how you can make an immediate change in your life on a personal level. A lot of people think that Black Lives Matter is only important on the macro level. Of course, we need to keep demanding the big things – that those (Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankinson, and Myles Cosgrove) who murdered Breonna Taylor should be brought to justice, for example. However, consider your day to day behaviour, your interactions with the black people around you. Are you emulating Black Lives Matter on a daily basis? Or are you speaking over black women in your tutorials? Or are you assuming that a black person is aggressive by default? Or are you weaponising your tears and mental health when your racist behaviour is called out? Or are you encouraging anti-blackness within your community?

There is no point calling on governments and institutions to change if you refuse to let go of the racist behaviour that contributes to the racism that kills black people every day. Acting as if black people are aggressive or criminal by default when you hold your belongings tight when walking by a group of young black men is the same kind of racism that allowed Derek Chauvin to kneel on George Floyd’s neck for nearly 8 minutes.

Mary Bonsu / produced by Deniz de Barros
Mary Bonsu / produced by Deniz de Barros

NS: Common Ground Journal is an anti-racist and anti-colonial student publication and we work to decolonise academia within and outside of Oxford University. However, we are aware that the community that disproportionately suffers in representation at this university are students from Black African and Caribbean backgrounds. As one of the ACS’s Access Officers, what changes would you like to see in Oxford for Black students?

MB: The University needs to address the on-course experience of black students. Until the University makes an effort to ensure that Oxford is a safe space for black students, you are never going to see the representation needed. Black prospective students will continue to hear about our experiences and avoid Oxford. Microaggressions are triviliased and ignored. Racial slurs are said against black students and there is no disciplinary action. Whole JCRs bully and demonise individuals for calling out racism. The ACS is relied on as a crutch to compensate for these experiences as you often hear from many people, including myself: “There’s not that many black people at Oxford but ACS is active so that makes up for it”.

First of all, the ACS is a student-led society, and expecting students who are studying for degrees to do all the work to provide a safe space for black students is an injustice. It affects our degrees and contributes to the attainment gap. In addition, it is psychologically exhausting, and it is not as if Oxford provides any targeted welfare to address that burden that we carry, as there are no black councillors available. Second of all, there is only so much ACS can do. The University themselves needs to do more to ensure that people are educated on microaggressions and how they have a hugely adverse effect on the day to day life of a black student at Oxford. They need to ensure that there are people who understand our experiences of disciplinary boards so that microaggressions are not dismissed and trivialised as merely “banter.” There needs to be more done in terms of providing targeted welfare for black students.

The University does not understand us and has not made an effort to do so. I was so disappointed and embarrassed as an Oxford student to read about how the University condemned the decision to disinvite Amber Rudd but made no attempt to understand why so many black particularly Caribbean students had an issue with the invitation in the first place. I was so embarrassed to read the Vice Chancellor’s recent comments surrounding the Rhodes Must Fall movement. The University proves more and more everyday how out of touch it is. I would like to see it do more to understand the issues that we face.

Dual Lives

By Abigail Allan.

When I first found out that I had been offered an interview at the University of Oxford, I bought my train ticket immediately. Doing so emptied my bank account by spending one month’s wages from my Saturday job on a single train ticket – and sacrificing my ability to have some semblance of a healthy diet that month. I’d saved for months in case I got the opportunity to have an interview at Oxford. That train ticket cost the same as my mother’s monthly food budget for a family of four.  

I grew up in the Black Country, more specifically Wolverhampton, one of the most deprived areas in the UK. Today, I study at the best university in the world. I spend half my time living a life of wealth and vast knowledge; the other half in a town where I spent most of my teenage years living in working poverty. 

‘Poverty’ is a difficult concept to explain to my peers in Oxford. It is an intangible, slippery thing, with no single, government-certified definition in the UK. It is a complex problem that cannot be quantified into one single figure or statement. Such attempts, however, have been made. Arbitrary figures, like the £16,000 household income ‘poverty line’ attempt to provide a definition: if your income is below this, you live in poverty, anything above, and you’re ok. But poverty is relative. It can mean not being able to afford enough food to stay healthy, not being able to afford sanitary products, not being able to afford to travel to school or work, being deprived of opportunities, and facing financial fears every day. Living in poverty can also mean, as in my case, living in working poverty, where your parents work full-time but still do not earn enough to live comfortably. Above all, it means being marginalised from mainstream society. 

‘Liminal Space’ by Catrin Williams

My experience of poverty was most acutely felt in terms of food poverty, but poverty reached its fingers into every aspect of my life, forcing me to spend years darning up tears in my £7 Primark jeans so I could wear them until they quite literally fell apart. This is irreconcilable with the pressure I now feel to buy a new dress for every black tie event, which has now become a social norm in my life. Now, eating in Hall every day is a far cry from the food poverty of my past, and yet people at my college complain about hall food being ‘shit’ when we get given a three-course meal for £2.50 every night. When I came here for interviews, I was thrilled to see vegetables, a feeling which now seems pathetic and shameful, something to be hidden. My life in college now is a far cry from being put on Free School Meals during Sixth Form because I was medically underweight and unable to concentrate in lessons. 

I can also recognise the nuances of my own experience of poverty. My place at a grammar school was a privilege, which no doubt gave me opportunities I would not otherwise have had. However, this does not negate my mother carefully saving to buy my uniform, or the miles I had to walk to find somewhere warm to revise when we couldn’t afford to heat the house. Nor does it negate the evenings I spent sat in my Sixth Form Common Room, eating oats heated with water whilst I tried to ignore the pangs of hunger and concentrate on my homework. Poverty and privilege are not mutually exclusive. When you experience poverty, it bleeds into the privileged aspects of your life, altering the way you experience everything.  

So, how do you reconcile coming from poverty with studying at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, where you arguably now belong to a group in which you are among some of the least marginalised groups of society? For someone from a background like mine, just meeting people who were ‘normal’, that is, comfortably middle class, was – and still is – something of a jarring shock. It still shocks me when someone’s parents send them money for new shoes, when at home I wore my shoes until they literally fell apart. How can I even begin to explain poverty whilst sat in Oxford, surrounded by the immense wealth and privilege, of which we are all now a part? Privilege is inherent in the very institution, the buildings themselves, the artworks on the walls, and the books we use in our college libraries. Poverty is exceptionally difficult to visualise and imagine if it is not something you have experienced: this is especially true when we are comfortably sat in our university buildings. 

Although the days of my deepest poverty are behind me, poverty is not truly something of my past. Instead, I feel as if I am living dual lives. I can’t forget my past, not only because it is something which shaped and made me, but because it is not really my past at all. My ‘Oxford experience’ cannot be parcelled neatly into distinct term times, separated from the vacations by a mark on the calendar and a journey home. The bursary I receive during term time in order to support myself is not something I use solely during term, but something which I carefully save, in order to make sure that I have enough to eat healthily throughout the vacations – and so that I can feed my family too. Whilst I buy my groceries during term time, I am constantly thinking of my family at home, and am constantly feeling guilty about how my monthly groceries bill is higher than my family’s is for three people. I am also not completely removed from my past because my brother is still living it: he is still in school, in the same position I was in two years ago, unable to buy food or a provisional driving license so he has ID, or to go out with his friends to the cinema, something which a lot of people take for granted. So, I send him money, because I want him to have these ‘normal’ experiences of growing up. 

I become most acutely aware of this liminal space I now occupy when I think of who I now seem to be to the outside world. People laughingly call me middle class because I did a prestigious internship over the summer. I am of course incredibly grateful for this opportunity, but I am also intimately aware that receiving this internship – an internship which was exclusively for students living below the poverty line– was based on the fact that I had to apply for it, work hard to get the necessary experience on my CV, and perform well at interviews. I received this opportunity in part because of my years of gaining work experience by volunteering in disadvantaged spaces, because these spaces would provide me with a heated place to be for a day, and, if I was lucky, a meal, or at least caffeine and distractions, to suppress the pangs of hunger. I have always strived to get such internships and opportunities because I have a constant drive for financial security, because in no way can I afford to not have a plan when I graduate. 

At heart, I feel I am still working class, but I am aware that I don’t appear that way on the outside – something which now makes me something of an outcast in my hometown. And yet, at the same time, I’m too working class to fit in at Oxford University. I’m not quite enough either way. Class isn’t something that is necessarily static, but is one component of our complex identities, a label that people apply to each other and themselves, both to define their own experiences, but also to differentiate themselves from other people. And it feels like that at this university, the label of ‘class’ is employed much more to exclude people who don’t fit into the history of the university. 

The university has focused so much in recent years on Access & Outreach, which is fantastic – and I have personally benefited from access initiatives, such as the UNIQ summer school, which is what I cite as my main reason for applying to Oxford. However, there is still so much more to be done, starting with a focus on Inreach, not just Outreach. The UNIQ summer school showed me an Oxford which was full of people like me, who were poor but were keen to learn, and struggled daily to make it. But the real Oxford isn’t quite like that: everyday I’m surrounded by people from walks of life I cannot possibly image, with financial security I could never dream of. This is of course not entirely a bad thing: I have learnt so much from these people, and I understand that money isn’t everything – but it sure does help. The problem lies within the classist structures of the UK, entrenched in the university, and the lack of social awareness amongst students and even amongst staff who work in Access or Financial & Academic Support. Quite often, even these staff members do not understand the realities of poverty – but how could they, if they have never experienced it? Fundamentally, people like me will not feel comfortable in this university until the University truly understands the diverse realities of its students’ lives.

I have so often been told that people like me need to come here to change Oxford for the better in ten or twenty years time – but what about our own experiences? Living through exclusion for the better of the future, when others at Oxford have a much easier ride, is exhausting. I am tired of constantly campaigning my college and the University to make changes, only to be ignored by people who don’t understand and don’t try to understand the issues. I have now reached a point in my time here where I simply want to present people with my experience, not offers of solutions, and have them consider that alone. 

It feels that Oxford is a space which is not really ready for people like me yet. But it’s not me, or people like me, that need to change. It’s Oxford. These experiences shaped me and continue to drive me: I want to learn and succeed, because I want to be able to care for my mom, I want financial security for the future, and I want to make people at home proud. I live dual lives, but they are somewhat blurred.

I’m just currently occupying space that isn’t ready for me yet.