Last year Common Ground held a symposium entitled ‘Imperial past; unequal present’. The symposium sought to examine and challenge the continuities of colonialism at Oxford represented by: the chronic underrepresentation of BME people both within the student and academic bodies of Oxford, the colonial iconography that pervades the University, the Euro-centric curricula, and the systematic discrimination faced by people of colour at Oxford. The symposium sought also to confront class issues of access and admissions at a University where 40% of places were taken by private school students who make up only 7 % of the population. Importantly, the symposium saw race, and class as structures that could only be understood in relation to one another.
The symposium succeeded in facilitating challenging conversations about oppression at Oxford. In doing so the symposium generated momentum for decolonising, and challenging structures of class, and race at Oxford – adding to the crucial work done by campaigns like Rhodes Must Fall, CRAE, Class Act, Preventing Prevent, and many more.
But, racism, classism, and colonialism have not yet been pushed out of this institution – not even close. The statue of Cecil Rhodes still stands above Oriel. Last term staff were pushed to strike over a pay cut. The history course still has only one unit that explicitly covers Sub-Saharan Africa. The University still does not pay the Oxford living wage for staff; the majority of Oxford colleges do not even guarantee the national living wage. David Lammy uncovered earlier this year that 82% of Oxford offers went to students from the top two socio-economic groups in 2015. Oxford still exists not as one city but of two; a city of privilege, and a city of poverty. The list, to Oxford’s shame, goes on.
This is a status quo we are profoundly unhappy with. So, we are releasing a publication, and are holding another week long symposium: ‘Revisiting the past, envisioning the future: Race, Class, and Oxford’ – from the 4th to the 11th of May. Through poetry, film, panel discussions, and anything and everything in between, the symposium will provoke discussion, stimulate debate and – we hope – inspire change. The symposium will move chronologically through time. It will start with an opening night rooted in the history of racism, classism, and imperialism and will move to a closing night focused on how such structures could be uprooted as we look toward the future.
Changes, though profoundly insufficient, have come at Oxford. All Souls College now has a visible memorial to those enslaved by their benefactor Christopher Codrington, the Pitt Rivers is beginning to repatriate some objects in its collection, and steps have been taken in the history department to introduce non-Eurocentric units. These incremental changes have not come from the inevitable march of progress. They have come from the hard work – often intensely emotional – of activists at all levels of this institution and city. The symposium and launch of our publication therefore aim to build on this momentum, and sustain this pressure, to keep up the push for an Oxford free of class and race based oppression.