Recently, the “I, too, am Harvard” campaign began popping up on my tumblr feed (dash? What’s the terminology?). The project is described on its tumblr as “A photo campaign highlighting the faces and voices of black students at Harvard College. Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned— this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.” (Emphasis mine).
After that project went viral on Buzzfeed , students at Oxford organized a similar photo shoot, “A message that was consistently reaffirmed throughout the day was that students in their daily encounters at Oxford are made to feel different and Othered from the Oxford community. Hopefully this project will demonstrate that despite there being a greater number of students of colour studying at Oxford now than there has ever been before, there are still issues that need to be discussed. In participating in ‘I, Too, Am Oxford,’ students of colour are demanding that a discussion on race be taken seriously and that real institutional change occur.” (Emphasis mine). This one also ended up on Buzzfeed. While this post will focus on the Oxford version of the project, many of my general points about it are relevant to the Harvard one too.
Soon after that, another group of students held a photo shoot titled “We are all Oxford,” with the description “We, as a mixed group of students from the University of Oxford, believe that Oxford has been misrepresented in the media following the ‘I, Too, Am Oxford’ Campaign. We are concerned that the negative portrayal of an ethnic minority student’s experience at the university will discourage prospective ethnic minority students from applying. We […] do not aim to undermine the original campaign and we are not working against them. We acknowledge that racism exists at the University of Oxford and it needs to be challenged, but we believe that the university is working hard to tackle these prejudices and misguided perceptions. Our aim is to present the full picture.
We have heard from those who have suffered negative experiences here, which we all agree need to be voiced and challenged. We want to show people that many ethnic minorities have an overall positive experience here at the University of Oxford. We want to show that the university selects on academic excellence and actively tries to attract people from all walks of life. We want to show that the university makes a conscious effort to make people from all ethnic minority groups feel welcome.”
This is a problem.
Let me be blunt; if your reaction to a handful of students saying, “Even at Oxford, people are still kind of clueless about race” is “OXFORD ISN’T RACIST OMG,” then you’re missing the point and furthering the problem (especially when there is some evidence that Oxford might actually be a little bit racist).
In fact, for future reference, pretty much any time a person of color says “hey, XYZ is kind of racist,” it is inappropriate for a white person to immediately say “no it’s not.” Responding like that is pretty much saying “I am completely dismissing your point of view without even considering it.” It shuts down any meaningful conversation before it even has a chance to start.
You see, it’s actually really important to acknowledge that racism exists. And it’s important to recognize that racism comes in a lot of different forms. This is something that the Harvard and Oxford projects highlight effectively.
Many of the statements featured in the original photo shoots provide examples of racism that are phrased as (and were likely intended as) compliments: “Your parents must be so proud you’re here. Like so proud. Seriously, so proud.” “You speak really good English!” One woman calls out this trend as a whole, pointing out that, “It is NOT okay to shroud patronising and racist comments as ‘compliments’”.
I have to imagine that that there are plenty of people who would NEVER think that saying “Oh my god, I love your hair! Can I touch it?” is racist. Many people would probably become defensive if you suggest that it is, and would protest that they just meant their statement as a compliment. And I understand that point of view, I really do. I’m sure I’ve even said things like that in the past. But by allowing readers to see these comments one after the other, in many of their different forms, efforts like the “I, too, am Oxford” campaign can actually help to raise awareness of benevolent racism by helping people see that sometimes the things they are saying, while said with good intent, are actually annoying, offensive, and potentially harmful.
Sometimes it’s tempting for privileged folks to believe that because institutions can no longer legally bar minorities, because they make statements about their commitment to “diversity,” and because they actually are making efforts in many ways to increase diversity, that racism is over. Minorities are told to stop complaining, that they should be grateful for the gains that have already been made. The “We all are Oxford” campaign, through its problematic statement and through some of the pictures, is encouraging just that. In the original projects, students were able to voice frustrations that they might not feel comfortable voicing to a group of white friends, or to a white authority figure. They might be worried of being accused of having a chip on their shoulder, or of playing the race card. If they’re already being made to feel like somewhat of an outsider, or like they don’t deserve their place at the university, they may want to be careful to not rock the boat.
In that context, I thought that the “We are all Oxford” tumblr came across as petty and a bit clueless. The creators of the “We are all Oxford” tumblr says that they’re not looking to “undermine” the original campaign, but, sadly, that’s exactly what they’re doing. They’re silencing the voices that aren’t often heard. They’re speaking over these voices. They’re brushing them aside in a tone-deaf attempt to preserve a fantasy of a happy, colorblind university experience. Their statement claims that their tumblr presents the “full picture,” when the actual “full picture” is the one that acknowledges and values the voices of minorities, even when they’re saying something that is difficult for the majority to hear.
Why is there such a fear of the voices of people of color?
In my opinion, the most ridiculous part of all of this is that none of the original photos feature students accusing the university of racism or implying that, as a person of color, this is a bad place to be. They highlight small, everyday acts of racism, most of which sound like they came from other students. Many of the students holding the signs are smiling, or rolling their eyes at the ignorance of the comments they’ve received. The last picture in the series is of a smiling woman holding a sign that says “I’m really enjoying my experience at Oxford!”
By reacting so strongly to this peaceful act of resistance, the “We are all Oxford” project sent the message that even a few people of color daring to speak their experiences will be shouted over. I have to wonder what the reaction would have been to a stronger act of resistance or protest. This tumblr makes it very clear that, to many, the reputation of the university is more important than the experiences of its students (well, of certain students, anyway) and that projecting the image of a happy, racism-free environment is more important than serious discussion.
What do you think?