The Outsider on Oxford

It’s the age-old controversy: bring up the hallowed halls of the University of Oxford or Cambridge in a conversation, and you are bound to find yourself dredging up countless accusations of the institution being steeped in elitism and a lack of diversity. Having heard a good few of these myself before applying to Oxford, I knew I was subscribing to study somewhere that was not made to fit the needs of students like me – of ethnic origin, first-generation to go to a foreign university, and decidedly middle class. I’ve now completed my first term studying English Literature at Hertford College, so it’s been on my mind to share my experience of studying here as a minority, the outsider, the Other, what you will.  

The idea first came to me rather unexpectedly on a weekday morning, as I sat having breakfast with two male friends I’d made. Out of the blue, an elderly man on the bench with us – the dining halls in Oxford are famous for their long Harry Potter-esque benches where students and sometimes tutors sit side by side for their meals – made a remark on the book he was reading. Had we read a certain book by our principal, talking about the disastrous economic consequences of Brexit? he asked us. He seemed to have overheard that one of my friends was a PPEist (studying a combination of Philosophy, Physics and Economics) while another was a historian. The man was indignant that the young were too forgetful of history and would vote for a government that would provoke violence in the same way that it had in the past, pushing Britain into crisis. Hence, it seemed, he had captured a couple of hostages from the target demographic (us) to vent his dissatisfaction. All of this was very well – his sudden appearance in our lives made me think that there should be more intergenerational conversations on politics, enabling young people to take informed decisions, consider the bigger picture of what kind of leadership would best suit the country’s past as well as present. But as the conversation went on, I noticed something else too. He spoke only to my white, male friends, asking them what course they were studying, their opinions and so forth. His eyes met mine but only to suggest that he was looking through me, like with a ghost. There are several possible explanations for this – the immediate reaction is to label it racism, though perhaps it was that he didn’t think the discussion was relevant to me as I clearly looked like a foreigner. Perhaps it was because he was eighty-six years old and speaking to brown women was beyond what he was comfortable with, given his presumably old-fashioned worldview. Eventually, it also emerged that he would be funding a bursary for financially needy English students, as well as a financial prize for the student with the highest mark in English preliminary examinations. His unseeing behavior towards me translated into an unsaid fine print – that is to say, we aren’t expecting people like you. It seems at these times that it doesn’t matter that I attended matriculation, the special event at which you are officially enrolled as a full-time student, or that my parents fork out an extortionate amount of money to fund the scrubbing of these hallowed halls etc. every year (my tuition fees), or that I enjoy the English subject. If the founder of an academic merit scholarship in my field doesn’t show any evidence of recognizing my existence as a sentient human being, what hope is there for any further support? 

In fact, it’s important to hold up Oxford’s position on the QS rankings as the best institution in the world for studying English Literature upto scrutiny. It’s disheartening to think that a place that is supposably a harbour of excellence for English Literature is inaccessible to anyone beyond the miniscule percentage of international students who can afford the fees. It’s not just Oxford that is to blame but the other prestigious British universities to study English as well. The message that the institution sends out is that your merit is only worth as much as your money – and that is something that makes me disappointed about studying here, as a person who came here looking for merit rather than to be handed an education that discriminated against equally able but financially disadvantaged candidates.

To end the post there would be cynical and unfair. For one thing, being selected as an Oxford student is proof that my tutor was able to recognize merit in my work, regardless of my skin color, ethnic or economic background. My tutors happen to be of varied ethnic and racial origin, and do, as and when possible, invite us to adapt our curriculum to make it more diverse. When I look around the hall where I was sat, the largest pictures are of the past male principals, but a number of women’s pictures have also been hung up in an attempt to diversify the gallery, even if there is no obvious plaque to tell us what their names are, or what they have achieved. Only one picture, labelled ‘first African American fellow’, hangs on the left side of the hall – Alain Leroy Locke, the token person of color who must suffice as the sole role model for all minority ethnic groups who might chance to enter the premises. More recently, though, an “Equalities Gallery” has been sneaking its way up the hall stairs. It consists of a series of photos of people of diverse backgrounds in Hertford. An admirable attempt at acknowledging the variety of people that come to study here – ultimately better than nothing.

But the fact that it isn’t enough is obvious to me at every moment, in the split-second decisions I make on how to behave with others from a Caucasian or privileged background. I don’t talk about being Indian, a third culture child, what languages I speak, how I feel coming to a new country, because people rarely ask. It is much easier, for those who can, to wear their “white masks” (as Fanon put it) and be as British as possible. Even then, I find myself unable to relax in friendships with white people – how can you, when you’re always toeing the line between what may be acceptable and familiar to a British listener, and blurting out a more foreign experience? For me, the unease took roots in childhood, when mentioning ethnic or cultural differences didn’t go down very well in terms of social acceptance. So, instead I erase my difference away – it seems all too easy to colour within the lines, and relieve my white colleagues of the need to ask about how I really see my identity. It has the appearance of a convenient – and egalitarian – solution for all parties that an outsider should be treated with the presumption of sameness. Yet I know from being on the ‘outsider’ part of the equation that this only etched my insecurities deeper, and made my relationships with people of different ethnic origin much more superficial, not to mention far less enriching than they could have been. In our societies, it has become difficult to be real. But we can take steps towards changing that.  Bring out the uncomfortable stories – let’s hear them, accept them and learn more about them. Consider this blog post as my first attempt. 

Let me know what your “uncomfortable” stories of being the outsider are, or, if you’re not in the minority, how do you deal with these issues on the other side of the coin? 

Thank you for reading and rejoicing with me,

Shreya 

N.B. If you’re interested in educating yourself further, a starting point might be Uncomfortable Oxford, a group that raises such issues and discusses them in the Oxford community. Click here for their twitter website.