Position statement by Oxford University Africa Society
AfriSoc- Connecting change agents passionate about Africa at Oxford - Read more here.
The Oxford University Africa Society (AfriSoc) is a student organization encompassing students from African countries, of African heritage, as well as other students interested in African affairs at the University of Oxford. As a student society that has been in existence for over 60 years, the AfriSoc has played a significant role in championing for reforms within the institution and shaping the history of African students and their experience at Oxford. With this history in mind, and as a platform that seeks to provide a voice for African students at Oxford, we are mandated by our members to hold the University account on key issues affecting them at the institution.
The University of Oxford has unequivocally committed to address issues of racism, inclusivity and diversity within the institution. The bitter irony is that the University is rife with evidence that suggests otherwise. These range from iconography with noxious histories like Cecil Rhodes that the university still holds dearly and reverently, a Eurocentric curriculum that deliberately omits crucial parts of history with regards to colonialism, oppression and discrimination, and a poorly represented Black and minority population among both the students and faculty. Even with its statement of commitment to addressing such, the university has been reluctant in providing concrete commitments towards holistically addressing these issues and instead, have chosen mere tokenism and perfunctory gestures.
In the wake of recent events including the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of Breonna Taylor, Simeon Francis and George Floyd, the Rhodes Must Fall movement here at Oxford, the inhumane treatment of Oxford Union member, Mr. Ebenezar Azamati, at the Oxford Union Chambers and a protracted COVID-19 pandemic that continues to worsen this inequality, African students at Oxford would like to see a more decisive, ethical and effective stand on these issues by the University. An important step AfriSoc believes the University needs to take now more than ever before.
Diversity, equity and access
The University of Oxford still remains largely and unapologetically white with the proportion of Black students currently standing at a paltry 3.2%. For undergraduate students, less than a third of colleges at Oxford admit more than 5 Black students in any academic year. As a student society, we are used to hearing statements like, ‘I am the only Black student in my JCR or MCR’ from our members. Similar statements are also said about their experiences within their academic programs. Disappointingly, we feel the university has been reluctant to improve access for minority groups through streamlining the admission process, providing scholarships and mentorship.
Even for the students who are already within Oxford, we have constantly had fellow students report that they cannot access resources including mental health care purely because of the limited number of Black counsellors and therapist within the institution. With only a handful of Black professors within the faculty, Black students have to constantly struggle navigating through the so called ‘white space’ that is Oxford as they try to find mentors and other forms of support system out of Oxford. This is not to say that other professors cannot provide mentorship, but such mentorship tends to lack the breadth and depth members gain from having a professor who shares common identities to them.
Colonial legacy and Inclusion
AfriSoc has been in full support of the Rhodes Must Fall movement here at Oxford since its inception in 2015, with the founding members of the movement being part of AfriSoc. It is disturbing that despite making numerous recommendations to the University on the removal of statues with toxic histories of imperialism, promotion of diversity and inclusivity, the University has not done much yet. If Oxford is to stay true to its commitment to promote inclusivity then this should start with ensuring that African students, do not have to be constantly reminded of the dark, violent and traumatic history inflicted on them and their heritage because Oxford chooses to glorify imperialists like Cecil Rhodes.
Perhaps a typical example of how the university has failed in promoting inclusivity, accessibility and antiracism is the recent case of Ebenezer Azamati, where a visually impaired African student at Oxford was violently thrown out of the Oxford Union chambers in the most inhumane manner. Worse still, the Oxford Union further punished Mr. Azamati by stripping him of his membership. It is alarming and very unfortunate that AfriSoc had to go to the streets in demonstration against this incident. More so, the protest and Azamati’s independent pursuit of justice, underscores the amount of labour that is constantly required by African bodies and allies in order to get institutions to respond and enact just, fair and inclusive policy approaches. While we are glad that Mr. Azamati won the legal case against the Union, it is fair to worry that there are several other students who undergo similar or worse treatment within Oxford but are not lucky to have witnesses who speak up or a record the incident.
Oxford has been accused before of having a Eurocentric curriculum with no or minimal appreciation of fundamental issues like the impact of colonialism on the lives of Africans and all the other countries. Furthermore, there is exclusion of work from African scholars and authors. Oxford being at the core of academic scholarship has also neglected and fails to promote work that writes against the curve, on the periphery, and or on challenging the oppressive foundations of knowledge production that exists in the core. As AfriSoc, we have tried to address this through our initiatives such as the Afrofeminist book club, 200 Days of Lumumba and several other platforms, but this undeniably requires deeper efforts from the University towards increasing the number of Black faculty & resources within the University. This is not just for the African students to engage with, but also for all other Oxford members.
Our Stand as the University of Oxford Africa Society
We do appreciate the complexity of these issues and understand that it takes time and concerted efforts to achieve the goals. But we also know that this will only happen if the University is fully committed to this cause and we do not feel so as yet. This commitment begins with the university interrogating and engaging the intricate relationship between colonialism, race, access, inclusivity and diversity and how, its inaction as an institution to address these issues significantly propagates the inequality further.
It is a fact that especially during this protracted COVID-19 pandemic, Black and other minority students are disproportionately disadvantaged driving the inequality even further. The university therefore should act promptly to cushion BAME students from further harm.
As AfriSoc, working with our partners including the Africa Oxford Initiative (Afox), we have continued to support African students through our programs including scholarship and mentorship, welfare and advocacy and promoting a safe social environment through our convening activities such as the annual Oxford Africa Conference and social activities including the AfroBOP,African choir, Swahili classes and townhall series. We are however aware that as a student body we can only do so much unless the university commits to its promises and supports our endeavor.
Oxford University should walk the talk, and as AfriSoc, we will continue to hold the University accountable on its commitments and are willing to work together with all partners to make Oxford a home for all.