My class alienated me more than my race at Oxford University

With discussions on class and race at elite universities becoming more and more prevalent with David Lammy’s campaign for greater diversity in higher education and the hashtag #HEdiversity, I weigh in with my two pence…

Professor Green recently presented a documentary called White Working Class Men, which looked at aspirations and education in this demographic. I thought the film was a bit weak in that half the men featured were not what I’d call working class and one ex-prisoner had to put up with Green moralising about why it would be good for him to take a minimum wage warehouse job as a way to prove he was committed to being a good role model for his son. Calling bullshit on that documentary isn’t what this blog post is about, but class and race is something that I’ve been thinking about for some time.

I went to New College, Oxford, for a year in 1993 and during that year I served as minorities officer for the college. I was interviewed for the post by the brilliant Libby Brooks. As president of the Junior Common Room, she exuded a confidence that at 18 I didn’t feel myself (no idea if it was all fronting but she certainly struck me as being infinitely more together than me). The interview took place in Libby’s rooms. The president of the JCR had impressive rooms, rooms as big as those of the dons. Oxford is like that; it has an oppressive grandness that it bestows on people in positions of power. So that, no matter how normal and lovely the post-holder might be, the post should always impress upon you its importance, the crushing certainty of its history.

Libby asked me some questions and all I really remember is that she was the second person I told about how tough I found coming to Oxford. How much like a fish out of water I felt and that, as minorities officer, I wanted to make sure others didn’t feel that way. Plus, apart from being cisgendered, heterosexual and able-bodied, I had been smacked on the head by almost every branch of the discrimination tree on my way down (intersectionality I think they call it now). So I knew what it felt like to be a woman of colour from a working class background attending Oxford. Libby gave me the job over another lass who was going for it (there were so few minorities at Oxford that the pool of people going for the role was somewhat small); she was also a woman of colour and a Northerner to boot, but her background was considerably more middle class than mine.

I grew up on the Harlesden/Willesden border. I went to Willesden High; this was just about the roughest school in the borough when I was there (no causal link) and was subsequently closed down and converted to an academy. We rented a house set aside for social housing from a housing association employed by the council, which was a considerable step-up from the bedsit my parents and I lived in when I first arrived as a child refugee at the age of five.

Matriculation photo

I was the second person from my school to go to Oxford. The first was the first person I told about not fitting in at the university. She was in the year above me and invited me round to eat rice n’ peas and jerk chicken and watch telly in her student digs. It was a taste of home and what I loved most was the slang we could drop into easily there. We spoke about ‘fine’ men and ‘damnfool bwoys’.

When I finally cracked on with doing something useful with my post as minorities officer, I started by reading admissions statistics for not just Oxford but also universities in the UK as a whole. At that time, the minority group least likely to go to university was African-Caribbean males, closely followed by Pakistani males. I wanted to find ways to improve access to the university for these groups. I was already a Joint Action Committee Against Racial Intolerance (JACARI) tutor, but I wanted to do something specific to the college in my capacity as minorities officer. I put together some sort of petition that was so weakly worded that I think it had no more oomph than to say “Racism is bad, innit” and I posted it up in the student lounge in the hope that the whole student body would sign it and I could go to the Senior Common Room, beat my fists on a desk and say something meaningful about diversity at the college.

I clearly remember the day I went into the student lounge and pinned up the petition. There was only one other person in there. A white male student reading one of the papers and wearing faded red jeans and a proper shirt rather than a tee shirt. I joyfully accosted him and asked if he’d sign my petition. I kid you not, at the age of what couldn’t have been more than 19, this gentleman actually harrumphed. I mean, actually rustled his paper, harrumphed and said something like “I don’t agree with that sort of thing” and went back studiously to his reading. Er, you don’t agree that racism is bad? I remember feeling rejected, unhappy and also a little bit annoyed that I had ignored all the signs he was giving off that he was a massive dickhead. I had decided not to judge a book by its cover. Some books wear covers so that you know that they’re the kind of books who’d burn the kind of book you are. Sorry, passion has tortured this metaphor.

Oxford was the whitest place I’ve ever been, but not just because of the ethnicity of its students and lecturers, but because of the class of the people there. I equated middle and upper classes with white folk. Until I went to uni, I had never met a Person of Colour (PoC) who was middle class. The PoCs at Oxford were invariably well-to-do and they had more in common with the white folk than they did with me. An Indian diplomat’s daughter who goes on skiing holidays had far more in common with the white kid from the Shires who also had proper holidays while my family had never had an overnight holiday and relied on day trips to pretty places in a beat up old Nissan. I could put on a plummy accent and “pass” for middle class, but I didn’t have the first clue.

However, I guess I didn’t “pass” that well since one of the most hurtful memories of my time there was when someone I had thought was a friend invited everyone on our staircase to a lunch at his house while I was excluded because “I thought you wouldn’t feel comfortable”. To this day I have no idea if my race, my class or the fact that I didn’t drink at that time was why I wasn’t invited.

The friend in the year above me nodded sagely, but didn’t express an opinion. As a black working class woman, she was even more of a rarity at Oxford than I was and her social life revolved around the Black Caucus, a university society that arranged club nights and talks. I was also a member as well as being a mentor for the Oxford Access Scheme, another group that this friend made sure I joined. The truth is I joined as many race-based groups as possible at Oxford (I was a very active member of Majlis, the Oxford University Asia Society) because I thought that the loneliness and feelings of inadequacy I felt might be dispersed by being with people who looked like me or like the friends I grew up with. However, I hadn’t quite accounted for class.

Generally speaking, there were very few students from truly poor backgrounds. When I transferred, after a year, to Manchester, I regularly met people from similar backgrounds to me. There were more working class white folk in one of my classes in Manchester than there were in all the university-wide societies I joined at Oxford put together. The racial diversity was greater too. I was able to take minor classes across the humanities department and chose Interpreting Hindu Texts and Egyptology. At Oxford, the first year of being a PPE undergraduate was a churn; you studied what everyone else has studied since time immemorial and that was invariably based in Europe or America. You needed a good grounding in western thought before you could go off piste with anything that might actually interest you.

However, in the long run, I got more from my time at Oxford than I did in Manchester. I saw the inside of the British establishment. I saw the sort of people who would become CEOs while I’d be the sort of person who would work for them three reports down. I saw the cultural imperialism and I learned how to accept it as normality, making it easier to enter the UK job market. Even though I have since edited magazines and journals dealing with information from all over the world, the training I got in seeing everything from the prism of western thought has served me well.

More white men than I can count have told me, evidently surprised, how refreshingly confident I am – as though women of my background aren’t particularly known for their confidence.The best compliment I have received to date came from my friend, the author Poorna Bell: “I’ve always thought of you as a middle class, middle aged white man trapped in a hot Asian woman’s body.” That is the great gift that going to an elite university gives you. The ability to not be intimidated by rich, white folk. And that is something that both ethnic minorities and working class kids can benefit from.

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