Oxford students to get anti-bias training after George Floyd ‘joke’ at hustings

Candidate for ‘cake rep’ sparks anger after comparing killing of black man to flour shortages

First published on Fri 5 Jun 2020 04.52 EDT

An Oxford college has ordered staff and students to undergo training to combat racial bias after an undergraduate made a “joke” drawing a comparison between protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and flour shortages.

The comments, described as racist and trivialising by witnesses, were made during a virtual hustings event by a candidate for the position of “cake rep” – a welfare position on the junior common room committee at Christ Church college.

The student, who has since withdrawn her candidacy, was reported to have said: “The US is facing two very important crises at the moment – the curious incident of George Floyd, and the event of flour shortage.

“I would like to put forward the motion that these incidents are not two, but rather one. Flour shortage leads to rioting, which leads to death, which leads to racism. And racism leads to death, leads to rioting, and that leads to flour shortage.”

A statement issued by the college condemned the remarks as “deeply offensive” and promised concrete steps to combat prejudice, but students have criticised college leaders for their handling of the incident and failing to support those calling out racism.

Melanie Nneka Onovo, a second-year student of history and politics, said the hustings followed an emergency meeting she had called to propose a motion to send a donation to Black freedom charities in the US, where there have been outrage and widespread protests following Floyd’s death after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.

“The motion passed unanimously, but just 20 minutes later, a Christ Church student – husting for a committee position – made a distressingly unpleasant and distasteful joke about George Floyd,” she said.

Onovo was horrified that no one challenged the comments, and said that when she then tried to intervene she was muted and had since been attacked for making the incident public.

“I was disheartened that none of my fellow students spoke out at this language … I decided to call the actions out; but I was muted by the moderator. Since then, I have attempted to bring attention to the racism that is rampant in Christ Church, but have been consistently inundated with racially insensitive comments that became increasingly hostile. I have been made to feel isolated and guilty I spoke out.”

The incident coincides with a report in HuffPost UK that the University of Oxford has delayed publishing admissions data on the diversity of its students in light of “world events”. Oxford has been criticised for its lack of diversity and has been making strenuous efforts to widen student participation.

Christ Church already has a compulsory anti-bias session as part of its induction programme, but the college’s disciplinary officers Prof Geraldine Johnson and Prof Dirk Aarts – known as censors – acknowledged in their statement that it was not enough.

“We will therefore work with students to ensure that not only freshers, but the entire community, continues to confront the very real impact of racial bias and all forms of discrimination.

“To that end, we will be taking concrete steps to introduce new and ongoing initiatives to combat prejudice and to give everyone –students and staff – the tools to stand up for the values of tolerance and equality that Christ Church embraces today.”

The dean of Christ Church, Martyn Percy, was among the signatories to a letter published in the Guardian on Friday from the heads of Oxford colleges pledging to fight systemic racism and discrimination, in response to events in the US.

The letter said: “We recognise and regret that, for black members of our community, the unfolding crisis, together with the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on their communities, has caused them particular anxiety, anger and pain.”

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