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Radcliffe Camera in the snow. View from Fellows Garden of Exeter College.

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‘Oxford and Colonialism’ hub to improve the University’s anti-racist future by better understanding imperial past

A new web portal has been set-up to bring together the wide range of initiatives running across the collegiate University that engage with Oxford’s colonial past and its ongoing manifestations.

One of the unmistakable manifestations of the colonial past is present-day societal systemic racism. In confronting this legacy, it is hoped that the portal will act as a starting point for people to share ideas on how best to build a more inclusive, representative anti-racist future at Oxford. It will feed into the University’s other equality and diversity work, such as the Race Equality Task Force, which launched in November 2020.

Although work on the Oxford and Colonialism Network first began in 2016 - following the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, the portal’s launch comes at the end of a tumultuous year for race relations. 2020 saw the traumatising killing of George Floyd, and one of the biggest social uprisings in recent history. The Black Lives Matter movement and the subsequent protests that have followed around the world, brought renewed focus to the issue of racial inequality. These events have shone a light on the urgent need to engage critically with the colonial legacies of the University, Europe and European countries.

The initial phase of the project revealed an internal and external disconnect between perceptions of the collegiate University’s decolonisation work, and the reality.

Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis, Professor of International Relations, and a co-chair on the Oxford and Colonialism Network, said: ‘One of our first findings was that the devolved nature of the collegiate University meant that we were still often unaware of what other parts of our community are thinking or doing. This website is intended as a bridge between projects, that makes it easier to access the relevant conversations, activities, ideas, debates and actions taking place.

‘The website is part of an on-going process, and we hope it can be a promise that while much is to be done, our University is committed to the journey. It is intended not only as an information resource but a catalyst – to explore these legacies in all their multiplicity as scholars and as citizens, but also to ask how we address them? How do we address them in terms of decolonising our curricula contextualising museum relics? Enhancing the diversity of our staff and student body? Or in terms of how we speak in the world? and what we have to say about local, and global social injustices inherited from our colonial pasts?’

As well as Professor Nicolaidis, the website curators include co-chair of the Oxford and Colonialism Network, Dr Laura Van Broekhoven, Director of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford University and Dr Dorian Singh, co-ordinator for the Oxford and Colonialism Network.

Many people have been involved in bringing the Oxford and Colonialism Network to life, and the portal’s content ranges from initiatives from colleges, departmental and faculty research, University institutions and the influence of student movements and campaigns, such as Rhodes Must Fall and Africa Society Oxford.

The site also includes details of the University’s ongoing work to address systemic educational inequality through its access and outreach commitment.

During her oration speech in October 2020, Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, commented on the Network and the need to better understand the University’s past to improve its future.

She said: ‘I am mindful of the writer James Baldwin’s words: ‘History…does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past…on the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us… and history is literally present in all that we do.’ In Oxford, we are surrounded by history in our architecture, landscapes, dining halls, libraries and chapels. We cannot wholly change that historic landscape, but we can address the history we carry within us. We can acknowledge its presence in all we do, and aim with personal integrity and collective effort to improve the future.’