The JCR (Joint Common Room) is St Benet's student body. At a virtual meeting on 8th June, the JCR resolved the following:
Oxford’s attitude to racism must change
For too long, Oxford as an institution has allowed and normalised casual racism, and in doing so has failed its students of colour. The recent incident following the hustings at Christ Church is just one example of how the university and its constituent colleges have failed time and again to fulfil their safeguarding duties when issues of racism emerge, instead changing the discourse to notions of 'bullying' and 'virtue-signalling' on the victim's part. In its communications with the students involved, Christ Church failed in its welfare responsibilities towards them, choosing instead to focus its attention on public image.
Expressions of anger in the face of racism, on social media and otherwise, must be treated as legitimate by the institutions of the university. They are a symptom of disillusionment felt by students at existing routes of complaint, which have too often led to victims being silenced and the prioritisation of public appearances. The bravery and energy it takes to speak out against racism is immense, and for the student in question to have felt silenced and ignored indicates a lack of understanding by those in positions of responsibility.The university must seek to understand and solve the problems in order to prioritise the welfare of its students.
We acknowledge that this problem does not reside merely within Christ Church. In Oxford generally there is a culture of denying wrong-doing on the part of those closest to us, perpetuated by individuals but sanitised by the university’s lack of an appropriate response. At St Benet’s Hall we have failed our own students of colour in the past. It is not enough to be proud of our progress; we must acknowledge where we have failed to act in order to improve our responses in the future. We must learn from recent events in order to thoroughly examine and criticise our own practices, and commit to improving the culture within St Benet’s.
Casual racism must be called out whenever and wherever it occurs, regardless of the people involved. Mistakes may happen, but when they do, appropriate action must still be taken. As a bare minimum, this would involve a full and sincere apology along with a commitment to understand better the issues at hand. We must reject ‘cover-up culture’, commit to exposing and dealing with racism, and ensure that we prioritise the victim, including fully supporting them through the process. Dealing with and rejecting racism are not the responsibilities of victims, but the duties of everyone within the Hall.
We call for all members of the St Benet’s Hall community to take an active role in calling out casual racism and supporting any member of the Hall who is in need, including the rejection of ‘cover-up culture’.
We ask that the leadership of the Hall revise their policies and processes in conjunction with the JCR zero-tolerance policy, and work with us to combat the issues we have outlined. Without the full support of the Hall, the JCR has only limited power to implement consequences.
We call for the formation of an ‘Equality Committee’, including seats for the BME representative, women’s representative, access representative, and LGBTQ+ representative, which would meet termly to discuss the ways the Hall can improve with regard to inclusivity issues. We also call for the BME, women's, Access, and LGBTQ+ representatives to meet individually and regularly with the Master and Senior Tutor to facilitate and maintain better discourse about inclusivity.
We call for an open discussion to be held about the history of the Hall in full historical context, and the colonial heritage inherited by the university as a whole. Dialogue regarding the privileges we enjoy as a result of the suffering of others is imperative; understanding our colonial past is a prerequisite to understanding our current position.
We call for widespread decolonisation of the university’s curricula. Following the advice of the Universities UK review on the attainment of black students (2019), institutions must review courses to ensure that they are not overly white and Eurocentric in order to create an ‘inclusive environment’. This firmly ties in to opportunities for academics of colour - as of February 2020, fewer than 1% of university professors in the UK are black, which is a damning statistic. The lack of teaching staff can no longer be an excuse for a Eurocentric curriculum.
We call for our tutors here at St Benet’s Hall to continue to recognise not only the role of education ‘in building racial equality and fair inclusion of black voices’ acknowledged in the statement signed by Richard Cooper along with other heads of colleges, but also the role that education can, and does, play in perpetuating inequality. As a college that centres around the humanities this is especially pertinent, as the value that we place on Western knowledge and thought within these subjects is inherently racially biased. It is our hope that going forward, they will champion the cause of decolonisation within their faculties. We call on them to be our representatives in a sphere where we have little direct power.
Welcome from the JCR President
St Benet’s Hall offers a vibrant and exciting place to study and recreate at Oxford. It is an integrated and active part of the University, with a college community providing a familial and welcoming home for all students and academics. St Benet’s is proud to continue the traditions of Oxford whilst blending it with a wonderfully vibrant atmosphere. The closeness and friendliness that St Benet’s Hall prides itself on is something which cannot be experienced in many other, larger colleges.
Hospitality is an important aspect of life at St Benet’s. Its formals are a fitting example. In other colleges there is a High Table for the Master and Fellows, however there is no such segregation at Benet’s. Every member of the college sits at the main table surrounded by peers, tutors and the religious community. St Benet’s is renowned within the University for the welcoming atmosphere at its meals which uphold its ethos of equality and community.
St Benet’s is also very proud of the academic excellence of its students. In the academic year 2019/20 Thais Rocha Da Silver completed her DPhil in Egytpology, the first women to do so since women were admitted to St Benet’s. As well as this St Benet’s is participating in the Opportunities Oxford scheme; a supportive and bridging programme for offer holders. All students are supported by the excellent tutors in the Hall many of whom are leaders in their fields, who are invested in making sure that each student has the best learning experience possible, and are present in both the academic and pastoral spheres of the university experience.
The JCR unlike other colleges is a joint common room where undergrad and grad students alike interact and are an important part of the Hall. The JCR also ensures that extracurriculars such as sports and drama, are well catered for at St Benet’s. Our Boat Club is a well-established reality in Oxford College Rowing and continues to achieve success in Christ Church, Torpids and Summer VIIIs regattas. Other sports teams include football, recently winning Cuppers for their division, mixed hockey, a rugby 7s team, and a netball team. The JCR also provides financial support to our university athletes, and we have the highest percentage of blues out of all colleges.
Drama and art are also key aspects of the Hall’s life. Every summer, the JCR puts on a Garden Play open to friends and invited guests, and a famous talent show known as the ‘Smoker’. The St Benet’s choir sings regularly at college events such as Guest Nights and music is an appreciated part of college life. These activities foster a sense of belonging and community unique to our Hall.
Several social events are hosted by the JCR throughout the year. There is a termly JCR Party; an event open to the members of the Hall and their guests, where they can enjoy food, drinks and music, and unlike in many other colleges is entirely free. The newly established JCR Bar, open after formals, provides cheap drinks and a great place of congregation, relaxing and interacting.
It is an incredibly exciting time to be part of the JCR, as the Hall is experiencing dynamic changes. The increasing of the number of students with different backgrounds means that the JCR is adapting and transforming with the Hall. The acquisition of Norham Gardens in 2015 has opened up more opportunities for us to host bigger events and utilise the space in new ways. Moreover, unlike most other colleges we are a Joint Common Room, and represent graduates as well. They have integrated well into the small community and continue to be key players in the life of the Hall. Our sense of community is indiscriminate, and we are able to successfully cater for undergraduates, graduates, and Visiting Academics alike. The JCR is embracing these changes whilst continuing to uphold and triumph the important values which make the St Benet’s experience the most unique in Oxford.
If you are interested in St Benet’s, or would like further information about the Hall, please do not hesitate to contact me. I look forward to hearing from you.
Poppy Atkinson Gibson, JCR President, Trinity 2020