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Jill Thompson describes the challenges she faced as a BAME student in Oxford University

By Jason MacGregor

Jill Thompson was on a course in Southampton one day with her post-graduate peers from Oxford University. She was aware that she was the only black person there – and one of the only women. Her peers and the panellists were all white, except for one twenty-something man from Asia.

At some point, the group dynamic of colour and ethnicity was acknowledged. “It’ll never be equal,” said one of her peers. He went on to call Jill one of the “token internationals.” There was no irony in his voice.

“Excuse me?” Thompson said.

“You know what he means,” said another peer.

Thompson is part of Oxford’s Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community. The university is often criticised for failing to make its BAME students feel welcome.

“They all knew where I grew up,” Thompson recalls. She’s from Bristol, and she speaks with a standard English accent. “It was racist. They didn’t even realise that it was racist—or sexist.”

Jill Thompson at Oxford

Thompson was born in Jamaica, but moved to Bristol with her family when she was 12 years old. Her academic potential was recognised early, and she was one of the best students in secondary school.

After completing her undergraduate degree at Manchester University, she started a PhD in Theoretical Chemistry at Oxford University in September 2018.

She’s up by seven each morning and spends most of her days and nights at her college’s library, next to Oxford’s iconic circular Radcliffe Camera building.

The oldest English-speaking university in the world has, for decades, been criticised for being a breeding ground for white males from Britain’s elite upper classes. The issue has largely been centred around Oxford’s undergraduate population of roughly 12,000 students, while the diversity of its post-grad students has received less attention.

Between 2015 and 2017, several colleges failed to admit even one black student. That’s just for undergrads. There are generally less statistics for black post-grads at Oxford, and the common perception is that visible minorities are international students—not from the UK.

According to Oxford’s admission statistics, 248 black students out of a total 5,872 post-grad students were accepted for the academic year 2017-18: that’s 4.2% of the student population.

Oxford’s intake of black students in 2017-18 was 1.9% according to its own report. That’s +0.5% in ten years.

Meanwhile, the proportion of white post-grads accepted stands at 60%. At another presentation back at Oxford, Thompson was sitting with her peers when one of them made another derogatory remark.

“The best way to get attention is to make a racist joke without the punchline,” he said. No one laughed.

“No one said what the fuck!?” deplored Thompson. Two days after the comment was made, Thompson hadn’t heard anything more about the incident. So, accompanied by a peer from her programme, she approached the course director.

Thompson felt that he didn’t take it seriously. Her classmate wasn’t made to apologise and according to Thompson, the course director dismissed her concern, saying only that it was already dealt with.

“It takes a lot for a British person to confront someone and tell them how they’re feeling,” Thompson said, recalling how she tried to broach the incident. “It was just dismissed with no compassion — no ‘how did that make you feel?'”

A spokesperson for Oxford University said in a statement that following the derogatory comment, the workshop facilitator brought it to the attention of university staff.

“Once aware of the situation we then approached a cross section of the cohort to find out exactly what was said. No students approached our team to raise any concerns directly.”

After investigating and trying to build a comprehensive understanding of the circumstances, said the statement, the decision was taken that no further action was necessary and that this decision was not challenged by any students.

Thompson disputes this. She doesn’t recall hearing of staff asking for feedback from her cohort, of which she was the only British BAME student.

In August, Thompson will move on to continue her research in Theoretical Chemistry at Bristol University.

“Oxford was the first place I became conscious of being a black woman,” she said. She has never lived in such a white-dominated place, and a place which she feels has underlying tones of racism.

“In Bristol, people are really caring and happy,” Thompson said. “Even the bus drivers are happy.” You can’t feel a part of a place when you don’t see yourself reflected in it, she added.

That’s what Oxford is missing. That, she believes, is one reason why there is a disconnect between the university’s leadership and its BAME students.

“I’m obviously not the first black person who ever said I want to study theoretical chemistry,” said Thompson. “There’s something wrong with the system.”

Clearly a lot more work needs to be done, she said. Following conversations with her college peers, and frustrated over her own experiences, she wonders how many other BAME students have faced similar situations which never surfaced.

“The University takes allegations of discriminatory behaviour very seriously,” said the statement from Oxford. “We are committed to being representative of wider society and building an inclusive postgraduate community.”