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The Sade Story, Part II: Oxford Otherness - Legacy of Racism

Updated: Mar 13

After winning a coveted place at the University of Oxford, Sade Clarke made up a tiny percentage of its Black population. Oxford has long been criticised for its lack of diversity and continues to exist as an entity that compounds+exacerbates inequality in its various forms regardless of its many attempts to present a multi-cultural & diverse institution to the outside world.

This could also be said of many British organisations that are under extreme pressure to rethink diversity & inclusion, why it matters and how to create+commit to a culture of equality where everyone can bring their whole selves to work and thrive.

Reflecting on her own learnings, Sade’s story is one of hope and reality to inspire others not to give up when it seems all might be lost; and, to encourage those who have lived through similar experiences to step up + speak out and help shape a well-balanced future where everyone feels involved, valued, respected and treated fairly in any setting.

By Sade Clarke for

📸 Sade Clarke

During my time at Oxford, disrupting the status quo somehow became part of my day-to-day experience. The status quo is not something to be simply accepted, if it operates in a way that leaves some in great comfort while marginalising others, it is not one I wish to take part in.

When it came to the treatment of current and prospective ethnic minority students, I had to be vocal and do what I could to make a difference.This involved meetings with the College Principal and attending diversity meetings in which my voice could be heard, even if not deeply listened to; bridging the gap between students and university staff.

In an institution of world specialists in their fields, it was interesting to see that there was a distinct lack of worldly knowledge.

Externally, institutions that are vocal about diversity and seemingly have systems in place to better the representation within them, are not necessarily the institutions that really champion diversity.

This is not to say that ones that are quiet in these matters are actually doing more, the point here is that internal structures and action differ greatly from external perceptions.

From the outside looking in, figures of applicants and admittance are on the rise as per the latest University of Oxford’s Admissions Report¹ whereas internally, the number of students from an ethnic minority background that ‘rusticate’ or ‘suspend their studies’ at Oxford are disproportionate to our white counterparts.

While I don’t necessarily come with the facts and figures to back this numerically, having asked numerous times for statistics about the demographic of rusticated students yet being told it would not possible.

I do, however, have the lived experience that gives me a sense of realities beyond the existing like-minded networks and significant insight into systemic racism at Oxford.

Of course, this is not to say that white students within these institutions do not also suspend their studies, however this is not the purpose of my writing.

I often look at university as a microcosm of wider society. We have people from all over the world with differing interests operating together, albeit not always in harmony and organised in matters of hierarchy.

The university perpetuates an image of tolerance and are (seemingly) determined to support their Black and ethnic minority students in every way they can!

But, once you are in the door, the charge of elitism rears its ugly head, and you are subjected to the devastating wrath of Oxford elitism and the crushing impact of Oxford otherness.

Surviving university is difficult enough, but surviving it alongside trying not to lose yourself and staying true to your authentic self, can be extremely gruelling.

📸 Sade Clarke

Therefore if we accept this microcosmic stance, we can replace universities with the workplace and gain a greater view of what is currently and has been going wrong for many companies.

Again, ‘If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got’; namely, adopting outdated hiring and recruiting strategies of ‘if we do a huge recruitment drive for diverse entry level applicants to come into the industry, then the issue of diversity is fixed, visually we are doing better,’ could be hurting rather than improving diversity efforts.

Yet time and time again, the current employees within a company are forgotten and not enough is done to get diverse candidates into C-Suite positions or on UK company boards.

The hierarchy with which the system operates needs to have diverse representation at every level and it is only then that these systems can truly thrive and sustainably secure their position in the future.

Diverse applicants of all these levels do exist - the talent is there, the students are there, the graduates are there, the experienced hires are there!

The real issue is, are companies truly prepared to create environments and internal structures with which these diverse candidates, employees and employers not only exist but thrive while doing so?

To be black in society is to be overseen and unseen. It is to feel so exposed and vulnerable yet also invisible at the same time.

Much like how I became Sade; Black girl; State School; from Croydon, I am seen in a similar way when applying for jobs. Now however I am Sade; Black woman; Oxford University Graduate; from Croydon!

Having earned the Oxon after my name, I am in a position of great educational privilege yet still on the hunt and struggling to secure my perfect graduate job. Applying for jobs in the current climate of economic instability due to Covid has not been an easy one, but I do have the confidence in myself that the right job will come along.

With every rejection comes a lesson learned, and with every success comes a story as to how you got there.

📸 Sade Clarke

Thus, to anyone reading this that has experienced that lack of motivation and is confused about what their future looks like, do not be disheartened! There's going to be anxiety about uncertainty and fear about failing but push yourself to keep going.

‘If you do what you’ve always done, you WILL get what you’ve always got’, why not make small, positive changes as life isn’t always about big, bold milestones. Every single positive intervention, no matter how small will have incremental benefits, and eventually adds up to a huge result!

📸 Sade Clarke

In the words of Lewis Hamilton, seven-time F1 world champion, ‘Never give up on your dreams, keep fighting and let’s keep rising to the occasion’!


¹ University of Oxford Annual Admissions Statistical Report – May 2020

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