'We need a sophisticated conversation about Oxford’s colonial past, racism, and creating a truly anti-racist city', writes city councillor and equalities campaigner Shaista Aziz

OVER the past two months, Black Lives Matter protesters here in Oxford, across the country and the world have once again re-energised and galvanised the struggle for racial justice and equality.

The Black Lives Matter campaign was the largest anti-racist protest seen in the UK since the slave abolition movement. This global reckoning has brought into sharp focus the urgent need for Britain to understand its colonial history and its ongoing legacy; and the devastating impact of structural racism on Black people and other people of colour in every sphere of our lives.

Here in Oxford, these protests have also reopened the wounds that are the vast disparities and divisions across both town and gown. These are a racial, class, and economic divide. One that goes to the very heart of why we need to develop a sophisticated conversation leading to action to readdress Oxford’s colonial past, structural racism, and to create a truly anti-racist city.

This conversation is now fully underway in our city, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacting Oxford’s Black and Asian residents and communities. The call for racial justice and creating an Oxford where all our residents’ lives are valued is louder than ever and cannot and must not be ignored. We have a duty to urgently move things forward and make bold, brave and lasting change. This moment in history demands nothing less.

READ AGAIN about the board which will decide the future of Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College

This month, following the momentous Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall protests I was appointed as Oxford City Council’s Race and Equalities Champion. Previously, I’d spent two years as the Council’s Representation in the Workforce Champion, working closely with my colleagues to create the structural changes needed to ensure the City Council’s workforce represents Oxford’s population, including the 33% Black, Asian and minority ethnic population. This is of course long term work and still in progress.

Last week, Oriel College’s Commission of Inquiry into the Rhodes statue and associated issues met for the first time. I’m Oxford City Council’s representative on the Commission along with seven commissioners including several national figures, but also Oxford’s Michelle Codrington-Rogers, a teacher and educationalist who will be known to many.

Oxford Mail:

Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College. Picture: Ed Nix

I was born and raised in Grandpont, a stones throw away from the postcard views of the City of Dreaming Spires, to working class immigrant parents from Pakistan. I remember as child looking up and around our magnificent city and being in awe of its beauty, but I also remember feeling an acute sense of not belonging here even though I am a proud Oxonian, born and bred. It was my experiences of witnessing the aftermath of violent physical racism against my late dad and the racist verbal violence against my mother that made me understand very early as a small child the mental and physical scars of racism.

As a teenager, I remember traveling on the top deck of the double decker bus and the first time I caught a glimpse of the Cecil Rhodes statue on High Street. I remember wondering why this figure was hovering above the people of our city. I went to the library the next day to go and investigate whom Cecil Rhodes was and to understand why he had been given the right to look down on the rest of us. As the granddaughter of former colonised subjects from the Indian subcontinent, I was never taught about Britain’s’ role in subjugation of Black people and other people of colour while at school in Oxford; about the crimes and human rights abuses of empire. Home is where I learnt about my role as a global citizen and the interconnectedness of our world. Home is where I understood the local, national, and international struggles for justice, peace, and equality cannot be separated.

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My new Race and Equality Champion role gives me a remit to work with a wider number and group of people from across our city to amplify the powerful work being done in our communities and to connect this work with the council and others. We must develop real insight and understanding, and urgently build spaces where we can start the uncomfortable and difficult work of tackling racism, redistributing resources and power, and becoming unapologetic anti-racists.

Last year, Oxford City Council voted to make Oxford an explicitly anti-racist city. Now, a new community led co-produced anti-racism platform ‘Anti-Racist City Oxford’ has formed (https://www.facebook.com/Oxford-Anti-Racist-City-251129239087059/). We are Oxford City and County councillors, teachers, trade unionists, writers, artists, activists, and campaigners, seeking to be an inclusive and welcoming space to connect the town and gown to create a truly anti-racist city.

Together with Oriel College’s Commission of Inquiry, we have an opportunity to move things forward, to build trust, and create a bold and new vision for our city with racial justice and equality at the heart of this vision.

I hope you’ll join us. This opportunity must not be wasted.

The website antiracistcity.org goes live on August 10