Boat race-ism: Silence on rowing race issues highlights institutionalised white privilege

In 2016, Benedict Aldous went to a college bop dressed as a KKK member. Now he’s in the boat race

Oxford isn’t exactly known for its handling of race issues. Some colleges like Oriel received large sums of accumulated through the systematic abuse of black slaves.

In 2015, nearly one in three Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black British student into their undergraduate intake. Early last year, Harris Manchester College was blasted when it sent out an email warning students to be ‘vigilant’ because a black man was seen walking through college grounds – this black man was a friend of a student at the college, and previously a student at the university himself. Generally, Oxford prides itself on liberalism and progressiveness, yet there remains a pervasive issue when it comes to race.

In true Oxford style, in December 2016, Benedict Aldous went to a college bop dressed as a Klu Klux Klan member. Why? He said at the time that the costume was intended as a satirical response to the theme ‘2016’. It was meant as a comment on Donald Trump’s possible connections to KKK members, after the US election. This is ‘satire’, apparently. Because by the way, racism is now hilarious.

A black man walking through an Oxford college caused a security alert

In response, Benedict was made to write an apology email and banned from social events in the college – an insubstantial punishment at best. Today, he’s rowing in the Oxford Cambridge boat race, one of the most prestigious rowing races in the world, receiving all of the positive publicity with which it’s associated.

There are two key issues that arise due to this situation: the response by the institutions and organisations involved, and the degree to which the response is appropriate.

The Oxford-Cambridge boat races are run by the Boat Race Company, sponsored by BNY Mellon, Newton Investment Management and Cancer Research UK. A brief scan of their websites confirm that all three sponsors have commitments to, and support for, diversity in their organisations. By sponsoring these events and athletes, they also sponsor the athlete behaviour. It could be argued that in turn they endorse his behaviour. 

Cambridge winning the boat race

With international dealings, both Newton and BNY Mellon ought to have a vested interest in rejecting racism due to interactions with companies and individuals from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Cancer Research, funding research reliant on international collaborations and the work of a diverse range of scientists from many faiths and ethnicities, also have an obligation to reject these behaviours that contravene the very ethos of open, international and collaborative science. In response to Benedict, BNY Mellon, who are also the parent company to Newton, told us: “This is a matter for the university. The previous actions of this individual bears no resemblance to the views of BNY Mellon or any of our associated partners. We proactively support equality, diversity and inclusivity.”

Despite the apology from Benedict and condemnation from Christ Church College (a year later) calling his behaviour “unacceptable”, the response to let him row doesn’t feel appropriate. This week, Exeter University students have been fired by their law firms over racist behaviours – an example of an appropriate response to racism. The previously mentioned organisations have arguably fallen short of this.

Oxford University Boat Club have engaged with this issue by calling Benedict’s previous actions as a “mistake”. A Boat Race spokeswoman said: “In December 2016 Benedict made a mistake. He has apologised for his actions and the incident was dealt with appropriately by his college.” A mistake is you making a typo in an essay, you make a mistake in a maths problem sheet, not in consciously deciding to dress up as a KKK member (the literal epitome of violent, murderous white supremacy) to a party.

 In my view, at every stage in this hierarchy, and opportunity in the timeline, there has been a failure to adequately denounce racist behaviours. Rowing is already a predominantly white sport (in fact, there is only one person of colour in the current national team), and ‘incidents’ like this further marginalise oppressed groups. There is a dire need for rowing to be more welcoming and inclusive of athletes of colour, and racist attitudes and behaviours prevent this progression from happening.

One thing that needs to be made clear is that institutional racism is no joke. It appears that white privilege affords people like Brock Turner (also a student athlete) leniency in the sentencing of rape. It affords privileged Oxford students like Lavinia Woodward leniency in sentencing after stabbing somebody. Both were branded as mistakes, with substantial sentences deemed to be too damaging for the rest of their lives. They need to move on, leave them be. Unfortunately, people of colour aren’t afforded the same option, with 12-year-old children like Tamir Rice being murdered.

Institutional racism is prevalent throughout most of the white western world, and examples need to be made. If we were to ‘leave it be’ every time this happened, we would never get anywhere.

Make no mistake: Benedict Aldous will move on with his life. This will have little-to-no bearing on his future career prospects. However there needs to be an awareness that these issues remain even among more progressive institutions. There needs to be a change to how these events are approached and addressed, with more substantial consequences for racism.