Kesaia Toganivalu details her month-long investigation into racism in Oxford rowing that uncovered a far more pervasive culture of bigotry lurking just beneath the surface. This piece is part of an ongoing series.
Content Warning: Racism and Anti-Semitism
It was almost midnight, and I had finally found the person I was looking for. The giveaway? The Facebook cover photo of all white males stood in one-piece spandex monstrosities. I’d been searching through dozens of names for the past week, looking for a paper trail that purposefully didn’t exist. Three different parties. Three different themes. And it all started, for me at least, with rowing as the common denominator: one that became less and less relevant as the story went on.
The Returning Officer responsible for adjudicating the Christ Church Cake Husting, the subject of much controversy over a month ago, went on to serve as President of the Christ Church Boat Club (ChChBc). The student who delivered the racist speech was a member of said club. The person who wrote the speech was and still is a member, despite requests for the suspension of her membership. A pattern seemed to emerge when I discovered that the student disciplined for attending a college organised party (BOP) for wearing an “anti-Trump” KKK costume was also a member – though none of these four is being investigated for attending any of the parties discussed in these articles.
In order to understand, I reached out to those involved in the Boat Club.
“I don’t feel like there has previously been a culture of racism per se, but the club as a whole is overwhelmingly white,” commented an anonymous ex-member of ChChBc.
“Diversity in rowing is a really hard problem to fix once we get to university because rowing is predominantly taught at independent schools (at least in the UK),” a second ChChBc member stated.
It was during these late-night calls that a Christ Church rower I was interviewing changed this from a rowing story to one about something very different. They said the Boat Club “really isn’t that controversial, comparatively.” I considered the morality of the person I was talking to; a different member of the same club had poured wine on an image of George Floyd. I asked them what could possibly be more controversial than that.
They told me that they had attended a party, held in Oxford, attended by current students, where the organisers had set up mock gas chambers. Where a Jewish student was jokingly put into one.
Maybe my interviewee was right: the Boat Club wasn’t all that “controversial” after all.
A different member of the same club had poured wine on an image of George Floyd. I asked them what could possibly be more controversial than that.
The Flete can exclusively reveal that an anonymous complaint was sent to a number of recipients, including the Christ Church censors, accusing an undergraduate. It said “[they] threw a joint party […] with fake gas-chambers.” The party was allegedly a joint gathering commemorating the 18th and 19th birthdays of two students.
One of the students, a member of the Christ Church Boat Club, responded to the allegations: “Years ago, I did attend a party. When I arrived, to my shock, the theme was Jews versus Germans. This was clearly inappropriate, and I left early. I would never organise anything of the sort, not least because I am Jewish; my grandparents were Holocaust survivors; and their families were killed in real gas chambers… I have never organised a party, for my birthday or otherwise, with fake gas-chambers—in Oxford or anywhere else.”
It is alleged photography is prohibited at these parties. Email correspondence between attendees, seen by The Flete, promise discussion on the “destruction of the Palestinian Empire.”
The Flete reached out to JSoc, Oxford’s Jewish society, for comment. Their representative said “We were shocked and appalled to learn of the events which took place at these parties. Mocking the Holocaust in this way is unacceptable and diminishes the trauma felt by many. Furthermore, pitting Jews against Arabs trivialises the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians and is offensive to everyone who has lost people to the conflict. We hope that action will be taken in light of this matter.”
I spent hours on the phone with people, trying to verify the existence of these parties, but also to put faces to names that kept coming up. I called someone who I hadn’t seen in years, introducing myself with “Hi, sorry it’s been a while. What can you tell me about [redacted] and are they the type to go to racist parties?”
“If you don’t think what you’re doing is wrong,” I asked my source one evening, “then why won’t you give me the names?”
They responded, “It becomes wrong as soon as people find out. It’s about people being offended and hurt. No one at these parties is, so it’s okay.”
I went through old rowing fixtures for the big-name public schools, cross-referencing whether any went to Oxford and if they fit the profile emerging. But this in itself was growing more confusing. State-school students and students of colour were beginning to emerge as attendees. There was something more alluring to these parties than merely their racism.
I wanted to know what made someone decide to don a racist costume or construct a fake gas chamber out of their shower. Given the open secret of the whiteness of rowing, it is not a leap to ask if predominantly white spaces make racism acceptable. However, the demographic of these parties is not as white as the demographic of rowing.
Given the open secret of the whiteness of rowing, it is not a leap to ask if predominantly white spaces make racism acceptable.
The Flete reached out to rowers from both Cambridge and Oxford. All those willing to comment agreed with the sentiment that it is an “extremely white-dominated sport.”
When asked if they had ever witnessed or experienced racism whilst rowing, self-described “mixed race but white passing” Zoe Wible, alumna of Trinity College, Cambridge, said “I’ve never witnessed overt racism… because people of colour were just not there.”
Shreyus Ganesh, an Ex-Captain at Exeter College, Oxford, offered the whiteness of Oxford and the fact rowing is a “traditionally upper class English sport” as a possible explanation for a lack of diversity. He went on to say that “there are never more than two to three at most rowers of colour in a club, and it doesn’t really feel like a safe space to talk about racism if and when it is experienced” – though he himself had never heard any in the boathouse.
There seems to be no clear explanation as to what motivates people to throw and attend racist parties. Plenty of students of colour and former state-school students have allegedly attended alongside their white, privately-educated peers. One of the students accused of organising the fake gas chamber party is a student of colour.
Christ Church Boat Club responded to the allegations that some of their members have attended these parties:
“Christ Church Boat Club unequivocally condemns racism and unjust inequality in all forms. The world is reacting to deep rooted injustices, and the Club stands with those changing the world for the better. Two of our members were directly involved in the incident that occurred at Christ Church Hustings and we have been made aware of further allegations against one of the individuals involving a video and use of some unacceptable language. We condemn their actions in Hustings and have made clear to them that such behaviour will not be tolerated in our Club and community. One of the individuals in question resigned from their committee positions and neither will be considered for crew selection until we have fully investigated these allegations. In order to ensure we reach the correct and just outcome, this investigation will most likely conclude after college concludes its disciplinary proceedings and we are aware of as much of the information as possible. We have since received allegations against unnamed individuals we are told are members of the club and these were immediately passed onto the relevant college authorities.
Recent events have given us reason to reflect on our Club and on our sport. The reality is that our sport is not nearly diverse enough. We have been liaising with Fulham Reach Boat Club on how we can enter a partnership with them to make lasting change. FRBC is a charity which aims to improve diversity in rowing and access to the sport. We hope to launch this partnership at this year’s Christ Church Regatta, by raising funds for FRBC and, if circumstances allow, opening the regatta up to their novice crews. Christ Church Boat Club is open to diversity and open to change.”
The Investigation continues.
Image: “Rowers by the Meadow” by Lawrence OP on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0, has been filtered.