Over the past two months, I have been investigating racist parties attended by undergraduate members of my university. I published an article documenting my findings, and in response people undoubtedly want answers. Who are the people behind these racist parties, and how can we see them punished? But I’ve come to realise that they are not bogeymen. Rather, many of them are linked by a society, underpinning what at first seemed a series of unconnected parties.
I have interviewed attendees of these parties again and again in order to comprehend why they do what so many think deplorable – and why they veer from defensive to outright ashamed in response.
“I’ve been punished, banned from events for a couple of months until I can properly understand what I did wrong,” an interviewee told me one evening. The crime? Participating in the planning of an event that “crossed the line.”
“Racists have a line?” I snorted, not quite understanding a world in which individuals dress up in offensive costumes but also have a moral code. They had been reprimanded by the president of the society they belong to. Its president is not nor has he ever been a member of the University of Oxford. Its members study at or have studied at multiple universities. The Flete can exclusively reveal that this secret society is involved with the themed parties attended by undergraduate and postgraduate students at universities, including the University of Oxford. Only postgraduate students and alumni can be members, whilst undergraduate students are known as associates. It owns property in London, New York, and San Francisco.
Six associates of the society have been punished for planning a party at which attendees would have dressed up as undergraduates of their university: as individuals they felt deserved to be mocked and ridiculed. The undergraduate students being impersonated were not meant to know about the party. The event was cancelled after a near-fatal overdose by an undergraduate associate. The associate who did overdose was one of the organisers and was one of the six disciplined. Despite the cancellation, all the original organisers were disciplined for what the society’s executive called “abusive and harassing misbehaviour.”
The University of Oxford has a history of secret societies, so the idea that one was behind the latest scandal sweeping the city was not shocking. I felt like a member of the Scooby Doo gang, triumphantly ripping the mask off the latest villain. Racist parties, secret clubs, and members coming from a pool of public schools fit neatly into a caricature of Oxford I had come to expect. But the president of this society disciplining undergraduate members for a potential party seemed at odds with this expectation.
Racist parties, secret clubs, and members coming from a pool of public schools fit neatly into a caricature of Oxford I had come to expect.
An email seen by The Flete, from the president of the society to members and associates, read:
“In our group-chats and emails recently, I have seen abusive messages targeted at student journalists and activists.
Obviously, all members are free to say what they wish in these venues; so I am not writing as your president in any authoritarian sense. However, I would like to remind all of you that these are people, and that they are undergraduates. It is difficult to condemn the cruel treatment of our wine-pouring undergraduate when we ourselves say things like this about other kids hardly older than she is. Please treat all people as people and all children as children, even if they do not do likewise.”
This, upon reading, did not make any sense to me. I could not understand why the president of the organisation linking all of these deplorable acts together was attempting to defend me against vitriol. Given that the society itself is secret, there is no reason for performative empathy. I would never have known if he had asked that an effigy be built of my body and burnt.
The question remained: what makes someone decide to don a racist costume or construct a fake gas chamber out of their shower?
The question remained: what makes someone decide to don a racist costume or construct a fake gas chamber out of their shower?
The involvement of undergraduates had triggered my investigation in the first place, and whilst the president had shown the courtesy of a clean fight, the fact remained that his society was throwing these themed parties. I had to ask him myself.
I requested an interview. I did not expect any form of response; however soon enough I was told I could conduct one in writing. This seemed on brand. Whilst I am unable to publish the exchange in full, with the permission of the president The Flete may present the following extracts.
The views expressed in these extracts are that of an individual and are not necessarily shared by me or anyone affiliated with The Flete.
“What is the purpose of this society?
Like most vaguely-organised e-mail lists and group-chats, much of it is to send articles, gossip, and organise times to meet and things to do. But that, I sense, is not of what you are asking. At its origin, the purpose of the society was to ‘develop clear intellect and promote coherent thought’. But this was a ‘society’ founded something like fifteen years ago now, was founded by (9-10-year-old) schoolboys, and much of its purpose has eroded—I do try to follow its original goal, but mostly I just try to be helpful and manage an email list (and use a nice flat)…”
What do you believe is the purpose of these themed parties? Though I have read your email explaining this, I would like further clarification.
I don’t think I’ve ever written an email explaining this. If you mean the email where I suggest the policy change [The themes of parties planned for the next two months have been reconsidered], then I have copied the relevant paragraphs for easy access. I will elaborate after these paragraphs.
‘As a group, we have found very occasionally exploiting themes that most would find offensive to bind members together, and to prove that no topic is off-limits in a discussion. This has helped me personally discover views in myself that I could not otherwise have developed—and as all of you know, this is not a euphemism for some form of radicalization. To list just a few of my views that I’ve been convinced of at these insensitive parties: that hunting is wrong, that capital punishment is wrong, that limiting a minority group’s legal right to use a piece of clothing is wrong, that we have an educational duty to help with ‘access and outreach’ or whatever the universities call it now, that despite my surety that outreach is right, I also think there will always be differences in educational attainment between different groups; and that none of these views contradicts another. These views are not the views of a far-right (or far-left) extremist. They are not so far away from the norm. How they do differ from most views, though, is the underlying strand of consistency that runs through them.
That strand is what is there because of the intellectual grooming and continual intellectual debate that I’ve gotten in this society, and that I see lacking in education and other intellectual groups today. It is why this society is still important. Offensive costumes are not the purpose, but they are a tool. They visually demonstrate that nothing is off-limits; and that demonstration, and its message, are what helps our society remain what it is.
I think you misunderstand our group as one for the purpose of having these parties and getting something out of them. In a lot of ways, it’s not. Most of our events (i.e. things people advertise on our email list, post on our pages) are not themed. The last two talked-of events (excluding tonight’s committee dinner) were the following: ‘Do we want to meet for dinner in [redacted] sometime next week for those around if restrictions are not tightened again?’ and ‘Very late fourth of July/Biden party anyone? My girlfriend’s thinking of throwing one in [redacted]’. As you can see, these aren’t very controversial. Others message other things, not even events. One of the now-known undergraduates posted over the weekend to ask for a book suggestion, and another kid asked for help finding a chem internship.
It is easier to argue for a perspective that’s out of favour if you know you won’t be persecuted.
But, back to your point about the purpose of these parties—why I think people are wedded to these very occasional offensive themes. I think the visible sign that we are not orthodox really does free one to say what one thinks. It is easier to argue for a perspective that’s out of favour if you know you won’t be persecuted. Many of the people who come to these things hide their views, and they feel able to share them because they know that—while they will certainly be argued-against, they will not be vilified or demonized. For a long time now, discourse has been required to fall inside certain lines.
The visceral look of a fake gas-chamber does two things: first, it okays it for people to discuss eugenics, for example; and second, it reminds people of what those ideas can (but perhaps not necessarily must) lead to. I am not saying that is important even once a month or once a term. But I do think it certainly [is] allowable a few times a year as some sort-of intellectual reminder.
The second ‘purpose’ of these themes is not so much a purpose, but a reason ‘not to not to’. I do feel very hypocritical advertising free dialogue and then telling members not to host parties that they want to host. Perhaps these themes should not be a thing; but I think disallowing them does more harm than allowing them. I’m not saying I want to promote them, really. I’m more saying that if people want to do this, then I’m happy to allow it. That allowance is extremely important, as it highlights that I (and the group) allow for any idea, any thought, and any argument. These things ‘should’ not happen; but they ‘should’ be allowed to happen. In this climate, that continual ‘proving of freedom’ is reassuring. It makes people feel safe to be themselves in at least one private space. It makes them feel that the mob is at bay, and that they don’t have to mind their tongues […]”
“I know it has been said that these events allow the dissemination of terrorist views (e.g. the above-mentioned eugenics). But terrorist views are intellectually incoherent. They are likely to be challenged if they have ever come up. I think challenging these views is the best (and only) way to change minds. It is not ‘good enough’ to suppress words and actions in some cases. To stop a terrorist view, I think one has to change the thoughts of those who hold that view, and to do that in any way but intellectual argument is to me disingenuous and scary.
Such views do occasionally come up at parties—views that are (as far as I have ever heard at these events) entirely nonviolent, but that might lead to violence if believed by most of a society. I have also seen the same people who once argue for these views change their minds (with the help of a few drinks and a few discussions) and then later argue against the same positions they themselves held not long before. That is intellect, and that is changing views with dignity and humanity. Also, I think it’s a lot more permanent and complete than scaring people out of speaking and merely thinking their unfortunate thoughts.
In short, themes are a visible signal that people are not going to be silenced for an opinion. It’s not all that important a part of this e-mail list and group-chat, but perhaps it is a characteristic one.”
“Have you disciplined members or associates for parties that you felt have crossed the line in the past? What is this “line”?
[…] The only disciplinary action I have taken as president was over the party where some persons planned to dress as members of their university. Other presidents have disciplined in the past. In the past few years, it has been (as far as I know and can recall) for (verbally) pressuring/harassing others into doing things (e.g. ‘drink that or I swear I won’t help you with that essay’), pushing someone into a rose bush (…), and saying blatantly unintellectual and offensive things rather than making an intellectual point […]
The line is clear—or was at least in the recent case. Being insensitive about the idea of a person: a stereotype, true or false, or a caricature is fine. What is unacceptable is when individuals are used as themselves symbols.
Being insensitive about the idea of a person: a stereotype, true or false, or a caricature is fine. What is unacceptable is when individuals are used as themselves symbols.
In this specific case: just as I disapprove of the way the wine-pouring undergraduate has been made a symbol of a larger problem, I do not want individuals on the other side (if there are sides) made into symbols of a different larger problem. The line has always been clear, and those facing discipline would have known this. Other cases, dealt with by other presidents, would have different details, but the point of never making an individual into a symbol is a constant. Another constant is a focus on ensuring the comfort and inclusion of everyone at an event (though not, naturally, those not in attendance) […]
I should say that the wine-pouring, I don’t think, [doesn’t] fall into this category as Floyd was already a symbol. She didn’t make him into one.
I should also say that discipline can be as little as a private talk between an undergraduate and someone who feels that he or she has sway over that undergraduate. I do this quite often, and did not include this in my above listed discipline. But, a private talk is often more than plenty, at least in my limited experience.”
When I first thought of starting this series, I could never have predicted that I would know any of what I know now – nor can I predict what I will uncover next.
The investigation continues.