If you’d asked me a week ago what I’d be doing for the majority of the day two days before my thirtieth birthday, waiting in a queue to chat with Shia LaBeouf in an elevator would not have been anywhere near that list.
But I’m in Oxford, and I’m learning that pretty much anything can happen.
The project was announced early in the morning of 19th February, so by the time I woke up and had my breakfast, the project was well under way. I watched the livestream for about half an hour and realized I would kick myself later if I didn’t try to make it on. My friend Emily was game and we went and joined our friend Ross in the queue.
The #ELEVATE experiment was an attempt to create a somewhat more egalitarian atmosphere for speaking at the Oxford Union. The Union, of which I am a part, got its start as Oxford’s debating society, and has a reputation of being, well, privileged. There’s a sense of an Old Boys Club about it, and the Union is definitely a must for anyone with social or political aspirations in British society post-Oxford. As a result of this institutional reputation, and a bill of speakers and debates that function solely on their exclusionary, members-only basis, the Union is largely institutionalized whiteness, and though whiteness is never really an accident, it’s something the Union grapples with how to change (and that’s very hard to do).
LaBeouf and his artistic partners, Roenkko and Turner, were aware of this reputation heading in to speak, and as a result, they made a deal with the Union to create a space where people who normally wouldn’t have access to the Union’s bill of speakers or the debating floor could see and interact and talk about whatever they wanted. It’s an egalitarian, artistic move that still has its issues (waiting in line for five hours in the cold isn’t something a lot of people are necessarily up for, and there’s a necessary performance that takes place when you’re having a conversation with someone who is, by all accounts, famous).
I appreciated this move on the trio’s part, and was pretty happy to discover, upon talking to them, that they’d refused all speaker fees for the event. As a feminist writer, I think it’s important for people with power (and fame is power) to recognize where that power is best spent and to use it to—excuse the pun—elevate the voices people who normally wouldn’t have a chance.
When my friends and I got into the elevator, we ended up discussing South Dakotan politics, thanks to Shia’s choice of sweatshirt which was a souvenir shirt from the Black Hills. We talked about how our state government has enacted racist policies designed to keep Native Americans subjugated. We also discussed the current bathroom bill that is sitting on the governor’s desk, which polices the bathroom use of transgender high school students in the state, in violation of Title IX (and basic human decency).
We then talked about the nature of the Union as an old boys’ club, and my friend Emily talked about why she refuses to join. It was this conversation that possibly led to the most interesting part of my day. Upon leaving the elevator, I heard my name and saw Stuart Webber, the current President of the Oxford Union, standing by the stairwell. Stuart and I have corresponded briefly before, as he did me the favor of getting me in to meet Jon Favreau, Obama’s former speechwriter, when he spoke at the Union last week.
But this time, Stuart had a bee in his bonnet about what was said about the Union in the elevator. He seemed genuinely concerned that the Union has the reputation of an Old Boys’ Club and specifically had an issue with the term “institutionally racist.” He wanted to know how they could change things.
This conversation changed the dynamic and Stuart’s confrontation became part of my story of that lift. We knew what was being said was being broadcast, and we were conscious of that fact, but to have what we said immediately confronted by the Union president was an experience and a half. I explained, as best I could, that even institutions founded on liberal principles will turn conservative and institutions themselves are inherently conservative, inherently white spaces much of the time because institutions like to do what they can to preserve themselves. I don’t know that Stuart understood and I don’t think that was the answer he was looking for. But that was the answer he got.
It was fascinating to see how the experiment in the elevator rippled out and struggled and clashed with the institutional standard that demands things be performed in particular ways—ways that tend to cater toward white people. I mean, the Oxford Union is the place that, last year, had a drink special at the bar called the “Colonial Comeback.” So it’s a little hard to argue that it doesn’t have issues on some level, just as every institution does.
I don’t have an answer for how we can change the Union without tearing it down altogether. I’m an iconoclast, and despite being a member of the Union now, it’s a calculated move to have access to opportunities I otherwise would not. I could afford it, this year, and so I did it. But, perhaps, that just makes me part of the problem.