Asian and African students at Oxford and Cambridge have launched a unique campaign against racism.

Consider this rather familiar scene.

You’re asked, “So, where are you from?”

You reply, “I’m British.”

“No I mean from where?”

“From Manchester.”

“No, no, where are you from originally?”

The subtext is that a non-white person — even if born and brought up in Britain — cannot be truly British. Such covertly racist remarks, dressed up as ‘friendly banter’ or ‘joke’, have become part of non-white students’ daily encounters at Oxford and Cambridge universities, supposedly among the world’s most enlightened centres of higher learning.

Fed up with being treated as outsiders (‘aliens from Mars’, as one student puts it) and interlopers, they have struck back with a catchy online photo campaign against what they see as deep-seated and widespread racial prejudice. Inspired by a similar project organised by ‘students of colour’ at Harvard University and called ‘I, too, am Oxford’ and ‘We, too, are Cambridge’, it is aimed at challenging racially stereotyped perceptions of students from ethnic minority backgrounds, or those from foreign countries, especially Asia, Africa and the Arab world.

It all started when a group of activists from Oxford University’s anti-racism forum ‘Skin Deep’ uploaded photographs on Tumblr. They held placards with examples of their encounters with casual racism and stereotyping. An Indian woman student held the sign, ‘So, you’re a medical student? Typical Asian’. An African girl displayed a board reading, ‘Of course, you got in. You fill both Black and Asian quotas.’

There were some tongue-in-cheek yet combative messages. The placard of a student with an Afro haircut read ‘Yes, my hair is real!’ Another said ‘Do not touch without asking!’

Within hours the campaign went viral and spread to Cambridge where scores of students had their own things to share. ‘The first time anyone called me a Paki was in Cambridge’, read the placard carried by an Asian girl. A hijab-wearing African student challenged the racist notion of what determines IQ. ‘Intelligence is not determined by race’ was her riposte to her white classmates.

According to the organisers, a message ‘consistently reaffirmed’ was that ethnic minority and overseas students were constantly made to feel ‘different’ and ‘othered’ from the wider Oxbridge community.

Campaigners were surprised by the huge response to the campaign. “We only had the event page up for about an hour, and we had hundreds of people sign up for it,’ said activist Anu Henriques.

Yasmin Lawal, president of Cambridge University’s Black and Minority Ethnic campaign campaign said the aim was to raise awareness about race-related issues. “I want students to feel interested in what we have to say and… understand that it affects their friends or people they know,” she said.

Non-white students both at Oxford and Cambridge complained of routine ‘micro-aggression’. “Sometimes people seem to be intimidated by me when I walk into a lecture theatre. The worst thing was being accused of trying to steal my own bike when in fact I was locking it up in the city centre,” Jaylee Ali, an Oxford student told the BBC.

Surveys show that the problem is not confined only to these two universities. A 2011 study by the National Union of Students found that one in six non-white students had experienced racism at their university, while a study by a student think-tank at York University reported that one in 10 students and workers on the campus experienced some form of discrimination because of their race or ethnic background. Most cases go unreported because the victims fear retaliation if they complain. Many say they don’t have trust in the system that they would get a fair hearing. Besides, they don’t want to be seen as ‘whingers’.

Zena, an Arab student, said it was “difficult to speak up about racist jokes without being seen as too sensitive. I constantly have to deal with things like offensive racist ‘banter’ from white students, or assumptions on the basis of my ethnicity,” she said. A student from Ghana recalled being told, “Oh, you’re from Ghana... My cousin’s nanny is from Kenya.”

Campaigners allege ‘institutional’ racism, pointing out that ethnic minorities are hugely under-represented at the staff level and academic courses are too ‘Euro-centric’. Oxford University said it spent more than £5 million each year to encourage candidates from all ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds to apply to Oxford, and promised to work together with students to see “what more can be done to ensure a fully inclusive university experience.”

Easier said than done, say students. They argue that it is not an administrative problem that can be solved through executive fiats or threats of disciplinary action. It is a cultural problem rooted in deeply entrenched attitudes. Often those causing the offence are not aware that they have done anything wrong. The only possible solution, if at all there is one, is a long and sustained awareness campaign — plus more initiatives.