Beard and Gopal have been exchanging heated tweets throughout the weekendBBC/Sam Harrison

Two high-profile Cambridge academics, Professor Mary Beard and Dr Priyamvada Gopal, were drawn into a heated Twitter debate this weekend, over Beard’s response to the ongoing furore surrounding the scandal-hit charity Oxfam.

Gopal, a lecturer in English and fellow at Churchill, accused the classics professor of “patrician white 'feminist' racism”, after Beard posted a tweet in which she appeared to encourage consideration of the context in which alleged abuses by aid workers occurred.

Oxfam has been the subject of intense scrutiny over the past ten days, following allegations the charity covered up the sexual exploitation of young women by senior staff following the Haitian earthquake.

Beard spent much of Saturday replying to critics and other commenters on twitter, with Gopal describing Beard’s words as indicative of more widespread “racism” at Cambridge. Beard expanded her thoughts in a blog post on Saturday, to which Gopal responded. The pair have apparently agreed to meet and discuss their disagreements face-to-face.

The row was fired by a Tweet posted by Beard on Friday, in which she appeared to defend the work of aid workers in disaster zones. Though she said she “can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere”, Beard said “I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone’.

Gopal, a lecturer at the Faculty of English, quickly criticised Beard’s tweet, saying “this kind of thing is the *progressive* [sic] end of the institutional culture I have to survive day in day out” and that it was indicative of wider attitudes within the University.

Since Friday, the debate has escalated considerably, with Beard’s original Tweet collecting over 712 comments, and 152 retweets. Both academics have published blog posts in addition the their earlier Tweets, with Beard releasing a statement in which she sought to clarify her position. Gopal tweeted a link to an open letter published on her blog, where she offered further criticism of Beard’s stance, and her attempts to defend herself.

The controversy comes claims published in The Times that Oxfam’s director in Haiti, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, used an Oxfam-funded villa to host prostitutes, some of whom were allegedly underage, in the wake of the earthquake in January 2010.

Dame Barbara Stocking, the current president of Murray Edwards College, who was Oxfam’s CEO at the time of the disaster, was described in an internal Oxfam report as having offered van Hauwermeiren “a phased and dignified exit” because sacking him would have “potentially serious implications” for the charity’s work and reputation.

Writing in a post on her Times Literary Supplement blog ‘A Don’s Life’, on Saturday, Beard defended her initial tweet, saying that she finds it “hard to imagine that anyone out there could possibly think that I am wanting to turn a blind eye to the abuse of women and children anywhere in the world”.

She said she sought “not to condone the awful things that happened but to contextualise them”, and encouraged consideration of “the context in which it took place,” which she described as “societal and infrastructural breakdown”.

Beard also hit back at some of the responses she had received to her Tweet, some of which amounted to “predictable name calling” and “gross misreadings”.

In multiple responses to Beard’s tweet and the controversy it provoked, Gopal said that Beard’s alleged “racism” was similar to other attitudes she had encountered at Cambridge.


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She continued,  “Now people know what people of colour at Cambridge have to put up with at every meal, meeting, conference and conversation. I must defend her on the grounds that this kind of racism is not unique to her.”

In a blog post on the open platform Medium, Gopal said Beard’s justifications had been a “slap in the face” and “not an adequate intellectual response”, which would be  “viewed by many as a ‘no-pology’, a stubborn refusal to see what was wrong with your original post and taking refuge instead in the familiar posture of wounded white innocence”. She went on to describe her own experiences of questioning racism in Cambridge, which she said had resulted in her being “instantly shut down”.

Late yesterday evening, Beard posted a photo of herself having been crying, with the caption, “Truth is I look and feel a wreck.” She has also spoken of how she felt “assaulted” by some of the comments made against her.

In her blog post, Gopal said Beard had proposed the two hold a face-to-face meeting. Gopal said she would “very much look forward” to the discussion, signing off “See you at Fitzbillies  –  I’ll be having the coffee-walnut cake”.

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