In 2017, in an effort to decolonise their curriculum, Cambridge student Lola Olufemi and Fly (Cambridge University’s network for women and non-binary people of colour) penned an open letter in which they called for “non-white authors and postcolonial thought” to be “incorporated meaningfully into the curriculum” (Fly Cambridge, 2017). For me, the key word in this open letter is incorporate, not an elimination of the voices of white authors. Yet, the Cambridge students were met with media backlash and accused of seeking to replace white authors with black authors. This is sadly an example of the misconceptions around the discussion of decolonising the curriculum – in which the efforts to do so are undermined and demonised. What I want to do here is address and challenge such misconceptions around decolonising university curriculums.
Misconception 1 – White Western authors will be silenced
I see decolonising the curriculum as being about interrogation, not elimination. While there are fears about how the canon of white Western scholars’ works will be treated through decolonising processes, their works will not be removed from our libraries and discussions. There should be nothing to fear from constructive challenge.
Decolonising the curriculum seeks to interrogate what groups of people are considered legitimate knowledge producers. Current reading lists (largely including my own) suggest this is predominantly restricted to white, Western men.
It is by interrogating and challenging existing perspectives while widening the boundaries of academia and who is considered to be legitimate knowledge producers that is at the heart of the calls to decolonise the university curriculum. It is not about silencing white authors.
Misconception 2 – We just add a few more BAME* authors to the reading lists
*BAME = Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicities
While yes, it is important to incorporate more voices into reading lists, decolonising needs to go further. There is no quick, easy fix. The power relations within knowledge production need to be recognised and challenged. This involves understanding the inherent structural inequality within academia.
I was shocked to read of statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency that only 0.6% of UK professors were black during the academic year of 2015/2016 (Amos, 2018). Higher education and academia continues to be characterised by systematic racial inequality, discrimination and bias and structured to prevent equal opportunity.
This feeds into the larger discussion around how identity shapes perspectives, narratives, and knowledge production. White, Western men are over-represented, resulting in academia favouring their perspectives and giving them more opportunities to become knowledge producers.
Calls for universities across the UK to challenge their ties to colonial histories and decolonise learning has increased in light of the Black Lives Movement and large-scale protests. For this wave of interest and enthusiasm to be successful, we all need to tackle the common misconceptions in everyday teaching to ensure support, credibility, and action. I suggest such tackling could come in the form of clear guidance, standards, and information on what decolonising the curriculum means for academics, university management and students. Of course, this is just one suggestion but what we need to recognise is that without addressing common misconceptions in a convincing way, we risk disempowering and undermining the objective to decolonise the curriculum.
Amos, Valerie. (2018) ‘It’s time for universities to make race equality a priority’, The Guardian, 16th May, available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2018/may/16/its-time-for-universities-to-make-race-equality-a-priority
Fly Cambridge (2017) Decolonising the English Faculty: An open letter, available online at: https://flygirlsofcambridge.com/2017/06/14/decolonising-the-english-faculty-an-open-letter/