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Embedding wellbeing in decolonial movements

There have been calls within and beyond the University of Bristol to ‘decolonise the curriculum’. Decolonisation is defined as ‘an active process of critical scrutiny of our curricula and teaching practices aimed at understanding this legacy and beginning the work of dismantling it.’ Ongoing, collective decolonial action at the University of Bristol is tackling the colonial legacies which affect the experiences and wellbeing of students or staff. 

In this blog, we identify how decolonial efforts in universities have largely focused on fragmented or piecemeal remedies rather than seeking to overturn the hegemonic, colonial hierarchies, and legacies which inform our existence as an institution and academic community. Thus, we propose that the ‘active process’ of decolonisation requires educators, students, and staff to meaningfully immerse ourselves – individually and collectively – within a larger political project of shifting and transforming current colonial and imperialist practices. This also includes ending extractive and transactional relationships in academia that are fuelling burnouts and breakdowns, while actively silencing our collective pleas for rest, care, and support.

‘Personal troubles’, public issues

C. Wright Mills famously defined the sociological imagination as demanding of ‘the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society.’ Put simply, personal troubles should inherently be considered as public issues. This blog is a stretching and exercising of our sociological imaginations as two University of Bristol students and women of colour of Filipino and British-South Asian heritage. The authoring of this blog has created and held space for a sisterhood and restorative dialogue between us. 

This space has enabled us to engage with and reflect on the social, emotional, and racialised aspects of decolonial action which can remain unaddressed or be stigmatised within our various communities. Drawing from this, this blog examines the extractive nature of decolonial work and asks what is the emotional burden or wellbeing cost for those at the forefront of decolonial action? Further, we assert that embedding collective care and restorative wellbeing is a neglected, yet necessary part of decolonisation processes. 

Ethnicity, race, and wellbeing

Ethnicity, race and wellbeing are inextricably linked. In the context of wider society, scholars and activists have (rightly) asserted that experiencing racism is connected to poor mental and physical health, and affects quality of life and our capability to participate meaningfully in society. As racialised persons living in the UK, our experiences of racial discrimination is both a structural and everyday reality that can have major and long-term consequences for our mental health and wellbeing. 

Black and minority ethnic people living in the UK receive significantly poorer mental health care compared to their white counterparts. This can have an extreme impact on wellbeing in that we are also more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act. INQUEST, a non-profit support organization focused on state-related deaths, reports that 38 racialised persons died in police custody between 2015 and 2021, with Black people accounting for 70% of the deaths.

In the face of microaggressions, intrinsic racism, religious intolerance, and cultural guilt, racialised persons frequently struggle to be heard, believed, or afforded timely and appropriate supports. When racialised people articulate their lived experiences, there is often an ‘emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates our experiences.’ As a result of this dissociation, race, ethnicity, and racism tend to be overlooked or disregarded when it comes to implementing policies and practices to support our wellbeing. 

Wellbeing is a critical aspect of decolonial action

In the context of decolonial movements in academia, racialised people are frequently burdened with the ‘heavy lifting’ of decolonial action without financial remuneration, due recognition, or adequate support for their physical and mental wellbeing. The so-called ‘personal troubles’ of racialised people leading decolonial action relates to broader public problems. There is a general intolerance to efforts to improve equality and diversity, particularly during times of economic crises or in the face of urgent existential threats (e.g., the Covid-19 pandemic or the climate emergency), within wider society. This intolerance can be mobilised within society to question and threaten the intellect, livelihood, wellbeing and in many cases, lives, of those at the frontlines of social action. Given these, we propose that promoting and embedding wellbeing is a critical, yet often neglected, aspect of decolonial action. Decolonisation efforts will fail, and wellbeing outcomes will continue to plummet within the University (see Wellbeing survey 2021 findings), if there are no equitable programs and environments informed by restorative justice, care, and support. 

According to Adebisi, decolonisation ‘asks for the structure of knowledge to be opened to resurrect what has been marginalised, to re-centre the world, such that the centre is not the ideological West, but all of us.’ Thus, decolonial and wellbeing movements must seek to reimagine the world as free from ‘interlocking systems of oppression’, such as heteropatriarchy, racism, white supremacy, ableism, and capitalism. Future efforts should thus take a panoptic view when examining racialised inequalities to ensure we move beyond rhetoric, theory and equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) policies to concrete action and sustainable change for our students and staff of colour.

Illustration for The Black Flamingo by ⁠Evelyn Miller

BILT CONFERENCE 2023: Building community and belonging in a challenging and changing world 

The Bristol Institute of Learning and Teaching is hosting a conference on Wednesday 12th July 2023 (all day event), in-person, at the Bill Brown Suite, Queens Building, Woodland Road. 

This blog piece is a response to the calling question – ‘What does belonging at the University of Bristol mean to you?’ You are also welcome to respond. The format of the response is entirely open. It could take the form of a photography, a piece of creative writing, a piece of writing, poetry, an artefact, a poster, or any other medium. We hope to share some of these responses at our conference.  You can send your contributions to: bilt-conference@bristol.ac.uk  

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