Students at British universities are increasingly calling for their reading lists to include more black and minority ethnic (BAME) writers. But four years after the first Rhodes Must Fall protest in South Africa, the campaign for decolonising the curriculum still faces scepticism and resistance.
While Meghan Markle recently came out in support of the campaign, not all academics are on board. Doug Stokes, a lecturer at the University of Exeter, has claimed that calls to decolonise the curriculum are “a big mistake” since “the last thing our universities need are to have ‘male, pale and stale’ voices sidelined.”
This narrow view has become a common complaint of those who feel threatened by recent challenges, yet what these critics miss is that decolonising universities is not about completely eliminating white men from the curriculum. It’s about challenging longstanding biases and omissions that limit how we understand politics and society.
Many advocates of decolonisation don’t want to abolish the canon; they want to interrogate its assumptions and broaden our intellectual vision to include a wider range of perspectives. While decolonising the curriculum can mean different things, it includes a fundamental reconsideration of who is teaching, what the subject matter is and how it’s being taught.
Far from being a meritocratic system, academia is still struggling to overcome ingrained structural inequalities. Only two weeks before Stokes’s article, a report from the University and College Union found that black female professors in the UK faced systemic racism, bullying and discrimination.
To put things in perspective, the report states that in the 2016-17 academic year just 25 black women were recorded as working as professors compared to 14,000 white men. Despite outnumbering black women as professors at a rate of 560 to 1, some white men believe they are the ones under threat.
There has been little change over the past decade, despite the well-documented nature of the problem. Decolonising universities involves reviewing hiring and promotion practices to correct the current biases that discriminate against BAME academics. As a white man, it would be easy for me to assume that my successes were solely a result of my hard work, and ignore the structural biases that advantage me at every step of my career.
Students are also concerned about the narrowness of their curriculums. Here it is also important to consider the facts. Most reading lists in my discipline of political science and international relations consist of an overwhelming majority of white male authors. This introduces a systematic distortion to the material and ignores excellent scholarship produced by BAME scholars.
When we offer white male-dominated reading lists we also teach students the wrong lessons about who is an intellectual authority and deserves our attention. BAME students need to see themselves reflected in the curriculum as legitimate creators of knowledge.
The demand for greater representation from non-European writers need not involve burning copies of Plato and Shakespeare’s texts. We can still teach authors like John Locke, but we should note that he was a liberal political philosopher deeply enmeshed in American slavery – including investing in the slave-trading Royal African Company and co-authoring the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which enshrined chattel slavery.
The issue is complex, but to overlook this ignores the fundamental role that slavery and colonialism played in the development of modernity.
It is not simply about the token inclusion of a few BAME writers, but an underlying transformation from a culture of denial and exclusion to a consideration of different traditions of knowledge. To diversify our curriculum is to challenge power relations and call for deeper thinking about the content of our courses and how we teach them.
Critics claim that the perspectives of race and gender are not relevant to certain subject matter. Why decolonise a module on American foreign policy, for example? The answer is that you can’t properly teach such a module without incorporating these perspectives into the curriculum.
Decolonisation asks us to consider how the location and identity of an author shape their perspective. Designing modules entails narrating stories and we need to reflect more critically on how these stories are told. Which actors are privileged and placed at the centre? Whose voices are authoritative and considered as part of the canon while others are left at the margins?
Sceptics should realise that the campaign is not a witch hunt, but a legitimate concern about addressing how the forces of racism and colonialism have shaped our past and present. This is a campaign that all academics should be actively promoting in their departments – as many already do.