Decolonising the University
The Decolonising SOAS campaign was formally initiated by the Decolonising Our Minds Society – a collective of students here at SOAS. The society was set up in January 2015 by SOAS students with two chief aims: to address the historical amnesia regarding Britain’s colonial past and the ongoing coloniality that still plagues this country and informs state policy toward minority communities; and to create spaces for BME students to talk about issues relevant to their communities that were absent in the curriculum, but with a de/anti-colonial lens. After a year of activity, the Decolonising SOAS campaign began with the production of a film by BME students, which was an initial exploration into BME experiences of SOAS with regards to curriculum, student experience, micro aggressions on campus and feeling unsupported coming from state school to a university setting.
A Decolonising SOAS working group has been initiated to address this history, which comprises of students, the students’ union, professional services staff and academic staff. There has been input from several teams at SOAS: Widening Participation, Diversity and Inclusion Managers and the Students’ Union.
The working group has constructed a draft vision for decolonisation at SOAS and considers decolonising the university in three core parts: through the role of universities in producing authoritative knowledge (in teaching and research); through the transformation of who is seen as eligible to produce knowledge (i.e. in the profile of academic staff and researchers); and through the impact of universities in economic decolonisation (i.e. in the access and outcomes for previously excluded students).
Student reps and the position they hold within their department means they are an incredibly valuable and important channel of communication between academics and students. Student reps have the capacity to form relationships with academics that then enable them to influence and shape the structure and content of courses and modules. The Decolonising SOAS campaign is invested in ensuring that students experience teaching that values non-European forms of knowledge productions. It is important to ask how we might ask academics to consider the range of material they use in teaching and their teaching perspectives. Having a ‘decolonising the curriculum’ agenda is not about a one-off change, but about asking ourselves questions about how and what we teach on a regular basis, which is a cornerstone of good academic practice and something that we already do. We would need to think about how departments and academics can build in a concern about a diverse and decolonised curriculum into standard processes of module and programme proposal and review.
Akwugo Emejulu, ‘The Centre of a Whirlwind: Watching Whiteness Work,’ Verso, November 10th, 2016, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2934-the-centre-of-a-whirlwind-watching-whiteness-work
Emejulu explores whiteness not simply as an identity but as a political project that seeks to reinforce white supremacy. She shows how whiteness operates through a deliberate ignorance and exclusion of a racialized Other and specifically how this has manifested in the election of Trump and in Brexit. Emejulu argues that these events merely highlight the racial, gender and class hierarchies that are integral to the crisis in capitalism and liberal democracy.
Akwugo Emejulu, ‘The University is not Innocent,’ March 29th, 2017, Verso, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3148-the-university-is-not-innocent-speaking-of-universities
Emejulu argues that when we speak of universities we must speak of the exclusionary relations at their institutional core: "Universities are contradictory spaces. They govern knowledge through hierarchies of control whilst simultaneously providing temporary and contingent spaces to think within and beyond themselves. When speaking of universities, it is imperative that we do not attempt to silence the realities of power that regulate what is legitimate to be known.”
Homi Bhabha, ‘What does the black man want?’ New Formations, 1(1987): 118-124 (Full article: https://frenchtheorysheffield.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/bhabha-on-fanon.pdf)
Bhabha speaks to the continuing necessity of Fanon’s revolutionary theory of colonialism. Remember Fanon, as Bhabha argues, ‘is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present.’ Trauma in this sense is the experiences, cultural identities and continued exclusion of a racialized Other. As such it is only through scrutinising and recapturing the self that the colonised subject can be free.
Meera Sabaratnam, ‘Decolonsing the curriculum: what’s all the fuss about?’ Study at SOAS Blog, January 18th, 2017, https://www.soas.ac.uk/blogs/study/decolonising-curriculum-whats-the-fuss/
SOAS Academic, Meera Sabaratnam, discusses the representations of the decolonising SOAS campaign in the mainstream media. She unpacks the argument made by several news outlets that SOAS is attempting to ban white philosophers. Sabaratnam emphasises that the key aim of the campaign is both to raise the profile of non-European thinkers as well as to critically assess the context from which white authors are writing.
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, ‘The University and the Undercommons,’ in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013) pp.22-41 (Full pdf. version at: http://www.minorcompositions.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/undercommons-web.pdf)
Harney and Moten make the case that the university represents and reproduces systemic inequity. The university achieves this by creating imagined binaries between subjects and objects studied. The university claims subjectivity is inherently inferior to rational objectivity, dismissing personal experience as not simply biased but irrelevant. The university reproduces racialized and gendered hierarchies within their labour force, as those whose experiences lie outside white hetero-patriarchal norms cannot be professional as they are merely the objects – as opposed to agents – of study. Thus the university provides space for and actively encourages white supremacy. As such Harney and Moten conclude that the university cannot simply be ‘restored’ or ‘reformed’ but must be abolished.