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Why is my curriculum still white?

Why is my curriculum still white?

Categories: Latest News

Monday May 17 2021

Whilst the Black Lives Matters movement over the last year has reinvigorated efforts to dismantling structures of oppression, effective systematic change within educational spaces remains pending. Within universities, the persistent absence of BAME academics from curricula and reading lists, have renewed calls to decolonise education. These campaigns, situated against broader efforts to reclaim the narrative (Why is my curriculum white?, Rhodes Must fall, decolonisation in Cambridge), seek to examine the pervasive whiteness of our academic canon and confront the UK’s colonial past. Indeed, only by confronting the past and decolonising education can we hope to challenge structural racism more widely.

A primary concern of the decolonising education movement is the entrenchment of western hegemonic discourse that serves to devalue BAME worldviews. A report by Teach First on the lack of Black authors on AQA English literature syllabus (echoing a petition calling for authors of colour to be added to the GCSE reading list) casts a sharp focus on the marked underrepresentation of BAME authors, academics and lecturers from educational institutions. The report noted that some pupils could complete their entire education up to secondary school without once studying a non-white author. Similarly, only up to 11% of GCSE students are studying modules that examine the contribution of Black people to Britain, with less than 1 in 10 studying a module that focuses on ‘empire’ – this is despite both issues being fundamental to contemporary British history and life. Where authorship and academia are only imagined through whiteness, an exclusionary syllabus contributes to the erasure of Black history and upholds racial hierarchies. By virtue of their ubiquity in curriculums and mainstream discourses, Eurocentric, male and hetero-normative outlooks are given unquestioned legitimacy. For this disparity to be addressed, it is essential that BAME students see themselves represented in their syllabi as possessing an equal right to authorship.

Far from a process of replacing or eliminating Western academics from reading lists (as universities minister Sam Gyimah seems to suggest), decolonising the curriculum seeks to better understand the context under which the ideas originated. Indeed, the role of background and identity in shaping outlook is pertinent in properly critiquing ideas. The works of enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume and John Locke are widely analysed yet rarely critiqued in light of their racial prejudices. Some have even argued that the scientific racism that characterised the 19th century was only possible because of foundations laid down by enlightenment thinkers. This is why decolonising the curriculum goes beyond simply diversifying syllabi seeking to unpack the inherent biases within existing scholarship and question the supposed intellectual superiority of western hegemonic thought. By situating traditional scholarship within legacies of colonialism and imperialism that are still palpable to BAME communities to this day, it reforms our curriculum in a manner that offers a more equitable, relevant and accurate version of reality.

The Achilles’ heel of the efforts towards decolonising education remains the institutional hold on knowledge production. Research by the Guardian shows only a fifth of universities are willing to challenge the colonial legacies of their institutions. Likewise, the government has hampered efforts to include anti-racism teaching by preventing teachers from using resources from organisations that take anti-capitalist stances, including Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. If critical thought is the bedrock of academia, decolonising education, aiming to disrupt normative modes of thinking, upholds academic standards and integrity. The government’s intervention only serves to hinder educational development. In seeking to stifle debate, the government actively reproduces Eurocentric bias designed to marginalise oppressed voices at sites of knowledge production.

Similarly, the exclusion of people of colour within the workforce and positions of leadership directly impacts the creation of alternative forms of knowledge. BAME staff are significantly underrepresented in the higher education sector; constituting only 2% of the total academic population and 0% in senior positions in 2018-19. For BAME students, the lack of relatable mentors and role models can affect their sense of belonging as well as compound the ethnic minority attainment gap. The recruitment and promotion of BAME academics and teachers are, therefore, integral to reforming institutional cultures and shaping course content.  Where syllabi traditionally present a whitewashed version of history, BAME educators can offer diversity in teaching to provide a more nuanced, comprehensive and rigorous narrative that can, in turn, empower students to disrupt the status quo.

However, decolonising education operates deeper than isolated courses of action. Hiring more BAME employers, and adding more BAME authors to curricula, vital as they may be, do not address the structural racisms that foment these inequalities. Diversity and inclusion practices are notorious for their tokenism, increasing representation of BAME within their workforces, whilst perpetuating racial disparities. Similarly, placing the onus of change on black communities, (a report on racism at Goldsmiths University, found that BAME students were assigned the responsibility of curriculum reform) results in tokenistic actions not impelled by one’s sense of injustice but only to placate the collective ire of BAME communities. Instead, the decolonising education movement requires individuals and institutions to refocus the gaze inwards to interrogate their own biases and positionality in the racial hierarchy. Indeed, those upholding structural inequalities are in the best position to dismantle them.

For a systematic change, institutions must be willing to confront the colonial legacies of their establishments and the impact of their own biases in reproducing racisms, as uncomfortable as it may be. Through engaging with grassroots organisations and implementing recommendations made by the communities at the forefront of the Black Lives Matter and decolonising education movement, we can seek to usher in institutional reform in the hope of a more equitable academic experience.


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