Decolonising higher education

Disclaimer

While the University takes decolonisation seriously and is taking active steps to make its library collections and curricula more inclusive and representative of a wider range of authors who are women and/or representative of different ethnic and cultural perspectives, the following post remains the personal opinion of the post author and does not necessarily reflect the views of the University.  

Decolonisation – what it is and why we should all care about it

Racially mixed group of students socialising in the Library Coffee Shop (prior to social distancing measures).We all have an original nature, with our own authentic wants and needs.  We act spontaneously.  Then we meet other people.  Very soon, who and what we want to become and even who we believe ourselves to be becomes influenced or even defined by others.  Such internalised messages can become self-limiting, and the friction between the self-concept imposed from without and a person’s true nature within can be painful and may even result in mental ill-health (Dykes, Postings,  Kopp, & Crouch, 2017, p. 179).  For repressed groups, such as women and Black, Asian and minority ethinicity (BAME) people, the messages received about who a person is and what they should be are often harmful and repressive.  These groups are systematically shown that that they do not matter to society, not least through the lack of BAME role models and the abrogation of their cultural heritage.  BAME women suffer intersectional repression and are among the hardest hit.

Systems of oppression overlap and interact.  BAME people of sexual, ethnic, racial and religious minorities, and women in general, face particularly severe intersectional repression.  For example, women, BAME people, and in particular black women, are seriously underrepresented in both higher education and libraries in general.  Even in librarianship, where most professionals are women, the number of women, and in particular black women, reaching leadership roles is vanishingly small.  Such intersectional oppression makes it even more difficult for them to find acceptance and thereby to learn to accept themselves.  The near complete lack of BAME representation in staff makes services less approachable for BAME students, while the lack of BAME representation in the scholarly literature makes examples used in learning harder for BAME students to relate to taught content.  Lack of representation imposes psychological hurdles to achievement at all levels and generally makes their lives harder, more stressful and more tiring.  To grow up BAME risks being defined and limited by those around you and to see the world through a lens not of your own making.

Taking a step back

To take a broader perspective for a moment, this links tangentially to the marketisation of education, which has focused the education process on the delivery of a marketable graduate product; students have become a known and uniform commodity produced to the specifications of prospective employers.  This model is efficient but assumes that students all want and benefit from this deliberate restructuring of thought rather than helping each student grow as an individual.  Creating a space in which each student can develop and reach their full potential, with no preconceived ideas of what that might look like or what they might go on to achieve, we might end up with a more versatile, healthier and happier, if less uniform product.  Such a humanistic approach would require faith in our students and their ability to right themselves, develop, grow and become the best authentic version of themselves they can be (Dykes et al., 2017). It requires an exploratory library collection be provided to satisfy the curiosity of each student rather than a prescriptive syllabus, and the courage to believe such graduates who know what they want from life will be as or more employable and/or entrepreneurial than those we currently produce.  It is worth noting that this approach to education is dying out despite seeming to sitting hand-in-hand with the decolonisation, democratisation and liberalisation of education.

Inclusivity, representation and ‘the attainment gap problem’

In a drive to widen access to higher education, universities recruited more students from ethnic minorities without making adjustments to adequately support them.  These pioneers into higher education entered an almost exclusively white culture without relatable role models, texts, perspectives or authorities outside the western, white cultural tradition.  It was little surprise that these student BAME pioneers, isolated and uninspired, demotivated by their conspicuous otherness from academic texts and forced to fit into a world where they were made to feel they were being admitted as a favour but did not truly belong, that these minorities began to drop out or underachieve (Universities UK, 2019).  Universities were then attacked by the populist media and accused of admitting people without the academic potential to succeed and damaging education by casting out parts of the accepted scholarly canon for the sake of political correctness (Turner, 2017; “Decolonisation is not a commodity”, 2019).  

What is familiar is not necessarily best:  western medicine would have stalled for want of Arabic insights, mathematics would have faltered for want of fundamental concepts such as ‘zero’ from India and the abacus of the far east.  If people find change difficult individually, and psychologists confirm they do, history suggests that the inertia that governs groups of people is even harder to overcome.  Planning and resourcing change, making small incremental changes, fiddling around the edges, is easy.   There is now social pressure on universities for academia to become more inclusive from black academics and social thinkers such as René Eddo-Lodge together with legal pressure from government fundholders to close the BAME attainment gap but there is growing concern that good will and reasonable measures may be insufficient to bring about the revolutionary change many believe is necessary to change an education tradition in the UK that stretches back to before the fall of the Aztec Empire.  

The modern decolonisation movement

Hence we arrive at today’s ‘decolonisation’.  The term implies radical activism directed to restructure and refocus education such that it represents world cultures equitably and representatively and exposes students to the full gamut of perspectives that exist.  This is more than challenging, it is a revolutionary concept.  The literature and accepted authorities in education are all white, and almost all men.  With the best will in the world, finding authoritative texts, articles and viewpoints that have made it through scholarly publication processes is in itself a challenge. The barriers to black, female and other minority voices in academia therefore reach far beyond universities themselves.  Invisible barriers are integral to the systems that grant authority and govern visibility in academia.  They are part of a self-sustaining culture of white, male privilege so ubiquitous and widely accepted that is intrinsically hard to attack, even from within.  Di Angelo (2011) characterised the defensive culture of western society when challenged to acknowledge white privilege.  Gohr (2017) accused organisational structures of perpetuating institutionalised racism “by upholding white hegemony and normalizing whiteness and the white experience,” and that “to try and ‘solve’ the problem of diversity … rooted within the culture and structure, … which is inherently defined by and functions according to a white, unrepresentative worldview.”  

Academic culture struggles to change because its authority rests on appeals to established authorities dating back along an unbroken line of white male thought going back to Antiquity.  It recognises worthy new contributions to scholarship by their relationship to and grounding in the established literature of the academic tradition.  Overlapping filters of academic style, argument formulation and later dissemination systems have excluded the contributions of women, BAME people, and anyone else not inducted into the ecclesiastical scholarship system.  If change is to take place, academia will have to acknowledge its racist inheritance and effect a sea change in the culture of academic, welcoming ideas from much wider literary traditions and critiquing them on their own terms, not necessarily how well they fit the western scholarship model.  This is further complicated by the danger of radical differentiation from the tradition: institutions of learning are required to look and feel like they fit into the tradition in order to share in the respect society has for the tradition of the educational process, which is revealed by the aversion to any change to be far more of a love of fetishistic ritual than learning itself.  

So what can be done?

No-one pretends that overturning racism that is woven invisibly into the social consciousness as normal and thereby implicating the western world of complicity in a global racist conspiracy to persecute those hailing from elsewhere is a realistic business plan.  However, if we are to end racism and close the attainment gap, we must recruit and promote more black academics and women, rebalance our collections, our teaching and our public discourse.  

The most dangerous norm until recently was that very few people would acknowledge that there was a problem, or if there was that it was serious, endemic and so deeply rooted that it could survive a well-intentioned strategic initiative.  Yet it has been found that engagement policies often serve to further burden minorities while relieving those in power of the responsibility of dismantling the systems of oppression, leading to the argument that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.  

Real change is difficult and dangerous in an endemically racist society; the powerful diversity industry is working hard to magnify critical calls for revolutionary change.  Yet as attempts are made to find acceptable ways for organisations to turn their existing approaches to decolonisation, there is a real risk that a reliance on traditional politically and financially accepted strategic business processes are incapable of the revolutionary change that needs to re-establish academia on a more egalitarian knowledge base and reconceive its teaching and library collections to match.  Such change would be uncomfortably expensive, disruptive, and would likely call into question much established scholarly opinion.  In short, it is fundamentally unwelcome.  It allows the status quo to sustain itself, encourages incremental, marginal change to be substituted for radical upheaval, and ultimately protects the established status quo.  It is only natural that people are unwilling to dismantle the systems of privilege, understanding and power that raised and maintain them. 

In education, serious efforts are being made to balance collections and syllabi, and encourage critical examination of the impact of learning a biased canon, helping slowly shift education.  The risk is that change may become watered down over time, resulting in a more neutral and politically safe approach to integrating some more diverse materials on the side of the existing canon rather than taking a fresh, balanced look at the world’s knowledge and reconsidering all the big questions in light of this (Chaudhury, 2019). 

Decolonisation has started but it needs us all to take ownership and responsibility for pursuing it with the urgency it so desperately needs.

Summary

  • Academia has inherited a system of scholarship that is sexist, racist and exclusive.  It is the last acceptable face of racism and enables racism to continue in mainstream society.  In order to right the system and balance the syllabus and the body of literature on which it rests, nothing less than revolutionary change in scholarship and academic librarianship is required.  
  • BAME students and staff find themselves subject to racism, lack role models and find the scholarly literature bereft of contributions from outside the white, male western canon and so have little if anything to which they can relate.  Both have been pointed out as key factors that cause and maintain the BAME attainment gap in higher education (Universities UK, 2019).  
  • Everyone must work together and invest heavily in making good this long-standing prejudice.  Real change is expensive, difficult and dangerous, and real efforts have been made to transform this unpalatable process into a familiar strategic commitment that can be easily weakened and forgotten over time.  It is a testament to the all-pervasive and self-erasing nature of endemic discrimination that it can erase its passage even as it smothers revolution in its infancy.

References

Chaudhuri, A. (2016, March 16). The long read: The real meaning of Rhodes must fall. The Guardian.  Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/16/the-real-meaning-of-rhodes-must-fall

Decolonisation not a commodity. (March 12, 2019). The Herald (South Africa).  Retrieved from https://advance.lexis.com/document/

Decolonise UKC: Through the kaleidoscope. Retrieved from https://decoloniseukc.org/

Di Angelo, R. (2011). White fragility. The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54–70. Retrieved from http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/view/249

Dykes, F. B., Postings, T., Kopp, B., & Crouch, A. (2017). Counselling skills and studies (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Gohr, M. (2017).  Ethnic and racial diversity in libraries: How white allies can support arguments for decolonization.  Journal of Radical Librarianship, 3, 42-58. Retrieved from https://journal.radicallibrarianship.org/index.php/journal/article/view/5/33

Turner, C. (October 25, 2017). Cambridge University ‘decolonisation’ row spreads to host of other courses.  The Telegraph.  Retrieved from https://advance.lexis.com/

Universities UK. (2019). Black, asian and minority ethnic student attainment at UK universities: #closingthegap. Retrieved from https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2019/bame-student-attainment-uk-universities-closing-the-gap.pdf

Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge a great intellectual and moral debt to all the speakers at the CILIP International Libraries and Information Group (ILIG) conference on Decolonising library collections and practices held at Cardiff Metropolitan University on 25 November 2019.  Without their insight and teaching, this article would not have been possible.

I have recited here the plain truth about the state of racial equality in higher education as told to me BAME academics and as supported by the available evidence.  It makes for upsetting reading.  I am a white man working as a manager in higher education and as culpable as everyone else for sleepwalking through the nightmare of social inequity into which we were born.  We are not responsible for the faults of our forebears but future generations will hold us accountable for our actions, or lack thereof, now that the inequities within western culture and academic have been laid bare.  It is beholden on those who have the privilege to speak out on behalf of those who have none.  Certainly, it is not fair to expect the oppressed to carry the burden of effecting social change all on their own.  It is necessary to speak the truth plainly so that the most unpalatable truths become inescapable.  It is necessary to write urgently because the situation is dire and the opportunity for decolonisation to level the playing field and enrich our lives is slipping away even as I write this.  It is necessary to provoke and offend because emotion drives action, and collective revolutionary action by those with power on an unprecedented, inconvenient and very challenging scale is what is necessary to reimagine the western educational paradigm from an unwittingly conservative force that maintains the inequity of prevailing social norms and gives representative.

* I am aware that many people seriously dislike the acronym BAME because it arbitrarily groups together all those who are ‘othered’, who are not the privileged white majority into one convenient acronym while simultaneously classifying cultures and ethnicities universally as minorities which are blatantly only minorities here in the UK.  In doing so, this acronym marginalises those it seeks to represent and downlays the rich diversity within the group.  Despite all this, BAME is simply too convenient and widely recognised an acronym for me not to use it here.

~ David E Bennett
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