We severely limit our understanding of world history if we only study non-whites in relation to colonialismTropenmuseum

Last week Oxford University announced that it was making it compulsory for history undergraduate students to take one non-European paper in an attempt to make the course less Eurocentric, with papers being offered on figures such as Martin Luther King and Ghandi. The ‘Why Is My Curriculum So White?' movement, which has become increasingly prominent in the last couple of years, has shed light on the failure of universities across Britain to engage with non-white history. Indeed, the erasure of minority history is a legacy of colonialism’s attempt to portray indigenous people as barbaric and therefore justify Western intervention.

"This is a common theme when it comes to minority history: we only like to talk about non-white history when it is in relation to whites."

Yet one of the issues raised by Oxford’s new scheme is the overwhelming focus on minority history being modern. While it’s undoubtedly a step forward, it perpetuates the myth of medieval history and other older forms of pre-modern European history being purely white and Christian, a myth which books such as Black Africans in Renaissance Europe and A History of Islamic Spain attempt to dispel, as well as Twitter accounts such as @MedievalPOC.

The focus on modern history when it comes to race is a common one, and the truth is that a lot of people come to Cambridge having rarely studied the history of non-whites, unless it is about transatlantic slavery or Indian independence. I attended a secondary school which had a high proportion of BME students and because of this the teachers did make more of an attempt to focus more on minority history. However, this attempt seemed to consist of teaching us the 1960s civil rights movement in America three out of five years we were there, and then again every Black History Month.

While this is certainly an important episode in US history, the history of race in America deserves better treatment, and should stretch back further than the War of Independence to look at Native American society before Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the Americas. It should also link this history to the present day, where highly-relevant documentaries such as 13th on Netflix describe how since the end of slavery, the notion of black criminality emerged in order to justify the mass incarceration and subsequent disenfranchisement of African-Americans which exists today.

Although I have only just completed my first year, I am already looking forward to my third year when in particular I can study the history of Latin America, which, especially as a person with Brazilian heritage, seems overwhelmingly excluded from mainstream historiography, except when we talk about European colonialism. This is a common theme when it comes to minority history: we only like to talk about non-white history when it is in relation to whites. For example, you would be hard-pressed to find papers on topics such as ancient African societies or medieval Islam on the majority of university syllabuses.

It has commonly been argued by those opposed to moves as the one introduced by Oxford, that British universities should have a British focus. However, in the increasingly globalised world we live in today, it is important to understand perspectives which challenge the Eurocentric approach which many of us suffer from. It is wrong to think that we can disentangle European history from the rest of the world and study it in isolation. Oxford’s reforms are a positive step on the road to a better understanding of world history, yet our view remains distorted, and far more ought to be done in order to combat this throughout all stages of education

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