"It is not enough to throw Things Fall Apart onto the reading list"Prachatai

The CUSU BME Campaign recently held an event asking the question “Why is my curriculum white?”. We invited Adam Eliot-Cooper, a PhD student at Oxford studying black resistance to police brutality and co-founder of a Facebook group of the same name, to examine what it means to have our curricula dominated by white men. This is a question that becomes more pertinent as the years go by. As a person of colour studying a subject dominated by white faces, the Euro-centric curriculum often acts as just another reminder that what we value as literary critics, as historians, as scientists, are the works shaped by the oppressive nature of society. And this is an institution that claims to possess some of the highest standards for acquiring knowledge through research.

When I, as an English student, cannot formally study a single person who looks like me for the first two years of my degree, what I am being subjected to is a violent form of erasure. People of colour, women, and trans people are quite literally being written out of history, our contributions ignored. This becomes so normalised that our invisibility is not even discussed, not addressed, laughed off in lectures. That you are considered a silent nuisance if you insist on reaching for queer or postcolonial texts, or refuse to ignore the oppression evident in them in your weekly essay, speaks volumes.

There is the maintenance of power and structural disadvantage in being made to constantly study the work of white men without any critical framework that allows us to question why that is. This kind of thinking is so insidious that our idea of ‘high culture’ is often defined by how many white male writers we can rattle off at parties. Well, have you read Foucault? Do you like Auden? What do you think of Proust and so on?

This isn’t to say that white men have not contributed anything to our understandings of the world, but it is ludicrous to treat their works as if they are the only seminal texts. Cooper argued that if the clothes we wear, the desks we sit at, the institution to which we belong, if all of those things have been made through the exploitation of former colonies and the global south, then we have a moral duty, at the very least, to treat the ideas of those people with dignity. We should consider them robustly and in place of standard European texts. This is about more than tokenism – it is not enough to throw Things Fall Apart onto the reading list. We have to first address the ideological reasons behind this institution’s insistence to rely on a singular form of white knowledge and then radically reform our curricula in order to deal with this.

We do this not only by including a diverse range of voices and experiences in our study but also by expanding our idea of what is worthy of study. We must do away with the snobbery attached to “lower forms” of literature and art; what is needed is serious critical engagement with them. How do the real life experiences of grassroots scholars impact academia? Is there space for political and feminist readings of YouTube videos, blogs and everything that exists outside of the white male paradigm?

If we continue to only study one kind of knowledge, our ideas exist within a paradigm that refuses to admit the differences between us. At the very least, there should be some recognition of the racism, sexism and other forms of oppressions evident in the texts that we study. It is useless to pretend that Dickens “spoke the language of humanity” or that white male authors can articulate any other experience than one that is white and male. The effect of the white curriculum is such that we have imbued white male writers with the power and authority to speak for everyone; minority students often try and find themselves grasping at texts that were not written for them in an attempt to find a shared humanity that is based on their exclusion. We must rid ourselves of the idea that there is an inherent value in studying texts that are violently misogynistic or racist without acknowledging that they do great harm to the readers. If we are asked to study aestheticised depictions of violence against women, from domestic violence to rape, but refuse to look at such texts through a critical framework and instead insist on seeing it as “art for art’s sake”, we contribute to a society that privileges masculinist ways of thinking whilst ensuring the continuance of rape culture.

What we study and how we study it is important because it shapes the lens through which we see the world. If we only view the world through the eyes of the structurally privileged, if our curriculums continue to rely on the ideas of white men, that lens is clouded and becomes harmful to other people. There are scholars at grassroots levels, working in community centres and hospitals and youth groups doing the same kind of intellectual work as those trapped in the ivory tower; it is just that we are better able to recognise an article or a peer-reviewed journal than we are the merits of practical work. We should be able to study anyone and everyone who is not a white cis heterosexual able-bodied man in and out of academic settings. But it must not just be done in a way that means stepping aside to let their voices in: they must be afforded the entire stage.