Over the coming term, the BME Campaign hopes to begin shifting the terms upon which students engage with decolonisationLisha Zhong

Since the #RhodesMustFall campaign in South Africa captured international headlines in 2015, students have been mobilising on campuses throughout the UK to demand the decolonisation of their universities. As momentum for this movement continues to grow at the University of Cambridge, so does the urgency of clarifying what exactly campaigners mean by ‘decolonisation’.

‘Diversity’ initiatives are not ‘decolonial’ initiatives. Diversity initiatives simply seek to expand reading lists to include more authors of colour whereas decolonial initiatives start from the premise that colonial power stole and destroyed land, bodies, and knowledge from indigenous people. In practice, this means that diversity initiatives perpetuate the status quo of Eurocentrism whereas decolonial initiatives seek to fundamentally challenge the presumption of Eurocentrism.

Campaigners have argued that in simply including a few non-European voices in historically xenophobic reading lists, diversity initiatives fail to interrogate how the existing academic industrial complex – with all of its historically xenophobic structures – continues to center whiteness and continually place non-white voices on the margins. In other words, they say, the inclusion of authors of color does nothing to challenge Eurocentrism. By contrast, a model of decolonial resistance centres around the role that colonialism plays in perpetuating systemic injustices today, arguing for the need for reparations by Europeans to ex-colonies, de-centering of European ways of being, and re-centering of indigenous perspectives.

Many students and academics have formed working groups to reconsider how existing curricula simultaneously excludes the epistemologies of indigenous people and fails to situate white authors and their theories in a colonial context. However, to rectify this, tokenistic gestures of inclusion are not sufficient. For example, campaigners have critiqued the Politics department for haphazardly adding Fanon and Gandhi to the end of an introductory Politics module without considering the positionality of these authors to the rest of the course. Campaigners argue that adding authors to an ever growing reading list does very little to seriously consider the impact of colonialism in the history of European political thought.

While reforms to the curricula are undoubtedly necessary to displace hegemonic assumptions about the superiority of Western thought, it should be emphasised that this alone cannot lead to decolonisation. Researchers Tuck and Yang have written that decolonisation cannot simply be conflated with calls to adopt more critical pedagogical practices because doing so would reduce decolonisation to a metaphor. Instead, decolonisation must maintain its specifiety in claims to sovereignty by indigenous and colonised people. In other words, to decolonise we must constantly and continually reassess and reconsider our positionality and the spaces we occupy.

Beyond the question of knowledge production, universities have also financially benefited from colonialism. Glasgow University recently announced that it would pay reparations after publishing a report that the institution directly benefitted from the slave trade in Africa and the Caribbean “to the tune of almost £200m in today’s money.”

Cambridge’s partnerships with Caterpillar Inc. and BAE Systems through the Cambridge Alliance Service have come under recent scrutiny, as 40 University student groups have called for Cambridge to boycott the companies due to their involvement in conflicts in the Middle East.

Cambridge’s colonial heritage remains apparent within the University’s walls. Trinity College has permanently loaned Australian Gweagal spears to the University’s Museum of Anthropology and Archeology (MAA), refusing to repatriate collected colonial artifacts, while Churchill College’s namesake is a Prime Minister who overlooked the crisis of the Bengal famine due to his own dehumanisation of colonised peoples.

Last year, students and academics of colour involved in decolonial work at Cambridge were harassed by the national press. A Daily Mail piece headlined ‘How CAN Cambridge let this hate-filled don pour out her racist bile?’ attacked Churchill academic Dr Priyamvada Gopal, an advocate for decolonisation of Cambridge’s English curriculum, for criticising an Oxford theologian as being a colonial apologist. The University’s failure to provide explicit support demonstrated its continued privileging of white comfort over the security of coloured students and staff.


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Over the coming term, the BME Campaign hopes to begin shifting the terms upon which students engage with decolonisation. By rooting the university decolonisation movement in its sociohistorical context and its origins, we hope to inspire a re-imagining a radically different university. For those of us invested in carrying forward localised decolonial resistance, we must recognise how the University continues to uphold imperialistic power. Reforms to pedagogy (including changing the curricula, reevaluating hiring practices, and funding for research) must work side-by-side with social justice movements in working toward creating a decolonised university.

As we return to this Michaelmas term and resume our various working groups, we must be critical in how decolonisation rhetoric is accepted and adopted: that it is not being co-opted by the very oppression we are seeking to dismantle. 

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