By Naomi Packer.
Karma Nabulsi begins her keynote address by outlining some of the key issues at stake. How do campaigners come to agree on what de-colonisation means, and how do universities engage with this change? Nabulsi posits that answers to these questions are found in the anti-colonial struggles of the past, and, in particular, in the stories of those who directly fought against inequality through creating what she describes as “a true solidarity.” “In order to move forward,” she states, “we simply need to open the road behind us.”
Nabulsi begins by noting that our education system does not inform us about the pervasive presence of colonialism. She explains that educating institutions and individuals of unconscious bias was an approach adopted to address what was (and in many ways, remains) “invisible to most”: the concept of institutional racism. It’s undeniable that most of Britain’s colonial past is cut off from the present day and the way in which its “pervasive presence” continues to shape us is at best overshadowed, and at worst, outright ignored.
“Racism manufactures a ‘cloak of invisibility’ for the privileged classes”
Nabulsi argues that this “collective failure” can be seen in the processes and behaviour which amount to discrimination and that disadvantage those from minority ethnic backgrounds. The rationale of attempts to educate society about racial inequality was that of waking it from a self-induced “cultural coma.” Yet Nabulsi notes that despite efforts to the converse, the British school system still teaches WWII as the seminal moment of British engagement with foreign nations. She claims that racism manufactures a ‘cloak of invisibility’ for the privileged classes, and that events such as the murder of Stephen Lawrence made the invisible, visible; forcing a much-needed discussion about the role of class and race in modern British society.
As her keynote progresses Nabulsi approaches the inevitable: Oxford’s role in the history of colonialism. “For if the engine room of this division creating colonial machine is anywhere, it is Oxford where empire’s production began,” she declares. From Stephen Lawrence, to T.E. Lawrence, Nabulsi attempts to link the present to the past. One is struck by Nabulsi’s obvious intelligence and passion for her subject; yet despite this, at times her talk felt stilted and inaccessible. The intricacies of certain historical and literary figures seem lost on some in the audience – it would perhaps have been useful to remember (as Nabulsi has herself acknowledged) that many attending have little knowledge of colonial struggle, and so at certain points there’s the sense that a foundation of knowledge of the topic is presumed. This, combined with occasionally verbose language, means that it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate the depth of knowledge she’s attempting to impart, not for want of trying.
“If the engine room of this division creating colonial machine is anywhere, it is Oxford where empire’s production began.”
Yet she regains momentum when speaking of more well-known polemic figures, and her keynote is at its strongest when she traces the influence of colonial figures to modern-day Oxford. Here at Oxford, people are beginning to understand the role those such as Lawrence and Rhodes had in “annihilating, destroying, dismembering and fragmenting” indigenous people and their lands. Students have begun to research the roles that historical figures have played in instilling, and emphasising the value of, particular colonial values. Yet, despite these efforts, much of the invisibility of this period of history remains. “How,” she asks, “do we make it visible?” It’s a question which does not provide an easy answer.
Nabulsi is reluctant to allow us to define ourselves as “victims.” So how should we define ourselves? She notes that our identity, or, as she terms it, our ‘tradition’ may once again be found through opening the roads behind us, and doing so allows us to see our own anti-colonial history in Oxford. Most notably, she speaks of Rajani Palme Dutt (referred to as Palme Dutt in her talk) as evidence. Dutt was regarded as the most brilliant Marxist analyst in the English-speaking world. Suspended from Oxford due to his status as a conscientious objector during World War I, his thought was framed by his anti-imperialism.
“At least for my part, I feel attached to Oxford as my home and my place of study yet I remain distinctly aware of its shortcomings.”
Listening to Nabulsi speak, it’s obvious from her account of his life that he is someone who demonstrates the importance and value that can be found in challenging one’s institution. It’s a sentiment which may resonate with many people of colour. I know that, at least for my part, I feel attached to Oxford as my home and my place of study yet I remain distinctly aware of its shortcomings. We must all continue to challenge our institution, and it’s clear from this keynote address that by looking to our University’s past, we may more thoroughly examine the successes and failures of its present.