By Naomi Packer.
Sitting in the audience of this panel the first thing that strikes me is that everyone on it is female. Furthermore, the majority are women of colour. For a brief moment I acknowledge how rare it is to be faced with a panel of all-female academics. The panel is comprised of exceptional women: Eden Bailey, the outgoing OUSU VP for Access and Outreach, Ankhi Mukherjee, Oxford Professor of English and World Literatures, and Melz Owusu, grime artist and ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ campaigner doing her masters in Philosophy at the University Leeds. All of them are inspiring; none of them are without strong opinions on the way in which minorities have been marginalised by the British curricula.
When considering whether the subaltern can speak at Oxford, Ankhi Mukherjee notes that we should bear in mind three questions. Firstly, who is welcome to speak; secondly, what knowledge is valued; and thirdly, why are some aspects of our curricula questioned while others remained unchallenged? These questions proceed to guide the discussion.
“Moving away from a colonised curriculum,” notes Mukherjee, requires a “thorough examination of the canonical method.” She notes that while the study of literature is steadily moving away from a euro-centric world view, to do so completely would require a complete overhaul of both an internalised ideology and the staff teaching the course in question. “Chronology,” Mukherjee states “is euro-chronology, in a sense,” and, as a consequence, analysis will at times appear racist, sexist and xenophobic. Yet despite the understandable pessimism one might feel, she notes with optimism that most UK scholars will make a conscious effort to engage disparate voices; they are mindful that literature’s value extends beyond the privileged classes.
“The sun has not set on the British Empire.”
Most interestingly, Mukherjee warned of the danger of seeing privilege through a British lense, noting how Oxford, despite claiming to be an ‘international university’ only appeared concerned with the inequality caused by the British class system. It’s a point which I feel many, myself included, are guilty of ignoring and Mukherjee emphasises how there must be an intersection between access efforts at home with those abroad. It’s true that many have a tendency to focus solely on the need to encourage those from low-income and minority ethnic backgrounds in the UK to apply to elite institutions like Oxford. But it is fair to say that in doing so we may be acting to our detriment.
As the pioneer for the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ campaign at the University of Leeds, Melz delivers an indictment of racism and classism within the British higher education system as a whole. She notes how students from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are 16% less likely to achieve a ‘good’ degree and that though the attainment gap may shrink as students move through university, this doesn’t mean that the inequality ceases. She states that this can partly be attributed to the education system’s reluctance to allow students to think outside the box of white supremacy, a point which is further emphasised by Mukharjee.
“She points to Immanuel Kant. He remains a prominent figure in the philosophy curriculum, yet he thought that black people were less than human.”
“The sun has not set on the British Empire,” Melz says, arguing that the current education system demonstrates this. She points to Immanuel Kant. He remains a prominent figure in the philosophy curriculum, yet he thought that black people were less than human. The position which such thinkers hold in the academic hierarchy demonstrate how deeply racist ideology is rooted in our education system. In order to combat this, we must ensure that such figures are analysed with a certain degree of scepticism.
Eden Bailey is a recent graduate as well as a prominent figure within OUSU. As the chair of the discussion, she reflects upon how easy it is for one to progress through their whole education without really appreciating the role of the British Empire and the erasure of people of colour. She questions how students can begin to contend with this level of ignorance, despite there being no blame on their part for a lack of knowledge about colonial history.
“She points out that within rap we could hear subversion, philosophy and intricate political concepts, but many do not listen.”
In response, Melz claims we must challenge the hierarchy of education. “We all have a colonial bias,” she states and, with a change of pace, performs a rap she has written herself. It’s passionate, brilliant, and eloquently challenges societal inequality and racial tension. After her performance (and rapturous reception) she questions why Shakespeare should be considered better than Stormzy. She points out that within rap we could hear subversion, philosophy and intricate political concepts, but many do not listen. It is a challenge which provokes thought, and begs the question of why society doesn’t generally consider rap as legitimate as prose or poetry.
So, if we can all acknowledge that Oxford, and other universities’ curricula are overwhelmingly white, why has no significant change has occurred? Eden Bailey notes the importance of a productive relationship between those who want to change the curriculum and those who have the power to make such alterations. As the former Vice President for Access and Academic Affairs; she states that in her experience, activists are often given a plethora of excuses for why change and improvement are impossible. She suggests that institutions are threatened by people challenging the ideologies which fund their livelihoods.
“This sort of reform would require an almost ‘back to the drawing board’ approach to staffing certain subjects.”
A question from the audience makes the point that what may be considered ‘antiquated’ modules within the curricula disproportionately favour those who have had a private education. In response, Eden argued that it would be difficult for many professors to exclude such modules because it is akin to removing their main area of research. This sort of reform would require an almost ‘back to the drawing board’ approach to staffing certain subjects. Listening to Eden speak, you appreciate the difficulty of striking a balance between the interests of staff and the student body; between paying homage to academic tradition and modernity for the sake of access.
Mukharjee concludes the discussion by stating that, in her opinion, the subaltern has not yet come to Oxford: we haven’t yet provided the bridges to allow her to speak. Different speakers attribute this to different factors. But I find Melz’s analysis the most interesting. She argues that so long as higher education remains a marketised system, no institu
tion is going to want to admit disadvantaged students, meaning that all efforts to promote access under this system will be hindered.
“I remain conscious of the fact that I am sat opposite a panel of passionate, intelligent women from a range of different racial and class backgrounds.”
Melz concludes that this country is built on racism, and that black people aren’t taught that they can achieve in academia. She argues that there is a “cycle of deprivation,” which is maintained by the current government. She makes a persuasive call to action: students of colour must take up space and that institutions must allow them to do so.
At the end of the talk, I’m struck by the multi-faceted reasoning behind our overwhelmingly white curricula. It’s an issue which extends beyond race to factors such as economics, history and gender. But despite the complexity of the issues at hand, and the overwhelming sense that so many have been side-lined from mainstream academia, I remain conscious of the fact that I am sat opposite a panel of passionate, intelligent women from a range of different racial and class backgrounds. It’s an opportunity which rarely presents itself, and for that, I am grateful.