Decolonising the curriculum – a ‘serious need’?
In July of last year our photography lead Gina Lundy shared a student’s learning log post that complained of the under-representation of Black and Minority Ethnic photographers in the Expressing Your Vision course. It was a strongly worded grievance and as the author and unit leader I felt I had a duty to address it. So I went back to the coursebook to see if I could understand where she was coming from. EYV was written with globalism very much in mind – several Japanese and other non-western photographers and theorists are referenced prominently in the text and one of the case studies speaks directly to cultural identity from a non-white perspective. I felt EYV was a progressive course – it didn’t need ‘decolonising’. I wrote to the student acknowledging that black photographers were ‘woefully under-represented’ but pointing out what we’d already done to make the course more inclusive. Nevertheless, a student who identifies as Black and/or Minority Ethnic had reported a sense of alienation – was I sure that my understanding was correct?
There is plenty of evidence of racial inequality within higher education (see the reports on the Advance HE website below for example), but how does that manifest itself within the curriculum? In an article on the ‘Discover Society’ website Harshad Keval claims that decolonising the curriculum ‘re-positions who and what gets to occupy the centre and the margins of ideas and society’ while in their e-book ‘Decolonising the University’ Gurminder Bhambra and Delia Gebrial ask what are the silences within the curriculum? Which events, processes and structures are not being addressed? Over on the SOAS blog Meera Sabaratnam raises the identity of the writer, asking ‘would we find it acceptable if the writings and teachings on the situation of women and gender relations were done almost exclusively by men? How would this influence the kinds of perspectives presented? Similarly, is it acceptable if writings and teachings about international regions or global affairs are done almost exclusively by writers from or based within the West? How does this influence our understanding?’
These were complex questions and feeling an acute need to deepen my understanding I took myself down to Cambridge in January for the ‘African Photo Symposium’ at Anglia Ruskin University. Subtitled ‘Telling our tales through ambiguous photography: Decolonizing the visual library of the African continent’ the symposium included speakers from Ghana, Kenya, Mexico and Zambia as well as the West. I found the questions illuminating, for instance ‘when you showed it to the community was there a conversation about what was missing?’ and ‘the camera is a western apparatus, any thoughts about how to make local critical photographies?’ Surprisingly to me, the opening speaker and moderator of the panel discussion was white. Questioned on what significance this might have on her work in Africa Dr. Andrea Stultiens replied that to her decolonising meant adding perspective, not changing from one perspective to another: ‘I’m making my gaze relative by placing other gazes next to it’. This idea of relational ontologies was a common theme throughout the day but I was beginning to understand that decolonisation is also a matter of framing – ‘rather than rule out knowledge that has developed in Western Europe and North America, it seeks to situate it as produced in relation to the range of knowledges outside of European thinkers, but crucially – and as a result of colonial and imperial power’ (my italics) (Keval).
Then in March, just a few days before the lockdown, I attended a talk at Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery by Daniel Blight on his new book ‘The Image of Whiteness, Contemporary Photography and Racialization’. To quote from Sunil Shah’s review on American Suburb X ‘the book’s central thesis is that ‘whiteness’ is a social construct configured as a system of power, still in play today and that to be part, unconsciously or otherwise, of this system is to be complicit with being racist’. In other words, Blight was saying that as a white person I am conditioned to see the world through a lens of ‘whiteness’ which is not about my skin colour but rather a way of thinking. And that way of thinking excludes. Daniel Blight is white: ‘I am implicated by and inside my argument – implicated by my own subjectivity’. He ended his talk by asking ‘why aren’t more white people willing to become vulnerable to this Gordian knot?’ I bought the book and looked up Blight’s essays on 1000 Words, American Suburb X and Vogue Italia (!). Then came lockdown and a week later Dan Robinson our acting Photography lead asked me on Zoom ‘can you write a blog post about decolonising the curriculum?’
Actually I wasn’t sure, because from the reading I’d done and the conversations I’d had I had come to see that I am implicated in the issue in a way that I hadn’t previously realised. I therefore decided to write the post as an account of my personal journey towards understanding what ‘decolonising’ means. I also wanted to highlight the value of ‘student voice’ – of speaking up. Of course, speaking up won’t have any value if nothing is done. The OCA’s recent strategic overview document (available on the OCA website) envisions a student-led approach, making the curriculum ‘sensitive to global and cultural contexts’ and ‘closing equality gaps’. This vision has the potential to be transformative, but we need to be alert because decolonising is not just a matter of ‘add colour and stir’ (Bhambra), it ‘requires a sustained and serious commitment within the institution and across the sector’ (Sabaratnam). But perhaps first of all we need self-critique. As bell hooks notes, ‘If much of the recent work on race grows out of a sincere commitment to cultural transformation, then there is a serious need for immediate and persistent self-critique… this interrogation itself becomes an act of critical intervention, fundamentally fostering an attitude of vigilance rather than denial’.
References (lockdown friendly)
Advance HE. 2020. Equality in higher education: statistical report 2017. [ONLINE] <https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/equality-higher-education-statistical-report-2017>[Accessed 11 April 2020]
Bhambra, GK, Gebrial, D & Nişancıolu, K (eds) 2018. Decolonising the University, Pluto Press, London. 9 [Available from UCA Library electronic collection]
Blight, DC., 2019. The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization, SPBH Editions (Self Publish, Be Happy) and Art on the Underground, New York, N.Y;London.
hooks, b., 1989. ‘Expertease’, Artforum International, vol. 27, no. 9 [Available from UCA Library electronic collection]
Keval, H., 2019. Navigating the ‘Decolonising’ process: Avoiding pitfalls and some Do’s and Don’ts. | Social Research Publications [ONLINE] <https://discoversociety.org/2019/02/06/navigating-the-decolonising-process-avoiding-pitfalls-and-some-dos-and-donts/> [Accessed 11 April 2020]
Sabaratnam, M., 2020. Decolonising the curriculum: what’s all the fuss about? | SOAS Blog. [ONLINE] < https://www.soas.ac.uk/blogs/study/decolonising-curriculum-whats-the-fuss/> [Accessed 11 April 2020]
Shah, S., 2020. Whiteness As A Position | American Suburb X. [ONLINE] <https://americansuburbx.com/2019/11/whiteness-as-a-position.html> [Accessed 15 April 2020].
Image credit: Robert Bloomfield.