Being Non-White at a White University: It’s Time to Decolonise

Sarah Nizarali is a first-year History and Iberian Studies student. She hopes to one day go into post-colonial studies and research the Lusophone and South Asian world. In her free time, she tries to run away from commercialisation, tucking herself into tiny coffee shops, independent films and the mountains.

[Featured Image: The Maughan Library’s cream facade against a bright blue sky.]

Sometimes, I’ll create tally charts in my lecture. I’ll poke my head here and there and count the people of colour in the room. Or I’ll gasp when the lecturer is a white man. Again. Sometimes, I want to laugh at the sheer stupidity of it all. Why are there so many European History Modules and just one ‘World History Module’, where the rest of us are literally cluttered on to one page? Why is my reading list filled with white men? I’ve been told the modules become more diverse in my second year. But I’ve spent 18 years becoming a product of a Eurocentric system, being told I should be thankful for my widely recognised knowledge of a group of white men. Do I and other 18-year-olds really need to extend the same Eurocentric train of thought? I’ve waited 18 years to study History, not the History of the West. If they rest of us are integrating into the curriculum, we tend to be reduced into colonialism, being spoken about only when we link to the metropole. Institutions ironically still pertain the same colonial legacy they spend hours critiquing. This is clear in the sheer choices made concerning modules, lecturers recruited, reading lists presented. Yet, universities are phenomenal at keeping the liberal facade that disguise racist practises within academia.

There is a general understanding that there has been an end to racism in universities somehow because we have moved to becoming ethnically diverse. Racist practices and attitudes exist, perhaps not in the same way they did in the 1900s, but in a more subtle and sophisticated manner under the well packaged diversity bandwagon. There has become a need to prove inclusivity. Such as the using people of colour on university advertisements or publicly funding research on race and diversity in effort to achieve equality. This institutional desire for good practise, in reality, become a way to only present the ‘happy stories’ on inclusivity instead of those on racism. Hence race becomes a topic addressed in the past tense, suggesting that we are in a post-racial society and thus there is no necessity to have conversations on racism within academia.

Academics of Colour who do become part of university cohorts remain low in numbers. Research done by the Royal Historical Society shows that 93.7% of History staff are drawn from White backgrounds, and only 0.5% Black, 2.2% Asian and 1.6% Mixed. This is largely because most institutions fail to recognise structural and systematic inequalities that exclude academics of colour from entering institutions. This form of colour-blind racism allows privilege to still remain in the hands of the few, ignoring the centuries of subjugation that got us here in the first place.  At other times, academic work done by people of colour, is often considered less credible if published from a non-western channel. Those that publish from let’s say India, are less likely to be acknowledged amongst Western Intellectuals which form a part of the reason non-white bodies continue to be excluded from reading lists and recruitments. Non-white bodies that do form a part of institutions almost disappear as the academic hierarchy proceeds. They deal with forms of invisible racism that is hard to pinpoint such as: undermining of their work, being the last person to be consulted for something, or ‘forgotten’ to be invited to social events and meetings. These are subtle but create an uncomfortable environment that add up to become severely hostile.

Whoever has been part of an Institution will know that they are centred around whiteness and to enter them, one must exhibit whiteness. This is the familiar world we know of today, the world of whiteness that is shaped by the burden of colonialism we have inherited. It is the product of decisions the history department has made over time. It is an orientation, the way we look, our aspirations that allows us to be accepted as ‘normal.’ When institutions recruit new people, they will want the best fit for the place, meaning those that reflect their white identity. That means that although who they recruit may not be white, they will be ones that exhibit whiteness; those who are a westernised version of themselves to please the white environment they inhabit.

Hence curriculums circle back to reflect the identity of the white man. Academics of colour remain appalling minimal in a discipline that is heavily guarded by racially blind systems, who refuse to acknowledge structural inequalities. They make people of colour unconsciously and consciously feel like intellectual spaces are reserved for white people. Efforts to decolonise History, cannot be accomplished just by celebrating Black History Month and then forgetting about the struggle black academics go through to find a place within institutions. They start with integrating these conversations into modules and removing the watch dogs who safeguard stagnant, the gendered and racialized politics of studying history. The History department’s choices at Kings continue to limit our scope of study in terms of what we can study and what stories are heard. It has been for like this for years and by the looks of it, it’ll continue to look this way. Perhaps the day I see a female brown academic enter a lecture room and she doesn’t stand out so bloody much, I’ll know something has changed.

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