‘Why is my Curriculum White?’ – Decolonising Geography

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The Gryphon News Editors Eleanor Smith and Zahra Iqbal attended the Decolonising Geography Talk and, in this article, they outline some of the key discussions and insights from the event. 

On Tuesday 5th February, a talk called ‘Why is my Curriculum White: Decolonising Geographies’ was held at the University and organised by final year Human Geography students Monisha Jackson, Olivia Andrews and Bothaina Tashani. The trio organised a panel of esteemed speakers to discuss how universities can be more accessible to BAME students and how reading lists and syllabuses should be diversified. 

The evening aimed to highlight the ways in which Geography and other interdisciplinary departments focus on producing, reproducing and perpetuating Eurocentric knowledge and modes of teaching and how this can be overcome. The lecture hall was full, with hundreds of students eager to hear what the academics had to say and discover how they could get involved in this significant and long overdue change to their curriculum. 

It was highlighted that the University of Leeds itself isn’t very diverse. Leeds was ranked the 11th whitest Russell Group University in a study conducted by HESA, with the percentage of white students reaching an estimated 81.88 per cent. The University of Leeds came under fire again when Monisha highlighted that Leeds is not a member of the Race Equality Charter, despite being a member of the Gender Equality Charter, nor does it have any connections with universities in the Caribbean or central African countries. Although the University of Leeds is currently reviewing its relationship with the Race Equality Charter, it was further highlighted that BAME authors are usually only on optional module reading lists and not represented on core modules.

The panel consisted of Dr. Laura Loyola-Hernandez (Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Leeds), Dr. Patricia Noxolo (Human Geography Lecturer at the University of Birmingham) and Dr. Patricia Daley (Lecturer and researcher at the University of Oxford) as well as discussant Dr. Fozia Bora (Lecturer in Islamic studies and Middle-Eastern Studies at the University of Leeds). 

To begin the talk, the speakers were asked about what decolonising meant to them.

Dr Daley started the discussion by suggesting that decolonisation is a political and intellectual process that aims to destabilise asymmetrical power relations and that it is an individual collective process. Dr Bora proposed that it is key to create a decolonial classroom, something that she implements into her everyday teaching. Dr Noxolo suggested that it was vital to have a continuation of decolonisation and the indigenous voice. Dr Loyola-Hernandez suggested that there is a risk of decolonisation becoming the new ‘hot topic’, like intersectionalism. She explained how it is an everyday activity and that academics are perpetrating it. 

Dr Daley expressed how she believes that we have to undergo a process of unlearning in order to combat this, as we are all part of Eurocentric structures. Therefore, as students and academics, we have to re-teach ourselves methods of learning in which we are not part of this. Dr Bora said that we, as students, need to carry out more dramatic acts of rejection. As fee-paying students, our opinions matter more than we think and if more students stand up and reject these structures, then universities are more likely to listen and adapt to what we see as important. Dr Noxolo, interestingly, countered the question, suggesting that we are tightly bound to lots of knowledge from various places through colonialism. For Dr Noxolo, progress is not about creating new knowledges but, instead, it is about not forgetting old ones. Dr Loyola-Hernandez’s response differed from that of the other speakers, as she recommended academics challenge what is acceptable in teaching, suggesting the use of music and other mediums as part of a collective effort.

The panel was challenged on how they think positionality and locality affect the decolonisation of the curriculum. Dr Bora brought up the point that minorities are a lot more visible in their subjectivity. For those that are white, straight, or a man, positionality isn’t questioned as they are considered ‘neutral’. But scholarship can never be neutral as everyone comes from some kind of positionality. Dr Noxolo extended Dr Bora’s point, suggesting that positionality is central to how we form knowledge. She gave an anecdote of her time at a conference where she observed Native American speakers. For them, knowledge is linked to identity and identity is linked to place so positionality is vital in their creation of knowledge. Dr Noxolo also mentioned the key fact that universities are located so knowledge is located in the city that it is formed in. Dr Loyola-Hernandez revealed that her positionality is very important to her, as she refuses, as a Latina woman, to go to conferences in the USA as a political statement. She stressed the need for similar decolonised acts of resistance, like those of her own. 

Following the prearranged questions, the floor was opened up to those in the audience. One student expressed her feeling of alienation when she entered her first history lecture and found herself to be the only black female student, prompting the panel to suggest ways to overcome future students feeling this way.

Dr Daley responded by agreeing that humanities subjects like History or Geography, in general, are alienating for BAME students when taught in schools. She suggested this could be overcome through engagement with black/brown communities in cities in less traditional venues, as university buildings can be intimidating. Dr Bora built on Dr Daley’s point, agreeing that there is a problem with the curriculum before university. For some communities, humanities can feel like luxury subjects, as students are more likely to enter vocational courses that have a direct impact on the community, such as medicine, law or dentistry.

The talk was rounded off with questions from Sheffield Hallam Student Union President, Abdullah Okud, and our own Student Union Education Officer, Serene Esuruoso, who both asked what we can do as students to help decolonise the curriculum. 

The overall consensus from the panel was that we have a lot more power than we think. Dr Loyola-Hernandez suggested that to be academic and have an impact, you don’t necessarily need to be in an ‘academic space’, giving an example of the UCU strikes, which saw lectures held in other community facilities. Dr Noxolo stressed the importance of using available channels to feedback about things that matter. Universities nowadays are consumer-led so our voice and opinions matter. She suggested emailing heads of departments and highlighted the power of solidarity in numbers. Monisha, one of the organisers, agreed, revealing the amount of perseverance necessary to hold this discussion. The advice given was that all students should observe the representation on their reading lists and email their module co-ordinators and course reps. It was emphasised that when an issue arises students should complain and help their schools change and adapt their modules. 

Speaking to a spokesperson from the University of Leeds after the talk, it was clear that members of staff were well aware of the institutional barriers which the four panelists had discussed. “We work hard to help everyone with the ability to succeed to access the University, and while we acknowledge that we have more work to do in terms of the diversity of our student population, we are pleased that the numbers of Home and EU BAME students have increased over the past four years. The University is committed to curriculum change based on the ‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ campaign and has developed a new post to address this.”

In addition to this comment, Dr Nina Wardleworth, Academic Lead (Student Success) said: “I am working closely with students and the LUU to bring together existing activity and to champion new diversity initiatives, which includes ensuring that  BAME authors feature more centrally on curricula. I encourage students to complete the current LUU survey about diversity in the curriculum – https://tinyurl.com/curriculumdiversity – and also to contact me by email – n.a.wardleworth@leeds.ac.uk.”

Eleanor Smith
Zahra Iqbal