Preface: I have been trying to get this published on one of the university’s pages for a while. As you can see from the text, I wrote it over a year ago. I have decided to publish it on the blog for a couple of reasons. One of which is this: the EHRC’s report (Tackling racial harassment: universities challenged) came out quite recently. It misses the opportunity to dig down into exactly what constitutes institutional/systematic racism and how that manifests. The University of Bristol has also released a response to the report. This post, the EHRC’s report and the response should also be read in conjunction with my earlier post exploring how and why universities in the Global North should acknowledge and act in the face of evidence of their entanglement with the history of the trade in enslaved persons and imperialism. All the above should also be read in conjunction with the university of Bristol’s own pages as to how that history is being acknowledged (it is estimated that 85% of the wealth used to found the University depended on the coerced labour of enslaved people). It seems at the moment that the content and focus of the EHRC report (i.e. racial ‘harassment’) is being considered something separate from that history.
At the FSSL Learning and Teaching Conference in June 2018, I convened a workshop where we examined what decolonisation meant to colleagues across the faculty. It was very nice to be able to share my work on decolonising curricula and the university with faculty colleagues as we explored what decolonisation means for us in theory and in practice.
Decolonisation requires an interdisciplinary lens, and the conference provided a perfect forum to explore the university in that sense. Decolonising the university would ensure that we, as an academic community, build the type of university that we want and the world needs. To be a decolonial university we must critically assess the impact of our curriculum – explicit, hidden, null – and our research on our students.
Decolonisation, in particular, requires us to be intentional about engaging with Britain’s history of very active participation in slavery and colonisation, as well as the complicity of academics and universities in enabling, benefiting from and not properly acknowledging that history. How we deal with this history is fundamental to how we carry out our decolonial practices. Therefore, it is important for us, as a university, to think carefully about our specific history, and exactly who we want to be, considering who we are now and who we have been. This is important, especially as we seek to engage with communities in Bristol through the development of Temple Quarter – communities that have been affected in varied ways by British history and present. It also seems clear to me that our students want us to engage with the possibility of being decolonial, we do them a disservice by being selective with the history of our disciplines, our sector and our university. So, we must first be clear about things decolonisation is not. Decolonisation is not diversity measures, equality data, inclusivity schemes, or representation statistics. Decolonisation is about us as a whole, not a focus on ‘helping’ marginal groups. EDI measures also, very often, confuse embodied difference with epistemic difference.(Raghavan, 2018). Yes, diverse knowledges are more likely in a diverse staff body, but not guaranteed.
Decolonisation is about how and why diverse knowledges and epistemologies, ways of knowing and being known are being kept out and the effect that has had on actual people. Scholars who have written about epistemicides – the superiorization of one body of knowledge to eliminate another – have emphasized the need for us to confront this history and the complicity of universities in normalising and reproducing this hierarchization of knowledge. (Grosfuguel, 2013: 74-75) Decolonisation is understanding that the episteme became a weapon, a war machine; the justification for dehumanisation that followed epistemicide. By consigning other knowledges to inferiority, it was possible to consign the humans who held those knowledges to inferiority. And we have not undone this consigning. That relegation is evidenced in what we name our buildings, what we teach, what we research and what we value. It is also evidenced in what is missing, the silence – what we do not name our buildings, what we do not teach, what and where we do not research, what and who we do not value.
Decolonisation is about ending the remnants of Empire, or what writers such as Mignolo and Maldonado-Torres call coloniality. According to Torres, coloniality ‘refers to long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism, but that define culture, labor, intersubjective relations, and knowledge production well beyond the strict limits of colonial administrations.’ (2007; 243) He goes on to explain how coloniality is ‘maintained alive in books,’ and ‘in the criteria for academic performance’, how ‘we breath coloniality all the time and everyday’.
Decolonisation is not diversity then, because it does not ask for marginal voices to be ‘tolerated’ or suffered within the hierarchized structure of knowledge. Decolonisation asks for the structure of knowledge to be opened to resurrect what has been marginalised, to re-centre the world, such that the centre is not the ideological West, but all of us. To achieve this, we should acknowledge how theorising – as the basis of all the research of all academia – has had a history which wrongly sought to determine and decide who qualifies as human. Therefore, decolonisation, to have any positive effect, must account for the entire process by which colonising, in all its forms – trade in humans, settler, internal, external, intellectual – was achieved, and what it would take to unravel its epistemic and socio-political effects.
This means having an understanding of the history of knowledge, of how universities came to be what they are, and how our disciplines have contributed to that history – from the use of law to establish colonies, the history of economic formations, understanding how high diabetes levels of Caribbean inhabitants is linked to diets of enslaved peoples, to acknowledging that black and brown people were used for medical research, without their consent. A decolonial university needs to be decisive today about what these histories mean for the future, and what impact we want our students to have on all our tomorrows. If the world is to survive extinction…
How Can the University of Bristol be Decolonial?
A decolonial university is willing and ready to teach the hard histories of our disciplines. A decolonial research-focused university is willing and ready to fill in the missing pieces our knowledge(s), while acknowledging how much of history we carry within us, how much of it is present in everything we do. (Baldwin, 1998; 723) A decolonial university is willing to acknowledge its own complicity in the inequalities in society and is ready to undo it.
One of the ways which we have sought to decolonise within the Law School is to introduce a new unit, Law and Race. I co-designed this unit with Yvette Russell, we were helped with a lot of input from past and present law students. The unit sits within a paradigm that speaks to decolonising the legal curriculum specifically and decolonisation of knowledge generally. Yvette and I understand, however, that the introduction of a single optional unit at the end of a course of study in woefully insufficient as an attempt to decolonise an entire discipline. Decolonising the curriculum should seek to repurpose our study of law, so that it listens to the voices of those who have historically been silenced. Thus the overarching aim of this unit is filling in with our students, the missing pieces of the puzzle of what the world has become and how it has become so. For example, within the unit we revisit the effect of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, a statute which is often lauded for ending slavery. This glorification of the statute does not mention the fact that the Act implies that the enslaved were ‘property’ worth £47m; it is this implication that made compensation possible. [The full and correct title of the Act is: An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves.] The British government paid out £20m to compensate some 3,000 families that held people in slavery for the loss of their ‘property.’ The balance of £27m was paid by the enslaved themselves in unpaid labour. The £20m was paid through a Treasury loan and collected back in taxation. Which means the formerly enslaved and their descendants also financially contributed to ‘compensating’ the people who held them in slavery. Missing histories.
Importantly, decolonial staff must be supported by a decolonial university and a decolonial sector. Gatekeepers abound across the sector, both for staff progress and student entry. With rising tuition fees and entry requirements skewed towards those who are able to afford private school, the descendants of formerly enslaved are still serving at the behest of the descendants of the slave holders. We are still breathing coloniality.
The remnants of the University of Bristol’s entanglements with the slave trade and the practice of slavery can also be found the University’s logo and arms. The three symbols of the logo represent the University’s founders and benefactors – sun for Wills, dolphin for Colston, horse for Fry. There is also a picture of a ship. The arms which dates from 1569 also include the same images. The ship which is a symbol of British trade in this era, is almost synonymous with the trade in kidnapped Africans. According to the Bristol Museum, British ships carried an estimated 3.1 million enslaved Africans in total. Bristol traders were probably responsible for shipping about one-fifth of the total of enslaved Africans carried on British ships. The families represented on the arms and logo of the university were certainly involved in this trade. Edward Colston is suspected of being responsible for at least 80,000 abductions of Africans for enslavement. The families of Wills and Fry amassed their fortunes in cocoa, sugar and tobacco using enslaved labour. Every time we write an official document or place the logo or arms on a PowerPoint, we remind ourselves, that the university was built on enslaved labour, human suffering and blood, for which there have been scant acknowledgement and no retribution, no restoration and no reparation. We still breathe coloniality.
Being decolonial is not a fixed state, but a personal and context-dependent constant process of reflecting, rethinking, learning and unlearning. Nonetheless, I have a few suggestions for moving towards decoloniality:
- Engage in curriculum review to ensure inclusion of histories of disciplines, with particular foci on race, empire, slavery and how each discipline navigated these. Such inclusions should start from first year units;
- Encouraging development of new units that discuss race, empire, colonization (on every degree program);
- Introduce citation policies for reading lists which recommends a percentage of marginal scholars are included in reading;
- Actively recruit scholars from the Global South and under-represented demographics (Black British women belong to one of the most underrepresented groups in academia);
- Disaggregate diversity data, and avoid using terms like BME or BAME; [I write about why that is important in great detail here]
- Ensure that our buildings project an accurate picture of who we want to be and what we value.
- Take direct action to engage with our history of using slave-profited money [This is being done at Bristol…].
- Engage in community-based research with marginal communities in Bristol [Linda Tuhiwai Smith says not to write research questions for communities, but to ask them what they need];
- Collaborate equally with universities from a wider range places [not just universities] in the Global South.
‘Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes “the practice of freedom,” the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.’ [Freire, 2005, 34]
Postscript: As I mentioned in the preface, I wrote most of the above, over a year ago. Since then, my scholarship in decolonisation has really moved on. In relation to what decolonisation means in HE, in practical terms, I have been researching concepts such as Lewis Gordon’s Disciplinary Decadence, Gurminder Bhambra’s Methodological Whiteness, Sperlinger, McLellan and Pettigrew’s work on alternative ways for structuring more just higher education systems. I have also organised a conference on decolonising the law school and I am currently editing a special issue arising from the conference. This year I have had the privilege of having conversations about decolonisation with many, many, many colleagues working in this area – among them Professors Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Gurminder Bhambra and Sabelo Ndlovu Gatsheni – to name just very few. I also wrote most of the above, before teaching on the first year of Law and Race. This academic year I am also teaching what could be considered decolonial material on Rich Law, Poor Law (exploring how the commodification of land as property was racialised and resulted in racialised inequalites materially, epistemically and pyscho-socially) and on Health, Law and the Body (exploring how the unscientific creation of racial categories has health and justice implications for the racialised Other.) So while I do end the essay with a list of recommendations on being ‘decolonial’, I am also left with a lot of questions as to whether doing the above can actually make any university truly decolonial.
One of the questions that has really been a main concern of mine is, ‘what happens after decolonisation?’ Several people have mentioned the fact that decolonisation is a negative, it is an undoing of the colonial. But what next? What would the decolonial world look like, when these after-effects have been undone? And would ‘decolonial’ be the right world to describe it? It seems to me that what our present actions may just be able to produce a situation where we are still a colonial world, but with fewer people bearing the brunt of it, or with lessened colonial pain. And that is unacceptable, if the colonial structure remains, it can be rebuilt, re-formed… reinstated, given new life, new teeth… it may yet bring new nightmares. So maybe, we do need to look for new words, new strategies, new visions, new dreams, new terms… but in the words of Dr Joel Modiri (met him this year too!) ‘Decolonisation entails nothing less than an endless fracturing of the world colonialism created.’
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