This post – a very long one by TCM standards – is a critical assessment of calls to “decolonise” universities, through close analysis of the SOAS student union’s (SSU) report, Degrees of Racism: A Qualitative Investigation into Ethnicity Attainment Gaps at SOAS. The report, issued in September 2016, caused a furor in January 2017, with headlines reporting that it accused white lecturers of racism and being unable to teach black and minority-ethnic (BME) students. The report is broadly representative of the growing demand to “decolonise” higher education, most visible in the “Rhodes must fall” campaign. Indeed, it drew attention some months after its release precisely because SOAS student union had just issued a statement demanding the “decolonization” of SOAS’s curriculum, which many newspapers reported as a call to cease studying white philosophers.
Most media reports were extremely hostile to the students’ demands. Close analysis of Degrees of Racism shows this is partly justified: the demands are often incoherent and inadvertently racialist. However, our ire is best targeted not at students but the ideology guiding them: a confused mishmash of identity politics, relativistic postcolonial theory and consumerism. It is this ideological approach that leads them to tie themselves up in knots as they struggle to identify what is alienating and dissatisfying about their university experience.
The Attainment Gap
The report’s starting point is the attainment gap between white and (especially) black students at SOAS. This is now widely recognised as a national issue. The Equality Challenge Unit’s figures for 2007/8 to 2011/12 show a persistent gap between white students’ attainment of 2(i) or First-class degrees: 74.5-82.3 percent for white students, versus 37.7-43.2 percent for BME students. Much of this stark variance is arguably accounted for by social class, which is consistently the strongest predictor of educational outcomes in Britain. However, studies that control for entry-level grades – i.e. students’ attainment just prior to university – have also found (smaller) attainment gaps.
Campaigners looking at this data – including SSU – conclude that: “The gap is not attributable to a deficit in BME students: any intervention must target institutional factors and not BME students themselves” (p.2). Thus, campaigners look within universities for the cause.
However, this premise is only a valid if we assume that students who have attained equal university entrance tariffs are equal in every other way that is relevant to subsequently attaining a good degree. Any university lecturer knows this is untrue. Even at a high-tariff institution like my own (the entry requirement is ABB), there is enormous variation within a single cohort. Some students are phenomenally good; others struggle to compose a coherent paragraph.
The reasons for this are still poorly understood, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is, in part, determined by students’ backgrounds and home lives. A student who has to work 30 hours per week to afford accommodation, or to support their families, can clearly devote less time to their studies than one who does not. The same goes for students with caring responsibilities, or those living at home, possibly in chaotic families, or forced to commute long distances, and so on. These factors are clearly determined, above all else, by class; but race intersects with class here because, as we know, BME groups are disproportionately economically disadvantaged in Britain. Disadvantaged BME students may have managed to get the entry tariff required by a university, but that does not mean their lives facilitate success thereafter.
One might still ask why such students manage to surmount these difficulties at school, only to founder at university. The answer may partly lie in the difference between A levels (or equivalents) and degree-level study. It is now widely observed that British schools have become factories: teachers have become accountable for students’ grades via the tyranny of league tables, creating huge pressure on them to “teach to the test”, and push students towards softer exam boards and easier subjects. For many years this has produced rising results, but not necessarily objectively more-able students. Indeed, the “spoon-feeding” required to coach students through A levels demonstrably fails to prepare many individuals for the rigours of independent, higher-level study, where there is no syllabus to learn or mark scheme to follow. Thus, apparently equal attainment at A Level can mask considerable inequality in students’ actual capacities to thrive at university. We also know that massive variance in school funding – which the government is, controversially, now seeking to correct – has disproportionately benefited inner-city areas, where BME individuals are concentrated. The additional support this has afforded might help explain why BME populations now do much better at A level, but poorer at university where such support scarcely exists.
Of course, these are just hypotheses; it might still be objected that there is insufficient explanation of why BME students should be over-represented among “spoon-fed achievers”, for instance. But the starting claim that BME students start university with no disadvantage relative to their white peers is also just a hypothesis. Equal entry tariff achievement proves nothing except their equal capacity to pass A Levels, and we know that A Level attainment does not simply reflect intellectual ability, nor does it dictate degree outcomes – otherwise, everyone at high-tariff institutions would be getting a First. The starting assumption for Degrees of Racism, therefore, is flawed. Educational outcomes have complex, intersecting causes; it is not that a level playing field exists at age 18, only for universities to skew the outcomes by sole virtue of their internal practices – even if, equally, universities cannot claim perfection, nor can we simply dismiss the evidence of racialised attainment inequality. It is a scandal so outrageous that it demands urgent study to understand.
A racist university?
However, for adherents of decolonial politics, the answer is already obvious: “institutional racism” must explain the attainment gap, as Degrees of Racism asserts (p.5). It is worth quoting the summary at length:
The research found that BME students’ confidence, motivation and engagement are often negatively affected by racial exclusion and discrimination in the learning and teaching environment at SOAS. Barriers to accessing academic and welfare support, and barriers to accountability both reduced the opportunity to regain confidence and motivation.
Racial exclusion operated through the centring of white perspectives in the curriculum and in class discussions, the overrepresentation of white people among staff and students on some courses, biased assessment practices, and racism by staff and students. As well as direct effects to BME student’s confidence and motivation, these conditions appeared to produce or reinforce teachers’ lower expectations of their BME students.
Barriers to support included having to ask proactively for help (which excluded students’ whose confidence had been undermined by racial exclusion and discrimination), the underrepresentation of BME staff relative to students, unclear roles and remits, staff being overstretched, some teachers’ lack of understanding of mental health issues, bureaucratic hurdles, stigma (arising from the outsourcing of core study skills to extra-curricular services), and lack of awareness of the forms of support available.
Barriers to accountability included the repeat failure to respond to complaints effectively, transparently or systemically; failure of the institution and individuals to admit to racism and, among a significant minority of white students and staff, refusal to accept that attainment gaps are structural, preferring instead to blame BME students (p.5).
A “racist teaching and learning environment”?
1) The “White” Curriculum
The core claim here is that when “authors on reading lists, teachers, and students dominating class discussions… were predominantly white, it sent an implicit message as to whose perspectives mattered, and whom the course was for. In these cases these students had felt excluded by design” (p.7). This is a central claim for the “decolonization” movement, expressed in the slogan “Why is my curriculum white?”
The most striking thing about this claim is its own racialism. The report quotes students who make remarks such as: courses are being taught using “an inherently European (or ‘White’) lens… an inherently White perspective”; “I feel that the teaching for the most part is still massively geared towards white students”; and “The teaching is aimed at students with a dominant white perspective”. Of course, the idea that there is a single “white perspective”, or that “white students” exist as a bloc, such that teaching could be aimed at them, is racializing: it assumes homogeneity among a presumed ethnic grouping. From this perspective, it hardly matters if you are a working-class Estonian lesbian or a Spanish plutocrat’s son, or a Serbian peasant: your perspective is supposedly united by your “white” ethnicity. Naturally, if this statement was aimed at any other ethnic group it would be instantly condemned. However, such comments are now widespread among today’s identitarian radicals, as the condemnation of “white people” (including by many right-on white people themselves) following Trump’s election revealed.
The specifics of the “white curriculum” claim are twofold. First, reading lists are dominated by “white” authors. For some students this is merely “disappointing” – apparently in and of itself. For others it is “othering”, “alienating” and “erasing” because it is “difficult to relate to the perspectives centred” (p.8). They apparently want to “use theories/scholars from a BME background” (p.9) or more in tune with their own “religious background” (p.8). The logic here is that BME scholars will value “indigenous” knowledge and histories; white scholars don’t (pp.8-9). Again, the racialism here is stark, operating on two levels.
First, it is suggested that students cannot “relate” to texts unless they have been produced by people who look like them and share “their” (racialized) perspective. As an empirical statement, this is absurd. How easy is it for, say, a working-class, Baltic, illegal immigrant, mature student, working part-time, with a child at home, to “relate” to a text by Immanuel Kant? (This describes one of my former students and the first reading assignment of my second-year International Relations theory course.) Naturally, it is not easy at all, despite the fact both the student and author are “white”. Similarly, many of my BME students later struggle to understand W.E.B. Dubois’s explanation of the First World War as rooted in imperialism in Africa.
Understanding complex texts is never easy, regardless of the ethnicity of writers and readers. But hence the point of university: working hard to develop one’s own understanding. Usually, it is a struggle; and sometimes, texts are alienating – regardless of authors’ and readers’ racial identities. It is disturbing that, with the rise of identity politics, some students are being encouraged to interpret – and reject – this struggle as an objectionable product of racial difference and racism. Here, the pernicious impact of wider cultural trends is clearly apparent. Having long lost their confidence in the inherent value of their own subjects, many school teachers now seek to justify them as being “relevant” to students’ personal lives. By the time they arrive at university, therefore, many students have imbibed the narcissistic notion that education should be directly connected with their personal concerns and identity. Universities, based around sometimes-ancient disciplines with their own internal logics, are behind this curve. Some students may understandably resent not seeing themselves reflected in the curriculum, which may be compounded by their lack of prior preparedness for the demands of university study. Identity politics offers them an easy, but very misleading, explanation for the difficulties they are experiencing.
As a normative statement, suggesting that students can only truly “relate” to texts by ethnically-similar authors is abhorrent. It rests on a very dubious assumption that one’s racial identity – a social fact, not a biological one – is intrinsically linked to one’s intellectual output and capacity to engage. From this perspective, a “white” author will always have less to say to a “black” student than a “black” author, regardless of the actual content of their thought. This is palpable nonsense, as plenty of radical white scholars have produced ideas found to be insightful and useful by many non-white students and activists – just think about black radicals like CLR James or Frantz Fanon – while many non-white authors produce conservative work that propagates unequal global power relations (think neo-con Fareed Zakaria, or conservative economist Thomas Sowell). This claim also diminishes students themselves by assuming that they are incapable of relating to authors on the basis of their ideas alone.
Obviously, none of this should be taken to mean that curricula should never be revised. Much media commentary on SSU’s campaigns seems to have taken this reactionary stance, insisting on retaining “classical” authors like Plato, which the students are accused of wanting to cull because he was white. But curricula should never be set in aspic. Uncritical attachment to a particular “canon” in any subject is as dogmatic as rejecting the study of particular authors on the basis of their ethnicity. The only criterion that ought to matter when considering whether to include or exclude authors on a reading list is whether they have something useful and interesting to say on the subject under consideration. Conversations about the value of authors’ ideas should constantly be at the heart of university life, and accordingly curricula should always be changing. But it should change in line with assessments of their ideas – not their ethnicity. As Kwame Anthony Appiah puts it, in an excellent report by Kenan Malik on the SOAS imbroglio, the correct question is not “is the curriculum sufficiently diverse?” but “is any particular thinker worth studying?”
2) Student and Staff Ethnicity
The second claim in the “white curriculum” argument is the identity of staff and students: the underrepresentation of BME individuals. With respect to SOAS, these claims are simply bizarre. SOAS’s own data shows that 53% of undergraduate and 49% of postgraduate students are BME, as are 39% of academics. By contrast, BME individuals comprise just 13% of the UK population. At UK universities more widely, BME students are also overrepresented, comprising 23%. Only BME staff are under-represented.
Setting these facts aside, why do the report authors think academics’ ethnicity is important? Again, a racialized logic is apparent. One student says they expected to “feel comfortable” because there were lots of BME staff at an open day, only to be subsequently disappointed by the “all white, predominantly male” faculty. The implication is that one can only feel “comfortable” among one’s own ethnic group. The issue is explicitly identitarian: as the report puts it, alienated students “are disinclined to identify with” SOAS (p.10).
The complaints about student ethnicities, meanwhile, are highly contradictory and expose the unhelpful association of ethnicity with particular perspectives found in the criticism of reading lists. One student complains: “I was looked upon as the spokesperson for all black women. My opinion for everything was requested and accepted which I feel defeated the purpose of discussion and debate” (p.10). Another says: “it somehow felt like we were spokespeople for west Africa, and it was really uncomfortable” (p.11). Yet another complains of “being picked out for comments about race and religion, as the only PoC [person of colour] in the class” (p.11), which another glosses as “brownsplaining, or BMEsplaining to all of the white people in the class” (p.11).
The contradiction here is obvious. On the one hand, the identitarian logic expressed earlier in Degrees of Racism states that PoC have specialised insights into “non-white” issues that white people do not/ cannot possess, making it imperative that their insights, approaches to knowledge, and so forth, are validated or even deferred to. On the other hand, when white lecturers and students follow this injunction by looking to BME students for such insights, the latter feel essentialised as speaking on behalf of a vast ethnic group. Of course this feels uncomfortable: it is racist to imagine that, just because a student is a black woman, she can somehow speak on behalf of all black women, or even women from their own part of the world. These students are victims of the identity politics that the report’s authors endorse and which, despite its presentation as a radical demand, is already widespread. Afraid of “whitesplaining”, right-on whites are deferring to PoC, who then “brownsplain”. This is the rabbit hole down which decolonial identity politics leads us.
BME female students also complain of discussion being “shut down” by “white, male students” who dominate discussion and “belittled” their classmates’ contributions, which tutors do nothing to stop (p.12). For example, a student recalls one discussion of black critiques of Western feminism being “completely taken over by white women in our class, and no women of colour took part in the discussions” (p.13). The implication is that the tutor ought to have silenced the white women students and looked to BME women students to provide the relevant insight on that particular topic – i.e. to defer to them on the basis of their ethnicity… which BME students also see as problematic! Racialized identitarianism ties one up in knots. Indeed, it is hard to know how one might legitimately teach a class from this perspective.
The report also describes BME students as being distressed by the demand “to communicate using academic language that – for reasons of structural racism – was closer to the everyday speech of middle-class, white students than to their own”, and the expectation “to be so objective” or discuss things in “a purely theoretical… analytical way”, when they feel personally or emotionally invested in a topic. The implication here is that aspiring to neutral, objective inquiry and the correct use of formal English – basic tenets of the academy – is “racist”. If these customary academic approaches are desirable – and I would argue they are – then it is surely a tutor’s responsibility to inculcate them in all students. Rational thought and clear communication make intellectual enquiry fruitful and universal. They allow us to transcend an immature, emotional response to a subject, based purely on personal lived experience and perhaps incomprehensible to others, for one based on reason and evidence, that is potentially accessible to all. The beneficiaries of this approach need lose none of their fiery passion, as anyone familiar with the work of CLR James, Eric Williams, VK Krishna Menon, Aijaz Ahmed, Sadik al-‘Azm or Franz Fanon will instantly recognise. These non-white intellectuals have combined a deep loathing of racism and imperialism with abstract theorisations of society, written in a way understandable by all.
But the report has no time for this Enlightenment approach to scholarship and learning. By allowing open discussion, in the name of “what might appear to be freedom of speech”, tutors are “effectively censor[ing]” BME students. Instead, tutors should defer to their emotions when “triggering” subjects are discussed (pp.13-16). Ironically, by pursuing this therapeutic approach, the report apparently suggests that BME students are too emotional about certain topics to engage in rational discussion; yet it simultaneously accuses white students of expressing “racist tropes of white people as rational and Black people as hyper-emotional” (p.15).
Finally, the report suggests that assessment practices are racist. Some of the accusations simply appear misguided, such as the claim that, since BME students are intimidated into speaking less in class, this will be recalled by academics, resulting in lower grades on essays (p.18). Most universities practice anonymised marking, making this sort of prejudice impossible. There are also claims about tutors having lower expectations of BME students and consequently being less willing to help. These are all reported perceptions (pp.18-19). Academics are not permitted to respond to these slurs; the only tutor cited is a graduate teaching assistant who approached the authors to report what she perceived as one academic’s “racist” treatment of two essays that were insufficiently “dry”, contained grammatical errors, or did not address the topic in a way he saw as appropriate. The report concludes: “his behaviour was racist” (pp.18-20). These accusations are used as evidence that all academic staff are susceptible to racial prejudice, even if most of them believe otherwise. The authors urge: “For racism by staff to be prevented it is essential that no staff member considers herself or himself beyond the bounds of racism”, with training given to all on “unconscious bias” and staff encouraged to “call out” one another (pp.20-21).
On the flimsiest of evidence, then, academics are accused of being subconscious racists requiring re-education, and are further incited to accuse one another of the same. The Maoist overtones are unmistakable. During the Cultural Revolution, the only way that those identified by Mao Tsetung’s Red Guards as “class enemies” could save themselves was through admitting and parading their guilt, submitting themselves to collective criticism, denouncing others, and undergoing re-education. Academics are now being told to do the same. There is no escape from the accusation of “racism” except to confess one’s unconscious sins and submit to “unconscious bias training”; the smarter ones will then rush to denounce their more hesitant colleagues, so proving their own rectitude. Anyone who resists is merely a barrier to eradicating racism: no staff member is even allowed to consider themselves “beyond the bounds of racism”.
The Cultural Revolution was Mao’s way of shoring up his authority within the Chinese Communist Party by whipping up young fanatics to persecute his rivals and their supporters. Similarly, the accusation of racism could easily be used by increasingly authoritarian university managers as yet another mechanism to discipline and control academics – a mechanism that aggrandises management by supporting the most apparently “radical” of students and staff. It is hardly any surprise that the SOAS management is already on-board with the mission of “decolonising” the School. It gives them an excuse to intervene in curricula, violate academic freedom, and measure compliance, all in the name of equality and diversity. The obvious parallel is the way that managers use the National Student Survey and other “consumer satisfaction” ratings to control and coerce academic staff, in league with consumerist student unions demanding “value for money”.
Barriers to Support and Accountability
The report then moves on to discuss problems BME students have accessing academic and other support. Most of the criticisms here are eminently sensible and rarely racially specific, flagging issues common to many universities, such as mental health problems and complaints processes. However, the report also accuses SOAS of violating the 2010 Equalities Act by discriminating in its provision of support. Its reasoning is bizarre. The authors complain that, to access support, students must “proactively approach staff” (p.24). One might not think this much of a barrier, but BME students, it seems, lack “confidence and motivation” because of the “racist” learning environment. Again the report verges on a “deficit model” of BME students by assuming they are somehow incapable, avoiding this only by exclusively blaming their environment. Thus stripped of their agency, BME students seem to lose any responsibility to seek help. Indeed, BME students who remark that their peers should “work harder” or “Maybe we need to improve as people instead of asking everyone around us to be better” are patronizingly described as having “internalized… misattributed blame” (p.38).
The report’s most headline-grabbing claim also comes from this section: some BME students “felt it unrealistic to expect their white tutors to be able to empathise with their problems” (p.25). One student is quoted: “How can I really… have a rapport and feel comfortable talking to a 60 year old white man…? How can I just come and chat to you? Actually how can we relate?” Another states: “someone from a BME background… could immediately make you feel safe and comfortable” (p.25). Again, the racialized essentialism is striking: the implication is that it is impossible to “relate” to anyone ethnically different to oneself. The idea that the BME student could relate to his tutor on the basis of a common interest in ideas, or simply as another human being, is not considered. Similar points are made about counselling services. More BME staff are needed because “If you’re discussing something to do with race, I don’t feel very comfortable with somebody who’s white” (pp.30-31). These remarks highlight the contradiction noted earlier: while the authors claim that BME students dislike it if white people assume that they have certain insights or qualities by virtue of their ethnicity, they apparently assume the same thing of other BME individuals (and vice-versa for whites).
The Degrees of Racism report demonstrates, above all else, a failure to help young people orient themselves successfully in contemporary society. The rise of relativism and the cult of “relevance” have clearly instilled in some undergraduates a view that education should be all about them. Furthermore, the new racialism of identity politics encourages BME students to understand their difficulties in navigating academic life not as a natural struggle facing all students, or a result of socio-economic disadvantage, but as a consequence of racial difference, between themselves on the one hand, and the thinkers they study, their fellow students, and their lecturers, on the other. But this approach is, as shown above, riddled with contradictions. Does ethnic identity give people special insights into issues facing PoC, or not? Are BME students capable of engaging with white authors and academics, or not? This is more than just an intellectual confusion. By articulating difficulties in racialized terms, it is a divisive agenda. It will not be long before university managers learn to harness the call to “decolonise” as another instrument of improving “student satisfaction”, further setting students against academic staff.
It is wrong to blame the students themselves for this, as right-wing media have done. This is partly because perhaps very few students would actually agree with the report’s overall tenor and argument. It is hardly unusual for ideologues to selectively constitute focus groups or cherry-pick quotations to suit their predetermined conclusions. But even for those who would agree, just like other groups of students who try to silence speakers on campus whom they dislike, they are only expressing the degraded nature of contemporary society; a society ill at ease with itself and its past accomplishments, uncertain of its foundations, and struggling to socialise its young people into its cultural traditions. To insist that knowledge is relative, and that we can only really speak authoritatively about our own experiences, was once a radical, fringe position both in academia and wider in society, but today it is thoroughly mainstream. Few educators are prepared to defend existing institutions or curricula on the grounds that those with the most experience of an academic discipline have the requisite authority and expertise to decide what students should learn; deference to “student voice” and “satisfaction” is widespread.
What is unique, and uniquely disturbing, about the “decolonial” aspect of the campaign is that dissatisfaction is understood and expressed through the return of racialized thinking; only this time, “white” perspectives are being attacked. Race is a social category: it has no basis in biological reality, but is a term invented illegitimately to categorise and discriminate against people on the basis of minor differences in physical appearance. Fighting against race and racism is therefore essential. But the current, tortured expression of this struggle – “decolonial” politics – actually revives race as a meaningful, even objective, category. Individuals are assessed not for what they write or say, but for their ethnicity; indeed, what they say becomes subordinated to their ethnicity. In the decolonial view, white authors express a “white perspective”; non-white students can only relate, or at least relate more readily, to “theories/scholars from a BME background”. Theories/scholars are collapsed together as it is their “background” – their race – that matters. The more this is fomented, the more young people will come to perceive themselves and others through the prism of race and racial difference, and the harder it becomes for us to relate to one another simply as human beings. What is shared, even universal, becomes marginalised, as one, socially fabricated, aspect of personal identity is transformed into a defining absolute. This surely cannot be the basis for progressive politics. It is certainly no way to run a university.