Where should we start in decolonising the university?
Edited by Gurminder K. Bhambra, Kerem Nis¸ancıog˘lu and Dalia Gebrial Pluto, 272pp, £75.00 and £16.99 ISBN 9780745338217 and 8200 Published 20 August 2018
Racism is endemic in universities – a result of ongoing colonial processes. It permeates from historical legacies into contemporary curricula and out into the world. Policies for inclusion and demographic diversity are inadequate and ineffective. Instead, wholesale decolonisation of knowledge production, teaching and administration are necessary if universities are to remain useful in understanding the complexities and interconnectedness of the world.
Such decolonisation rests on a belief that fostering difference improves scholarship and teaching. If you disagree, you are unlikely to approve of Rosalba Icaza and Rolando Vázquez here calling the existing approach to knowledge an “arrogant ignorance” – a claim to universality that remains wilfully blind to diverse knowledges and perspectives.
While the call to decolonise education may be familiar, this book pushes the debate further in dissecting the loud media and academic resistance to the project and in offering practical strategies for staff to adopt. Critics dismiss decolonisation as an ideological project, or as overly sensitive cultural identity politics, but Robbie Shilliam situates such resistance as precisely an outcome of the way that universities are crucial sites where colonialism (and therefore racism) is naturalised, validated and spread. Resistance signifies a white fragility.
While the book’s call for a radical structural transformation of all elements of higher education is laudable, more discussion of who, how and where to start making these changes is needed. Given that decolonisation “will cost us all something”, Shauneen Pete pushes white academics to take more responsibility to do the work of decolonising and selfeducating. Yet the work still gets left to those already marginalised, just as gender diversity is delegated to young female early career academics. Senior staff must step in. How to instigate change is explored conceptually (by developing appropriate theoretical frameworks) and practically. The starting points advocated here include listening to marginalised voices on campus, moving beyond Eurocentrism in sources used, being political, and ensuring students have to apply what they learn outside the academy.
The problem, for those of us wanting to decolonise, is where we should start. There is a danger that this book speaks to the converted and to those in social sciences and humanities where incorporating linguistic and cultural diversity (in multilingual journals or active work with scholars in the Global South) has already begun. But how do we speed up this currently slow process? Should we be seeking change at the institutional heart or continue to chip away at the margins? Should we take decolonial initiatives into physical sciences or wait until there are more solid foundations elsewhere in the university? There remains a tension between the call for academics to take individual responsibility for change (and there are plenty of excellent examples of how to start in this book) and the scale of institutional and societal resistance. While it is important to unpack why such resistance exists, there is little here on how to tackle it. More discussion is necessary on how academics can collectivise the decolonisation task without, as Angela Last’s contribution explores, it becoming co-opted as a neoliberal internationalisation or diversity agenda.
Jenny Pickerill is professor of environmental geography at the University of Sheffield.