Cambridge student asks university to "decolonise" English curriculum


A Black Cambridge student has found herself under a barrage of social media attacks after publically criticizing the lack of black and ethnic minority authors in the university’s English curriculum. Calling it a “very targeted form of harassment”, Lola Olufemi – the women’s officer of Cambridge’s student union – states that she was inundated with racist and sexist insults following her picture and name being published along with her criticisms on the front page of the Telegraph.

“This is a trend we see over and over again,” commented Olufemi. She maintains that “hypervisible black and brown student activists” are discriminately subjected to a much higher level of scrutiny and abuse, and often fall victim to the “intellectual dishonesty of mainstream media”. She calls to attention the longstanding issue of BME activists’ efforts becoming grossly misconstrued and “reframed to make us into targets of racialised and gendered harassment”.

Olufemi began to receive press coverage after presenting an open letter to Cambridge’s English department. The letter had been signed by dozens of students, and Olufemi states that coverage was skewed to portray this letter as hateful. The Telegraph article in question, according to Olufemi, was “riddled with factual inaccuracies and attempts to misconstrue what the task of decolonising is and delegitimize me as a co-author of the open letter by using out-of-context in an attempt to turn me into a ‘controversial figure’”. Indeed, much of the controversy has surrounded Olufemi’s use of the word ‘decolonisation; to describe the process of including more writers of colour in Cambridge syllabi – syllabi currently focused on white, male writers. However, Olufemi’s intentions were to address Britain’s colonialist history and urge Cambridge educators to allot the same moral and intellectual legitimacy to non-Western minds.

Many Cambridge English students finish their entire degree without formally studying any non-white authors. “Decolonising is about critiquing the current curriculum in order to make it better ... it is about expanding our notions of ‘good’ literature so that it doesn’t always elevate one voice, one experience, one way of being in the world,” said Olufemi.

The Telegraph has since corrected the front-page story that has brought Olufemi such a high degree of harassment. In the original article, the Telegrapgh had “incorrectly stated” that Cambridge would be forced to enact the changes detailed in Olufemi’s open letter. The small edit now reads: “The proposals were in fact recommendations. Neither they nor the open letter called for the university to replace white authors with black ones and there are no plans to do so.”

Opinion among Cambridge English students, though, is varied. One student said that “[you can’t ignore the colonial history of Britain” and that “you’re confronting the elephant in the room”, while another student stated that the issue would “always come down to the quality of the literature” for him. Another student majoring in the classics said that he was “in favour of maintaining a classic canon of authors” and that “[it’s about the history of the country”. His friend, disagreeing, retorted that the phrase ‘great authors’ comes from “a perspective of privilege”.

News-followers may be reminded of stories from last January surrounding the Rhodes Must Fall movement at Oxford University. The student-led campaign called for the removal of the statue of an “ardent imperialist”, Cecil Rhodes, who had donated a considerable amount of money to Oriel College in his will. The college ultimately decided that the statue would remain on display, most likely influenced by warnings that £100m in donations to Oriel College would be lost, should the statue be taken down.

Cambridge University made a rare comment to media outlets earlier this week, clarifying that any discussion of changes to its English curriculum was in a “very early stage”, and that “changes will not lead to any one author being dropped in favour of others – that is not the way the system works. We condemn the related harassment directed towards our students on social media as a result of the recent coverage.”

Ayan Goran