Why Is My Curriculum White?

August 27, 2015


‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’, a campaign set up by UCL in 2015, aims to grapple with an academic curriculum in which a white voice is overbearing and all-permeating. The campaign highlights the crucial necessity to reflect on academia’s complicity in white supremacy; in the case of UCL, not only is complicity alone detected, but a contribution to its very foundations through the legitimisation of racist ideologies.

Scientist Francis Galton coined the term ‘Eugenics’ in 1883, which advocates the improvement of ‘genetic stock’, its process inextricably linked to that of racial differentiation. Later in 1904, Galton’s views were legitimised through UCL’s institutionalisation of ‘National Eugenics’: ‘the study of the Agencies under social control, that improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.’ UCL provided Galton with a residential office and a laboratory to conduct his research.  While this initial ‘inheritance’ is a part of the university’s past, there remains a failure on their behalf to acknowledge the abhorrence of Galton’s dehumanising science of race. UCL claim to fight for equality, yet simultaneously expect BAME students to walk past a celebrated laboratory, a collection and a lecture theatre named after a man who threatened their entire existence.

Just as the ability of white people to colonise indigenous people was viewed as a mark of evolutionary success by Galton, the Academy and its curriculum has inherited this mindset where the white voice is viewed as a sign of superiority and continues to drown out the voices of people of colour. Throughout this piece, I argue that it is the currents of structural domination by white people alone, rather than some immutable ‘truth’ of the supremacy of the white thinker, that explains why our curriculum is in fact white.

For people of colour, this project is imperative for more than one reason. A distinction needs to be drawn between the notion that people of colour should have their work receive a platform based solely upon the need for equality in numbers and the idea, which goes one step further, that their work in fact generates creativity, ultimately enriching not just the lives of fellow people of colour, but the lives of white people also. The white curriculum, therefore, is not simply an injustice to people of colour alone, its injustice consists of large scale deprivations of knowledge that result from broad systematic and institutionalised academic racism.

Edward Said’s Orientalism best articulates the notion of the white enlightened ‘Self’, who can be contrasted with an irrational ‘Other’, namely people of colour. The education system has inherited this oppressive ideology – the dichotomy referred to here driving academic curriculums worldwide, with subjects taught through the authoritative lens of the white gaze. Each student undergoes their own experience regarding works explored in their own time, which they find to be undervalued and excluded from curriculums. One that I find to be useful in this discussion is James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room. Baldwin may be a black man, but he did not, in this instance, write about his race or the black experience. Baldwin wrote about white people. He wrote about queer white people. He explored the painstaking nature of love through the complex lens of both parental and romantic relationships. Ultimately, he wrote about the human experience, challenging the notion that the ability to explore this is reserved for the old ‘great’ white men of literature. While it should not have to be argued that black people are able to write on matters outside of their race, it appears vital to remind people of this fact.

When it comes to producing universal art, people of colour are excluded from ‘greatness’ by default as a consequence of institutional tendencies to reproduce ‘greatness’ through whiteness. We live in a society whose artistic scene suggests that black people are only able to create art with regards to race; black actors are rarely offered mainstream or leading roles unless a film to do with slavery or other aspects of their oppression is being produced. bell hooks claimed that she grew tired of experiencing white people’s need for her to discuss her sadness as opposed to her strength. In other words, what is implicit here is the view that white people are able to capture the human condition in their work, while black people are confined to discussing a very specific, albeit important, one-dimensional part of their own identity exclusively. The reservation of artistic creativity for white people appears counter-intuitive: it denies and ignores those people whose experience is routinely omitted within the construction and production of the mainstream – cinema, books, television programmes, and the academic curriculum – though these are the experiences best placed to speak of the human condition given their ability to occupy numerous worlds – the world of the oppressor through which they have no choice, the world of the oppressed, and all the creativity borne out of such experiences.

As a graduate of a philosophy-based degree, a piece by Nathaniel Coleman, Research Associate in the philosophy of ‘race’ at UCL, also involved with the campaign – entitled ‘Philosophy is Dead White – and Dead Wrong’, articulates many of my concerns with regards to the discipline. Many branches of philosophy also pride themselves on the idea that they are ‘objective’ and neutral in principle and method and the value of this in arriving at conclusions regarding the human condition. But when studying, it is not hard to see that the model of objectivity is undoubtedly Eurocentric, white and male. This is the notion explored by Coleman, who stresses philosophy’s refusal to treat people of colour as philosophers; ‘We are less than 1 percent of all employed philosophers. None of us is yet a professor’.

Coleman underlines what I believe can be referred to as the myth of white objectivity, discussing the belief that white philosophers are the only ones who should be ‘taking care’ of asking fundamental questions about reality and existence, even when such critical inquiry consists of debates on race. Not only is it the case that the myth of the superiority of white ‘objectivity’ must be debunked as a concept, but the value of subjective and particular experience in widening our insight must also be stressed. The  Academy must acknowledge that people of colour are just as valuable in their philosophical contributions as white people, but also that their experience often means that they in fact have more to add to a discipline that covers the realities of the human condition. Ultimately, Coleman’s overall point is of emphatic significance: ‘Stereotype threat and attribution bias are killing our prophets.’

Professor Patricia Hill Collins makes a similar argument with regards to the sociological significance of the ‘outsider within’ status, which shines light on the associative problems of the exclusion of people of colour and the dominance of white people in academic research. For Collins, black feminist activists possess a humanist vision of society, which is valuable in a sociological context.  Black women’s awareness of the interlocking nature of oppression means that they are able to make significant contributions to sociological debates concerning not only their own experience but also that of black men, fellow people of colour, women ‘…and the dominant group itself.’ Collins’ argument for the value of black feminist thought and what this can contribute to sociology can be paralleled with UCL’s campaign, which argues for the value in a diverse curriculum and what this can contribute to our learning more generally. Both Collins and UCL engage with epistemology, by attempting to shift the sources of our knowledge – which is dominated by white supremacist thought – in order to widen our insight.

The significance of Audre Lorde’s ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House’ – used as a slogan for the campaign – is evident here. Lorde asks the vital question: ‘What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?’ Lorde’s question reminds us that the genesis of oppressive ideologies need to first be confronted, before oppression can be abolished. Academia has a tendency to think of itself as having progressed, but when the white voices are still drowning out those most marginalised, why should people of colour accept their insufficient inclusion as a mark of equality? Lorde answers her own question, arguing that ‘it means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable.’ It is not enough for the stories of people of colour to be told, and aspects of their oppression to be explored, it is more significant to ask: who are telling these stories? An act of political activism consists in ensuring that the voices of the excluded are centralised first and foremost. The intelligence and success of ‘Why Is My Curriculum White’ as a campaign resides in its aim of dismantling the master’s house. I would encourage those that are not a part of the group to join it and marvel at the amount of self-educating we all have to do – especially for those of us with a degree, who are often unable to differentiate between what is taught, and what is true.

By Neda Tehrani | @neda_t92


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