Decolonise Not Diversify

Sue Lemos, University of Warwick


I was recently invited by Dr Meleisa Ono-George to co-present a paper with her on BME student experience and attempts by the universities to ‘decolonize’ the curriculum as part of the plenary panel at the recent Social History Society conference. At the University of Warwick I have been involved in efforts to address the BME attainment gap and experiences of students of colour, including working as one of three students with Meleisa on a project collecting qualitative data on the experiences of students of colour in the History department. As a final-year undergraduate student, I was intimidated by the prospect of speaking to a room full of professional historians. But I knew that it was important for students of colour to be involved in discussions about BME attainment, diversity and decolonising.

I spoke on the myriad problems faced by students of colour, including microaggressions, racism, inadequate reporting mechanisms, the lack of faculty and students of colour, alienation, the lack of specialist mental health services, a Eurocentric curriculum and so on. It strikes me that the university, in its current state, has not been designed for us. Students of colour are made to feel like we do not belong.

Meleisa highlighted that:

‘decolonising the curriculum’… has become this buzz in academia, divested from the social justice elements at its original core… So that some efforts to decolonise the curriculum end with an adjustment in the content, a diversifying of the curriculum, but not in actual change to the pedagogy, or the institutional culture, practice or processes that make the university a space where these inequalities exist and are perpetuated.”

Indeed, demands from people of colour within the academy have been more than just about the curriculum. As we argued in our talk at the SHS, decolonising the university is an all-encompassing project, which calls for us to truly reckon with our complicity in the dominance of western knowledge production and dismantle oppressive power structures. Including more modules on race or people of colour will not address disparities and discrimination within our institutions. We need to be critical of efforts to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum. Most modules on the Global South are focused on colonialism and imperialism, black history has become synonymous with black pain, and let’s not forget that the majority of people researching and teaching this history are white. Too often these efforts to decolonise, recolonise and centre whiteness.

As I am about to start my Masters degree, I am highly aware that I am likely to be the only black person on my course, and even more likely to be the only black woman. The Advance HE report on equality in Higher Education reveals that were only 25 black women and 90 black men among 19,000 professors in the 2016-17 academic year. The higher up we go up in our institutions, the fewer black and brown faces we see teaching and researching.

Our institutions make it harder and harder for people of colour to remain in the academy. So many black and brown intellectuals are negotiating their precarity while working to advance their communities and open the door for others to also have a seat at the table. But addressing racism and other oppressive power structures cannot rest solely on the shoulders of those affected. We must all work as a collective to not only encourage and support black and brown intellectuals, but to tackle the structures which marginalise and exclude them.

Diversifying will not address hierarchies, discrimination or inequality. We must be committed to dismantling, rebuilding and decolonising our institutions to effect change and, ultimately, to engender our liberation.


Click here to find out about the new Social History Society Network for BME Historians

You can find out more about our 2018 conference by clicking here.


About the Author: Sue Lemos has recently completed a History degree at the University of Warwick, where she worked with Dr Meleisa Ono-George on issues surrounding BME attainment. She was one of four speakers on the History and Diversity plenary panel at the 2018 Social History Society conference and is currently researching The Black Gay and Lesbian Centre in Peckham, 1985-1997.

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