C+: Why is my curriculum so white?

Becky Cook reports on the lack of diversity in the Oxford curriculum

This article originally appeared as part of a C+ investigation into Race at Oxford. Other articles include a discussion of student responses to the migrant crisis, student responses to a C+ poll, and the university’s record on race and access. 

University is regarded as the place which forms thought and allows for the diverse exploration of it, particularly at an institution like Oxford which boasts some of the highest standards in higher education for provoking thought and knowledge acquisition in its students. The mission statement of most universities calls for a fostering of equality, yet a glance over most of our reading lists demonstrates how this sense of equality is not similarly perpetuated in academia. This unvarying approach is, for the most part, left undisputed, reinforced by the sense of these white, and for the most part male, sources holding academic prestige and privilege.

BME students are left with their history essentially ignored in their academic life. This colour-blind approach leaves a wealth of work offering alternate outlooks ignored and even propagates the absurd notion that only white men have been involved in the pursuit of knowledge. This regulated attitude is disturbingly seldom addressed or chuckled away in lectures. This conservation of power is even recognisable in casual conversation, where the more white authors someone has read maintains a symbiotic relationship to how cultured they are perceived as being.

This insistence on the moral and intellectual superiority of the white thinkers subconsciously establishes concerning power structures in the formative minds which are carried and continue to multiply in the world beyond university. As an Aiming Higher report commented in 2015, it is now being recognised that it is unacceptable for academia to be “normatively, habitually and intellectually ‘White’”.

Finding themselves under-represented, many BME students are acutely conscious of this mainstream narrative which neglects their historical discourse and become disillusioned by it. This has been dubbed by the NUS as leading to the BME attainment gap, whereby a reported 20 per cent of BME students are less likely to attain a first or 2:1 class degree at the end of their course compared to their white peers, despite having arrived at university with the same examination results, providing an example of how the colour blind curriculum can perpetuate exclusion and marginalization outside the lecture theatre.

In a 2014 OUSU survey on ‘Race, Ethnicity and the Student Experience’, an Oxford student was reported as having commented in relation to curriculum diversity that “it means that BME students are made to feel inferior and our identities are subsumed, almost as if to say there are no academics from other backgrounds that haven’t made huge developments in their field. It’s said implicitly in the curriculum we study. After a while we begin to accept these things as being natural when we shouldn’t”. They continued: “You accept the idea that Europeans and Euro- centric voices are the most authoritative and legitimate.”

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It appears to be the arts and humanities subjects that have extensively ingrained this white euro-centricity bias into their syllabi. In the cases of Classics and Philosophy, for instance, the works of white males governs the arena. This is not solely because of the proliferation of their work, but a muted connection between hierarchy of power and knowledge.

When asked to comment on this concern, the Oxford Classics Faculty told C+: “Classics has been at the forefront of work to diversify curricula, despite being more constrained than some subjects (such as English, History or Modern Languages) in the geographical and linguistic scope of the cultures it studies and the range of surviving sources for them. New material has been introduced into undergraduate lectures, highlighting the ethnic diversity of the Greek and Roman worlds.

“Students have been introduced to the politics of translation and interpretation, which can change our understanding of how our sources constructed and viewed members of different groups. A new paper is being developed in Ancient History, which studies the ancient near East and its interactions with the Greek world entirely though non-western sources. Graduate students are being invited to lecture this year on themes which speak to the diversity of the ancient world and the history of interpretation of this diversity.

“A research seminar is currently running on ‘Colonial and post-colonial voices’ (12.30pm, Thursdays, the Ioannou Centre, 66 St Giles: all welcome). Undergraduates and graduate student representatives have been actively encouraged in recent years to discuss with their constituencies what further diversification of the curriculum they would like to see.”

“A senior member of the Faculty has, for the past three years, been the Humanities coordinator for the CRAE/OU working group on curriculum diversity. In this capacity, she has brought high profile figures, including Professor Homi Bhabha and Dr Ruth Simmons, to lecture in Oxford. She has worked extensively with students across faculties on the ways in which they would like to see their curricula diversified. She has actively encouraged faculties across the Humanities to offer lecture series on more globally, racially and ethnically diverse topics, to develop new undergraduate and graduate options, to introduce new perspectives into existing options, and to diversify posts.”

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The concern is that if we continue to exclusively study one ethnicity’s discourse at the hands of all others, our default perception of the world will be through the eyes of the structurally privileged, granting them with the power to supposedly articulate for everyone, despite the fact that swathes of people are excluded from the narrative.

Tobi Thomas, an Oxford undergraduate, told C+: “I think it’s really important for our curriculums to be decolonised. I study Philosophy, and so far my whole degree has revolved around the intellectual traditions of Western white men, who deem people who look like me to be ‘intellectually inferior’ and ‘primitive’. This whole idea ultimately perpetuates the racist trope that anything worthy of academic merit has come about by the West alone. It ignores the many great contributions of Eastern and African philosophers, which in many ways have acted as the foundations for Western philosophical thought.”

“This is especially harmful when growing up. In school, the only history I learnt about black people revolved around the slave trade or British imperialism and colonisation, which is problematic in itself as it implies that black people have only ever had history ‘done’ to them. It’s a problem because at a young age, you internalise this false belief that people who look like you have never contributed anything positive to rational and enlightened thinking in the history of humankind.”

While we should not be led to discount white thinking on account of race (its contribution is indubitable), it is not the sole seminal source. As institutions could potentially be at risk of introducing these suppressed works in a tokenistic manner, we should instead move past this and focus on the ideological motives behind this institutional bias and then embark upon curriculum reform.

This is something which the efforts of the Classics Faculty demonstrate are being attempted in Oxford. We must continue this across the university in order to perpetuate the diversity which aspects of the curriculum are gasping for, so that students are no longer forced to ask the question of why their curriculum is so white.