The Lola Olufemi ‘scandal’ is dishonest and damaging to BME progress

Silencing bias does not silence academic freedom, argues Brian Wong

The Cambridge University History Faculty

Lola Olufemi, the Cambridge University Student Women’s Officer, came under fire from online commentators after The Telegraph published an article discussing her efforts in leading the decolonisation of Cambridge’s curriculum. Despite The Telegraph’s later amendment and clarifications concerning the article, a plethora of abusive comments were launched at Olufemi on online platforms.

Make no mistake here – the criticisms against Olufemi are not only intellectually dishonest, but deeply damaging to the ongoing progress to empower persons of colour to speak about and share their lived experiences.

The dishonesty is evidenced on two levels. The primary charge levied at Olufemi is that her campaign insists on ‘erasing’ and ‘rewriting’ history. Firstly, the call for the inclusion of more non-white historical figures and academics on the official syllabus does not preclude the inclusion of the works of white intellectuals (syllabus extension is largely additive, not substitutive).

Moreover, white historical figures and academics tend to be over-represented in popular media, library stocks, online resources, and core textbooks for courses – it is unclear why removing a few white names from the syllabus, even if that did occur, would cause substantial erasure of white history. Instead, it should be seen as a proportionately justified reduction in the time allocated to the study of them.

Secondly, the demand for curriculum decolonisation does not equate the erasure or exclusion of periods of history – instead, it calls for the expansion of perspectives that accommodate hitherto subaltern voices. If anything, such diversification enriches and informs our understanding of the past.

Finally, this charge against Olufemi is factually inaccurate – Olufemi is not the sole member of the Curriculum Decolonisation Campaign. It is supported and led by many other individuals, and to purely associate the campaign with a woman of colour is a political ploy steeped in misogyny, designed to construct the false illusion that the well-meaning academic campaign is a racially motivated plot.

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The secondary charge is that the University of Cambridge, as a ‘British’ university, ought to focus on teaching ‘British history’.

The University of Cambridge – as per any other high-quality institutions – aspires towards academic excellence across all fields and areas of specialisation within particular fields, independently of regional or political confinements. To say that Cambridge has the primary obligation to teach British history neglects its position as a globally funded, backed, and influential site of academic research and development.

Also, decolonisation does not call for a complete removal of the focus or prioritisation of British history – it merely advocates the inclusion of more options, papers, and texts on the Global South that are currently severely underrepresented in the official curriculum. Above all, it is distinctly myopic and superficial to ignore the connection between British history and global history – particularly with respect to the subjugation of ethnic minorities under colonialism and imperialism.

The refusal to recognise the importance of any viewpoint other than the ‘white perspective’ only hampers our ability to understand and fully contextualise Britain’s past in relation to its contemporaries and counterparts. One of the ways we should judge the quality of an academic community is through its ability to attempt a holistic outlook to disparate and marginalised voices, and to provide them with the platform they so clearly require.

Yet even if it were intellectually valid to critique Olufemi and her associated campaign, the vicious comments deployed against her are deeply regressive towards existing efforts to make campus spaces more welcoming and open environments for people of colour.

The inflammatory rhetoric makes it even less attractive for those with legitimate criticisms towards the status quo to speak out, by placing them under substantial psychological and social costs. The Telegraph’s singling-out of Olufemi (which could very well be unintentional, or not) put her in the negative spotlight for a decision made by a collective group constituting both students and academics.

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Ensuing comments have unhelpfully labeled the campaign’s demands as ‘silencing’ academic freedom, conveniently neglecting the fact that academics and intellectuals of colour have long had their thoughts and views repressed and underrepresented in the overwhelmingly white space of British academia. Further, they failed to mention that the suggested changes do not amount to mandated changes, or that the demands have little to do with what academics can choose to research (academic freedom) – but merely the diversity of content and methods with which teaching is offered.

In many ways, Olufemi was the perfect scapegoat for reactionaries. Her ethnic background fitted neatly with the grander, race war meta-narrative of persons of colour seeking to undermine ‘white Britain’. Her unreserved fortitude could be aptly twisted into aggression that was deeply discomforting for individuals who much preferred defending the status quo. Further, her identity as a student activist associated with the Student Union morphs seamlessly into the motif of left-wing ‘social justice warriors’ and ‘snowflakes’ seeking to sabotage academic freedom.

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