Stories of (un)belonging amidst a campaign to decolonise university curricula

Students of colour shared stories of (un)belonging during a recent teach-out at Kent as part of an ongoing campaign to decolonise university curricula. Rapper, educator and activist Lowkey was a guest speaker and his inspirational talk is now available to watch again on YouTube.

“Our university doesn’t look like a university that is meant for us.”

“A sense of belonging never happened for me”

“Unbelonging is something we carry in terms of mentality.”

The event was hosted by Decolonise UoK, a student-led group at Kent that’s campaigning for cultural democracy. The students, many of whom are studying law, argue that current university curricula marginalise historically underrepresented or oppressed groups. Building on movements such as #liberatemydegree, “Why is My Curriculum White?” and a Kent Student Union campaign to “Diversify My Curriculum”, Decolonise UoK seek a liberated curriculum that not only reflects global diversity but also promotes inclusion, tackles exclusion, and engenders a sense of belonging for all students.

The group takes their inspiration from Kent Law School Reader in Law Dr Suhraiya Jivraj, the author of The Religion of Law: Race, Citizenship and Children’s Belonging (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), and co-editor of Decolonising Sexualities: Transnational Perspectives, and Critical Interventions (online, 2016). Their decolonising campaign is also supported by the Law School’s Centre for Sexuality, Race and Gender Justice (of which Dr Jivraj is Co-Director).

Decolonise UoK was joined at the event in March by student decolonising groups from Queen Mary University London, Keele University, King’s College London and Lancaster University (and later by Lowkey.) They united on the stage of the Gulbenkian Theatre for a critical discussion (available to watch again on YouTube) facilitated by Dr Sweta Rajan-Rankin from Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. As well as being a chance to find a coherent and cohesive voice, Dr Rajan-Rankin described the discussion as an opportunity “to identify and name the pain of unbelonging.”

Students found common ground in their shared experiences. Many said they felt vulnerable in raising their concerns at their institutions (pointing to a “threat of visibility”), despite being aware that their experiences were adversely impacting their attainment. There was a sense that visions of a meritocratic world weren’t true for them. They expressed frustration at having to keep making the case for representation and described an “invisible lived experience”, with university marketing campaigns compounding their sense of not being seen or heard.

They urged each other to embrace the discomfort they feel themselves when discussing the decolonising movement and to create safe spaces for repair as they pursue their goals. Safe spaces were particularly important on campuses where physical/social spaces felt oppressive to students of colour (such as buildings named in honour of men involved in slavery). An earlier ‘Decolonial Walk’ around the Kent campus led by Kent Law School PhD scholar Anamika Misra, had drawn attention to the county of Kent’s connections with John Locke and slavery.

Lowkey took to the stage in the afternoon, for an inspirational talk (available to watch again on YouTube), after having earlier recorded a podcast with Decolonise UoK students Naima Zayla and Hezhan Kader.

In his introduction, Lowkey said: ‘I think that sometimes in conversations about decolonisation within educational institutions, what people can miss is that paradoxically what we’re actually talking about is the inclusion of colonialism within the canon.’ He shared a quote from Decolonising the Mind by Ngugi wa Thiong’o: ‘The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. Where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle. The bullet was the means of physical subjugation, language was the means of the spiritual subjugation.’

At the close of the day, Lowkey told attendees he’d found the event to be “seriously inspiring” and hoped it could be a blueprint that could be applied elsewhere.

The event offered an opportunity to reflect on developments since a conference held in March 2019 at which Decolonise UoK launched a Manifesto, underpinned by their own research.

Dr Jivraj said: ‘Empowering students is still very much necessary so we must find ways to keep facilitating students to articulate their stories. We have certainly been fortunate to work and collaborate with so many creative people of colour who have helped us to find creative means whether art, spoken word, music and podcasts. Through the Kaleidoscope hub activities and a decolonial café at Queen Mary University, working with other decolonising student groups and the Building the Anti-racist Classroom Collective, students and staff are collectively unleashing depths of story-telling about life at university and beyond.’

Decolonise UoK campaigners Oscar Poku Nsiah Owusu, Gee Semalaar and Naima Zayla reflect on the event:

Oscar: ‘The conference meant a lot to me. I remember going to the launch of Decolonise UoK and thinking to myself I want to be involved. Having a platform to share my experience was great. Additionally, hearing some of the stories of the other university students was exciting.

‘Being involved in Decolonise UoK has highly contributed to my own sense of belonging especially as a black man. Coming together and sharing stories with my fellow black men lifted a weight off my shoulders. It made me feel a part of bigger family where I was free to share what was going on.

‘The star of this has been Dr Jivraj.  I really admire and applaud Dr Jivraj’s efforts. She has made me more aware of the inherent inequalities in society and has instilled in me confidence to speak and do what is right. Everyone needs a Dr Suhraiya Jivraj.

‘I believe after university, the movement lives on as I attempt to decolonise what every employment sector I might end up.’

Gee: ‘This year we have a BAME LGBTI group doing decolonising work. As a student who is new to campus and a trans man of colour it was crucial for me to have a group where I could share and build chosen families. More than any other group, this one has contributed to my feeling a sense of togetherness and belonging at Kent.

‘Dr Jivraj does a lot of the heavy lifting for the decolonising work and manages to create non-hierarchical spaces of engagement for the student group. Although the dream is to have this work being done in a sustainable manner by students, the fact that the student population is always in transit, makes her role as academic mentor for the decolonising work crucial as it brings in continuity and stability to the work.’

Naima: ‘It was an empowering experience that has meant an opportunity to demonstrate the extra-curricular work that goes into students and staff who do decolonial and anti-racist work. To show that even though the burden falls on the shoulders of BAME students/staff who continue to have to explain, resist, and unlearn/learn their own feelings/experiences of (un)belonging, it is not a unique experience.

‘Dr Jivraj has become a mentor to us all, and selflessly supports and encourages everything we do. She has brought out my voice and has inspired me to unapologetically be the best version of myself in all I do.

‘Decolonial work needs to occur not just in education but every institution and branch of state. I hope to take all that I have learned and for it reflect in my legal career going forward. To continue to be an ally and part of the movement, and know that it is the collective that will bring about change, not individuals.’

Voices from the Decolonise UoK Stories of (Un)belonging event:

“None of our experiences are unique – it’s happening across the country, across the world.”

“The risk of raising your voice is the price of unbelonging.”

“Growing up black feels like you have to compromise who you are to be perceived as equal.” 

“Whiteness is not a noun, it’s a verb; a way of doing”

“Racism equals prejudice plus institutional power.”

“The only way for racism to die is for those who have the privilege to share their power.”

“One important lesson is that it is vital that we create spaces outside and beyond the institutions that are built on our oppression. Decolonising does not mean becoming part of oppressive structures or perpetuating the elitism inherent in universities. “

“The burden falls on black and brown people to explain, educate and endure racism. It’s physically, mentally, emotionally exhausting.”

“Universities are keen to recruit black and brown students but once we’re here, it’s a different story.”

“I’m on the brochure…”

Meritocracy – if you work hard, you’ll make it. This is the biggest lie. It doesn’t consider all the intersects of discrimination that black and brown people face every day.”

“I need to see teachers who look like me getting promoted.” 

‘When we talk about decolonisation, we’re not offering it as a metaphor. It is not an approximation of other experiences of oppression. Decolonisation is not a swappable term for other things we want to do to improve our societies and institutions of learning. Decolonisation doesn’t have a synonym.’

Dave Thomas

“Decolonising as a metaphor doesn’t work, decolonising as a movement does.”

Dr Sweta Rajan-Rankin

Extracts from: Towards Decolonising the University: A Kaleidoscope for Empowered Action – a forthcoming Counterpress book by the Decolonise UoK collective with chapters authored by staff and students involved in the decolonising movement at Kent. The following extracts are taken from a chapter authored by Dr Suhraiya Jivraj…

This amazingly accomplished project all run by students – facilitated by me with a handful of colleagues grew from what I had intended to be a modest experiment in teaching in a final year optional module that I convene – Race, Religion and Law. The thinking process began three years ago when I had been sitting in an unremarkable departmental meeting until my gentle ruminations became interrupted by ‘race’ alarm bells. A central university presentation was being delivered that highlighted “black and Asian” students as having “attainment gaps” followed by a haze of graphs and stats. Instinctive discomfort rose within me as my racism radar picked up on what seemed to me as crass racial stereotyping about the behaviours and achievements of “Indian students” vs “black students” vs “East Asian” students. My misgivings about this ‘data’ were not diminished by ‘explanations’ of the need for this ‘equalities’ work because the problem – disparities in achievement of degree grades – sounded too much like it lay at the door of the students and not the institutions, and that did not speak to my experience as a former student nor to those now thousands of students I have taught over the last two decades.

Were their experiences in the classroom and on campus impacting their learning experiences and outcomes? I was curious and needed to know but not just anecdotally in my role as their Teacher, Academic Advisor or even as a Chief Examiner, nor even in the form of general student feedback.

I needed to understand this as ‘data’ through a fully approved qualitative research process that I knew the students would have to undertake themselves, albeit under my supervisory guidance.

After ‘the conversation with Dave’ (see the Introduction in the book) I designed a plan to embed a research project within the module which would also form part of the assessment. In Spring 2018 I applied for a for a teaching enhancement (TESSA) award which was successful.

The project, originally entitled ‘BAME students as change actors and co-producers of knowledge: towards an inclusive curriculum’ aimed to empower BAME students to develop academic ‘capital’ (to use the EDI industry language) and become co-producers of knowledge and stronger stakeholders in their own education within the law school. The project sought to achieve this by facilitating the students to research (through running focus groups) to voice and share with other students their experiences around race, racialisation and (un)belonging on campus, in the classroom and through the curriculum in safe ‘café’ style spaces. This research would then be disseminated as their collective findings through publication in various formats and a half day workshop.

The project was launched by Dr Jason Arday – on World Mental Health Day (10 October 2018) – who gave the keynote to a packed lecture theatre of students who were captivated by his research on black mental health within higher education.

After that event many more students from beyond the law school wanted to get involved. and I applied for a second TESSA grant to ensure that more students could have the opportunity to be involved’ the desire of students to be involved.

The students then set up a committee, a regular reading group and from there the Decolonising the Curriculum project, as they named it, was born.

The manifesto was then launched in March 2019 to an audience of two hundred people. Attendees feedback (including from staff at various HEIs) overwhelmingly reported how much they had learnt and benefited from the power in the room that was created by bringing both students and eminent academics of colour together to explore the themes of the manifesto including tackling racism in the curriculum, on campus, and in classrooms as a key barrier to belonging and attainment.

The Decolonise the Curriculum project 2018/19 has now officially ended, having successfully achieved its aiming of producing the manifesto. It also appeared as a case study in the recently published UUK and NUS report Closing the Gap (2019) on ‘BME achievement’ in HE and featured one of the stage three (finalist) project students Joy Olugboyega (who I have taught since stage one as a Certificate in Law student at our Medway Campus on a Widening Participation path) on the front page.  The students also provided footage for the UUK promotional materials and presented the manifesto to Baroness Amos (co-author of the report) at its launch conference at SOAS in May 2019.  We also attended an event hosted by the former Speaker of the House of Commons, Mr John Bercow MP, who was delighted to be presented with the manifesto. Clearly this work is garnering interest and already having a significant impact beyond the university. The students have won awards for their contribution to Diversity and Inclusion and we have had many enquiries from student groups and academics from other universities, eager to find out more about the work we have done. Both Dave and I as well as the students have provided talks and trainings in a range of departments across the country and abroad including within our own university.

My ‘next steps’ document compiled for the university’s executive group outlined how key student concerns – particularly experiences of racism – as articulated in the manifesto could be addressed in three key areas:

  • Pedagogy and powerful learning experiences: The colour of our curriculum
  • Race, identity & belonging: Promoting Inclusion / Countering Exclusion
  • Student voice & co-production with academics: Stakeholders within the university

As with the manifesto the ‘next steps’ document specifically responded to the institutionally funded University of Kent Student Success (EDI) Project Phase II strategy which acknowledges the need to affirm that the ‘white curriculum acts as a barrier to inclusivity’ because ‘it fails to legitimise contributions to knowledge from people of colour’. It also states – under the heading ‘Race, Identity & Belonging’ that: “We will ensure that our staff body remains diverse, so that our curriculum reflects and addresses a range of perspectives. How can this be operationalised?” It is interesting that this heading ends with a question being posed demonstrating the gap in knowledge and implementation at institutional level. In a sense, the time seemed right to lobby and be hopeful for joined up institutional structural change, that goes beyond reading lists and also tackles racism and other forms of exclusion directly as part of the University’s education and EDI strategy.

Decolonise University of Kent student findings call for more work by scholars of colour, including from the global south, so that the curriculum reflects and addresses a range of experiences whilst also promoting cultural democracy. As stated in the manifesto, this is also crucial to “develop all students into critical and analytical thinkers and leaders within their education”.

The student’s own suggestion has been to set up what they named Kaleidoscope Hub, coined by Lisa Shoko, Jasmyn Sargeant and Ahmed Memon, as a principled community space where students of colour would feel able to access and develop strong networks of support and sense of belonging and find help to deal with racialization and racism on campus

We set up the Kaleidoscope Network of staff and students of colour and allies. We hoped that this network, in conjunction with the newly formed BAME/staff of colour network, would be a vehicle to drive forward implantation of the manifesto recommendations including eventually having a more central kaleidoscope hub space.

In a post-Brexit, hostile environment climate where Muslim students also feel hyper-surveilled as a result of the Government’s Prevent Duty there is much still to do but it is clear from what is stated above that the “seismic shift” that needs to take place has begun in some corners at least. Of course, this needs to happen at senior leadership level as well where the student voice and staff-student collaboration must take place beyond working with student union sabbatical officers.

The UUK/NUS #Closing the Gap report (2019) in which the DecoloniseUKC project (as it was called then) was featured makes five recommendations including the need for universities to have conversations about race. I would also add to that explicitly that those conversations need to be about racism. My experience as an academic lead for a student decolonising the curriculum project is that we are far away from that moment.

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