Lola Olufemi’s effort to decolonize the literature syllabus at the University of Cambridge addresses the age-old issue of lacking diversity in academia. Why the controversy?
The specific request to the University, as outlined by Olufemi, sought to “decolonize its reading lists and incorporate postcolonial thought alongside its existing curriculum.” She acknowledges the relatively new effort to address the absence of white authors in the curriculum, but posits that without further integration, the curriculum “risks perpetuating institutional racism.” Per her argument, defining British literature as the literature of the global south is a manifestation of the legacy of colonialism. Olufemi offers a detailed means of fixing the problem at hand, wherein students work with a combination of colonial, postcolonial, and ethnic minority authors. The goal, on a grander scale, is to dismantle the norm of white and male in academia.
Though the petition has existed since July 14th, 2017, the issue gained widespread attention when The Daily Telegraph covered the story on Wednesday, October 25th. With a picture of Olufemi on the front page, the headline they constructed read “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors.” While the photograph and headline appeared on the front page, the article appeared three pages in, leaving readers a chance to develop a preconception of the story without having read the article or having contextualized the information.
The information that they did provide was reportedly faulty, as contrary to the headline’s claims. No official decision had been taken by the administration at the University in response to the letter. The implications of the article were far-reaching, in that within the time of its publication, Olufemi claims to have had her “email...flooded with racist and sexist abuse.”
University lecturer of English Priyamvada Gopal tweeted in response to the article, stating “NOT ONE SINGLE WHITE MALE WRITER will be harmed in the adding of a few BME writers to any syllabus,” and further argued that the issue had been picked up by the media as an effort to incite a race war. She later wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian, praising the student effort to change the curriculum, and stating that “Decolonising the curriculum is, first of all, the acceptance that education, literary or otherwise, needs to enable self-understanding.” The University released its own statement providing that “Changes will not lead to any one author being dropped in favour of others.” This was followed by, “We condemn the related harassment directed towards our students on social media as a result of the recent coverage.”
The Telegraph pulled their article by the 26th, and attempted to reconstruct it, but it leaves a number of truths in its wake. The backlash that the students received affirms that often when people are accustomed to privilege, attempts at equality feel like oppression. The fact that the students are still steadfast is cause for optimism; seeking representation on all grounds is, and should be, an unabandoned effort.