Hi, I’m Samira Diebire, the Student Union’s Black Students Community Officer 2019/20 and a 2nd year International Relations student. As Black Officer, I represent black students’ experiences across the campus to ensure their voices are heard.
When I first started this role, one of the things that students have fed back to the previous officers, and I, was the lack of diversity and representation in their education in the University of Essex. The large majority of our curriculum is westernised and Eurocentric, despite the richness and depth of diversity of the history and communities that make up our society. This is one of the many reasons why students demand that the curriculum is decolonised.
How do we decolonise the curriculum? What does this mean? Where would you even start? These were some of the questions I am continuously asked in meetings by University’s staff and occasionally I ask myself the same question. Decolonising the curriculum is more than just adding a few BAME authors’ papers or books to the reading lists and ‘voilà’ the curriculum is decolonised. It is more than just adding some pictures of BAME people in the lecture slides or advertisement materials for recruitment leaflets or posters.
To start this important work, we all need to learn and understand that the problem is systemic racism on which our modern society is built on; it’s not enough to simply state that you are not racist if you’re not being proactively anti-racist.
The system in which we live was not designed for BAME communities. To effectively decolonise the curriculum, we need to create a new system that is more inclusive and values people’s lived experiences.
All these are suggestions that all academic and administrative staff should and consider when designing modules or supporting students in navigating for example assessment procedures; this should also include research. It won’t be enough for us to happily say “we decolonised the curriculum here at Essex”, however acknowledging that this needs to be done is the first step that students will appreciate.
Furthermore, the lack of representation does not help the process, especially when black students have limited representation or role models in the University Boards and Committees where decisions that affect our campuses and experiences are made.
One of the things that I heard throughout my term in office was that we don’t have enough lecturers within our University communities, which may be due to the fact that BAME students decide not to progress their studies at the University of Essex which means that they are under–represented in Masters and or PhD programmes. However, when we look into the reason why black students don’t stay at this University, the message that we hear loud and clear is that we don’t give them any reason to stay.
The BAME award gap refers to the observation that Black students on average do less well in their degrees overall compared to their fellow White students despite comparable entry grades. It is important to look at how marking and feedback is provided. As much as we have a system that is supposed to protect the anonymity of the person, it becomes problematic if a student decides to write about white privilege and the person marking the assessment does not understand what white privilege is or questions if it actually exists. Lack of insight into what white privilege is may result in such an assessment being failed or awarded a lower grade. This unconscious bias or ignorance or both become a problem when a black student would like to do a study or conduct research on a topic but cannot find a lecturer that has the knowledge and expertise to supervise them.
How can such issues be solved? Suggested ways forward could include giving opportunities to black students to discuss the issues they face openly and support them to select and undertake projects that they are genuinely interested in; reinforce anti-racism programmes in the University and ensure that this is a collective effort. If you are an academic you are expected to mentor and inspire, so consider looking at your reading list and think about the changes you could make, perhaps you might want to start portraying black people throughout history and in society in a more positive light as there’s more to black history than just slavery. Start asking yourself and others how you can further support black communities and your students. Don’t invalidate us and our experiences and don’t treat us differently. We are not asking for special treatment but rather for equal and fairer treatment. Check your unchecked biases and learn from them. There’s still a long way to go, but now is the time to move from the conversational sphere to the actions.