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In 2015, students at the University of Cape Town demanded the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the imperialist, racist business magnate, from their campus. The battle cry ‘#RhodesMustFall’ sparked an international movement calling for the decolonisation of the world’s universities. However, the movements true meaning has often been dismissed as censorship, identity politics or symptomatic of ‘safe space culture’. In this blog, Robbie Shilliam considers the veracity of these derisions.

Find out more about the campaign to understand and transform the universities’ colonial foundations in Decolonising the University, edited by Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nişancıoğlu and featuring contributions from Robbie Shilliam.

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Campaigns to ‘decolonise’ the British academy are under attack and critics have provided a set of defences for academic tradition. Universities should be sites of free thought and free speech, and the so-called ‘right of students not to be offended’ is detrimental to the ethos of these sites. Taking offence at a white curriculum and a white institutional space is considered a form of ‘cultural policing’ driven by a desire to ‘censor history, literature, politics and culture’. Not only a form of censorship, some point towards an almost fascistic urge by ‘young minds’ to ‘wipe away the past’ in order to avoid having to grapple with intellectually difficult questions.

A key line of critique pertains to the introduction into higher learning of identity politics, wherein intellectual positions are supposed to represent and map onto ascriptive attributes, such as race. The harm of this, say some, is that identity policing begins to matter more than the free flow of political ideas. Furthermore, the ‘narcissism’ bred by identity politics is considered degrading to intellectual inquiry by regarding all knowledge as equally competent, that is, vulgar. If every viewpoint were to be included by virtue of it representing a discrete identity, what would ‘higher’ learning consist and how would knowledge claims be adjudicated?,

None of these concerns are particularly original to our present time. Take, for instance, John Searle bemoaning, in 1993, the intrusion of Black, First Nations, Feminist and Latino/a struggles into the American academy. Or philosopher Michael Oakeshott, arguing in 1950 that there should be no ‘ulterior purpose’ to the scholarly conversation, which, in the ‘gift of an interval’ from practical life, proceeded at its own conversational pace and for its own purposes.

These various defences of the ‘traditional’ academy moot a higher education that existed before the contamination of identity, race, politicisation. And regardless of the implicit or explicit idealisation of such a space of higher learning, all critiques logically posit a temporal sensibility to their critique: the problem has been introduced into the space.

Given this sensibility, I wonder where critics would place Britain’s most accomplished public intellectual of the twentieth century, Professor Stuart Hall? A Jamaican youth, Hall entered Oxford in 1951. Despite a quotidian politeness at Oxford, Hall recollects that ‘I was conscious all the time that I was very, very different because of my race and colour. And in the discourses of Englishness, race and colour remained unspeakable silences.’ Hall was debating an expansive Caribbean and Black politics; but it was Oxford, institutionally, that refined him to an identity. Oxford would not allow Hall to take an Oakeshott-style ‘interval’ from his race.

rhodes must fall decolonise the university why is my curriculum white decolonising the university school university postcolonialism education cecil rhodes imperialism colonialism whitewashing stuart hall sivanandan amblavaner IRR new beacon books black education black radicalism identity politics

Stuart Hall and his mother.

Hall’s contemporaries shared similar experiences. Take, for instance, African and Caribbean informants for Sheila Kitzinger’s 1950s study of students attending Oxbridge institutions.10 Her interlocutors spoke of the difficulties in constructing friendships with white peers who took the activity to be a philanthropical gesture on their part: ‘They speak to you very nicely, but all the time they seem to be thinking, “I wonder whether he can read?”’11 Informants reported that the relationship would break down when the white partner became ‘embarrassed by the Negro’s self-consciousness’.

In the 1950s, this shock of Black intellectual competency had political salience. Black university students had become a key concern for British race relations. Michael Banton, who would go on to be a formative influence in the ‘sociology of race’ tradition, looked towards the racist reception of Black Commonwealth citizens with apprehension. ‘The slights, rebuffs and discrimination – real and imagined – which they experience may afterwards cause a reaction of resentment and may lead to a rejection of British cultural values and to political nationalism.’ He observed that ‘leaders of public opinion’ now realised that the racist treatment of students in Britain could be detrimental to the integrity of the Commonwealth and that students had to be re-imagined as ‘leaders of the rising coloured nations’.

Alternatively, Philip Garigue documented how the same movement could be interpreted as a process of critical political clarification for Black students. Garigue framed his study of the West African Student’s Union in terms of the shift among participating students from a confrontation with the British ‘colour bar’ to a formulation of anti-colonial sentiments. By addressing the ‘stresses and strains that living in Britain produced’, the union, in Garigue’s estimation, inculcated its members with a ‘new consciousness of their own value and capacity for achievement’.

Paradoxically, by the end of the 1950s Banton was moving from an analysis of race and the diminution of empire to one defined by an abstract sociological category – the ‘stranger’. By considering the ‘coloured man’ as ‘a stranger to British ways’, Banton reduced the question of race to one of rule recognition: the stranger is ‘not only uncertain of the [societal] norms: he cannot read the signs’. Banton was well aware that Black students were mostly British citizens under the British Nationality Act (1948). But his category shift seems to surrender to the racist standpoint of the white British population on their fellow citizens.

It was, of course, hardly possible for a Black university student to be a stranger to British ways considering the copious amounts of colonial indoctrination that had accompanied their prior education. Hall studied in the halls of Oxford as, in his terms, a ‘familiar stranger’.

I wonder, who was producing the problem of identity politics in this era? Is it fair to depict anti-colonial politics as identity politics? Is it adequate to conceive of the space of higher education as anything less than colonially and racially inflected? And is it any wonder that Black intellectuals increasingly pursued their work outside of and besides the halls of British academia?

In 1963 Jim Rose, initiated a Survey of Race Relations, which eventuated in a landmark publication, Colour and Citizenship. But by the early 1970s the field had become politicised with the influence of civil rights, Black Power and liberation struggle. Ambalavaner Sivanandan led a ‘palace coup’ at the IRR, which eventuated in the revamping of the institute’s journal into an explicitly anti-imperial digest, Race & Class, the new journal never enjoyed a strictly academic home.

rhodes must fall decolonise the university why is my curriculum white decolonising the university school university postcolonialism education cecil rhodes imperialism colonialism whitewashing stuart hall sivanandan amblavaner IRR new beacon books black education black radicalism identity politics

Amblavaner Sivanandan at the IRR.

Hall joined the Open University in 1979, an institution that focused upon distance learning for ‘non-traditional’ students. The successful radicalisation of ‘cultural studies’ by Stuart Hall during this era is the exception that proves the rule that it was the academy rather than the Black intellectual that had a problem with identity.

Another breakaway group from the IRR, comprising Darcus Howe, Farrukh Dhondy and Linton Kwesi Johnson, published Race Today. The journal’s tagline, ‘voice of the Black Community in Britain’, signalled the liminal position, vis-à-vis the academy, of mainly Black and Asian scholars who dared to critically confront the living legacies of the British Empire. Where such an intellectual tradition – or traditions – firmly coalesced was indeed outside of academia proper, in community-based institutions and initiatives. There, Black history and Black education was galvanised in the 1970s autonomously and alongside the work of Hall et al. Some from those early days still write, teach and organise in a community setting.

The work of Black intellectuals has never been ephemeral but often aimed at building institutional capacities in fora that lie beside the academy. John LaRose and Jessica Huntley (a member of the Black Parents movement) became co-directors of the International Book Fairs of Radical Black and Third World Books, which ran from 1982 to 1995. New Beacon Books and Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications. Bogle-L’Ouverture provided readers with the commanding thoughts of Walter Rodney as he ‘grounded’ with his brethren and sistren in the dungles of Kingston, Jamaica rather than inside the gates of the University of the West Indies.

In the same year that Jim Rose embarked on the national survey of race relations, the Robbins Report announced the expansion of higher education in an age that had pursued the ideal of ‘equality of opportunity’. Yet despite Lord Robbins’ ‘natural egalitarianism’, his 1963 report was silent upon the challenges posed to these principles by the structural racism of British society, which  were also inflected within the academy. Nonetheless, racist events of national significance historically book-ended the report. One year prior, the Commonwealth Immigration Act recused the rights of Commonwealth citizens to move unimpeded across the British realms. And one year after, the infamous Smethwick election in Birmingham was fought by the (winning) conservative candidate on the platform: ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Liberal or Labour’.

rhodes must fall decolonise the university why is my curriculum white decolonising the university school university postcolonialism education cecil rhodes imperialism colonialism whitewashing stuart hall sivanandan amblavaner IRR new beacon books black education black radicalism identity politics

New Beacon Books

The greater irony here is that criticism of the decolonising project has gained more traction than the project itself. There is, then, something of a far more heinous nature going on. I would suggest that some of the political class look upon the changes to Britain’s (and the West’s) population pyramid with trepidation. They see the base of the pyramid growing relentlessly blacker, browner, poorer. They seek to preserve the whiteness of elite cultural reproduction in sites that are currently most detached from the pyramid’s base. Theirs is a melancholic, reactive mood to an inevitability born of empire, namely, that the fantasy of a pristine West could not hold for too long. That is the identity politics that we should be critically addressing.

Those non-white people who have played the identity politics game with all due seriousness are not in academia. They have, of course, already been invited into politics, business and the civic sector. They want to hold power, not books. Most of us involved in projects that seek to decolonise the academy are not interested in identity politics, nor its narcissism or vulgarity. All of us value the decolonising project for its potential to deepen academic rigour and pursue intellectual challenge. Some of us connect the project to an ethics of epistemic justice. That is, we seek to confront and repair the racialised divisions of intellectual labour imposed by colonial rule in terms of who can think adequately for whom. Some of us even conceive of the project as an interconnected contribution to global justice, the key battles of which are fought in far harsher environments than the academy.

In any case, our concerns are profound, not narcissistic or vulgar. Few of us are eugenicist statisticians who wish to see more ‘black’ everywhere. On the contrary: that is the optical obsession of those who seek to defer an engagement with colonial injustice by labelling it ‘identity politics’. Yet it is their identity which is at stake, not ours. Our knowledge cultivation has continued, despite and besides the racism of the academy.

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Robbie Shilliam is Professor of International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. He is most recently author of Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit (Agenda Publishing, 2018).

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Decolonising the University edited by Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial, Kerem Nişancıoğlu is available from Pluto Press.