The University of Cambridge English Faculty has recently begun discussions concerning the decolonisation of the Cambridge English Tripos, following efforts by students to challenge the traditional priorities of the syllabus, which “elevates white male authors at the expense of all others”.
This was a change driven by the petition of many within the faculty; but most notably by an open letter publicised in June of this year composed by Lola Olufemi, CUSU’s women’s officer, following a student meeting concerning a decolonisation of faculty reading lists. The letter, which had been signed by over 100 students, declared that “we can no longer ignore…the fact that the curriculum, taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism”, and pressed for comprehensive alterations to the curriculum, in “a call to re-centre the lives of other marginalized writers who have been silenced by the canon.” The letter also offered some methods to ameliorate the situation, but focused on the promotion of “thought, consultation with students and an overview of the course in its entirety” as the most “meaningful” approach to “incorporation”.
Though the outcome of the Faculty’s discussion is as yet unknown, Olufemi welcomed the talks as “a promising step forward”.
Olufemi was pictured on the front of the Daily Telegraph today, accompanying an article that was highly critical of the 'change in policy'. The University has responded to the article, saying “we condemn the related harassment directed towards our students”.
A stament also went on to detail that "The Teaching Forum is a body which has no decision-making powers and its decision points are questions to be discussed in the Faculty."
Priyamvada Gopal, a supervisor on the Part II Postcolonial Literature course, wrote a series of tweets condemning the "ridiculous", "rascist" coverage.
FLY Girls of Cambridge, the University network and forum for women and non-binary people of colour, released a statement today on October 25th condemning the Telegraph and Daily Mail's reporting of Olufemi's campaign.
The statement says, "The factual errors and poor reporting of the pieces expose them as thinly veiled attempts to target and incite backlash against a student activist." It cites the choice of Olufemi's picture on the front page as further evidence that the coverage is "a blatant instance of misogynoir and a strategic targeting of a visible a black student activist, opening her up to racial and gendered attacks, harassment as well as national scrutiny."
Consequently, both the Telegraph and Daily Mail have failed to recognise, and furthermore distracted from, Olufemi's campaign to decolonise curricula in British higher education, they argue.
The statement ends, "We stand with all students of colour, who are active in organizing with liberation campaigns in institutions of higher education to widen access and dismantle oppressive structures.
"We refuse to be silenced."
President of the CUSU BME Campaign, Jason Osamede Okundaye, wrote in the Guardian today that the Telegraph and Daily Mail's coverage is "yet another attack on students of colour".
Okundaye writes, "I consider [it] wilful misconstruction." He states clearly the differences between Olufemi's letter and how it was covered in the Telegraph. The letter, for example, states explicitly that, “This is not a call for the exclusion of white men from reading lists, needless to say: it is a call to re-centre the lives of other marginalised writers who have been silenced by the canon.” The Telegraph headline read, “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors”.
He, too, pointed to the "sultry image" of Olufemi on the front page, commenting that, "This choice taps into the age-old media stereotype of black women as aggressive and irrational, catalysing the onslaught of racialised misogyny against her."
He concludes by pointing us towards the larger picture here — the goal of the decolonisation campaign.
He closes, "It is no longer acceptable to present male, European authors as the gold standard of knowledge, and marginalised groups are shaking the academy from all angles.
"This type of media takedown of student activism is a major barrier to progress and honest discussion."
Okundaye was caught in what is perhaps a similar sensationalist media outburst earlier this year in August, after tweets from his Twitter page such as ""ALL white people are racist. White middle class, white working class, white men, white women, white gays, white children. They can ALL geddit" were covered in the national media.
He wrote then, also in the Guardian, that "The headlines made allegations that I believe all individual white people “are racist”, insinuating that I support violence against white people because of this."