Britain’s Educational Institutions are Fuelling our Racial Ignorance

Words Kushie Amin

Photography Neil Kenlock & Charlie Phillips

01.10.2020

Neil Kenlock, Black Panther Demonstration, London, 1970s

As news of George Floyd's death began to spread earlier this year, people in cities across the world took to the streets in solidarity, under the banner of the newly invigorated Black Lives Matter movement. Such protests demonstrated the power of collective action to call for greater change in society. However, this was no longer another reaction to a recent incident of racial injustice, but rather a call for greater cultural and political change, sparking widespread conversations around racial inequality.

While we all reflect on our relationship with race, it is important to consider institutional attitudes in Britain that have shaped our perceptions. British academic institutions, for example, have done little to disentangle themselves from the nation’s colonial history. According to educational charity, The Black Curriculum, 86.2% of UK pupils are taught about the Tudors, while only 7.6% learn about Britain’s colonisation of Africa. As little to no mention of Britain’s colonial history is made in school curricula across the country, young people are not being taught the full extent of the British Empire’s harrowing legacy. The historical roots of minorities in Britain like the British Black community are, as a result, largely ignored.

Neil Kenlock, Graffiti, Balham, 1972

 

As well as schools, higher education institutions may be considered equally culpable. University reading lists are replete with the works of western scholars with little to no mention of BAME academics. When we focus solely on the Eurocentric perspective set out by western academia, we lose out on diverse perspectives of the past. The dominance of western scholarship at universities across Britain contributes to the hierarchies of power in academia. By giving preference to western scholars we are prioritising their knowledge as authoritative over BAME academics, maintaining Eurocentric perspectives.

Student-led campaigns such as ‘Why is My Curriculum White’ at UCL and ‘Decolonising SOAS’ set out to hold universities accountable for this lack of inclusivity. As a specialist university focusing on Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the SOAS academic body holds a strong commitment to deconstructing western narratives, giving us valuable insight to the benefits of a diverse curriculum. To redress the imbalance, many university faculties have sought to manufacture a sense of inclusivity by including optional modules dedicated to the non-West. These are often dedicated to non-western works with homogenising categories such as ‘African-American literature,’ ‘South-Asian art’ or ‘Post-colonial history.’ Such inclusivity can be characterised as institutional performativity as these arbitrary categories marginalises these groups further, making it clear that they are not part of the core western canon.

Charlie Phillips, Portobello Road, Notting Hill, 1974

Other educational institutions such as museums also play a powerful role in shaping our perceptions. Museums serve to educate visitors through the objects they display and the information they provide. However, they hold strong nationalistic functions, developed under historical circumstances. For instance, the British Museum was created during Britain’s colonial expansion in the 18th century and was set up to reinforce the West’s dominance in art and culture. Objects displayed include national treasures from Egypt, China and Nigeria, unlawfully seized during Europe’s imperialist expansion.

As well as its problematic inception, the British Museum’s portrayal of non-western cultures and histories reveal imperialist prejudices. Upon entering the museum, artefacts and exhibitions of Ancient Greece and Rome, the supposed basis of European civilisation, are readily visible, while regional categories such as Africa, China and India are tucked away in less visible areas of the museum, suggesting a disparity between the regions. Such marginalisation is also present in art galleries, where there has been a long-standing issue in embracing the works of non-western artists. This is especially clear in the supposed canon of ‘great artists’ exhibited in art galleries, who are largely white, male and western. Attempts at inclusivity have been futile and have only served to reinforce the othering of non-western art.

It is abundantly clear in this current climate that the narratives exposed by British institutions are outdated and problematic. Educational and cultural institutions museums should use their institutional power to offer different perspectives of historical events. Such one-sided learnings of the past only work to uphold British imperialist attitudes, disregarding the histories of the diverse communities in Britain. It is by addressing a long and painful history and encouraging multi- perspective discourse that institutions can challenge the prejudices that remain today.

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