Decolonise Sussex is a student-led campaign dedicated to challenging the legacies of racism, imperialism and colonialism within all spheres of the university, both inside and outside the classroom. We aim to raise awareness, encourage dialogues about structural inequalities and to lobby the university to be actively dismantling them rather than perpetuating them.
The campaign was started a few years ago by students promoting racial equality on campus. It took roots in the ‘I Too Am Sussex’ society which is a space that allows students from ethnic minority communities and backgrounds to explore their identity and share their lived experiences. An important issue raised by the society was that the curriculum being studied inside the classroom rarely, if ever, reflected these identities and backgrounds. This provoked students to establish a body purely dedicated to the academic side of university, and in particular curriculum review. A change was needed to enable inclusion of more people of colour and non- Western backgrounds to be represented on the curriculum, as well as address issues such as racism, discrimination and general ignorance about different student backgrounds on campus.
The campaign benefitted from the support of Savannah Sevenzo, the 2016/2017 Students’ Union undergraduate education officer who was one of several students campaigning for more BAME voices on the curriculum. Our campaign is also part of a wider movement, notably manifested in the Rhodes Must Fall campaigns in Oxford and Cape Town, aiming to encourage dialogue about the reality of institutional racism in education and bringing about change in curriculums and teaching methods.
We are now one of several student campaigns recognised and supported by the SU, led by a committed group of about fifteen students from a variety of courses, years and background. We also work closely with Ella Asheri, the current undergraduate education officer who was elected on a manifesto pledging to decolonise the curriculum.
Decolonising the curriculum, decolonising the university, decolonising Sussex: what’s all the fuss about?
‘Decolonise’, or decolonial thinking, can be understood as a way of thinking that identifies colonialism, empire and racism as crucial shaping forces of the contemporary world, when their role has tended to be systematically neglected or downplayed. While most of us would never called ourselves ‘racist’, and share the assumption that we live in a post-racial Britain, racial inequalities persist at all levels of our society, including in institutions such as the university.
Research from the Guardian into experiences of everyday racial bias in Britain in 2018 found that individuals from minority ethnic backgrounds were highly likely to have faced racial prejudice, unlike the white portion of the population. Statistics also show that hate crime has been on the rise over the last few years. According to the Home Office, 94,098 cases hate crimes were recorded in England and Wales in 2017/18, which is an increase of 17% compared to the previous year. Whilst the increase is in part attributed to improvements in police recording, the Home Office stresses there has been spikes in hate crime following events such as the 2016 EU referendum, and the 2017 terrorists attacks. Moreover, whilst many of us are aware of the issues surrounding race in the US, few are aware of the alarming statistics regarding the criminal justice system here. For example, over half of the young people held in prisons in England and Wales are from black and minority ethnic background.
Decolonise starts with the rejection of the ‘colour blind’ ideology by engaging with the fact that our society has been marked by a long colonial history, and the structural inequalities resulting from it. But why should we decolonise the university in particular?
Decolonial movements have been bringing attention to the role of European/Western academia in reproducing global colonial hegemonies, racial bias and unequal power relations. Decolonising the curriculum is about recognising that knowledge production is marked by unequal power relations. It brings attention to the fact that whiteness remains the norm in academia, both in curriculums and teaching methods.
Research systematically highlights the link between race and achievement and participation in higher education. The 2018 Equality in Higher Education statistical report shows that BAME students do not go to university in the same numbers, attain lower grades when they go, and are more likely to drop out, even though they enter university on the same requirements than their white peers.
Sussex is no exception. Whilst some schools and departments, notably Global Studies, have made it a priority to review their curriculum and engage with legacy of racism in their disciplines, racial inequality continues to shape our institution and the experience of BAME students on campus. There is a significant disparity between the achievements of white and BAME students. For 2016/2017 academic year, statistics for the attainment gap at the University of Sussex were the following:
- A 15% attainment gap between UK White and UK BAME students.
- The gap was even more pronounced between White and Black home students with a percentage of 22%.
- A 37% attainment gap between non-UK White and non-UK BAME students
- A 29% gap between non-UK White and non-UK Black students
- The overall gap between White and BAME students was 34% and 26% between White and Black students.
Decolonising the university calls for better representation of “non-Western” thinkers, and scholars of minority backgrounds by taking issue with fact that the experiences of straight white men have been granted a disproportionate prominence in academic disciplines. Decolonising the curriculum does not call for their removal from course reading lists. It is not about silencing certain voices. It is not about erasing or changing the past, but about critically thinking about it and about how it affects the present.
It involves asking questions such as why are particular authors considered to be the ultimate authority for their field? How did their perspective of the world come to be presented as universal? Within which context and power structures did canonical texts gain their authority? Who or what is excluded from our curriculum? What are the consequences of these exclusions? This process of decolonising curriculum is essential to ensure we receive and engage in an education that enables critical thinking and self-understanding, instead of blindly reproducing unequal power relations. One way we, as a campaign, aim to encourage this process is by bringing staff and students together in during school forums as well as by encouraging systematic curriculum reviews.
Decolonising the university however goes beyond just the curriculum as racial inequalities on campus are not only manifested in the attainment gap. Research suggests that significant numbers of ethnic minority background students are subjected to racial harassment at university, significantly affecting their student experience. Ethnic minority university staff members are also more likely to report experiences of harassment than their white peers. Our organising meetings have enabled us to hear the varied negative experiences students of students of colour at Sussex. Decolonising the university therefore entails that these experiences are heard and addressed. It involves holding the university accountable, lobbying for improved reporting procedures and support services. It is about ensuring that tackling racism is everyone’s issue, not just the concern of people of colour.
What we do, and how other students can get involved
Our campaign is formed of a vibrant and diverse group of students wanting to tackle structural inequalities in all spheres of the university. We are working on a variety of projects and ideas to achieve our aim to decolonise Sussex, and there many ways students can get involved. We are an inclusive group who always welcomes new ideas and no prior knowledge of the movement is required to join.
Our organising meetings will take place weekly on Mondays, 6-8pm. During these meetings we gather together to discuss any progress and development undergone over the course of the week, taking new suggestions. After this, we usually split up to work on the different projects, events and initiatives we are planning.
We were very active last term, especially during Black History Month, when we co-hosted multiple sold-out events, such as a talk by S. I Martin on the Black History of Brighton, and a panel discussion about Women of Colour in Publishing. We also organised the Blackness and Identity workshop with Kareem Parkins-Brown, a talk on Black feminism with Kelechi Okafor, and an Introduction to the first ever Black Studies degree in the UK at Birmingham City University, as well as many other successful events.
This term we will be continuing conversations with university management, professors and students, by organising forums discussing the curriculum and how it can be better diversified. The next upcoming forum is with the School of Global Studies taking place on 15th February from 1pm to 3pm at the Global Studies Resource Centre in Arts C. It will be an opportunity to discuss decolonising the curriculum, inclusive pedagogy and the experiences of BAME students, and we welcome any student from Global Studies to join us. We hope to continue similar school wide Decolonising Forums in other schools and departments, such as English and HAHP. We will also be working closely with the SU and the university’s BAME attainment gap working group to collect feedback and testimonies from BAME students about their curriculum and their wider experience at Sussex.
We will also be organising events, and creating resources to raise awareness and encourage reflection about the impact of race, colonialism and imperialism in shaping our university and society as whole. Our blog will be launching at the start of the term, featuring a range of content from essays, reviews of events that are organised by or are important to the campaign and student testimonials. We’re very keen on welcoming additional contributors, and platforming the work of Sussex students. We will be working to improve support and reporting mechanisms of experiences of hate crime and discrimination by creating a hate crime guide, listing relevant supporting bodies and services. We are excited to be hosting a “White privilege workshop – How to be a better ally” event which will take place on March 20th at 6pm as part of Sussex One World Week, and are planning an end of year Decolonising Sussex conference.
Ella, Students’ Union undergraduate education officer
In my second year, I joined the committee of ‘I, too, am Sussex’, a society which provides a space for marginalised students to discuss their lived experiences around identity. After learning from these narratives at society meetings, I began to notice how these systems of oppression were often replicated in my education. For instance, in my first two years studying English and Philosophy, I had no authors or philosophers of colour on my curriculum. In fact, the majority of authors and philosophers I studied were hugely racist (such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant) – a facet of their ideologies which was entirely ignored in the teaching of these figures.
When my peers and I asked for more philosophers of colour on the curriculum, we were met with responses of ‘there are no black philosophers in this area’, and were encouraged to hold a reading group studying diverse philosophers as something extracurricular. This went deeper than reading lists, however, as we had no academics of colour on our faculty, and there were instances of racist comments in seminars not being called out by tutors. These factors led me to realise that my education at Sussex was not as ‘inclusive’ as I had once been sold at open days. It shocked me to learn that these are not merely isolated incidents on my course, or even at my University, instead these are contributing factors to the nationwide BAME attainment gap. This realisation of these structural issues within our education led me to start actively campaigning for change.
I was elected to be Undergraduate Education Officer at the Students’ Union based on manifesto pledges that aimed to tackle the BAME attainment gap and decolonise the curriculum. I have taken this mandate seriously, working with students from Decolonise Sussex to organise ‘decolonising forums’ within schools and departments, pushing for university senior management to set up a BAME attainment gap working group to tackle these issues within schools, and encouraging the University to sign up to the Race and Equality Charter which they eventually did in December 2018.
This work tackling the BAME attainment gap has not always been easy. It is often disregarded by University staff as ‘in line with sector average’, and the work often falls onto students or academics of colour. 7 months into my role, I am feeling far more optimistic. Thanks to all the hard work of student campaigners, previous Officers and staff, the university seems to be taking this issue more seriously. By signing up to the Race and Equality Charter, Sussex has committed to institutionally transforming the way that we look at race at the University. Although Sussex has a very long way to go, I believe that it is heading in the right direction and finally starting to take racial equality more seriously.
Maeve, Psychology, 2nd year
I think that it is ridiculous that there is still white privilege, and that there is a continued culture where white people are believed to be superior to others, viewing ethnic minorities as lesser people. So instead of complaining about it, I decided to try and make a difference and help Decolonise Sussex.
Monica, English Language and Literature, 3rd year
Decolonising the curriculum for me means an education that reflects the student body, and does not replicate unequal power hierarchies of the world. I want people to question whose knowledge is regarded highly and whose isn’t, and for us to ask ourselves why this is the case.
Umar, PhD student in the School of Media, Film and Music, final year
I joined the decolonisation group at Sussex to do exactly what the name denotes – decolonise Sussex. In theory, Sussex is supposed to be diverse, having a no tolerance attitude towards all the darkness that colonisation represented. On a closer look it appears that these factors are still operating within the institution. This has to do with the implicit biases of the curriculum that is taught, and the existing systems of support at Sussex. My aim is to work through this group to change this.”
Harry, Anthropology and International Development, 1st year
I joined Decolonise Sussex because of the massive impacts colonialism and racism still have on education and wider society. I was delighted to find out about this student-led group because grassroots campaigning is exactly the way to keep such issues alive. Despite infinite researchers of colour and academic resources from the Global South, almost the entire curriculum from primary school to university is White-focused, and not representative of academia at large. I am particularly interested in contemporary anti-colonial struggles in places like West Papua, where inspiring resistance continues against Indonesian imperialism. I would really encourage other students to get involved with Decolonise Sussex, a friendly and positive group, committed to ensuring real change at our university.
Khadija, English, 1st year
I think decolonising institutions like universities is integral to stop the legacy of colonialism. Joining Decolonise Sussex was, in a way, a choice I made to ensure my racial identity was seen and prioritised. I was surprised by the lack of diversity in and promoted by the university, and had already been rattled by the racial insensitivity and ignorance in some lectures and seminars. My idea of Sussex as a forward-thinking and progressive university had been shattered somewhat. This campaign encouraged me to believe that there are students and professors who are dedicated to changing our curriculum, and culture as a university. Some legacies of colonialism are very clear, but some are also much more insidious and ingrained, and I’m a proud member of the campaign because I know we are invested in tackling both.
Shriya, English and History, 2nd year
From a very young age in history classes, the idea of ‘empire’ was always romanticised and made out to be something that did a world of good. Textbooks vividly described through text and picture illustrations explorations to ‘other’ lands and encounters with ‘other’ people, recounted as either ‘exotic’ or ‘barbaric’ as the narrative deemed fit. As an international student from a BAME background it was shocking to reconcile with the fact that I was deemed the ‘other’.
I believe there is something fundamentally wrong with the curriculum if we’re still allowing the romanticisation of the empire. It wasn’t until high school, when history is no longer a compulsory subject, that I read works that argued against this picturesque portrayal of the empire. The alarming fact is that these colonial hierarchies are still embedded in the curriculum we study today that is shaping young minds. At university, white male thinkers are prioritised with the occasional woman or person of colour mentioned as a side note to make the curriculum appear to be ‘diverse’. Through Decolonise Sussex’s academic change team, I hope to confront this pressing issue so that the curriculum better reflects the diverse society we live in today and try to ensure that these colonial hierarchies no longer continue to perpetuate casually via academia.
Contact and social media
Facebook: Decolonise Sussex
SU website: www.sussexstudent.com/campaigns
Authors : Shriya Lakshman (English and History, 2nd year), Roxane Lavanchy (International Relations MA).