Something is changing for students of color in British universities. They are talking about race in the classroom, using Black Lives Matter as an example, and a political strategy, for engaging a renewed young anti-racist British consciousness. This awakening has not been sudden, nor has it been incisive, but it is beginning to be felt, sensed, and articulated in ways that seemed impossible only a few years ago.
Recently, UK universities have witnessed a small but growing number of student-led campaigns spreading across campuses and departments. Campaigns such as “Why is My Curriculum White?” and “Rhodes Must Fall” formed in 2015 soon after South African students initiated a de-colonizing movement at the University of Cape Town. The UK campaigns were launched as a mark of solidarity with South Africa, and they continue today as a decisive rejection of a British education largely shaped by colonialism. This recent wave of self-organizing feels more resistant compared to previous efforts to self-organize.
Only a few years ago, in 2011, the riots sparked by the police shooting of a young black man, Mark Duggan, disrupted Britain’s self-image as a diverse and inclusive society. However, during police investigations and in media representations of the events, rioters were relabeled “looters,” and images circulated on social media were used to prosecute a number of young people of color. Today’s decolonizing movements are harnessing social media to raise consciousness and build networks of solidarity.
This progressive energy and thirst for liberation are also changing my classroom. This year, perhaps for the first time in my ten-year academic career, the lecture theater felt like a safe space for students to raise questions. Students of color asked for their histories and continents to be recognized and taught. They shared their experiences of race, religion, and colonialism in the lecture room when I taught them about global supply chains and workplace diversity. Those conversations spilled out into corridors and stairwells and often continued through e-mail. “Where is there space for us to ask political questions, to decolonize from within the university?” asked a student as I was walking to my office. As I paused to respond, he smiled at me and added, “We’re going to have to set something up ourselves.”
In the past it was difficult to think with students about alternatives to neoliberalism and to the hegemony of the Global North. Part of this difficulty had to do with the kinds of examples I could bring to the classroom. I relied on historical campaigns and world events, citing the abolition of slavery, the postwar decolonization movements, or the American civil rights campaign as distant beacons of hope that show things can and do change.
But this year it felt different. Students were bringing things to the lecture room that were contemporary, brutal, and buoyant all at once. They drew on American grassroots campaigns such as Black Lives Matter, #OscarsSoWhite, and #NoDAPL as case studies exemplifying alternatives to neoliberalism. They began to articulate a range of possibilities for modeling future businesses, ranging from democratic governance to socially conscious capitalism to anti-capitalist forms. They did all this with a conviction and energy that I haven’t witnessed before.
When I asked a young black student what’s going on in the university, she said without hesitation: “Everything is going on! Black Lives Matter, political movements—social media have revolutionized the way we see race, crime, and social injustice. There is a re-awakening for everyone. Everyone is involved in something—in some kind of politics.”
These online campaigns are affecting off-line identities too. That student went on to say: “Social media have changed the way we see ourselves and how we allow people to treat us. When you’ve been marginalized you don’t have much self-belief—you forget that you’re from a different culture and think you have to be assimilated into another culture.” Black Lives Matter has provided an alternative politics—one that is not couched in the politics (or promise) of assimilation, but one that recognizes and celebrates alterity.
It would be naïve of me, however, to pin this progressive moment to a single movement—no matter how significant that movement is and has become for people of color in the UK. The university where I teach, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), has a large Black, Minority and Ethnic (BME) student demographic and is located in a part of London with an established Bangladeshi community. Students of color make up almost 60 percent of our university’s student population, and we recruit 50 percent of our students from the local area. Numbers matter, or at least they seem to matter more when a political idea is becoming translated into activism.
It is also worth noting that this year, after many years of academic activism in the UK, Birmingham City University will launch the country’s first Black Studies degree. Writing about why it took British academia so long to ratify a degree about black experiences and traditions, Kehinde Andrews, an associate professor of sociology at BCU, notes the lack of black British academics teaching and researching in British universities. While BME student numbers have improved considerably over the years, only 85 professors out of 18,510 are black. How can Black Studies establish itself in the British context when we simply do not have a critical mass of black academics—and when there are stark barriers to promotion and development?
But I’m reluctant to conclude by saying that if we only had more people of color in academia, things could be dramatically different for the UK curriculum, for the Black Studies discipline, for the experiences of being a student of color in British academe. I believe that British academia is more regressive, unreflective, and determined than its American counterpart. It is resistant to change through grassroots mobilization and it refuses the experience of people of color in severe and damaging ways. As Robbie Shilliam, a professor of international relations at QMUL, has warned, decolonizing campaigns are under attack; British commentators are describing them as “cultural policing,” acts of censorship, wiping out the past. Students of color may be growing in numbers, but the fact remains that they are recruited into the “new” universities, which are perceived as less prestigious.
To my mind, what American liberation movements have managed to create in this moment are relations of solidarity that stretch deep and wide and nourish a renewed anti-racist British consciousness. They encourage us to remember our histories and to re-engage with British anti-racist movements and organizing. Where there is a local contingent of people of color, these political ideas manage to take the form of activism. We have yet to see how these decolonizing moments transform in the future, but right now, parts of the university feel hopeful and awake.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Yasmin Ibrahim, Dushant Patel, and Robbie Shilliam for their inspiring comments and conversations about this piece.