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.