Why is My Curriculum White? - Decolonising the Academy

Tuesday 09-02-2016 - 22:38

This is a guest blog by Noha Abou El Magd, Black Students' Committee Postgraduate Rep.

‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ is a question many students in higher education are asking. The movement, which started at UCL, has created a wave of uprising against the ‘Whiteness’, Eurocentric domination and lack of diversity in the curricula with recent launches in Bristol, Birmingham, and Manchester, and an unwavering online presence. 

When discussing the existence and fallacies of the ‘White Curriculum’ it is imperative to discern exactly what is meant by  ‘Whiteness’. ‘Whiteness’, as Dr Steve Garner quotes in his book ‘Whiteness; an introduction’ ‘has no stable consensual meaning and has been conceptualised in a number of different but not mutually exclusive forms.’ Although ‘Whiteness’ can be often associated with visible aesthetics of race, correspondingly met with misunderstanding, discomfort and denial, this is both an erroneous and lazy interpretation.

Simply put, it is a tool and facilitator to the understanding of social relations, that transcends the exterior and aesthetic appearance of race and endeavours to create power structures and hierarchies that subscribe socio-cultural capital on the basis of moral and intellectual supremacy. ‘Whiteness’ exceeds the individual and is a ubiquitous, multifaceted and inconsistent manifestation of power that informs social relations and the recognition of ability, potential and the value of certain types of knowledge. This extends beyond the confines of the academy and permeates every aspect of our lives. Universities in the UK have operated under a colonial legacy, perpetuating ‘Whiteness’ both structurally and in the confines of knowledge reproduced. Symptoms of a White curriculum can be seen far and wide, from the glorification of thinkers such as Galton, to the distinct absence of academics not racialised as ‘White’ from faculties, reading lists and ‘core’ subjects. 

Universities, and instuitions of higher and further education have a fundamental role and responsibility towards the progression of thought, and instruction of social mobility. It is no longer acceptable that the academy remains, ‘normatively, habitually, and intellectually ‘White’’. (1)

The White curricula not only compromises the quality of education provided, it asserts irrational and unjust practices and has incredibly detrimental affects on both staff and students.
Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students are, unsurprisingly, the first to feel the effects of a White curriculum. Finding themselves, under-represented and under-stimulated by the content of their curricula, with their histories and ancestral narrative omitted from mainstream discourse. The White curriculum is also one of the major contributors to the BME attainment gap, whereby students from BME backgrounds are 20% less likely to achieve a first or 2:1 degree classification compared to their White counterparts, despite arriving at university with the same grades. In addition to under-representation in both academic and representational structures, institutional racism and various microaggresions experienced by BME students, the White curriculum feeds into the feeling of isolation, marginalisation, alienation and exclusion.

‘Why is My Curriculum White?’ and sister national and international movements such as the Rhodes Must Fall and Decolonise Education have captured both the academic community and wider society to challenge the normative discourse beyond the confines of university walls.
And it’s not limited to students..

BME staff are grossly misrepresented in the higher education sector, and constitute only 1.54% of the total academic population. This in contrast to White academic professionals who represent 87.54%, which is in fact an over-representation in terms of being 86% of the broader population. Furthermore 92.39% of professors in UK academia are white (15,905), with 0.49% being Black (85) with just 17 of those being women. And of those Black academics only 0.58% occupy senior management roles (only 15), compared to 3.69%(1)

The lack of representation in universities both in their respective fields and senior management roles, means that BME academics have an extremely isolated experience. The failure of the academy to recognise certain subjects taught by BME academics as ‘core’ subjects, means they are over-scrutinised compared to their peers, more likely to suffer from casualisation (receiving temporary or part-time contracts only), threatening both job security and the ability to resist conforming to abject requirements. BME academics leave their institutions at a much faster rate than their White counter-parts as a whole, which isn’t surprising considering the isolatory, alienating, exclusionary and often-tokenistic experiences endured in the academy.

Institutions unfortunately, often adopt a deficit model when tackling issues of under-representation and attainment. This problematises BME staff and students, and places the burden on them to improve ‘diversity’ and represent marginalised groups. The problem with these measures is that firstly, they isolate the experience of BME students and staff even more, establishing ‘tokenism’ (2). This fails to address the institution itself and the ‘Whiteness’ that continues to operate whether or not Black students are put on the cover of the university prospectus. Instead, Universities need to recognise the invaluable contributions of BME staff and students to their institutions as a whole, and grant them the lead and autonomy needed to realize concrete change.

UCU Black members have called on a day of action on the 10th of February against workplace racism, highlighting the issues faced in academic workplaces by Black staff in the post-16 education sector. 'Witness’‘’ initiated by UCU Black Members’ Standing Committee, is an oral history project, which chronicles the lived experiences of UCU Black members. The NUS Black Students’ Campaign will extend its solidarity to UCU Black members by taking part in the day of action on the 10th of February, alongside students unions across the country.

If you’d like to take part in the action, or set up similar campaigns such as those discussed on your campus please contact NUS Black Students’ Officer Malia Bouattia at

Get in touch with your union and take part in the conversation online with the #AntiRacism16 #DecoloniseEdu and #UCUDayOfAction

(1) Aiming Higher report: Race, Inequality and Diversity in the Academy
(2) Malia Bouattia, NUS Black Students’ Officer



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