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Cambridge to change courses that ‘elevate white writers’?

Outspoken: Campaigner Lola Olufemi

Cambridge University is facing demands to include more material about ethnic minorities in a number of courses following a campaign to ‘decolonise’ the English faculty.

Literature professors are discussing proposals to add more black and ethnic minority authors to their courses after student activists said that a lack of diversity ‘risks perpetuating institutional racism’.

Some 150 students signed an open letter claiming that current courses ‘elevated white, male authors at the expense of others’. They called for every exam paper to include ethnic minority authors or postcolonial writers – those concerned with the legacy of former colonies.

They also asked for it to be mandatory for undergraduates to read Orientalism by Edward Said, a cultural work that examines how the West has viewed the East.

The English faculty’s Teaching Forum, made up of lecturers, agreed to review the points and said they may consider adding authors of more diverse backgrounds.

Yesterday, it emerged that campaigners also plan to target the university’s history, philosophy and history of art faculties.

The ‘Decolonise Cambridge’ Facebook page states a number of ‘faculty working groups’ are being planned to lobby the departments.

Other Russell Group universities are also under pressure to take similar actions after a campaign backed by the National Union of Students called ‘Why is my curriculum white?’

UCL, Bristol, Birmingham, and Manchester have all faced calls to include more content about ethnic minorities on their courses.

Yesterday, the NUS said it supported the Cambridge campaign and that the university had a responsibility to provide context about historical figures.

Lola Olufemi (pictured with Labour MP Diane Abbott) is women's officer at Cambridge University Students' Union and called for the English department to 'decolonise' the curriculum

Lola Olufemi (pictured with Labour MP Diane Abbott) is women’s officer at Cambridge University Students’ Union and called for the English department to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum

NUS black students’ officer Ilyas Nagdee said that with a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford, a building named after tobacco businessman Henry Overton Wills at Bristol, a Queen Victoria statue at Royal Holloway and a college named after Winston Churchill at Cambridge, ‘remnants of Britain’s imperial past continue to be celebrated without any context or challenge from the institutions which are meant to be Britain’s centres of critical thought’.

According to student newspaper Varsity, the letter at Cambridge was written by Lola Olufemi, the Students’ Union women’s officer, and was titled ‘Decolonising the English Faculty’.

Minutes from the Teaching Forum earlier this month reveal how academics discussed ways to address the students’ concerns.

One of the ‘points for action’ was for Subject Group Committees, which are made up of academic staff, to be ‘actively seeking to ensure the presence of BME (black and minority ethnic) texts and topics on lecture lists’.

Ms Olufemi is women's officer at Oxford University Students' Union

Ms Olufemi is women’s officer at Oxford University Students’ Union

Miss Olufemi, an English graduate from Selwyn College, told Varsity she was pleased about the discussion and that it was ‘a promising step forward that the letter is being taken seriously by the faculty’.

She added: ‘There needs to be a complete shift in the way the department treats western literature in comparison to that of the global south, and non-white authors must be centred in the same way Shakespeare, Eliot, Swift and Pope are; their stories, thoughts and accounts should be given serious intellectual and moral weight.’

Cambridge said there was no guarantee any of the proposals would be implemented and the Teaching Forum had ‘no decision-making powers’. Any action would have to be approved by the Education Committee, the university’s main central authority that decides teaching policy.

A spokesman said: ‘There has been no decision to alter the way English is taught at the University of Cambridge. While we can confirm a letter was received from a group of students taking the postcolonial paper, academic discussions are at a very early stage to look at how postcolonial literature is taught.

‘Changes will not lead to any one author being dropped in favour of others – that is not the way the system works at Cambridge.

‘Post-colonialism is taught at the moment in a non-compulsory paper – the faculty constantly looks at what papers will be compulsory.’

Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at Cambridge, said there are some ‘major problems’ with the students’ requests.

She told the Daily Telegraph: ‘If you distort the content of history and literature syllabuses to insert a statistically diverse or equal proportion of material from cultures taken globally, you surely lose sight of the historical truth that the West explored the world from the 16th century and took control – colonially or otherwise – of a very large part of it. It is false to pretend that never happened.’

Feminist killjoy* behind the campaign (*It’s what she calls herself)

Lola Olufemi is a campaigner at the University of Cambridge who once claimed white students who go on charitable gap years abroad are ‘selfish’.

The women’s officer, who previously played Othello in a gender-swapped production and has described herself as a ‘feminist killjoy’ accused her peers of fetishising Africa.

In a 2015 column for student newspaper Varsity, entitled ‘Africa is not an Accessory’, she said: ‘It shows an astounding level of entitlement to think that you, on your gap year or your three weeks abroad “exploring”, are going to do anything meaningful or long lasting to help the communities that you fetishise.’

She added that ‘middle class white people’ were moved to travel abroad through ‘an inherent selfishness’.

The piece was one of many columns Miss Olufemi has written for the student paper on race, feminism and education, including the open letter ‘Decolonising the English Faculty’ published in June.

English Literature professors at Cambridge will be required to 'ensure the presence' of Black and Minority Ethnic writers (BME) in their courses. Pictured: King's College

English Literature professors at Cambridge will be required to ‘ensure the presence’ of Black and Minority Ethnic writers (BME) in their courses. Pictured: King’s College

Miss Olufemi was also part of a campaign to oust historian Dr David Starkey from a promotional video after it was claimed he made racist comments in reaction to the 2011 London riots.

In a column on Dr Starkey, Miss Olufemi claimed black people worked harder at Cambridge than white people.

‘The intellectual and emotional labour that BME (black and minority ethnic) students at this university expend is infinitely greater than their white peers,’ she wrote in Varsity in 2015.

‘Often it feels as if attacks on our humanity are relentless; if not from white curricula and everyday microaggressions, then it is from the continued institutional approval of “academics” who express their acceptance of Enoch Powell’s “them and us” rhetoric under the guise of “just speaking plainly”.’


Lola Olufemi

Lola Olufemi

Lola Olufemi has previously blasted ‘selfish’ white people who holiday in Africa.

The student said ‘middle class’ gap year travellers are doing nothing meaningful to help the continent by visiting. 

In Varsity, the Cambridge University student newspaper, she wrote: ‘It shows an astounding level of entitlement to think that you, on your gap year or your three weeks abroad “exploring”, are going to do anything meaningful or long lasting to help the communities that you fetishise.’

She added: ‘What drives middle class white people to travel abroad is an inherent selfishness”.

Miss Olufemi has also said Cambridge can learn from Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which demanded Cecil Rhodes’ statute be removed because of his commitment to imperialism. 

The article was in response to a video called ‘Dear World… Yours, Cambridge’, which featured famous staff and alumni including Dr Starkey, actor Sir Ian McKellen and physicist Professor Stephen Hawking.

The video was later withdrawn after the backlash.

Miss Olufemi, who grew up in North London, was pictured with shadow home secretary Diane Abbott in 2014.

The Enfield County School pupil had been given a prize at the Black Child Awards for being the best female A-Level student and met the Hackney North and Stoke Newington MP at the ceremony in the Houses of Parliament.

In her manifesto to be the university’s women’s officer, Miss Olufemi, who recently graduated with a degree in English from Selwyn College, promised to work towards the ‘decolonisation of the curriculum’. In a 2015 column entitled ‘Our curricula are white, and they shouldn’t be’, she said: ‘People of colour, women, and trans people are quite literally being written out of history, our contributions ignored.’ She also complained: ‘I, as an English student, cannot formally study a single person who looks like me for the first two years of my degree.’ During the campaign last March, she described herself as a ‘feminist killjoy’ who wanted to ‘provide a creative outlet for women and non-binary [people who don’t identify with a particular gender] students to rage at an institution that silences them’.

As a student, Miss Olufemi also lobbied for the creation of a ‘BME Officer’ at Selwyn’s junior common room and later became the first person to hold the position. She was also the BME women’s representative for the student’s union women’s campaign.

Last year Miss Olufemi became the facilitator of FLY, the university’s network of women and non-binary people from BME backgrounds

What exactly are campaigners asking for?

The student campaigners are demanding the English course at Cambridge University include more material by black and minority ethnic (BME) authors.

They also want greater exploration of postcolonial literature – works that deal with issues affecting former colonies and the legacy of colonial rule.

Such moves would ‘dismantle the idea that the white male is the norm’ and lower the risk of Cambridge ‘perpetuating institutional racism’, they said. The debate will be closely followed by other universities, where similar campaigns have taken place.

The students’ list of requests include the following points:

  • Include two or more postcolonial and black and minority ethnic authors on every exam.
  • Require students to spend at least a week of the Shakespeare module on an essay examining his works in a postcolonial context.
  • Require a paper on postcolonialism to be made compulsory.
  • Ask those studying Victorian novels to read them in their ‘colonial contexts’.
  • Add Orientalism by Edward Said – an exploration of how the West views the East – to a course preparation reading list.
  • Involve postcolonial writers in a module called Introduction to the Canon, changing the complexion of the current literature course.
  • Create a speaker series or university-wide reading group centring around postcolonial authors.
  • Introduce a short seminar series in first year looking at postcolonial texts and thought.
  • Organise a consultation between staff and students about how the faculty can be more inclusive.
  • Introduce diversity training for supervisors.
  • Move postcolonial books out of the basement in the English faculty.
  • Hire more staff to bring in West and East African and Caribbean content.
  • Adopt a zero-tolerance policy on the dismissal of race as a subject worthy of discussion or in essays.


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