On decolonising our departments and disciplines, respectability and belonging

On decolonising our departments and disciplines, respectability and belonging

Yasmeen Narayan

This article is based on a short introductory talk that I gave ‘on decolonising psychosocial studies, teaching postcolonial studies’ in a meeting on attainment and decolonising the curriculum in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck College, University of London on 29 April 2019.

There are innumerable different interpretations of decolonising the curriculum. These political movements or this wave of resistance against institutional racism, broadly and crudely, whether in South Africa, India, the US or the UK, have drawn from earlier transnational anti-colonial, anti-fascist, civil rights and anti-racist resistance movements and bodies of postcolonial and decolonial work from across the world over the past five hundred years (Bhambra, Gebrial and Nişancioğlu 2018). Some incarnations of these student and academic movements have demanded curricula that illuminate the connections between histories of colonisation and the formation of modern European nations, modern universities and modern disciplines. They have emphasised the importance of the historical and the geopolitical to all academic work. We can only understand criminalisation and policing in British cities today, for example, if we understand histories of criminalisation or histories of classifying particular subjects and cultures as deviant, criminal, abnormal or pathological. We need to further consider how our urban cultures are formed through surveillance, racist hate, gentrification, austerity, police violence, border control and warfare in relation to global political projects such as ‘The War on Terror’ and ‘The War on Drugs’. These are the kinds of academic narratives that are being called for.

These political projects are thus different from schemes which hope to diversify curricula and focus on including voices from underrepresented and marginalised communities but which may seek to protect silences on empire, postcolonial global inequality and inherited forms of privilege and preserve common-sense academic modes of thought.

The shifts produced by earlier and more recent movements to decolonise the university and postcolonial and decolonial bodies of work continue to reverberate across the globe. Glasgow University has published a report, based on the work of historians from their own institution, which acknowledges that they benefited directly from wealth produced through transatlantic slavery to the amount of £200 million. They have now launched a reparative justice programme composed of establishing a centre for the study of slavery and developing different academic programmes and collaborative projects with the University of the West Indies. UCL have founded a new Centre for the study of Race and Racism as part of a broader endeavour that seeks to address their role in the history of racial thought such as their contributions to the discipline of Eugenics and to contemporary racial inequality in the institution.

Mamdani in his discussion on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa argues:

‘When the focus is on perpetrators, victims are necessarily defined as the minority of political activists; for the victimhood of the majority to be recognised, the focus has to shift from perpetrators to beneficiaries. The difference is this: whereas the focus on perpetrators fuels the demand for justice as criminal justice, that on beneficiaries shifts the focus to a notion of justice as social justice (Mamdani 2001, 164 cited in Hall 2018, 8 – 9)’.

Hall agrees that the focus has to shift from perpetrators to beneficiaries as she calls for a reparatory history. Tracing debates on reparations and the idea of reparation as repair, she argues that academics who are the beneficiaries of postcolonial local and global inequalities have responsibilities to produce work that reveals the connections between histories of empire, ‘race’ and contemporary forms of privilege (Hall 2018).

Williams and then Hall et al argue that wealth derived from slavery in the British Caribbean provided vital capital for the industrialisation of Britain (Hall et al 2014, Williams 1994). Hall et al have documented how the equivalent of £16 billion was paid to British slave-owners in compensation following the legal abolition of slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape but as it expanded in other colonies such as India. They have traced the vast flow of wealth through merchant banks, insurance companies and shipbuilding firms; urban developments in different British cities and towns and country houses; cultural institutions such as galleries and museums; philanthropic bodies such as charities and humanitarian organisations and new endeavours in the settler colonies. They have discussed the inseparable formation of these corporations and institutions from British upper, upper middle and middle class families. Patnaik has further argued that Britain mined $44.6 trillion from India between 1765 to 1938.

The first thing I thought of when academics in my university department collectively decided to discuss the attainment gap and decolonising the curriculum was thus the terror of silence. It is not just the teaching and production of common-sense academic discourse that justify these histories of expropriation and genocide, politely criminalise and pathologise the descendants of the colonised and patrol the borders of disciplines, departments and academic communities with bewildering precision. The silences on the connections between empire, the very formation of modern Britain and the colonial classes and principally white, upper middle-class academic communities produce a terror which pushes minoritised academics and students to the margins if it has allowed them in.

Does the presence of these students and academics confront contemporary beneficiaries of empire with their own histories which they refuse to acknowledge? Is this what crouches behind the invention and fear of hypersensitive if not ferocious academics and students from minoritised communities? Are they, are we, the ‘unwitting bearers’ (Gilroy 2004: 110) of these histories?

It is important that we acknowledge that the black (or people of colour) and white binary cannot be effortlessly transferred to those who are the beneficiaries of colonial histories of expropriation, racial thought, enslavement and genocide and those whose lives may be engulfed by the struggles postcolonial racism and warfare leaves them with unless we erase histories of persecution. We need to produce more modules and academic work that uncovers the interconnected histories of all minoritised communities and thus more detailed cartographies of colonial wealth production and racial thought.

Turning to the Research Excellence Framework (the REF), what does it mean when research that reproduces the same silences on the histories and legacies of colonisation is classified as three or four star? What do we teach students by applauding and rewarding academics for producing this work? Are we teaching them silence and fear? Can they feel a sense of belonging if they must be silent? Is an attainment gap inescapable if you don’t belong or are not wanted unless you are silent? Is it possible for students and academics to thrive if you don’t reproduce the same silences? Is it possible to thrive on the margins? hooks argues that the margin is not simply a site of deprivation and subjugation but that it can be a ‘site of radical possibility, a space of resistance’ where ‘a counter hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives’ (hooks 1989: 20) can blossom and flourish. There are some dynamic, productive postcolonial spaces on the margins of this department and many others but there are also segregated spaces where the borders are carefully policed through the cultivation and ferocious protection of silence and the normalisation of respectability.

Respectability and European nationalisms emerged together towards the end of the eighteenth century. Respectability refers to a whole way of life shaped by ideas of normality, decency, decorum and beauty that distinguished the emergent colonial classes from both the colonised and the lower classes and divided the poor into the deserving and undeserving.

The normalisation of respectability in academic communities today conceals the connections between the formation of colonial classes and the contemporary upper middle and middle classes and how the ideals of propriety, partnership and marriage, parenthood or more specifically motherhood and fatherhood, property ownership and the mythology of individual accomplishment have become unquestionable. Unremarkable, banal conversations about visiting parents, returning to the homes that they grew up in and seeing friends from school are produced by a thoughtlessness towards students and academics who did not have parents who could take care of them, family homes that they can return to and inherit, schools where they belonged and financial safety nets to catch them should they fall. The emphasis on individual accomplishment amongst academics, which hovers close to ideas of innate intelligence, is further produced by an inattentiveness to how so many are confronted with the systematic failure of schools and universities to perform their legal duties and educate all their students.

These silences on the colonial histories of respectability elevate the respectable as they invent, humiliate and punish the abnormal and unrespectable. Should the university not be a refuge from the normalisation of respectability? Should it not be a space where discussions on minoritised communities as ‘sites of repression and sites of resistance’ (hooks 1989, 21), as sites of prolific cultural production can take place? Why must there be silence on the histories of violence behind the mythology of respectability?

We need to begin to honour our contractual, legal and ethical obligations to our students and colleagues. We need to discuss how to produce narratives that illuminate histories and legacies of empire that are tied to questions of indebtedness, academic reparations and reconstruction and belonging. This will make little difference however to access to higher education, attainment and our habits of thought unless we simultaneously turn away from postcolonial respectability.

Bhambra, G. K., Nişancioğlu, K. and Gebrial, D. (eds.) (2018) Decolonising the University. London: Pluto Press.
Gilroy, P. (2004) After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture. London: Routledge.
Hall, C. (2018) ‘Doing reparatory history: bringing ‘race’ and slavery home’. Race and Class. 60 (1): 3 – 21.
Hall, C., Draper, N., McClelland, K. (2014) ‘Introduction’ in Hall, C. Draper, N. McClelland, K, Donnington, K. and Lang, R. (eds.) Legacies of British Slave-Ownership: Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
hooks, b. (1989) ‘Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.’ Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media. 36: 15-23.
Williams, E. (1994) Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill, N.C: University of North Carolina Press.


Yasmeen Narayan is a Lecturer in Postcolonial and Psychosocial Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck College, University of London. She convenes the Culture Diaspora Ethnicity MA programme and the Race Forum at Birkbeck. Acknowledgement: My thanks to Felicity Callard.

Image: Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0