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By: Simar Deol

Photos: Kevin Mohatt

What they don’t teach us

The students of colour fighting to #decolonise education

Students of colour are being let down by an educational system based on a colonial worldview. 5 meets the young people pushing to decolonise education by filling in the gaps and providing a more truthful outlook on our world and its history.

Takeaways

  • School students around the world want to “decolonise” curriculums.
  • Decolonising aims to undo the effects of colonialism by presenting a fairer and more complete view of the world.
  • When Black history is covered in schools, it is often treated as a niche topic rather than a central theme.
  • Students have produced podcasts, newspapers, and delivered proposals to their local school districts.
  • The energy shown by these young campaigners can inspire the rest of us to drive broader change.

It was a school trip to a museum that opened Jenelle Nangah’s eyes to what she was missing.

Seventeen-year-old Jenelle and her schoolmates Alana Mitchell, Kaliah Yizar and Dahni Austin were taken aback by their own anger, sadness and curiosity when they visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC last year. They felt compelled to respond to the inaction and inadequacy of the educational system. When they got back to Dr Martin Luther King Jr Early College in Denver, Colorado, they began a push to decolonise the school curriculum. Following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, their campaign took on a new urgency.

Dahni Austin (15) spoke before the Denver school board on why history education needs to be overhauled.

Jenelle Nangah (17) wants her school and others to give students a more complete view of history.

“I feel the American education system needs to be broken down and rebuilt entirely,” says Alana Mitchell, an aspiring criminal psychologist. “How can we have American history without minority history?”

In the academic world, the concept of decolonisation is familiar, and as the latest ‘woke’ hashtag to start gaining traction, it’s on its way to being a mainstream term. As the name suggests, decolonising is about undoing the ideological effects of colonialism – expanding perspectives beyond those of the colonisers. From decolonising the mind to decolonising our diet, marginalised groups are demanding change in numerous aspects of our societies. And it’s long overdue.

This has far-reaching consequences in all aspects of our lives, but particularly when applied to educational curriculums. Decolonising education is partly a matter of being more inclusive and diverse in how history is taught, but it also offers the opportunity to rewrite syllabuses from a more honest, factual perspective.

Students, teachers and others are pushing for change in numerous countries built on a colonial past, including the US and the UK. “The curriculum we have today [in the UK] is extremely Eurocentric,” says Dr Marlon Moncrieffe, a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton’s School of Education. “It is the result of a hegemonic cultural reproduction of knowledge that unfairly disadvantages students of colour.”

“They only teach Black history during Black History Month”

Dahni Austin

“There are many facets in how history can be told, and currently we are following the path of the traditionalists, who prefer to have a system in which the past and the present are told exactly the same in the future,” Moncrieffe explains. “Most European countries, for example, tell stories of the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons or the Celts, but there are no elements that include black, brown, Asian or other ethnic perspectives.” The consequence of such exclusionary teaching is that it allows students from white families or European heritage a headstart in schools, as they absorb a history that reflects their learnings at home.

Students from other backgrounds however, are often left feeling lost or displaced, and can find it hard to challenge the accepted view of history and culture, even if they feel strongly that it is misleading and incomplete.

“It is only through an African-American history class I took that I learned about my culture, and my heritage,” says Jenelle Nangah. “As far as school is concerned, there hasn’t been a lot of representation that has encouraged me to feel in my element or in touch with my Black excellence.”

As Dahni Austin puts it, “they only teach Black history during Black History Month.” Attempts like these to address the gap in education can also perpetuate the notion of Black struggles as being a niche historical interest, as opposed to a core theme. Students who want to dig deeper, have to do it themselves – conducting their own research, learning through family, friends, movies and music, or visiting museums.

Students line up for a photo after presenting a resolution to the Denver school board. From left, Principal Kimberly Grayson, and students Alana Mitchell (17), Jenelle Nangah (17), Kaliah Yizar (15) and Dahni Austin (15), and others from Dr Martin Luther King Jr Early College.

The girls have been campaigning for more comprehensive education on the history of minority groups. They’ve produced a podcast and recently presented a resolution to the Denver Public Schools Board of Education, arguing for an overhaul of the district’s curriculum.

Rather than focusing on one perspective, decolonising education is about building a system “that supports all students, staff, and teachers regardless of their race,” says Dahni.

European nations that prospered from colonialism have profoundly failed their citizens of colour. Stella Nyanchama, a Kenyan-Belgian activist, author and educationalist tells me: “Our system must provide an integrated balanced worldview, and addressing education is tackling the root of the problem.” For Nyanchama, decolonising the curriculum is not a countermeasure to delete white history. “It is not about erasing, but rather enriching our education through including information that has previously been negated,” she says. “It is a matter of revisiting our past and re-presenting information – whether it is good, bad or ugly.”

As well as updating curriculums, educational institutions are under pressure to reconsider the historical figures whose memory they celebrate. University College London has renamed buildings to remove mentions of figures including Sir Francis Galton – on one hand a towering figure in the history of statistical science, on the other hand, a pioneer of the racist pseudoscience of eugenics, which was later used to justify the horrors of the Holocaust.

Meanwhile Oxford University’s Oriel College has voted in favour of removing the statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes (although for now he still stands, awaiting the outcome of an independent inquiry).

Cleaning up the mess left by colonialism may sound like a Herculean task, but sometimes it can be as easy as adding extra names and stories. In the British system for example, kids might be taught about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks when talking about racial struggles, but there is no mention of Black British individuals or groups who have also contributed to society. “I want to see the names of Paul Stephenson and Stephen Lawrence in the curriculum,” says Moncrieffe. “It is important for British children to know about those individuals who fought for their nation, no matter how tragic their story.”

All this requires white teachers to “challenge their reflexive selves” says Moncrieffe, to overcome their unconscious biases and make room for perspectives that may not have been part of the view of the world they grew up with.

Instead of focusing on, say, the Vikings, Moncrieffe suggests studying migration as a topic. “Allow the children to consider their own existence through their parents, their grandparents and each other. Why are they all in Britain?”

“The majority of British students don’t know the workings of the empire, so they don’t understand systemic racism today”

Rochelle Meaden

Other times, more serious work is needed. “When I was taught about the slave trade back in eighth form, my teacher informed me that slavery had nothing to do with racism,” says 17-year-old Rochelle Meaden, a student in London. Meaden, alongside her peers, co-founded Fill in the Blanks UK, a campaign led by students from former British colonies, to mandate teachings on the Empire. “Schools must be an honest appraisal of how colonial violence has impacted the world,” she tells me. “The majority of British students don’t know the workings of the empire and therefore lack the knowledge and language to understand systemic racism in the UK today.”

Rochelle Meaden (17), right, with other members of Fill in the Blanks UK. From left: Orla, Antonia, Iman, Matilda, Kimran, Nico and Rochelle. Photo: Fill in the Blanks UK

Inaction from authority figures has led students like Rochelle to take a direct approach. In January, Fill in the Blanks UK distributed 5,000 copies of spoof newspapers with headlines like ‘Boris Backs Empire Education’, imagining a future where decolonisation was top of the agenda. “We wanted to start a conversation about what the country would look like if we had an honest education,” says Meaden. The podcast produced by the girls in Denver also makes a point of tackling difficult conversations that governments continue to shy away from.

Fill in the Blanks created fake newspapers with stories imagining a decolonised Britain. Photo: Fill in the Blanks UK

Such student-led initiatives are testament to the spirit and energy of today’s young people. “Grassroot organisations have the ability to impact and empower one another and cause a shift within particular contexts,” says Moncrieffe. But the onus of this undertaking should not fall solely on their shoulders. “For real change we need to see a shift in practices in less receptive spaces,” he says. He’s referring to the spaces where power is exercised, which are often mostly or exclusively white. If these segments of society continue to uphold their traditional outlooks, we’re not going to get anywhere, Moncrieffe believes. For instance, “a school with a predominantly white administration might view black and brown students’ voices as a threat to the school ethos”.

It is everyone’s responsibility to question and test not only what we know, but how and why we know it. Learning, unlearning and relearning are core components of decolonising.

Defiant – Jenelle Nangah (17), Kaliah Yizar (15) and Dahni Austin (15).

If that sounds like hard work, remember that the efforts of the students campaigning in Denver, London and all over the world – producing podcasts, printing papers, lobbying the local school board – are a side hustle to their full-time education.

“School is supposed to be your primary source of education and we really shouldn’t have to sacrifice our own time to do the work we’re doing,” Kaliah Yizar says.

If these girls can find the time and energy for it, so can the rest of us.

 

Main photo: Kaliah Yizar (15) and classmates prepare to make their case to their local school board in Denver.

Decolonise your outlook