Portrait of an angry, grumpy senior business man, decolonisation

Back in 2017, SOAS was caught in something of a media storm when a Students’ Union commissioned report requested that academics decolonise the curriculum. According to some press outlets, SOAS students were sabotaging history and vandalising legitimate ideas. This perspective is being challenged by the creative directors behind the production ‘Decolonisation: Not Just a Buzzword’. They want to reveal that, in fact, ‘history is a troubling thing’, and perhaps it should be deconstructed.

The play uses the technique of Headphone Verbatim, where artists perform edited interviews whilst listening to them at the same time through headphones. Their performance relies on total honesty. Since it is only the actors who can hear the voices of the faculty members and students who were interviewed, they are required to keep every syllable, reflex, breath, divergence and accent completely intact throughout their performance. It is an effective technique. One of the actors explains that performing like this allows them to ‘reach for every detail without interruption’.

Reflections on positionality

The honesty revealed on stage provides deeper introspection about the students reflections on positionality. For them, there is a clear link between their family histories and the way that race functions in this country. Decolonisation is a framework used to understand how the British ‘glorification of empire’ creates a hierarchy in ‘who counts as being British’.

Growing up British and Asian, for instance, some students spoke about a feeling of dislocation, that in school the true impact of Empire was never discussed and this is ‘a form of neglect’. It means that children whose parents or grandparents were born in former colonies end up performing a ‘double consciousness’ where ‘you’re not just a subject of history’ but ‘you’re excluded from it’. In order to address this issue of erasure one student says that it would be ‘even more patriotic to really encounter empire and the past’ because Britain is so multicultural.

The rise of the far right

Despite Britain’s multiculturalism, with the rise of far right politics in recent years the perceived threat of the Other is all the more profound in Britain today. However, racism is far from a right wing problem; in fact, decolonisation reveals that racism is endemic in British society. Looking at academic syllabus history is a clear reflection of what is deemed to be important. In British schools there are not classes on Asian or African history. In fact, many of the students who were interviewed reveal that British school classes left them with the feeling that Asia and Africa were inferior. This form of ‘internalised racism’ is expressed by one student who recounts how her South Asian born father despairs that she spent her childhood and adolescence learning about Anne Boleyn when India has such a rich history of its own. I would agree that this is a form of neglect. It is problematic that the school system attempts to box people into one fantasy of British identity. In fact, the erasure of history is a neglect when it is an erasure of self knowledge for young people with divergent backgrounds.

In this way a conversation about decolonisation becomes a question about power. Who is allowed to remember and what will be remembered?

The power to remember and create knowledge is restricted when it is controlled by one narrow perspective. As one interviewee states: decolonising is about making the views of diverse voices ‘heard’ but that ‘does not mean making the voices of middle aged white males illegitimate’ it is about representation. For this reason, decolonisation is expressed as taking positonality seriously – academics and students are interrogating ‘who am I and who am I talking to’ especially when these power dynamics reflect our wider society.

From decolonisation to democratisation

Perhaps this is the most robust point about decolonisation. As one academic says ‘you can reform the conversation about decolonisation to democratisation’. There is an ‘uneven’ world ‘system’ where ‘some people have power and wealth at the expense of others’. The perceived universality of the Global North is not just about Eurocentric thinking. Within this Eurocentric logic the Global South is made inferior resulting in the justification for colonial rule, exploitation of resources and unjust wars.

As such, for me, decolonisation is about asking who is it that benefits from history, and who is left out of history altogether? Troubling as these questions may be, we could all do well to ask ourselves them.

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