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The Matter of Black Lives: Roundtable

Learning the Past to Unlearn Its Colonial Legacy by Annamaria Dall’Anese, PhD candidate, Anthropology

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Learning the Past to Unlearn Its Colonial Legacy: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the Role of Academia in Overcoming Racism and Other Forms of Oppression

The event that concluded the The Matter of Black Lives series, which aimed to address racism and AntiBlackness against people of all genders, was Discipline(s) and Decolonization. The title referred not only to the different fields of study that exist within the Arts and Humanities, but also to the great influence that these disciplines have on our thinking.

The roundtable was led by Professor Paul Gilroy, who warned against the ‘tenacity of racialised thought.’ The panellists’ purpose was to illuminate the history of this issue with examples from their own research, and to ground their contribution in the contemporary debate on racism. This debate developed in the context of the global Black Lives Matter movement triggered by the death of George Floyd, but also, more locally, by the conclusion of the Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL, which resulted in the re-naming of different campus buildings. The panel consisted of academics from different departments within the UCL Faculty of Arts and Humanities: Seth Anziska (Hebrew & Jewish Studies), Melanie Ramarshan Bold (Information Science), Phiroze Vasunia (Greek & Latin), and Xine Yao (English), who also led on the event.

Professor Paul Gilroy started the session by introducing UCL’s Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism & Racialisation, of which he is the director. Established last year as a response to students’ demands for a decolonised curriculum, the centre is a hub for both existing and new initiatives that, while rooted in an understanding of history, aim to tackle the most pressing social and political issues of the present day, in particular racial inequality and the legacy of colonialism.

Seth Anziska’s intervention focussed on the politics of knowledge production in the Israeli context. Access to archives containing evidence of the dispossession of Palestinians after the Israeli declaration of independence in 1948 was often denied, raising the question of who was permitted to narrate history. Anziska pointed out that similar controversies were present within Israel itself, as the Eurocentric stance of textbooks eclipsed the role of Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.

Melanie Ramarshan Bold’s paper looked beyond the curriculum in order to unveil how youth literature can perpetuate the symbolic annihilation of children from minoritized groups. The culture industry and the book market have the potential to shape how we perceive difference, she argued, and she advocated the participation of both authors and readers from marginalised groups in the challenging of hegemonic perspectives in the publishing industry.

The instrumental use of the classics in the promotion of colonial ideology was at the heart of Phiroze Vasunia’s contribution: most civil servants in India had studied classics, and the Roman Empire became a model for 19th century Britain’s colonial ambitions. He suggested opening up the debate to thinkers from outside of Western Europe, who may contribute a different way of interpreting classical antiquity.

But how can we ensure that decolonization is not just a metaphor, while acknowledging the power that metaphors have in literary studies? Xine Yao posed this question, and contended that raising the percentage of black and minority ethnic staff members in the faculty is just a stepping stone towards a less simplistic way of achieving a more diverse academic community.

Members of the audience then asked the panellists how to prevent ‘decolonization’ from becoming a buzzword, and how to harness transdisciplinarity to decolonise the curriculum. Vasunia encouraged people to follow the impetus created by the Black Lives Matter movement without the fear of not getting things right at the first attempt, as the situation is too urgent to delay the conversation, while Yao concluded by stressing the importance of making students’ voices heard.

The event was a stimulating discussion that highlighted how a critical understanding of history in different contexts can serve as a foundation for the creation of ways of thinking and learning that challenge the status quo. As Ramarshan Bold observed, colonialism is as much an epistemological project as it is a programme of subjugation. Therefore, it is important that, regardless of what our discipline is, it does not discipline us into following pre-established forms of racialised thought.