Decolonise the Curriculum – Why?

Written by Dr Helen Woodley and also posted here.


I always thought I had a confident position on racism and colour. I believed in equality, fairness for all, qualifications and jobs on merit. I was colour blind and felt that that was the right stance to have. For most outsiders, I have lived a totally white, middle class life. I went to a good school, I went to a good university. I got a good job. I had family holidays abroad, music lessons and played in an orchestra. My parents were professionals and I lived in the home counties.

Yet I was always aware that middle class-ness did not sum up my whole existence. Whilst my mother’s family would have been deemed to be middle class, my father was born into a poor working class family. Three generations lived in a tiny cottage with no electricity or running water. Gas lamps it the house and the toilet was in the yard. His grandfather was a Welsh miner and, when they were re-homed in a prefab house with an actual working light, spent ages simply turning the light on and off in wonder.

Their prefab and subsequent council house was in Slough. Slough is the most ethnically diverse town outside of London. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s I would visit my grandparents house and the multicultural community they lived in. It was not uncommon to be the only white person in a shop. My grandparent’s next door neighbour was called Mo. He was a practicing Muslim who had moved from India for work. When his mother visited, her and my grandmother would meet and take each other food they had prepared. His mother spoke no English, yet this elderly white woman and an elderly Indian lady saw value in their relationship.

This may seem like an open and tolerant upbringing. However, it had overtones of open racism with terms like ‘Wog’ and ‘topknots’ being spoken alongside weekly readings from the News of the World. I found it hard to compute that, on an individual level, there was respect that was not shown to strangers. I knew that this was not how I wanted to view the world and therefore became more and more colour blind in my approach, seeing everyone as equal.

Then I went to university and walked into the whitest world I had ever encountered. It was not just the lack of colour amongst the student population but the noticeable lack of colour in the local faces as well. I stayed in the area to teach and found the same lack of diversity in my classes. Having a student of colour in my class was not the norm. Added to that, many of the children I taught had not met anyone of colour either. In my NQT year my school was visited by a Zulu dance troupe. One of my class cried and screamed when they walked in shouting ‘a darkie, a darkie’. He was 10 and had only ever seen a black man on TV and here he was faced with a group of them in real life.

As the years went by I remained colour blind but also became increasingly aware that there were other expressions of ethnicity around. It initially made me defensive about my position: how dare people say that I am part of the problem? I don’t see a problem!; can’t we just stop bringing up the past and move on? Stop making everything into an issue! Gradually I began to learn that my colourblindness was part of the problem but then I faced another hurdle: what do I do instead?

All of a sudden, my confidence had gone and I suddenly became fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing. If I post about attending an iftar, am I going to be seen as a white saviour? If I post about race, what terms do I use because they all seem too open to criticism? This fear led to a complete step away from engaging in the conversation for the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing caused a paralysis. This paralysis then led on to the need to be taught: to avoid me putting my foot in it, you tell me what matters and how to express it.

More recently, I have begun to realise the error in that view. It is my job to educate myself and not expect it to be done for me. It is my job to read, engage and question my own actions and motivations. My job. This is where I currently am. I am in a place of solidarity and support and not in a place of saving or saying ‘its all ok – we are equal’. I am in a place of learning and accept that I will get it wrong. When I do, I need to own it for it was my error.

So decolonising the curriculum. Why do it? Because we have to accept the fundamental truth that we teach a white centric view. I cannot think of one non-white figure in history I have taught about nor one non-white novelist whose book I have shared. I taught for 16 years. There probably were times when I did both of the above, but the fact I cannot remember is my fault to own. Developing the awareness of the white-centric curriculum needs to be part of ITE. It needs to be there from the get go. We need to train teachers  not to include non-white faces as a token gesture but actually have a knowledge and respect for their contribution to all aspects of the world we live in. We need to ensure that the pupils they teach do not have the same experience as Pran.

White people like myself need to stop being paralysed by our own fear and actively learn. We need to challenge the ‘every day’ racism we encounter from colleagues, family and friends. We need to stop having a ‘white saviour’ mentality and think we should swoop in and raise people up. We need to stop thinking that being ‘colour blind’ is all we are called to do.

I am still learning. I will get things wrong. I will express things in the wrong way and use terms that people may have issue with. I am still unsure how to describe myself and my views. But that rests with me and I have to continue to educate myself.


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