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Decolonising KCL and Beyond – What We Can Do To Help

Ex-student failed by King’s sexual misconduct regulations for 3 years straight
Photo by Katy Ereira via Wikimedia Commons. The image has been cropped.(Licence: [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/])

Staff writer Rena Hoshino writes about the colonial past of English academia and media, then asks Aaliyah Ahmed from “Decolonise KCL” what we can do to help with the process of decolonisation. 

Mainstream media in the West has long been dominated by white actors and directors. This does not reflect the reality of our society, which has become ever more globalised. Cultural plurality is at the forefront of our lives, so why has the media we consume not sufficiently come to reflect that? In the 2021 census data, the number of people who identified themselves as White British in London was a mere 36.8%, but an equity report on peak scripted television in 2018 revealed that White British people made up 82% of the casts we see on channels like BBC One, ITV, and Channel 4. This is a prominent phenomenon within our school system too. The English literary canon primarily includes the works of white writers, taking away from the cultural richness of POC (people of colour) authors, who have been doing equally important work. This is not necessarily a revelation of the 21st century — scholars have been pointing out for years that the canon is built by and focused on Western culture, Europe, and men.

What does the term “decolonise” mean? Politically, this is used as a term to describe the emancipation of a country as a colony of another. More and more recently it is being used on a local scale to describe a moving away from white hegemony within the things we consume. In her article “Decolonise, not Diversify”, Kavita Bhanot states that “the concept of diversity only exists if there is an assumed neutral point from which ‘others’ are ‘diverse’”. A large part of highlighted academia, music, movies, and literature in our lives frame whiteness as a default point of neutrality, declaring anything other than whiteness to be diverse. To use the term “decolonise” rightfully accentuates that whiteness is not neutral, and has been enforced through an imperial history that continues to haunt us today.

Within KCL, depending on your degree and department, professors may have begun including a range of theoretical texts from both white and POC academics. Events such as the recent “Shakespeare and Race Festival” are held annually to create community amongst POC academics in the UK, discussing ways to establish “greater inclusivity and decolonial transformation in the UK academy”. It is typically held throughout the last week of October and ranges from talks revolving around race in arts and culture to poetry and spoken word nights. There’s also a student-run society, “Decolonise KCL”, which actively works on addressing the dilemma of decolonising systems and media consumption. In a conversation with “Decolonise KCL”, Social Media Officer Aaliyah Ahmed kindly provided a few quotes explaining how and what their society does.

When asked how “Decolonise KCL” go about achieving their cause, Ahmed replied by saying that “to start conversations on the race and the legacy of colonialism within King’s and to ensure that the voices of people of colour are heard” they “lobby King’s administration and work with the student unions”. According to Ahmed, they also “hold regular events to keep our members engaged with the cause”, which include “monthly book clubs, where we have a selection of prose, poetry, and artworks to discuss in relation to colonisation, museum trips, fundraisers, and much more”.

Ahmed claimed that current media is “absolutely” in need of decolonising. Hollywood still largely celebrates and glorifies films with American and European values; this cultural imperialism can be seen all around us. These stories have been told in paintings, books, comics, and in all forms of media. Although social media has allowed us to come a long way in terms of highlighting such prevalent issues, the “world news” is hardly ever representative of real-world issues. Following the killing of George Floyd in 2020, social media broke out into chaos and formed a worldwide Black Lives Matter movement during the height of the pandemic. Although the digitalisation of media has drawn more attention to important issues, we are in danger of creating a sense of false progress, and we need to consider how much our ‘slacktivism’ can actually help the cause”. 

So, with this knowledge of how we can tackle this within academia, how about the personal — how can we decolonise the art, music, and cinema we consume? The first step is to educate yourself on the histories of colonialism and imperialism; It’s difficult to move away from specific media without knowing why you’re doing it. This can come from a simple google search, YouTube videos on the subject, or reading through essays by scholars such as Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Cheryl Harris, and Michel Foucault. Step back and assess how much of the media you consume centres whiteness. Are the cast in TV shows you watch predominantly white, tokenising minority characters? Is the music you listen to only by white artists? The important thing to note is that the problem is not consuming white creators — but only consuming them. Be open to POC artists and creators, and seek recommendations that centre them. For every good white creator, there is an equally good POC creator working hard to get their creations noticed.

It does not have to be a complicated or linear process — there is always more to learn, and as long as you’re taking opportunities to unlearn centralised imperialism, you’re progressing.

Now more than ever, POC creators are able to access mainstream media and put their own visions into reality. Here are some good recommendations for a starting point on decolonising your taste, along with another few from Aaliyah Ahmed:

  • For musicians: Janelle Monáe, Rina Sawayama, and Kojey Radical.
  • For directors: Ana Lily Amirpour, Boots Riley, Bong-Joon Ho, and Jordan Peele.

Ahmed also asks that we look at the “library” archive on the “Decolonise KCL” website, where you can find literature recommendations on a topic that suits you. When asked, she gave us a few of her personal favourites:

  • “Orientalism”, Edward Said (or anything by Edward Said).
  • “Black Skin, White Masks”, Frantz Fanon (our book club read for last month).
  • “Decolonising the Mind”, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (goes beyond the West stealing art and treasures, and discusses how colonisation has impacted languages and cultures).
  • “Natives”, Akala (an easy read and excellent contemporary application to race and class in the ruins of empire).
  • Lubaima Himid (a British Tanzanian artist who focuses her artwork on social engagement; she recently had a wonderful exhibition at the Tate Modern).

When you can’t directly change the media that’s produced, you can change the media you consume.

You can follow “Decolonise KCL” on Twitter @decolonisekcl and on Instagram @decolonisekcl.

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