This week marks the beginning of my year of studying (Postcolonial Studies) at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) in London. Though practically unheard of by many, SOAS has a reputation for being a very political space and an institution with appreciation for critical and sometimes radical analysis and thought. To my mind, entering this space would be jumping from one extreme experience of University – at Cambridge – to the other end of the spectrum. I write the following reflections on this first week at the urging of a friend still at Cambridge and eager to hear about life here.
The first immediate and obvious difference which hit me when I arrived on SOAS’ campus was that no one would ever recognise or know me here as ‘the girl who wears the hijab’. People in hijabs were everywhere. Brown people were everywhere; black people; people of colour. The last time I was in an educational space with such large numbers of non-white students was at high school and I am as comforted now as I was then that in this space I will be able to have an identity beyond my visibility as a brown Muslim woman – simply because that identity is not one which makes me particularly distinguishable on this campus. That is certainly a huge difference between SOAS and Cambridge.
The second aspect of this diversity is that SOAS’ international make-up is massive. 56% of their students come from outside the UK and the variation in backgrounds, contexts, ages and experience only serves to add to the mix. Already the implications of such high numbers of international students has been made apparent to me – in sexual consent-workshops where insight from different national perspectives shed new light on the nuances of ‘rape culture’, and in my lecture on ‘gendering migration’ where motives for studying included people’s desire to understand their own migrant or activist experiences from Palestine, Cameroon, Sweden or India. It is undeniable that even in the handful of days I have been at SOAS I’ve been forced to consider things anew, to decenter my own perspective and consider more than ever before that I am the product of my very specific context.
Here, compared to Cambridge, it also feels as though lived experience matters. In my first lecture the lecturer told us to forget about trying to write ‘objective’ arguments but instead to critically examine and be aware of the places and experiences we were writing from as we wrote. I was stunned to be told this after three years of being implicitly asked to supress my own experiences and identity regardless of the topic being written on. Outside of lectures awareness to varied lived experiences seem also to be a matter of great importance. From what I’ve seen so far accessibility and inclusivity is pursued to a much greater extent than in Cambridge. There is academic support for people coming into academia from all sorts of places and after many different lengths of time; mental health workshops, guidance, and free counselling made available from day one; events for students who are parents and carers, and multiple disability and dyslexia services. Of course, these services may not be as effective as they appear to be, and I’m sure there are plenty of ways in which the institution remains inaccessible – including straightforward financial and classist barriers.
On the Student Union front too inclusivity impressed me and was way ahead of Cambridge. In the handbook given out to all students there was a section defining terms including ‘decolonise’, ‘classism’, ‘ableism’, ‘sexism’, ‘racism’, ‘misogyny’, ‘misogynoir’, ‘transphobia’, ‘homophobia’, ‘anti-semitism’, ‘transmisogyny’ and ‘islamaphobia’ etc. On top of that the Student Union’s campaigns included ‘liberation’ of education which encompassed but surpassed an emphasis simply on free education. They seemed critical of ‘diversity’ used as a cloak for racism (in suggesting some identities are the ‘norm’ and others are ‘diverse’ and ‘diversity’ is a goal you can reach which makes your institution more attractive and thus more financially viable) and supported groups organising around different identities to challenge structural violence and oppression.
Even simply the Fresher’s week’s events blew me away. I tried to imagine Cambridge ever having a ‘Nollywood film night’. Tried to imagine them opening Black History Month with a ‘Blackout’ night celebrating various forms of music originating in black cultures without it being completely appropriated by white students and made unwelcoming and problematic. I laughed at the idea that Cambridge would ever try to find ‘a line up of local black artists’ to perform at an event entitled ‘Blackity Black Black’. Every time I walked into the common room I imagined a Cambridge college which would have paintings of Angela Davis, Kendrick Lamar or Junot Diaz on the walls… It truly was a contrast.
And yet, I’m obviously coming from a University which has very real problems with race and inclusivity, so my awe and amazement must not mask the problems also facing SOAS. As the ‘Decolonising SOAS’ campaign have made clear, SOAS faces many of the same problems as any UK higher education institutions – in terms of numbers of BME staff and attainment gaps for example. Due to its origins in 1916 which were deeply bound up with Europe’s colonial project (literally a school teaching about ‘The Orient’ and ‘Africa’ to train administrators and colonial officials for working overseas in the British Empire) there is also a problematic legacy which SOAS itself needs to acknowledge and work through. Just as at Cambridge, students are asking for ‘decolonised’ curriculums which no longer center Western philosophy and theory, and they are asking for more non-white academic staff and faculty members.
However, I must say that the very fact that the ‘Decolonising’ campaign has so much traction and breadth is inspiring. A lesson Cambridge activists could take on board is the solidarity which the campaign here seems to have built up. The campaign has formed a coalition of undergraduates, some academics, postgraduates, precarious staff (such as PhD students who are over-worked and under-payed) and also staff such as the cleaners. The ‘Justice for Cleaners’ campaign is a truly impressive and consistent effort by a largely migrant work-force to get justice. Their collaboration with the ‘Decolonising’ campaign makes its focus on decolonising even more nuanced – about exploitation and invisibility of non-Western labours in both the past and present.
So far then, I’m impressed. Already I feel being here has proved to me the importance of diversity even just in itself. To be surrounded by people from all sorts of different places and with different backgrounds is important for thinking and learning (and unlearning) – Cambridge would do well to appreciate this. However, it is not enough. Seeing people here angry about the same things I was angry about at Cambridge proves to me something else: the structural nature of racism, classism and heterosexism. I am impressed by how much further along with the conversation SOAS is and how many of the things we were fighting to be understood about at Cambridge have already been normalised here. But hearing the same concerns and queries proves to me that for as long as students are constrained by the fact we are consumers paying for the knowledge provided by the institution, we will be debilitated and too afraid to cause and strive for a genuine disordering of the status quo.