The School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) was founded by the British state in 1916 to strengthen imperial interests in Asia and Africa. It admitted its first students in 1917, among them colonial administrators, as well as military officers, doctors and missionaries, to instruct them in the languages and cultures of the regions to which they would be posted to govern and rule on behalf of the British Empire. It is in light of the institution’s centenary that SOAS students are seeking to decolonise it. This collective action undertaken by academic staff and students attempts to challenge the university’s “self-image as progressive and diverse” and build a more just and inclusive institution. Some of the aims of decolonisation are reparative: students are demanding the provision of more scholarships for refugees and displaced people, regardless of their immigration status, and more bursaries and grants for working-class students. Linked to the decolonising agenda is also the campaign to end the outsourcing of cleaning staff and for their secure work and pay.
At the start of every academic year, the Students' Union publishes its educational priorities. Decolonising the curriculum is a key priority declared by the Union and thereby the students they represent. It is the suggested actions for this objective, ‘Decolonising SOAS: Confronting the White Institution’, that has provoked controversy – even though it would seem that students at SOAS, the only higher education institution in Europe devoted to the study of the Middle East, Asia and Africa, would have every right to demand that their curriculum is grounded in the perspectives and scholarship of the regions in which the university purports to specialise.
The campaign statement to decolonise SOAS does not call for the removal of specific theorists from the curriculum, yet this has been misrepresented in the media, with the students caricatured as ignorant, censorious snowflakes who insist on racialising the ‘pure’ discipline of philosophy. The Telegraph’s headline read, ‘University students demand philosophers such as Plato and Kant are removed from syllabus because they are white’. The article reports that the conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, derided the student action as ignorant: “clearly they haven’t investigated what they mean by ‘white philosophy’. If they think there is a colonial context from which Kant's Critique of Pure Reason arose, I would like to hear it.” Meanwhile, conservative historian Anthony Seldon counseled: “We need to understand the world as it is and not rewrite history as some might like it to have been”. The great irony of these dismissals is that the SOAS students are seeking to resist the very revisionism itself of contemporary accounts of the Enlightenment, specifying that “if white philosophers are required, then to teach their work from a critical standpoint. For example, acknowledging the colonial context in which so called ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers wrote within.”
The question is, what does it mean to teach the Enlightenment ‘in context’?
The typical telling of the familiar Enlightenment story goes something like this: all men are equally endowed with rationality and logic. These rational men also have inalienable natural rights with which no actor can interfere. Thus all rational men must enjoy liberty. These rational men are not subject to the arbitrary power of the state or the church; it is only through a social contract between free men and the state that they voluntarily relinquish some of their liberty for the benefits of living in a society and enjoying the protection of a sovereign ruler. It is in the Enlightenment philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume and John Locke, for instance, that we see the birth of European modernity expressed through the ideas of the individual, rationality, equality, liberty and property.
Contemporary understandings of the Enlightenment assume that philosophers such as Kant, Rousseau, Hume and Locke, are expansive and inclusive in their views of humanity, especially since they claim their ideas are universal. But how do these philosophers define who gets included in the category of ‘man’? Who gets to enjoy categorisation as a rational individual with inalienable rights to life, liberty and property – and who does not? It is taken without question that the philosophers’ exclusivism underlying the category of ‘man’ is merely anachronistic. More importantly, the political nature of such categorisation is considered to be completely beside the point of their theories, which, we are repeatedly reminded, serve as the bedrock of liberal democracy. Quite rightly, SOAS students wish to be critically engaged by their lecturers on this point of how humanity is conferred to include some people but not others in the Enlightenment vision of ‘man’ and hence, European modernity.
Membership to the category of rational, free and equal men is restricted, as has been extensively documented by some of the Enlightenment philosophers themselves, and as Leah Bassel and I argue in our forthcoming book on women of colour and austerity. “Race is in no way an ‘afterthought’, a deviation from ostensibly raceless Western ideals”, Charles Mills reminds us, “but rather a central shaping constituent of these ideals”. The contemporary interpretation of the Enlightenment obscures its exclusion of women, ‘savages’, slaves and indigenous peoples through the prevailing racial science as inherently irrational beings. Savages – or the colonial other: the Native or Aboriginal peoples, the African, the Indian, the slave – were constructed as subhuman, incapable of logical reasoning and thus not subject to the equality or liberty enjoyed by ‘men’. It is here, in the hierarchies of modernity that we can understand the central role of racism in shaping the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment is brought into being by Europe’s colonial entanglements and is wholly dependent on its particular patriarchal relations – which Europe, in turn, imposed on its colonial subjects.
It is of crucial significance that Enlightenment philosophies dovetail with the political economy of colonialism and continue to shape, and to limit, political discourse today. To enslave and plunder requires the dehumanisation of the Other, to exploit and expropriate the colonial subject’s labour. We would do well to remember that key Enlightenment theorists had a financial stake in imperial conquest and their philosophies were put to work to justify their material interests. For instance, John Locke was an investor in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and defended slave owners’ property rights – the right to own, rape and murder fellow human beings for profit. It was this intellectualisation of chattel slavery and colonialism, via a sophisticated, selective categorisation of ‘man’, that made colonialism and the slave trade – and thus European modernity – possible. The concepts of liberty, equality, property and human rights born of the Enlightenment are entwined with the history of capitalist violence. As such, refusing to scrutinise the positions of Enlightenment philosophers on university curricula serves to whitewash the legacy of colonialism. “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” wrote Walter Benjamin. “And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.”
Consequently, when the SOAS students demand acknowledgement of “the colonial context in which so called ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers wrote within”, they are resisting the revisionism that seeks to erase and deny the racial and gender politics underlying contemporary ideas of Europe – and their own institution. Further, by demanding to refocus their studies on African, Middle Eastern and Asian scholarship, the students expose the operation of whiteness in their curriculum: because whiteness is normative, white supremacy operates in plain sight but resists being named or subject to critique. The backlash and the misrepresentation of the students’ views is part of a familiar pattern of delegitimising those who challenge white domination.
The campaign to decolonise SOAS is a call to reshape and re-imagine what the university is for and whom the university should serve. As Kerem Nisancioglu, Lecturer in International Relations and a member of the campaign to decolonise SOAS argues: “We need to understand the racial politics that inform knowledge production as this goes right to the heart of both what the university is and what racism is.” To decolonise is to imagine that another university is possible.
Akwugo Emejulu is Senior Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. From February 2017, she will be Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Her co-authored book, The Politics of Survival: Minority Women, Activism and Austerity in France and Britain is forthcoming with Policy Press.