Ever since George Floyd’s murder in May, conversations about systemic and institutionalised racism have permeated many areas of society, not just in America but worldwide, and the University of Oxford has been far from exempt. The level of support among students for ‘decolonising the curriculum’ – that is, addressing the hegemony of white British and American scholars and topics that are taught – at Oxford has risen consistently over the last few years, but now that support has solidified into a series of initiatives united under the Diversify Your Discipline campaign. One such initiative is Diversify Politics, an active participant in the running of which has been Nailah Ranjan, who sat down for an interview with The Oxford Blue to discuss the group’s methods, aims and progress.
“Diversify Politics is a student-led initiative, trying to increase the diversity of scholars on our reading lists, as well as the topics that we are taught. It’s too Eurocentric and America-centric,” Ranjan says, “we also want to make sure we are being taught by tutors from a diverse range of backgrounds.” She pinpoints the murder of Floyd as the event which “sparked” the birth of this movement, pointing out that “there is so much momentum at the moment. It’s really a global conversation.” A global conversation, perhaps, but one that must also take place locally, with many aspects of Oxford’s situation making the university an epicentre of the outdated curriculums that plague many institutions: “Oxford has such a long history, and for centuries it’s been quite an elitist institution. It’s still grappling with being an elitist institution, and it needs to do much more in terms of being accessible and inclusive to students from a very diverse range of backgrounds, which does make it more difficult, but I don’t think that’s an excuse,” Nailah observes, adding that “when you graduate [from Oxford], you do benefit from having a certain level of educational privilege as well, so as graduates and as current students at the university, we all have an increased responsibility to use the privilege that we have to try and push for anti-racist initiatives, and make sure that those are carried forward by the university.”
However, that this is such an imperative for Oxford is a product of the university’s strengths as well as its flaws, according to Nailah, as she remarks that “Oxford has a responsibility, along with other elite, prestigious universities around the world, because we have the resources, and we also have the prestige. There’s a responsibility, because we’re at the forefront of so many things academic, for us to be at the forefront of actively trying to be anti-racist, in the way that we teach, in what we teach, in who our students are taught by.”
As a result of these factors, Nailah sees it as essential that the opportunity presented by this global conversation is capitalised upon. “[Loss of public interest] is definitely a concern,” she says, “it’s so important not to let these conversations die down.” Such a worry is particularly relevant, as the university has been very slow to respond to this issue. “We first got in touch with the UJCC [Undergraduate Joint Consultative Committee], because we felt that that was the most official channel of communication with the DPIR [Department of Politics and International Relations], but they said it wasn’t appropriate for them to help us with this initiative. So we got in touch with the incoming head of the DPIR, Petra Schleiter,” Ranjan says of Diversify Politics’ attempts at discourse with the university, “she does seem keen to work with us; she said that having these conversations about diversity is a priority for the department – which is great to hear – but she was very clear that these conversations would happen in Michaelmas.”
It would be very easy to dismiss this postponement as deliberate evasion on the part of the university, but Nailah remains upbeat. “Especially at the stage where the campaign is right now, it’s important to be optimistic,” she insists, “I don’t think they are trying to sweep the issue under the rug, it’s just that it’s not a priority at this point in time. They have said that it will be a priority in Michaelmas, and I hope it genuinely is.” Indeed, the university could be forgiven for focusing their attention elsewhere, given the arrangements that must be made in order to maintain a functioning educational institution during the ongoing pandemic, though if (as appears likely) the pandemic does not subside soon, the group could be forced to wait until Hilary term at the earliest for any kind of dialogue with the university.
Such a prospect is rather alarming, but again, Nailah is optimistic that the movement will be able to maintain its current momentum: “I’m worried that people will stop having conversations about race, and other inequities, but I think that what we have been experiencing in the last few months is unprecedented, in a good way. I don’t think there has ever been this much of a push for people to be having conversations about systems of oppression, so I really hope it’s different.” While others may be more pessimistic than Nailah, many members of the student community share her sentiment.
Regardless of whether or not the university’s apparent inaction is deliberate, many who do share this sentiment would grow frustrated and turn to a more antagonistic means of communicating their discontent. In spite of the university’s apparent inaction on the subject, Diversify Politics has so far resisted calls to harden its stance. “I’m not opposed to applying protest to the university through a form of advocacy such as protest,” Nailah admits, but also maintains that she is “more inclined at this point to say that pursuing official channels of communication is the better way to go.” While she acknowledges the “power” of protest and the “mass support” it demonstrates, she points out that “when you’re coming from a perspective of wanting to reform the curriculum, it’s important for students to be involved in that conversation, and in order for us to be most directly and effectively involved, we need to be following these official channels of communication with the university or the departments. I agree that it’s frustrating, but we really need to keep at it, because unfortunately you need to do things on the university’s terms, if you want them to really listen to you.”
Over the course of this potentially long and drawn-out process, the most important thing for Diversify Politics is maintaining high levels of support from the student body. This is a challenge about which Nailah is cautiously optimistic, arguing that “there is a lot of awareness [of this issue] among students, especially because there’s a global conversation about race, about other systems of oppression, about decolonising your curriculum, about racism. We have a lot more to do in terms of getting students aware of specific initiatives. But because people are aware of this wider issue, we can ensure that they’re aware of the specific things that they can do within Oxford.”
Yet, the student community is by no means a monolith and Nailah is aware of the challenges the movement still faces in solidifying support for reform. “There are a lot of students who feel like, ‘why should I have to learn about race, why should I have to learn about empire, why should they be compulsory elements?’” she says, “it’s important to have educated conversations with them; when you’re trying to convey your ideas, you need to back it up with statistics, with research, with open letters, and also try and push for people to educate themselves. Make it easy for students to educate themselves.” Such a task may seem daunting, but Nailah believes that social media presents an obvious solution: “social media is great because it’s so simplified; it’s not about reading a book or reading an article, it’s there in a graphic for you. It’s so condensed, it’s easy to read, it’s eye-catching. In the future I really hope that Diversify Your Discipline or Diversify Politics develop a social media presence, because that’s a really great way to reach students and convey the message in a way that takes less than five minutes to look at.”
Despite this, Nailah acknowledges that professions of support from the student community won’t be enough to bring about lasting change, noting that “I have never seen as much performative activism as I have in the last few months. It’s definitely real, and it’s definitely problematic.” Performative activism, often pejoratively called “slacktivism”, is the practice of verbally supporting a cause, but neglecting to contribute to furthering it in any meaningful way, and is often said to be particularly prevalent among students and young people. “There are definitely students who would see a petition saying ‘diversify the curriculum’ and say, ‘yep, I agree with that,’ and talk about it, but wouldn’t actually do anything,” she says. Yet to Nailah this poses an opportunity: “you can always build up from people being performative. It’s about conveying a sense of urgency and a sense of need to students, and also making people aware of performative activism in general, and calling people out when they are being performative. Calling people out constructively; that’s a good way not to alienate people.” Indeed, if Nailah is correct about her ideas for dealing with students who are hostile and those who are performative, Diversify Politics may soon be able to apply sustained and co-ordinated pressure to the university. And if this is the case, a diverse curriculum should be well within reach.
Diversify Politics at Oxford and Diversify Your Discipline at Oxford can be found on Facebook at their respective pages. The Oxford Blue‘s full interview with Nailah Ranjan can be found on YouTube here.