Student movements to ‘decolonise’ education have now gone mainstream. What began in the humanities – with claims that racist and colonialist assumptions were embedded in disciplines such as history and literature – has even spread to science, with calls to ‘decolonise’ physics, maths and medicine, where racist assumptions are somewhat harder to discern. Beyond the university, there are calls to decolonise art, architecture, healthcare and even diets. For those demanding decolonisation, colonialism is not merely a historical wrong, but an enduring and pervasive feature of the present. Campus demands have included the changing of curricula to reflect subaltern and post-colonial experiences and identities, and instituting unconscious bias workshops. A Year Zero approach to history has seen calls to erase public spaces of all remnants of colonialism, demanding changes to plaques and the destruction of statues. In the USA statues of Confederate generals have been removed in the dead of night. In the UK, the writer Afua Hirsch stirred controversy by calling for the removal of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Britain should not honour a ‘white supremacist’, she argued.
But is it true that education, science, the public square and the arts perpetuate colonialism? And can historical wrongs really be righted by so-called decolonisation? Critics are alarmed by what they see as a growing tendency to racialise the world, to entrench racial thinking and to present a degraded view of people of colour as constantly vulnerable to being assaulted by the past. Furthermore, are the demands of the decolonisers not kicking at an open door? The pervasive influence of Critical Theory in academia began the process of undermining the Western canon long before the recent calls to decolonise it. And are decolonisers really voicing the concerns of the voiceless and under-represented? The first decolonise campaigns came from the most elite universities and each student-led push to decolonise generates vast swathes of media coverage.
What is the best way to respond to and discuss the historic wrongs of colonialism? Should we heed the demands of the decolonisation movements? Or should we be worried that calls for decolonisation are colonising more and more aspects of our lives?