Decolonising French Reading Lists | Shanti du Rocher

Image credit: zeze57

I chose to study MML with the explicit purpose of learning about other cultures, and one of the reasons I picked French in particular was to learn about the Francophone world. So I was disappointed to learn that my reading list for first year was composed entirely of white European authors. When expressing my dismay at this, many people like to remind me that I could have gone to university somewhere else, but unfortunately, for students from certain backgrounds, saying no to Cambridge is simply not an option. Obviously Eurocentric reading lists are a university wide problem, but the French department in particular also does not do so well with BME student representation. Correct responses to interview questions like ‘where have you travelled’, and an appreciation of so-called ‘high culture’ are deemed essential to even get onto the course. As a consequence, the department consists of a select few, and so the curriculum it offers is only suited to this group.

When deciding between second year modules, it was a no brainer for me to choose the 21st century paper (of the 32 topics available to me across 4 papers, this one had 2 topics which included non-white writers). When these 2 topics finally came around, I was disappointed, once again, to learn that they would only be given 1 lecture each, when other more popular topics got roughly 4 lectures each. Going into the first of these lectures (this one about a black Martinican writer) the regular group had diminished from roughly 40 to 20 people, and going into the second of these lectures (this one about a Moroccan writer), the group size had gone down to 4.

I also observed a stark change in the style of teaching, with the lecturer exhibiting a sudden desire to challenge the writers’ views, or explain them in relation to better known European writers. I was deeply shocked and saddened by this. That is not to say I believe a writer should go uncriticised, but there was an unsettling difference between this and the reverential way the work of the white authors was approached. To me, this represented a desire to discredit black opinion and voices, voices which seem to be unworthy of the same respect as those of their white counterparts.

Such inconsistent and rushed teaching of non-white authors creates a vicious cycle: poor teaching discourages students from choosing these texts or continuing with postcolonial studies later on;  in turn, students won’t be encouraged to become specialists in this field, and the low standard of teaching continues. Perhaps the first step is to at least show these writers the same academic respect as their white European counterparts, even if the expertise is still lacking.

Discussing why some students avoid writers of colour is always a slippery topic of conversation, with limp excuses ranging from ‘I don’t like studying poetry’ to ‘It’s a type of French I just don’t understand’ (FYI, it never is), all made in a weak attempt to avoid admitting their own discomfort with addressing race. I find it worrying to see how incapable some white students are of understanding the perspective of black writers, when many black students in Cambridge spend the majority of their degrees (their lives maybe?) being perfectly capable of understanding texts by white authors.

A Eurocentric curriculum makes it impossible to detach ourselves from ‘Western’, ‘European’ or essentially, ‘white’ ways of thinking. This traps BME students in a third space. Often, even before starting at Cambridge a BME student will have accumulated enough knowledge and appreciation of ‘white culture’ to feel as though they could probably fit in, but upon arrival, they will become painfully aware of the racism which blocks them from ever truly being accepted. Even if supervisors want to ignore the ‘emotional’ side of the decolonisation argument (as if the emotional side is not worthy of discussion anyway), many academic fields have moved beyond the old white men Cambridge and their static pedestals. Understanding French culture no longer means having an in-depth knowledge of the Enlightenment period – if this does interest you, there is nothing wrong with that, but there is no reason it should be seen as more valuable than Postcolonial movements from the Maghreb or the French Caribbean.

There is also an insistence on maintaining a unidirectional gaze on colonised peoples; whenever the topics of race or colonialism are brought up, it is more acceptable for them to be filtered and mediated through the gaze of a white European, instead of being expressed by a writer of colour. For example, there is an entire module on Colonialism and Empire which only includes white writers. This constant desire to keep the point of view within Europe exhibits what I believe is the underpinning factor behind the resistance to decolonising the reading lists: people see decolonisation as a potential threat to their white privilege. Be it because their white authors are being given less attention, or their colonialist opinions are being put into question, people are disconcerted by how logical decolonising the reading list is.

It seems like Cambridge has marginally improved access statistics for BME students, but the focus has been on reaching the least privileged BME students, and making the system less stacked against them (e.g. with suggestions of unconscious bias training in certain college admissions teams). Whilst all of this is certainly necessary, it neglects, what I would say is an equally important question – why would a BME student even want to study here? The reading lists make it clear to prospective BME students that the Cambridge space is not one which considers their needs.

Before coming to Cambridge, I thought I had witnessed and experienced the worst sort of racism there is; banana throwing, public humiliation through slurs, social exclusion and all manner of racialized marginalisation, but it is the situation here that I find most frustrating. In these specific cases at my school, I was able to pinpoint perpetrators and specific events, but it is the discomfort about addressing more latent types of racism which seems to be the most prominent issue in Cambridge. People have a tendency to dismiss both micro and macro aggressions under the catch-all term ‘ignorance’, and as a consequence, the victim of racism is transformed into some sort of bully/problematic person for accusing the perpetrator of saying or doing something racist.

As one of the few PoC at my college, I feel a burden to always turn up to discussion groups to mention intersectionality, to always explain the racialized perspective of things, and to call people out for their racism – if I were not there I doubt many others would take on the same role. Of course, this does not just happen to me; in many discussions, ethnic minorities are often expected to carry the burden of the educator, with their peers showing little understanding of the labour it takes to be unofficially appointed a position they never asked for. PoC often end up being the ones to pick up the slack where the education system has failed not only them but also their white peers. Perhaps varied reading lists could do some of the job for us, or at the very least, spark some sort of interest in race where so many people lack it.

For many of my white friends, the connection between Eurocentrism in education and the everyday racism I experience is too great a leap, but it is necessary to understand just how far back the problem goes. Even before starting university, many BME children only ever encounter white voices in their academic lives –  what does this mean for their own confidence in academic areas later on? How am I meant to see myself, my culture and my problems as significant, if my peers, as well as those who are here to give me an education, see little value in teaching the work and history of PoC? How are white people going to perceive those ethnic minorities whose voices and opinions, when finally given a platform, are ridiculed and condemned as stemming from a European superior?

The reading lists are just one thing which make Cambridge a fundamentally racist institution, and changing these reading lists is the very least the university could do not just to build a more inclusive environment for BME students, but to offer a better standard of education to all its students.

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