‘Where is my voice in this?’

Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne reports from the BPS webinar ‘Decolonising the Curriculum’.

Decolonisation 'isn’t about just sprinkling some seasoning onto a European view of psychology.’ Educational psychologist Dr Michele Perry-Springer was talking about the need to think more broadly to decolonise psychology – ‘recognising that the Eurocentric view is just one worldview, and there are other worldviews that are just as relevant’. Perry-Springer referenced Sir Hilary Beckles, who said that the work needs to start in universities, as they have played a role in colonising and need to right some of those wrongs.

Dr Udeni Salmon, research fellow at the University of Lincoln, spoke of the ongoing struggle of being within the system while trying to change it. ‘It’s an uncomfortable place to be.’ Salmon voiced concerns with the Race Equality Charter (REC), which aims to find solutions to barriers to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff and students. Echoing similar concerns that the Athena Swan gender charter places the burden on women, Salmon called the REC a tool of White supremacy, in co-opting people of colour to work on diversity and inclusion initiatives. (Kalwant Bhopal and Clare Pitkin’s research on this concluded that ‘The REC becomes a smoke screen that excuses HEIs from addressing White privilege by camouflaging its very existence’.)

For Dr Patrick Hylton, senior lecturer at the University of Lincoln, decolonising psychology is not about providing an academic reading list. It’s about asking awkward, searching questions, like ‘where did this come from?’, ‘who are you speaking for?’, ‘what implication does it have for us?’, and ‘where is my voice in this?’. It’s about probing where information has come from, understanding that ‘information is not manna from heaven’ – that it comes from a certain position, within a historical context that needs to be examined. ‘What does that position stand for, and how does that position marginalise, disempower, make invisible other positions?’

Both Perry-Springer and Salmon spoke about the importance of empowering and working with students. According to Salmon, ‘once you start bringing students to the table, institutions like universities suddenly find it much harder to say no’. There’s a paradox, according to Salmon, that universities becoming capitalist marketplaces has actually given students more power to start making demands. Perry-Springer spoke about her focus on giving Black students a space to incubate their thoughts and work with Black academics to bring together their vision of what decolonisation should look like. Salmon pointed to the Decolonise the Curriculum project by students at the University of Kent as an example of students working to diversify their curricula and promote inclusion throughout the university.

Speaking in the panel session that followed the discussion between Perry-Springer, Salmon and Hylton, two students shared their own views on what needs to change. Fabianna Dennis at the University of Cambridge said that since psychology GCSE, race has always been an afterthought – ‘it's always that last sentence in the textbook or that one chapter’. This lack of representation, Dennis thinks, is one reason Black students choose not to enter psychology.

Layne Whittaker at the Open University was really excited when there was a section on race in her course, covering intersectionality, institutional racism and White privilege. But Whittaker was shocked to find that the other students on her course were angry that race was being covered, and they perceived covering race as showing a left-wing bias, even ‘race baiting’. Worse still, the staff on the course told those students, ‘just get through it, just ignore it, you don't have to bother with it once you're done’.

Academics might want a readymade reading list to embed within their usual curriculum, but these discussions showed that decolonising is not that simple. Representation is just part of the solution. What came through loud and clear in the webinar is that we need to look at psychology in a different way – with critical thought and enquiry, with reflection, and within its historical context. Dr Nasreen Fazal-Short, Chair of the BPS Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce concluded, ‘it will take years, it’s not a five-minute job... please come and join with us’.

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