08-12-2014

Race: confronting myths and deconstructing colonial concepts

Foluso Williams

The August 2011 London riots “were not about race: the perpetrators and the victims were white, black and Asian”. It would seem from Mr Cameron’s comment that Britain is made up of three distinct ‘races’: ‘white’, ‘black’ and ‘Asian’.

However, many would argue that two of the ‘races’ that he has identified represent colours and the other denotes the population of a particular continent. Is Mr Cameron right? Surely, he has painted the best picture of 21st century Britain?

Not according to some academics, who believe that he is just as perplexed with the notion of ‘race’ as the rest of Britain.

This year at UCL, a remarkable array of scholars from various academic disciplines across the globe convened to discuss and challenge many of the misconceptions and complexities associated with the notion of ‘race’.

All speakers, which included staff and students, deconstructed the outdated myths that have lingered throughout different historical contexts and illustrated just how these constructions have become widely accepted in our society.

Two events, the Joint Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies (Figs) Friday Forum on ‘Race’ and Critical Philosophy of Race: Here and Now, revealed through revolutionary research how we can begin to understand and challenge the notion of ‘race’, which is essentially a “colonial construct” that has been imposed on us by misinformed thinkers.

Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, set the scene with his opening speeches and paved the way for a group of dynamic scholars.

The first part of the Figs Forum focused on the construction of racial boundaries in different contexts. Members of UCL from the departments of Languages, Film, Humanities, Science and Anthropology unveiled innovative and unique research that helped overcome the complexities with defining the term and useful strategies to help move the debate forward.

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One student showed how illnesses such as sickle cell anaemia, became part of a political agenda to categorise and marginalise groups of people. She showed that although found in various parts of the world, including the Mediterranean and in India, sickle cell anaemia became constructed as a ‘black disease’ that only affects people of African and Caribbean ancestry.

This was not only a racist political agenda, perpetuated by the media, but an extremely powerful tool used to further denigrate a minute proportion of Britain’s population.

In part two of the forum, scholars contested racial boundaries and UCL’s first-ever BME Students’ Officer, Shanell Johnson, spoke of the need to engage with BME students. She said that it is critical that BME students feel that they ‘belong’ at UCL and if they don’t, it will take “300 years before the university achieves its equality targets”.

Such a shocking prospect is bound to provoke action, and not only action that addresses the needs of students. In other parts of London with large proportions of BME communities, many do not trust their elective representatives.

According to one scholar from the university’s Urban Laboratory, this is because BME communities do not benefit from restructuring and images of progress and development are often associated with white people. In other words regeneration exacerbates inequality.

Evidently, there is still a significant amount of work to be done to tackle issues of under-representation and marginalisation among racialised minorities in Britain. The event closed with a commemoration to Stuart Hall who called for racial politics to be undone in Britain and suggested that we embrace a new system with fewer racial categorisations.

This article was originally posted on the UCL website on 16th June 2014

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