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Open letter — The University Post published a feature article describing a group of students who left the classroom after the N-word had been spoken. Since then, a wider discussion has begun about safe spaces and academic freedom. Now Global Development students speak out with the hope of reframing the conversation.
This opinion piece was originally written as an open letter to the management at the University of Copenhagen, which students can sign. At the time of publication, it has obtained 118 signatures.
OPINION ON THE UNIVERSITY POST
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The University of Copenhagen is failing to support people of colour in its classrooms.
Following students’ complaints of racial insensitivity during a lecture on the Global Development programme, the University’s first response was to dig in their heels in support of the professor’s right to free speech, rather than empathizing with the lived experience of the students of colour.
As author Vershawn Anshanti Young explains in another context: »Those that then insist that their academic freedom is at risk by not saying the full word [N-word], or that the veracity of their teachings will suffer are only concerned about their own experience and the experience of the students who are not Black.«
However, it is worth reiterating that the spoken N-word was only one of the many racially insensitive teaching choices that day, and that the conversation should not be boiled down to it.
There was no ‘debate’ within our programme about the professor’s right to speak out a racial slur for educational purposes. As students, we universally agreed that the N-word being spoken by a White academic in a position of power was a breach of conduct, resulting in the lecture crossing a line.
There was no ‘debate’ within our programme
After student concerns were voiced, the teacher did not immediately address it with the group, which left a tangible weight of an unresolved issue in the room, as the lecture went on as planned.
However, loudly exclaiming the N-word, showing 45 minutes of dehumanising pictures, followed by the professor’s own interpretations and descriptions of those photos all contributed to this traumatizing experience.
The uncomfortable part of the lecture that day wasn’t the discussion of colonial history and its lasting impact. It was the lack thereof.
As learners, we want diverse classroom spaces, because it is from people whose embodied knowledge is most different from ours that we can learn the most about ourselves from and about our position in this shared world. This is especially true for students in an international programme like Global Development.
To make diverse learning environments a reality, it is imperative that teachers are aware of the impact race – alongside class, gender, and other factors – can have in the classroom setting, creating vastly unequal levels of discomfort in some topics.
It is gravely worrisome for us that the University continues to emphasise the teacher’s total freedom instead of highlighting inclusion and diversity. This simple act has the power to slowly push minorities out of discussions and out of academic spaces, or at least to make them feel unwelcome there, while also reinforcing academic structural racism.
However, the solution is in no way censorship of the curriculum. Rather, teachers should learn to mediate moments like this. Such skills and awareness should be just as crucial in teaching as the content, and being conscious of the impact of race in the classroom is the first step towards having more effective discussions.
The solution is in no way censorship of the curriculum
This is why we are calling on the University to begin mandatory racial sensitivity training for all educators in the system. We urge the university to end its colourblind narrative and start taking actionable steps towards focusing on minority students’ experiences in the classroom.
Racial sensitivity training would be the first step of many in working towards a wraparound decolonization of the University. There are many existing decolonization plans written by students and professors alike.
We believe that it is not too late for the University to choose to emphasize diversity and inclusion by taking some of these decolonizing steps publicly. This would help to welcome students of colour into the University in the future, and support those that are already fighting for their right to be heard.
In light of recent events, we propose the following:
Make teacher training mandatory
Implement mandatory racial sensitivity training. This would be from an anti-racist perspective that would increase awareness of unspoken racial inequalities in academic spaces and implicit biases. Training should also include how to create a space that encourages open dialogue among marginalized students about their experience of racism in the academy.
Redesign the curriculum
Engage in a comprehensive review and revision of the curriculum and pedagogy to ensure that it reflects a variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences, especially those historically excluded from academic discourse. We also propose shaping the curricula in collaboration with students by imagining how it would have been done by underrepresented voices.
Welcome all emotional reactions in classroom spaces, as they are more than justifiable with the brutality of the past and present in mind. We also call on educators to make more of an effort to reject the narratives that paint people as merely objects of study.
Encourage professors to openly recognise positionality and be more critical of eurocentric knowledge. We hope that teachers would reconsider taking authoritative positions, welcome knowledge sharing with the student body, and be more open to changing their perspectives.
Allocate funds for a conscious effort
Allocate more resources to prioritise academic programmes that have been historically marginalised and underrepresented. Inspired by the action of student bodies at universities around the world, we want to allocate funding to provide scholarships for students in need and those from underrepresented backgrounds. This pillar also includes making a conscious effort to incorporate publications of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color, ed.] individuals in existing curricula.
Improve faculty diversity
Recruit and retain faculty members from diverse backgrounds who can mediate discussions, facilitate critical dialogues, and encourage student participation. Even if these faculty are only guest speakers, having diversity in professors vastly increases the breadth of knowledge.
If students taking a political stance at the inappropriate and distasteful use of racial slurs and lecture styles is cause for concern, perhaps the university should consider what it is they are upset – ‘triggered’ – about. The concerns we raise – and the energy we put into doing so – is evidence of engaged scholarship, which is something the university should actively foster.
Perhaps the university should consider what it is they are upset – ‘triggered’ – about
Furthermore, we stress that anti-racist work in academia requires deliberate and proactive efforts to challenge systemic racism. It is our collective responsibility, as both students and professors, to ensure that the academy is a space where all students, regardless of their racial or ethnic backgrounds, can engage in meaningful and productive discussions.
Political activist and academic
Our demands, rooted in the principles of decolonization and anti-racism, are crucial steps toward creating an inclusive and equitable educational environment.
We urge the University to heed our call and commit to the vital work of decolonizing education for the betterment of all students and the advancement of inclusive, anti-racist academic spaces.