Women of colour are let down by English Literature

Published

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Simi Kaur
Writer

I am currently studying at university as an English Literature student, but I came to realise the lack of diversity on my course during my very first semester. I felt as though I was the only person of colour in all of my lectures and my seminars. This is when I began to have thoughts about how women of colour are lacking in the Arts department of my University.

Since studying abroad in Canada, I have realised how important it is to be involved in a diverse culture. Attending lectures in Canada with a pair of fresh eyes has not only transformed how I see my academic life, but also how we lack appreciation for other cultures. I would also like to stress the importance of appreciation, and not appropriation or exploitation of cultures.

The lack of diversity within the syllabus of my English Literature course at Glasgow for the past few years is astounding. I understand the importance of the canon respectively, but I am completely and utterly exhausted with studying the same tedious texts repetitively. It is not as if there is no scope for improvement; the University has every opportunity to change or alter courses. Why not include texts from around the world in English, (which ironically is a course I am taking in Canada)? I remember the only diverse novel I studied at Glasgow was Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and this enabled me to see how every text was filtered according to the mentality of one individual (mainly white European, especially on my courses). This novel was originally a response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which portrays Africans in a dehumanised light. This was also the main reason as to why this novel was on the course; it felt as though a box was being ticked off a checklist. Achebe’s response was legendary if I do say so myself, and diverse novels like Achebe’s should be included for their value, not for tokenism.

The first time I read this novel was the first awakening of my passion for the appreciation and celebration of my own culture. There was something rare and beautiful within the novel that I could relate to. The misconceptions, misconstructions and stereotypes of cultures that are embedded in society are something I want to challenge. I also want to challenge universities. I believe that they comply to stereotypes, and I know that without people of passion like me, it would continue in this manner. How can we let this continue in our current day and age?

In order to progress with contemporary times we need to move on from “British tradition”. It is not insurmountable to change the structure of a course, nor should it be. I completely respect British texts and culture, but we need to be more inclusive of world literatures. By world literatures, I mean literature from diverse writers of locations such as Africa, Asia and the Middle East. World literatures are just as important, especially given recent world politics, but also due to the relationship it has with every community. Every community matters, and every community shares commonalities between each other.

English Literature is not a monolith. University is not a monolith. Culture is not a monolith. So what are universities doing to challenge this? The mountain should be taller for us, so that future women have something to look up to.

The reality is that we overlook these issues because we are conditioned to believe that they have already been resolved. This is an illusion. Civilisations are illusions, but these illusions are pervasive, dangerous and powerful. They contribute to globalisation’s brutality. Civilisations are hypocritical. This is how I feel about institutions like the University of Glasgow.

I want to outline the social problems, as well as political issues, associated with segregating women of colour, and assigning them to particular subjects. This is a recurring issue, even in our day and age. I want to encourage women of colour to do what they love. In short, I would like to reiterate a message that Mary Wollstonecraft conveys, that “women […] have acquired all the follies and vices of civilisation, and missed the useful fruit”, in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The moral here is that we are yet again falling into the same patterns of choosing comfort and convenience over bettering our values as students, and as women. I want to fight for the meaningful integration of women of colour into society. It is not too late for us to take advantage of the “useful fruit”. We cannot simply sit back and let norms be norms – how else would effective change come about? I know that the University will never change without criticism.

My situation has also enabled me to draw attention to and question why there is a lack of encouragement and confidence for women of colour to study in the Arts. Whether it be film, photography, journalism, art, or design. I seem to find myself in the same perpetuating state of dissatisfaction when I look around me and see a lack of diversity. It saddens me deeply when I think I am alone, when in fact I am not. However, there are no reminders that I am not alone, because I cannot see nor hear any women of colour; thus we can see that this has a direct influence upon students in my position. Even the lecturers are not people of colour. Throughout my time at Glasgow University, not once have I had a lecturer that is non-white. I am not encouraging tokenism, but I am encouraging diverse perspectives and individuals. For once it would be nice to be lectured on race by someone who is actually an expert in the field or who has experiences that can be shared with students. I would find this interesting and inspiring.

This would be something novel in our degree that would perhaps introduce new outlooks and would persuade others to challenge themselves and approach their studies from a different perspective. I can’t remember the last time a lecturer at Glasgow actually challenged me. I constantly hear the same cycle of thoughts and opinions from different lecturers, even in my film lectures. I thought that a joint degree would open up a myriad of divergent criticism and discussion, yet I am hearing the same old thing. This is not only disheartening, but a stunt on my personal and mental growth.

Why can’t we have a crossover of cultures? Who says you can’t be a hybrid of both Indian and European?

In order for the University to acknowledge our presence and to reform their values, we must acknowledge how much our voices matter. We do have the power to change our own path and the paths of others. However, the most vital part of our goal is for the University to be an active participant in this issue, otherwise our passions are untenable.

Another point I would like to raise is the fact that the University of Glasgow offers a lack of courses in faiths such as Islam, Sikhism or Hinduism within their Religious Studies and Theology department. “Asian Studies” only offers a small branch of Hinduism and Buddhism within its course, and I argue that Asian Studies is not inclusive enough of a whole continent, specifically with regard to religion. We would never study a course named “Western Studies”, as similarly, it would not be inclusive enough. We need to include more diverse and specific courses tailored to particular faiths.

As both a Sikh and as a person of Indian heritage, I would like to know more about my own culture. I would also like others to know more about my culture. There are so many Sikhs living in the UK that we actually make up a large part of the population. The Indian community is also rather large within the UK, and it is disappointing to see that we are not being represented as we deserve. It is also disappointing to see that people I know, who are fascinated by my culture, do not have the opportunity to learn more about the culture through the University, or in Glasgow generally.

I would like to leave you with a very powerful quote by Edward Said, “the power of culture over the culture of power”.