8 Reasons the Curriculum is White

by the 'Why is my Curriculum White?' collective, UCL

23 March 2015

Although often treated as something biological, fixed or even benevolent, ‘race’ is an ideologically constructed social phenomenon. Therefore, when we talk about whiteness, we are not talking about white people, but about an ideology that empowers people racialised as white. Whiteness is an ideology which says that people racialised as white are morally and intellectually superior to people categorised and racialised in other ways. It underpinned the development of European science, modernity, and Enlightenment thinking. One of the ways in which whiteness reproduces itself, is by positioning Europe (and its settler colonies) as the moral and intellectual leaders of the world.

Whiteness is powerful because it’s unmarked and normalised. In the same way people racialised as white are considered the default human being, to which people associated with all other racialised categories are compared, much of what we consider to be the production of knowledge is, in fact, the reproduction of an ideology: whiteness.

Ever thought about who is included in Thomas Hobbes’s social contract, what’s so ‘new’ about the New World, or who decided where the Global South is located? Whiteness renders many of these questions, at best awkward and petty and, at worst, not questions at all.

Here are just eight answers to the question: why is the curriculum white?

1. To many, whiteness is invisible.

Whiteness is the dominant framing position, hiding itself behind concepts of universality, rationality or common-sense. Therefore while people racialised as other-than-white are seen primarily as members of racialised collectives, persons racialised as white are posited as non-racial universal individuals: the ‘Greenwich Mean Time of identity’. Whiteness reproduces itself by appearing natural and unquestionable. To dismantle the white curriculum, the unmarked nature of whiteness must be exposed.​

2. A curriculum racialised as white was fundamental to the development of capitalism.

Capitalist expansion, as it emerged from Europe and engulfed much of the globe, was not simply an economic endeavour – it was an ideological project. By positioning the economic models which emerged from Europe at this time as the most morally and intellectually superior, capitalism defined progress, rationality and development in ways non-European economic systems could not.

It is the white curriculum which trains the bureaucrats of the Global South that the economic models they learn in Europe and its settler colonies are superior to the knowledges indigenous to their own societies. This facilitates the exploitation of labour and resources in their own countries, channelling the materials that western markets rely on for consumption. Both pre-colonial economic systems and anti-colonial critiques of capitalism (some, but not all, influenced by European criticisms of capitalism) are essential if a truly international movement against the power of global capital is to emerge.

3. Because its power is intersectional.

The white curriculum (re)produces hierarchies of knowledge, but never in isolation from other structures of power. Whiteness is intrinsically linked to, and therefore reproduces, power and thought which is racialised as white, psychologically/physically fit, wealth-rich and heteropatriarchally/cisgenderly male.

While we often think of intersectionality as something associated with the oppressed, it is vital that we also understand power as being intersectional. The Enlightenment model on which the white curriculum is based culminated in the foundation, in Britain in 1883, of a highly influential school of thought which crossed all disciplinary boundaries: eugenics. This brought social hierarchies out of a religious world-view and into the modern, ‘rational’ world. These hierarchies identified the knowledge and moral standpoint of wealthy white, cisgendered, able-bodied men as occupying objective superiority. Dismantling the white curriculum thus requires the dismantling of the multiple spheres of power that reproduce dominant systems of thought.

4. The white curriculum thinks for us; so we don’t have to.

The curriculum is white because it reflects the underlying logic of colonialism, which believes the colonised do not own anything – not even their own experiences. The role of the colonised in knowledge production mirrored their role in economic production, where their resources were to provide raw materials that could then be consumed in the west.

Similarly, colonial societies were to serve as raw data that could be theorised, articulated, and properly understood only by Europeans, in western European languages – principally English. This is why, even if you are studying development studies or the prison industrial complex today, the curriculum will remain largely white, for only people racialised as white are able fully to explain Black suffering. Implicit in the white curriculum is irrefutable evidence of white superiority as a matter of truth and objectivity, while crafting a world-view that judges anything that it could define as ‘non-white’ or ‘other’ as inferior.

5. The physical environment of the academy is built on white domination.

Not only is the curriculum white, but our learning environment is built upon whiteness. Every space of learning in Britain is constructed with the resources and labour of the peoples of the Global South and in a manner that puts peoples of the Global South as subordinate—and some spaces of learning (such as Oxford’s Codrington Library or University of Cape Town’s Upper Campus, with its Colossus of Rhodes) wear this history of exploitation on their sleeve.

The coltan in the electronic products, the timber in the tables, the concrete in the buildings themselves are extracted through the modern imperial relationship, built on the colonialism which preceded it. We will continue to reproduce whiteness until our relationship with the Global South is no longer simply based upon consumption of its material resources – by fighting to ensure our spaces of learning contain accessible literature, sources, and learning materials that do not reflect and reproduce dominant Eurocentric ideologies and concepts. Rather, we must transform these spaces into sites which intellectually challenge the neo-colonial exploitation of labour and resources through both critiques of whiteness and Eurocentrism, as well as alternatives to them.

6. The white curriculum need not only include white people.

The cultural and economic capital reproduced by whiteness means reading lists and citations inevitably involve inclusions and exclusions. Even where the curriculum includes the intellectual work of people racialised as other-than-white, it can be operating as a white curriculum. Consider how writers racialised as other-than-white are often presented as offering a response to ‘mainstream’ (i.e. white) thought, rather than as thinkers who themselves, given the quality of their ideas, demand response.

The white curriculum whilst trading as ‘the best that has been thought and said‘ can operate as a ‘cognitive shelter’ where the infrequent encounters with ‘dangerous others’ carry a safety warning (e.g. “Now this is quite controversial…”). The curriculum guides us in how to view marginalised perspectives – exactly as they are presented: marginal.

7. The white curriculum is based on a (very) popular myth.

Black supplementary school teachers in Britain, Haitian Revolutionaries and the political philosophy of the Black Panthers or Claudia Jones are forms of knowledge production which emerged from community and grassroots academics.

Yet the white curriculum reinforces the fallacy that Europe’s current pre-eminence is the result of ‘enlightenment’ and not ‘expropriation’. The manichean world of colonialism determined that while ‘the natives’ may be able to run, fight and dance, what they could never do is think. That was the sole preserve of, at worst, the European mind, and at best, anyone else who could adequately mimic it.

8. Because if it isn’t white, it isn’t right (apparently).

Lastly and most simply, the curriculum is white because the only way we can succeed is by reproducing whiteness – centring the ‘right’ (i.e. white) voices and ideas to the exclusion of others.

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Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.