Decolonial and Anti-Racist Student Activism

Every Thursday for the next four weeks, we will be publishing a series of chain letters sent between academics and graduates who worked together on a research project about anti-racist student activism within the academy. This research was funded by The Sociological Review Foundation and the BA/Leverhulme Small Grants Scheme.


Introduction letter from Ala Sirriyeh, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Lancaster University:

There has been a resurgence in student anti-racist activism in recent years in response to colonial and racist structures and practices in Higher Education (Arday and Mirza, 2018; Bhambra et al, 2018; Bouattia 2015). In 2015, students in the UK followed South African students in launching and leading campaigns such as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ as part of a movement to ‘decolonise’ universities.  Since then students have continued to organise around anti-racist (and specifically ‘decolonial’) platforms. In March 2019, we (Ala Sirriyeh, Hannah Jones, Meleisa Ono-George and Remi Joseph-Salisbury) organised a Sociological Review Foundation Seminar titled ‘Anti-racist and ‘decolonial’ activism in the academy and beyond’. At this event we examined successes, challenges and legacies of recent ‘decolonial’ and anti-racist activism; how staff and student activists engaged with this work; and the future of this agenda. considered how such efforts are situated in the context of historical and global anti-racist and ‘decolonial’ activism. As we held our discussions ,student antiracist activism was once again in the spotlight as Goldsmith’s Anti-Racist Action (GARA) were in occupation at Deptford Town Hall (for a total 0f 137 days) protesting institutional racism at the College and demanding that changes be enacted. A few weeks after our seminar, and building on these discussions, we (Ala, Hannah and Meleisa) began fieldwork for a BA/Leverhulme-funded research study exploring the pathways and experiences of students of colour engaging in anti-racist activism in the academy and the impact this had on their sense of belonging. Twelve students took part in a two-day workshop followed by interviews. Participants included undergraduate and postgraduate students of different ages and ethnicities and attending a range of universities across England. Some had been involved in anti-racist organising for a long time while others were new to thinking of themselves as ‘activists’.

As the study drew to a close amidst the global pandemic, a national lockdown and the global Black Lives Matter protests, we used the medium of a ‘chain letter’ to come back into conversation with one another and draw together our thoughts and questions on themes explored during this study and in these times. In the letters we reflect on the impacts that engaging in anti-racism activism in the academy has had on our lives, the challenges we have encountered doing activist work, and our hopes for the future of student anti-racist activism.  

Ala’s research centres on migration, race, young people and activism. She is the Principle Investigator on the BA/Leverhulme Small Grants ‘’Decolonialism’ and anti-racist student activism’.

Twitter: @AlaSirriyeh 


‘Radical love and finding space in the university’, a letter from Meleisa Ono-George, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Warwick:

We are within a particular moment in anti-racist activism here in the UK. And still, the experiences many students involved in this project have shared were so familiar to me and resonated so much with my own experiences despite the difference in geography and the passing of time.

My involvement in anti-racist activism coincided with my entrance into university in Canada. My first few weeks at the University of **** in the autumn of 1999 were terrifying, disorientating and disappointing. University was always going to be my escape, my way out of the white dominant working class suburb where I grew up. I was so excited to go to and had all kinds of ideas and dreams of what it would be like. And then I arrived, and I deflated. Surrounded by peers who seemed to know more than I did, who had more than I had, I felt small and out of place. I felt like a trespasser, a fraud about to be caught out. Me, in my Black, fat and queer body did not belong. But then, one rainy October afternoon, I walked into the *****Building on ****** Avenue, at the centre of campus, and into the University’s student-run Women’s Centre.

The first person I encountered was someone who looked like me. Someone Black like me and queer like me. And it felt like a home coming. It was the first time in three weeks I had spoken to anyone besides my tutors and our conversation was everything I needed. We talked about the university and life in the city, about music, art and ways to create change. I’m not even certain now why I walked into the building that afternoon in the first place, but that single act changed the trajectory of my life and now even twenty years later still resonates with me.

The Women’s Centre was run by two collectives, a general collective and a separate collective of women of colour. The ***** Building, which stood on the outside of the university campus, also housed the ***** Public Research Interest Group (*PIRG), also run by queer and trans folks of colour, and First Nations House. And it was there, amongst those radical Black, Brown and Indigenous women, two-spirited, queer and trans folks that I learned to be at ease with the core of myself. It is not that we all got on or agreed all the time. In organizing there were many arguments and disagreements on what, and who and how. But I think our alienation from the institution, shared commitment to change, and generosity towards one another created deep and invested connections. Within the intimacy of that student movement, I found courage to speak and validation in the value of my own life and struggle. I found the meaning and source of a radical kind of love, for myself and those around me, that continues to sustain and nurture me beyond the university.

Meleisa Ono-George is historian of race, gender and sexuality, with a focus on Black women’s histories in Britain and the Anglo-Caribbean. Her current research focuses on the mechanics of Black women’s history in Britian, working with the archival fragments and the omissions, and the politics involved in historical production. She is interested in community-engaged historical research that is not only ethical and reparative, but anti-racist and liberatory.  

Twitter: @meleisaono


‘Weaving Healing between and through Decolonial Activism’, a letter from Tasnim Al-ahdal:  

The currency of epistemic violence inherent in Universities today never did just appear out of thin air. It has a long and well documented insidious history. Universities are historically racist institutions; and were infrastructures of empire constituted via colonialism, imperialism, enslavement and dispossession

(Bhambra et al 2018 cited in Jackson, 2020).

I had all kinds of ideas of what it would be like leaving home to pursue my dreams at University. But I wasn’t expecting to feel as out of place as I did. This splitting was felt so deeply and it was mirrored though the shared experiences and souls of the BIPOC I met as a postgraduate. Whilst I will never underestimate what my academic experiences have afforded me in terms of understanding love as way of resisting injustice and gateway to cultivating radical lifelong material and spiritual connections underpinned by antiracist/decolonial activism, philosophies and ways of being. These connections afforded havens in the belly of a ‘prestigious’ beast. We knew too well how out of place our bodies, knowledges and being(s) were, precisely because we were simultaneously navigating the peak of Coloniality’s logic, with eyes and hearts wide open invested in healing form colonial wounds. These wounds have been infringed inflicted on us via the intersection of patriarchy and racism – which are constitutive pillars of Western/Eurocentric (colonial) world; and its ways of knowing, producing knowledge, sensing and believing.

Given the exclusionary power of Whiteness, Coloniality and Eurocentricity; and in response to the systemic erasure and invisibility of black bodies and knowledge production in HE myself and a small group of postgraduates formed a Decolonial collective and went on to host three conference between 2016-2018. Allying our decolonial positionality with movements such as “Why is my curriculum White?” and “Why isn’t my professor Black?”, we propelled the urgency to engage in conversations about anti-racist/decolonial politics of knowledge production. We challenged the insidious materialisation of epistemic violence via traditional ways of establishing academic discourses, knowledge production and practices in academia. Our efforts pertinently revealed that engaging in decolonial activism necessitates Healing as a form of resistance.

Healing from colonial wounds, is not a White/Eurocentric agenda, as the idea of healing is taken from BIPOC ways of being, thinking and doing that delink from Western/Eurocentric logic and legacies underpinned by Coloniality. Therefore, it is integral that the process of delinking and Decoloniality is approached as way(s) to “think and become by embodying categories of thoughts that are grounded in non-western experiences” (Gaztambide – Fernàndez, 2014, p. 206). It is thus imperative to understand Decolonisation beyond a singular definition and as a process with no demarcated end. Decolonisation and Decoloniality is not a metaphor and is about the reparation of indigenous life and land; and not just about how society can be improved through merely decolonisng Universities via diversified reading lists, tokenistic staff hiring and student recruitment practices and initiatives that center BIPOC (Jackson, 2020).

In terms of anti-racist/decolonial activism at this present moment, with a clear projection into the future, Universities must take concise and reflexive steps towards delinking from Coloniality, with a conscious effort on justice and healing from the colonial wounds and legacies they were built on. They need to move beyond the self-promoting performativity of attainment, diversity, progressiveness and inclusivity; and focus on decolonising their infrastructure as institutions – literally and pedagogically, whilst denouncing the colonial figures they commemorate (Jackson, 2020). They also need to reflect on their charter memberships transparently and critically. With 164 Universities in the UK holding Athena Swan Memberships, a charter that addresses gender inequality – why do only 55 Universities hold the Race Equality Charter? This difference is indicative of Higher Education institutional priorities and commitments, which favor centering gender inequality, whilst negating issues pertaining to racial inequalities and Coloniality (Jackson, 2020).

It is also imperative that universities swiftly respond towards changing the deeply alarming statistics which indicate out of 21,000 academics, only 140 identify as Black (Adams, 2020); and commit towards eliminating institutional biases that permit 12,000 white male professors to take up the space(s) they do, in contrast with only 35 Black British Female Professors (UCU, 2020). Finally, Universities could take a radical approach via redistributing their funds to initiatives like The Free Black University by making annual donations. The Free Black University, founded by Melz Owusu sees this as a way in which institutions can go beyond their statements of support for Black Lives Matter; and fulfil their promise to black students. This would serve as payback for their part in progressing “racism, [and] benefiting from donations by slave owners” (Swain, 2020). As there is no finite end to the imperative of decolonisation, the aforementioned imperatives would be powerful given that Healing from colonial wounds involves a process of delinking invested in regaining dignity; and foregrounding a sense of humanity and justice for those that have systemically been made invisible and inferior via manifestations of Coloniality in our present world(s).

Adams, R. E. (2020). Fewer than 1% of UK university professors are black, figures show. The Guardian. [online] 27 Feb. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/feb/27/fewer-than-1-of-uk-university-professors-are-black-figures-show [Accessed 7 Jul. 2020].

Gaztambide-Fernández, R. (2014). Decolonial options and artistic/aestheSic entanglements: An interview with Walter Mignolo. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(1).

Jackson, M.I. (2020). What are the demands of ‘decolonising’ UK universities? [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/@monishaissano/what-are-the-demands-of-decolonising-uk-universities-291a986c27a4 [Accessed 7 Jul. 2020].

Swain, H. (2020). Payback time: academic’s plan to launch Free Black University in UK. The Guardian. [online] 27 Jun. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/27/payback-time-academics-plan-to-launch-free-black-university-in-uk [Accessed 7 Jul. 2020].

UCU. 2020. Phenomenal Women: Portraits of UK Black Female Professors. [Online]. Available from: https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/10681/Phenomenal-Women-Portraits-of-UK-Black-Female-Professors [Accessed 7 June 2020]

Tasnim Al-ahdal successfully graduated from The University of Leeds with a Distinction in MA Racism and Ethnicity Studies in 2018 and hold a First-Class Honors BA in Media, Culture and Society from Manchester Metropolitan University. My postgraduate experiences involved me engaging in various forms of anti-racist/decolonial activism with the Critical Race and Ethnicities Network (CREN) and working as one of the founding members of the Decolonising Minds@Leeds collective, which successfully curated the Challenging Academic Debates (CAD) series of national/international conferences and events at the University of Leeds. These activities engaged professors, early career researchers, students, staff members, practitioners, and activists from more than ten different HEIs and non-governmental organisations. I have also served as a Guest Editor for the publication of a special edition in the Graduate Journal of Social Sciences. I currently work in HE and intend to undertake a PhD in the near future exploring Decolonial Activism and Aesthetics in relation to the poetics of Healing. 

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