A Cambridge University student has accused the media of “a very targeted form of harassment” after she was “flooded” with racist and sexist abuse for criticising the lack of black and ethnic minority authors on the university’s English course.
Lola Olufemi, the women’s officer at Cambridge University Student Union, said media coverage of an open letter to the English department, signed by dozens of students, was designed to incite hatred.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Wom an’s Hour, Olufemi said that after the Daily Telegraph’s decision to put her photograph on its front page, “all of my work Facebook, my email were flooded with racist and sexist abuse. And that’s not by accident. That is a very purposeful thing that you’re doing.”
Olufemi said she was disappointed by the Telegraph’s coverage . “I think it is very telling that they chose to place a photograph of me, a student, a highly visible young, black woman student on the front of their newspaper, as if to incite this kind of abuse, and incite hatred, and make me into the figure that people could attack.”
Olufemi told the Guardian: “The [Telegraph ] article is riddled with factual inaccuracies and attempts to misconstrue what the task of decolonising is and delegitimise me as a co-autho r of the open letter by using out-of-context quotes in an attempt to turn me into a ‘controversial figure’.”
Olufemi said some students were “targeted by the press and so have their jobs made monumentally harder by having to deal with – on top of all of their work – racist and sexist abuse”.
The row followed the publication of an open letter to academics at the university asking them to “decolonise” the English literature syllabus by including more black and minority ethnic writers. English students signed the letter after concerns that the department’s reading list was dominated by white, male authors.
The letter said : “For too long, teaching English at Cambridge has encouraged a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others.”
It added that the department could not “claim to provide students with the ‘foundational knowledge of the canon’ whilst it refuses to decolonise the curriculum”.
Olufemi said she hoped the letter would precipitate a culture shift. “It’s less about this prescriptive idea of sticking black authors, or even women authors, on the end of a reading list and about a more holistic approach in the way we talk about literature,” she said.
“Decolonising is about critiquing the current curriculum in order to make it better . It is about expanding our notions of ‘good’ literature so it doesn’t always elevate one voice, one experience, one way of being in the world . It is a long and meaningful process that requires thought and serious commitment in order to initiate a culture shift.”
The row over the curriculum came a week after it emerged that one in three Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black British A-level student in 2015. The university was accused of “social apartheid” over its admissions policies by the former education minister David Lammy.