we should all be feminist killjoys like cambridge student leader lola olufemi
After an open-letter titled Decolonising the English Faculty was sensationalised in the press, co-author Lola spoke about being a ‘feminist killjoy’ and made us want to be one too.
Lola Olufemi via BBC Woman's Hour
"Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors." Last Wednesday, this headline screamed from the front page of the Telegraph, alongside a large image of Lola Olufemi, the black woman English graduate who is currently Cambridge Students' Union (SU) Women's Officer, and Head of the SU Women's Campaign. Under the image, the newspaper reiterated the headline's claim, writing that, "Cambridge will replace some white authors with black writers on English courses following demands led by Lola Olufemi."
Pretty sensational news, and, as you might imagine, not actually true. In fact, the paper issued a small correction the next day, clarifying that, "The proposals were in fact recommendations. Neither they nor the open letter called for the University to replace white authors with black ones and there are no plans to do so." The University of Cambridge also made an official statement in support of Lola, condemning the harassment she received -- which included racist and sexist abuse -- and noting clearly that "changes will not lead to any one author being dropped in favour of others" as "there is no set curriculum" -- tutors recommend their own reading lists, which can include any author.
The Decolonising the English Faculty open letter, co-authored by Lola and signed by more than 160 other Cambridge students and alumni, was the result of a student meeting "about the need for the faculty to decolonise its reading lists and incorporate postcolonial thought alongside its existing curriculum," as a note at the top of the letter explains. "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," the letter asserts, also noting how students interested in "race, race politics and any literature from outside the UK" struggle to find academic supervisors with relevant expertise, and feel that they are seen as a "nuisance".
After the Telegraph ran its incorrect story, Lola set the record straight in Cambridge's independent student newspaper Varsity (a platform she had previously written for on the topic of decolonising the curriculum), and letter co-author Rianna Croxford spoke to the Guardian. Then, Lola was invited to appear on the BBC's Woman's Hour radio show. She told presenter Jenni Murray of her shock at the way the open letter was reported in the press, and how the text and placement of her photo on the front page made the conversation about her, targeting her as "a highly visible, young, black woman student," rather than focusing on the issue -- one that many students and staff have been working to address.
Speaking about the changes the letter signatories want to see, Lola told Jenni that, "It's less about sticking black authors or women authors on the end of a reading list [and] more about a holistic approach to the ways in which we talk about literature." Explaining further, she adds: "It's about changing the way that we value the canon, it's about the authors that we elevate, and also reading authors in their postcolonial context. So, reading Shakespeare in a postcolonial context; talking about Hardy in the era of empire; talking about Dickens and the industrial revolution -- but also what was funding that."
"When we call out things like racism and sexism, we become 'problems' because we're identifying things that people don't want to talk about" -- Lola Olufemi
Jenni then asks Lola if she really self-identifies as a "feminist killjoy", as the Daily Mail had reported. "Yes!" she proudly responds, noting that the label is inspired by the work of feminist theorist Sara Ahmed. Lola explains that a feminist killjoy is a "person who [identifies] problems, and gives problems their names" -- therefore becoming a problem, or 'killjoy', themselves. "When we call [out] things like racism and sexism, we become 'problems' because we're identifying things that people don't want to talk about," she says. It may be difficult and uncomfortable, but it is important that we each speak up about the injustices that we see around us. To paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche: we should all be feminist killjoys!
The Telegraph, for its sins, quickly published a list of 10 BAME [black and minority ethnic] authors who should be on every reading list -- which includes James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Arundhati Roy, among others. But it isn't only university curricula that need decolonising; we can all work to ensure that the words, images, films and other media we consume aren't only representing one narrow perspective on the world -- often that of white men.
Speaking to i-D, co-author of the open letter (and Lola's fellow English Literature graduate) Rianna Croxford explains how we can decolonise our own reading: "Be critical of all that you read, be it fiction, non-fiction or in the press: question the motive, question the history and perspective, ask yourself which voice is [being] silenced or ignored here, and why?" she says, adding that, "You have to challenge your blind-spots and adjust the lens through which you receive information."
"Don't ever stop being a killjoy! Call out that ignorance, but do be prepared, mentally and emotionally, for the inevitable backlash you will receive" -- Rianna Croxford
Following the rough treatment of Lola Olufemi by sections of the press, we asked Rianna what advice she has for fellow feminist killjoys. "Don't ever stop being a killjoy! Call out that ignorance, but do be prepared, mentally and emotionally, for the inevitable backlash you will receive, particularly from certain media outlets," she warns, noting that there must be a wider discussion about the media's treatment of students, especially those from BAME backgrounds. "[In 2017] alone, the treatment of Lola Olufemi, Jason Osamede Okundaye and Esme Allman has shown that progressive students who speak out and challenge the status quo will not be protected, and will be targets for racial and gendered abuse," she says, rightly adding that, "This must stop."
For students wanting to find other progressive 'killjoys' to campaign with, Rianna notes that, "If you're at an elite institution, most likely there are so few minority students that you will already know each other and so it will be pretty easy to gather together." Beyond that, her advice is to join the feminist society at your university, "And please, please talk about intersectionality until it sinks in!" adding that you can also join online forums like Race Matters ("A Facebook gem") or other groups, "to learn more, discuss and debate ideas".
Joining progressive groups or societies both online and in real life will certainly give you a more expansive perspective on these issues and debates, but you can also simply consider what media you consume in general. If, like many people, when you consciously think about the books, news stories and opinion pieces that you've read (at university, for work and for pleasure) -- and films and other media you've seen -- and discover that white people and men are overrepresented (which they likely will be), make a point of reading words and watching films by people of colour, women and LGBTQ+ voices -- and buy them as gifts for others!
Go further: make your social media follow lists more diverse, and, when you read or watch something by a white man, try to find media on the same subject by a person of colour too, and women of colour and non-binary people in particular. Note the differences of opinion and tone, especially if the issue at hand affects the person whose voice is marginalised more than it does the person whose voice you hear all the time. Be vocal and tell everyone what you discover, and wear your feminist killjoy badge with pride!