Decolonisation and Disappointments with UncoverED

The University of Edinburgh is really proud of its status as a “global university”, and UncoverED is about unpicking what that means. During the slave trade, Edinburgh was an economic center for the Empire and many Scots made fortunes in the plantations of the Caribbean, as every other surname is Scottish. The Medical School, in particular, was the largest of its time due to demand for maintaining slaves’ health, and this later led to an explosion of knowledge production around phrenology and scientific racism. Today, the University is extremely proud of this past and its contributions to the Enlightenment – the David Hume Tower is named after the philosopher who infamously believed in the inherent inferiority of black people. 

UncoverED was formed in 2018 by two Ph.D. candidates at the Centre for Africa Studies, who secured funding from Edinburgh Global to expand their work and hire students to research into the global and imperial history of the University of Edinburgh. Our research has traced and highlighted the presence of students from Africa, Asia and the West Indies dating back to the 1800s at the university. By telling their stories we have sought to draw attention to the university’s lack of interest in celebrating the achievements of black and brown alumni and questioning why that is. The Notable Alumni webpage did not include a single student of colour until this project was beginning to publish its findings on Twitter, and the Alumni Archive did not have records of any of the students we found. We also weren’t always able to find dissertations, books or articles through the library resource DiscoverEd. It almost feels like the University has been going to lengths to obscure their stories. This was just one of the many trends we saw which still affects black and brown students today. 

It is important for us to extend the criticism of the university onto UncoverED itself. Being funded by the university comes with restrictions on what is allowed to be said, for fear of upsetting our supposed ‘superiors’. As many of the students of colour within the group are involved with activism in the university and wider context, we are definitely not afraid to call out the racism that the university displays now and in the past. UncoverED claims to be decolonial in its methods, yet fails to enact any real institutional change. If we are to actually be decolonial, we must aim higher and be actively anticolonial in our approach. This begins with a shift in the management of the group to the prioritisation of PoC voices. This year we will be focusing on research regarding the universities’ complicity in global scientific racism within the College of Science and Engineering. We will also be pushing for less academic engagement and a focus on public participation, such as workshops and widening access to our resources within and outside of the university. 

Natasha has been appointed as the new Project Coordinator which means she will be implementing a much more direct action approach so that the university can work to become a safer space for its students and staff of colour. UncoverED also have upcoming collaborations with the BME committee and Africa in Motion Film Festival.

Image: UncoverEd

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