The Colour of Learning?

This blog post is a response / talking point in relation to the upcoming Canterbury Christ Church University Black History Month, 2017 event, ‘The Colour of Learning’. The title is aimed at rendering visible what is usually made invisible, and therefore unspoken and normal. The statement below represents a particular normalised gaze, the problematisation, and pathologisation of black students in a white, Western education system. It is sometimes spoken out loud,  often performed as sub-text, usually falling just beneath charges of explicit racism. The statement symbolises a very old epistemic and discursive destruction, a violence, but is still part of the enduring power of colonial thinking, here with us in the fabric of our political, social and cultural systems.

I have  written this as a talking point, and a personal position statement to support the Staff BME network as we work together to contest these normalisations and the insidious prejudices and discrimination they perpetuate.

This piece does not represent the University, or the Staff Network. It is a personal blog. Its contents might be used – on condition of referencing its source- for educational and knowledge dissemination purposes. In a way, it’s a safe space. In the same way that most of society, for most of modernity, and everything in it, is and has been, a ‘safe space’ for some people.



“Black students do not have a culture of learning.”

…In the same way that ‘Asians’ have some sort of innate ability to generate capital profit, and succeed in business endeavours…

…in the same way that ‘blacks’ have a ‘natural’ sense of rhythm and an ability to dance…

…in the same way that ‘Jewish’ people have a disproportionate interest in money…

…in the same way that ‘Scottish’ people are somehow mean with their money…

…in the same way that Asian communities look after their own elderly (thereby ‘solving’ the problem of state-funded welfare systems and ameliorating any need for policy interventions)…

…in the same way that ‘Indian’ characters in David Walliams’ million copy selling children’s book and TV series are confined to…newsagents…

…in the same way that Cartwright in 1851 postulated the existence of Drapetomania, the supposed ‘mental illness’ which ‘caused’ black slaves to flee their bondage…

…in the same way that even now, in 2017, people are legitimated in their vocalisation of ‘don’t get me wrong, I’m not racist, but…’

…in the same way that over the last 10 years, constant government and supporting media discourse has fuelled the xenophobic racist attitudes towards migrants, refugee and asylum seekers, economic migrants, and anyone else who appears ‘different’…

…in the same way that Hegel’s notion of the enlightenment necessitated and justified slavery, because “The negro is an example of animal man in all his savagery and lawlessness…” (Hegel, 1822-1828 cited in Eze, 1997, p.127).

…in the same way that Trump’s entire presidency is based on white supremacy and blatant racism, since he openly stated “I wouldn’t want any blacks counting my money”…(Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2017)…

…in the same way that John McWhorter somehow mysteriously ignores the accumulated, integrated and generational systematic racial and class oppression experienced by millions of people, when he states that black students are ‘infected’ by an anti-intellectual strain

And so I come to the quote which spurred me to write. “Black students do not have a culture of learning.” We could start with the obvious questions, “Black? Culture? Learning? Let’s look at this a little”.

Does ‘culture of learning’ here refer to the kinds of ethical and intellectual destruction meted out by Christianity’s proselytising forces throughout the entire Iberian peninsula in the 15and 16th century? Where ‘cultures of learning’ meant the burning down of the most advanced, fulsome, rich and voluminous libraries in the world at Cordoba because they were built and populated by Islamic reign? Or the cultures of learning that build nuclear technology, arms and chemical warfare used on defenceless populations, in the name of modernity, liberalism and pragmatic democratisation? Or perhaps the cultures of learning that mediated the great Valladolid debates, the central question of which was, do these populations have a soul and are they human?  If so, I’m not sure these cultures of learning that the quote refers to are anything to aspire to.

But there is another level of discursive construction happening here. In operation here is a paradigm of, for want of better phraseology, raciological mischief’, for it seeks to utilise that age old, dramatic irony so beloved of Shakespeare and those who wrote after, before, and away from him. This is the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ racial stereotyping so popular in 1970s British comedies, extolling the comedic virtues of duos such as The Two Ronnies,  TV sitcoms such as ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘Mind Your Language’ or perhaps even the comedy of those such as Jim Davidson, whose most famous character, an African Caribbean man, he called, ‘hilariously’, ‘Chalkie’. My how we laughed. And oh how easy it was to overhear conversations about how ‘pakis smell’, ‘Sikhs look strange’, ‘Africans are like a different race’, and ‘black kids just can’t learn’. And oh how the eyes of the originators of these purportedly innocent, ‘neutral’, fact-like observations twinkled with a knowing humour, harmless apparently, and even well intentioned in educators cases, since now that the impossibility of mental improvement amongst black kids had been experienced, something could be done about them, and their ways. That was then, or so we’d like to think.


Those of us who, as Sivanandan wrote, “wear our passports on our faces”, can sense the mischief just as we can see and hear it. There is a long standing utilisation of highly problematic, and racialised as well as gendered and classed productive forces in the interactions of those who are charged with educational responsibilities. It is for good reason we have the Unconscious Bias agenda highlighted in so many of the UKs university strategies for creating equality and diversity filled environments. As is often the case, the good intention out-moralises the resultant perversion of outcome. Unfortunately, neo-liberal, corporate and bureaucratic machineries have assimilated this into their modus operandi, and it may often function as yet another exercise in self-reflective, self-congratulatory, administrative hokum that reveals little but the vacuity of these ideas when stripped of any experiential depth. The ‘raciological mischief’ I refer to above underlines the quote very importantly, because in the same way that many homo-phobic conversations rely on an unspoken, hyper-masculine, hetero-normative expression, whilst protesting moral innocence and virtue (“I’ve got nothing against any of them, but not in front of my kids”), so the variations on a theme continue when applied to black students across the educational board (“Come on, you know what I’m talking about, right?”).


There is a quiet, unspoken vocabulary of understanding ‘difference’, and the various intellectual inferiorities and deficits ‘proven’ by the racial thinking systems of the West. This reflects the great Order of Nature (Von Linne, 1735), and the way in which Enlightenment and modernity constructed, through its philosophical narrow-ness, the only possible nature of being – linear progression of civilizational development, including intellectual, physical and spiritual. Guess who was barely at the bottom of this civilizational ladder? And let’s take a guess who was at the top, with nowhere to go but to maintain a position of absolute power? The quote reflects this thinking; I imagine this to be an example of what Gilroy called ‘raciological thinking’. It invokes inviolable orders, which ironically although speak to us ostensibly about ‘culture’, or ‘black culture’, indicating that which we experience in culture as dynamic, hybrid, and moveable – actually serves the purpose of mischief. It’s interesting how the word ‘culture’ is used flexibly by knowledge makers to serve particular discursive, ideological functions. The mischief occurs between sets of prejudice activating groups who believe that these ‘cultures’ are actually, immoveable. They are still at the bottom of the civilizational ladder. (I have written elsewhere about the racial politics of constructing, and therefore reifying ‘other’ cultures using discursive systems).


The quote magically ignores the vast scholarly evidence base of the inextricable relationship between race, ethnicity, class and privilege – a cursory glance at critical race and education scholarship throws up countless studies and publications. Even a  superficial knowledge of the 1977 publication of Paul Willis’s ground-breaking ethnography of working class cultures and education shows the way in which material location and cultural reproductive forces play roles in how agents, actors generate meaning around them, in specific ways. It is these ways and behavioural mechanisms that popular consciousness and media outlets so adore reducing to essentialist, pseudo-factual components (‘chav’, ‘black gang’, ‘benefit sponger’, immigrant ‘waves’ etc).  And so the quote involves spotlighting so-called ‘black culture’ (ill-defined and riddled with racial and socio-political baggage), whilst rendering ‘white class cultures’ invisible (why not ask the same questions about ‘white culture’? Instead, white ‘working class’ cultures are seen to be somewhat a priority (left behind, as if the majority of materially oppressed people had somehow managed to hitch a ride on the great austerity gravy train) where the intersection of white identity and class are intimately sociologically linked. The relationship between Race and Class especially with reference to black experiences (there has been a journal dedicated to this since 1959) has been at the forefront of fighting racial oppression since Toussaint Louverture led the anti-slavery revolution in Haiti in 1791, CLR James’ work on the Black Jacobins, and Cedric Robinson explaining the corrosive multi-layered degradation of ‘Racial Capitalism’. And yet still, the emphasis on ‘black cultures’.


There are countless scholars and activists, campaigners and educators who will have, and continue to combat these racialised symbolic and practical manifestations of what Mignolo calls, Colonial Modernity. I simply want to point out the sheer weight of this statement. What does it actually mean to make the statement, ‘they don’t have a culture of learning” ? Lewis Gordon, a philosopher, incisively writes about Epistemic Racism. Racialised others, blacks, simply receive the world through their physical connection to the world; it is only the power of the civilised white mind that can make sense of these experiences. Therefore, the location of philosophy, intellect, sense-making can only be at the site of the advanced civilizational order – the Westernised, white intellectual. And so we have an interesting juxtaposition: the limited black student – with a limited ‘culture’, values, morals, beliefs, abilities, intellectual and social repertoire, versus the Enlightenment’s Universal centre of all progress – the unlimited White, modernity driven intellect. That is the resultant dark order crystallised by this quote, and is far more insidious and dangerous than my use of the word ‘mischief’ implies. I use this particular word because there is a quality of normalised prejudice about it that appears undeniable. When people in positions of power and privilege, in the 21st century in Western Universities, can make proclamations about inherent abilities or dispositions of groups of people wholly defined by a categorical nomenclature system defined in the 16th century, then there is a mischief amongst them. But social, economic, and psychological disadvantage lie on the other side of this mischief and are felt, dramatically, generation after generation by those who are all too familiar with this system.


In summary, the statement symbolises the inner world of the speaker, not the cultural or emotional world of the subject.



Women, Men and the prevention of terror…

Harshad Keval

Visitors to the county of Cornwall may be under a potential risk of Pasty-isation. A report published recently warns that male visitors to the popular holiday destination may fall under the influence of radical Cornish Pasty enthusiasts. As Cornish inhabitants of the county celebrated a national acknowledgment of their newly ratified ‘minority’ status, there is a parallel underside to the celebratory mood. Reports indicate an extensive influence on normal, everyday young men, who apparently undergo a series of psychological, physical, and emotional transformations, making them unable to respond to logical and rational debate. Reports warn that one way of preventing the pasty-isation of male visitors to Cornwall, is through appealing to a specialist sub group – ‘women’. This highly specific, sub category have been defined in the report as holding the key to any further damage that may result to communities of ‘male visitors to Cornwall who eat Pasties’. These appeals to ‘women’ have been made in the national press, local pasty shops, and community organisations where communities of ‘men’ can be persuaded by the all-encompassing gendered power of ‘women’. The report also states that the primitive and basic form of civilisation and culture which these easily influenced, male, pasty eaters, visiting Cornwall come from, require the most basic and simplistic form of gender division to be enacted in order for some form of normality to resume. It has been argued that the specialist skills that ‘women’ have may be the way forward in convincing ‘men’ that Cornish Pasty led social unrest is not the way forward, a direct contrast to previous reports of ‘women’ in the pasty-influenced communities being unable to activate forms of empowerment due to oppressive, pasty-led ideologies. The debate continues.
A related news story…

The English Defence League: The Politics of Reasonable Prejudice

By Harshad Keval



The position of far right movements within the British socio-political landscape has traditionally been characterised by a combination of economic, social, and political cause and effect relationships. The birth and development of the English Defence League (EDL) is interesting in the way in which it provides both continuity and change when rhetorical mechanisms and strategies are focused on. This article aims to contextualise the EDL’s strategic ‘cultural difference’ alignment as it utilises a variety of narratives and performative strategies…read more on this working paper at my page

“Good migrant, Bad Migrant – Racing and classing the landscape of difference”

By Harshad Keval


As Britain braced itself for a festive celebration of multicultural diversity in all its lived socialities, David and Samantha Cameron paid a visit to a Hindu Temple in Neasden, one of the largest Hindu Temples outside India (architecturally stunning), and is used by a great many people both in local areas as well as from outside London. In a speech to thousands of worshippers, the Prime Minister said that the values of the UK’s Indian community should be “ever  more involved” in shaping British life. The Telegraph (4th November) of course ran with this:


“Samantha Cameron made an effort to blend in with local Hindus at Neasden Temple this afternoon.”

  images (2)

Does this mean that when I wear ‘Western’ clothes I have blended in to my host society? Hmm. Samantha certainly looks blended in.  There were a number of themes to the Dave and Sam visit, one of them being the Sari the wife of the prime minister ‘borrowed’ (why didn’t she just buy one? I always find that of a morning, when I’m getting ready to go to work and blend in, borrowing ‘appropriate’ clothes is really inconvenient. Buying them is far easier.) The second theme of course relates to what David Cameron is doing clasping his hands together in a temple at Diwali. In Britain. In 2013. Shortly after Theresa May dragged through parliament the 2013 Immigration Bill, and a few months after the sheer, blatantly racist ‘Go Home’ campaign (or should that be ‘war’) waged against what evidence from rapid assessment and research now shows, were, ‘visible’ minorities, who were, are, on visual sighting alone, impossible to judge in terms of their nationality or migration status.

One might argue there is an air of over-cynicism in this critique. One might, but not if one had even the smallest sense of justice, equality, liberty and fairness as an underwriting human consciousness guiding our thoughts, actions and awareness of ourselves in this strange, dangerous, circular repetitive story of the ‘other’.

Cameron, in the news media stated,


“This ideology crosses continents – we are all in this together.”

By this, we must presume he means the ideology of multicultural consciousness, the deeper “philosophy of multiculturalism” (Modood 2009), the lived multiculturality that cannot be wished away (Parekh 2000), and the multitude of naturally forming intersections of cultural interaction which occur in society when facilitated by Taylor’s notions “equal dignity and equal respect” (1994).  We must presume this is what he means (he’s an enlightened chap is Dave) otherwise there would be a deep sense of cognitive and social dissonance. Why? Because of his statements in 2011:


“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values…Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism.”


So, Cameron’s visit to a Hindu temple was a way of sharing his sense of deep commitment to…what precisely? Which values is he referring to? Whose values is he encouraging for a nation-wide rollout? The ‘obituary’ of ‘multiculturalism’ was forcefully announced by political leaders such as David Cameron (BBC News Online 2011) and Angela Merkel (BBC News Online 2010), during a period of rapid, insidious and overt racialization of both specific, securitised communities (Fekete 2004) such as Muslim communities, and general so-called ethnic minority / migrant minority populations. The racialization of the immigration debate is of course not new, or particularly innovative as a technique of reinforcing migrant moral panics, but is, unfortunately effective (the Home Office, UK Border Agency, and British Transport police tag team is an example).


So on the one hand, David Cameron arrives at a temple to well wish worshippers and share the diversity dream; on the other hand, one could argue a particularly sleight of hand, he remains firmly embedded in the ‘multiculturalism’ has failed camp, and wants us all to espouse ‘muscular, British liberal values’. At the same time, the home office, HIS home office is waging a war of terror on people in this country who look different to David, Sam and Theresa. As Sivanandan (2008: xv) has eloquently argued, the racialization of minorities (or what Gus John has provocatively and appropriately called the Global Majority!) is manifestly so:


 “…immigration legislation has selected out asylum seekers for indefinite detention without trial, and summary deportation…Now anti-terrorist legislation is extending the same treatment to those who have already obtained the right to remain – and even to settled Asian communities…the war on asylum and the war on terror has produced…a racism that cannot tell a settler from an immigrant, an immigrant from an asylum seeker, an asylum seeker from a Muslim, a Muslim from a terrorist. All of us non-whites, at first sight, are terrorists or illegals. We wear our passports on our faces”.


Trevor Philips’s (2005)  infamous, oft cited and expediently employed observation of black, minority and white community interactions in the UK under so-called ‘multiculturalism’ (though there has never been a general, specific, dedicated set of policies on multiculturalism) : “we are sleep walking into segregation…”, both fuelled pre-existing fears (worked on partly by discourse surrounding the northern disorders of 2001) and gave rise to new, more powerful, and intuitively attractive discourses of difference. Cantle’s work (2001, 2004, 2008) drove the ‘parallel lives’ syndrome in much academic and policy work, and is a prime instigator and igniting factor for the lead-up to what we are witnessing today in the debate. The ‘community cohesion’ policies which have pervaded government policy over the last 10 years, now have magically evolved into ‘new’ frameworks of ‘interculturality’ (it’s like an old cartoon I saw once: an advertising executive telling his junior colleague: “New is an old word, I want a NEW word”.)


These ‘parallel lives’ which Philips and others talked and wrote of, became the sole focus of both public and government hysteria – not the fact that large tracts of northern Britain were neglected, under-invested in, demonised, and left to wither under a series of confused financial, infra-structural, and welfare gazes. Trevor Philips’ analysis was more than the sum of his de-contextualised statements, and in fact offered a damning indictment of popular white, middle class ignorance about the differential impacts of racialization, and the hegemonic interplay of white, elite, British power structures which have left so many people in the UK marginalised and isolated in pockets of both indifference and prejudice.


Much of what Philips discussed was controversial, because it was allegedly ‘hard hitting’, but unfortunately the reasonable and actually evidence based accuracy of his suggestions (e.g. getting young people together in spaces where they meet cultural, ethnic, linguistic variety) which do indeed look notionally like a way forward (however Disney-Pixar that dream may look like at the moment) have been hijacked by the stealth-assassin of cultural-racism. This is what I call the Politics of Reasonable Prejudice,  and we can witness this being played out in the arena of far-right movements colonising mainstream fears of being ‘swamped’ by foreigners, UKIP’s repetitive machinations about the EU and ‘open door’ (see Newsnight 7/11/2013) policies, and Home Office immigration legislation that is, from most accounts draconian and racist.


The current prime minister’s worshipping ritual has echoes in the history of government over the past 34 years, since Margaret Thatcher became the post-Callaghan pin up for Asian business owners nationwide. Lower taxes, less regulation, privatisation, increased capital investment in private business, and, importantly, the newly racialised landscape of immigration. Post 1979, a number of immigration acts signalled that the UK was going to begin a new journey in its relationship with its dark visitors. However, for a variety of reasons rooted in colonial and group specific histories many of the settled, entrepreneurial minorities were part of the semi-establishment (their business taxes generated income for the government). Those that were settled, left alone to make stable business profits were only too happy to ensure they backed a government that protected their capital wealth, whilst scapegoating and victimising other ‘others’.  And so began this strange marriage of inconvenience, which led Major, Blair, Brown, and Cameron straight to the temple doors of South Asian settled groups in the UK, reinforcing the dynamic and disturbing relationship between race, class and power. The rest of the foreigners are to be dealt with by forcible, muscular British liberal values, and whose values, they argue, certainly should not be shaping British life. Plus ça change.



BBC NEWS ONLINE 2010 ‘Merkel says German multicultural society has failed’, BBC News Online, 17 October. Available from:

BBC NEWS ONLINE 2011 ‘State multiculturalism has failed, says David Cameron’, BBC News Online, 5 February. Available from:

FEKETE, LIZ 2004 ‘Anti-Muslim Racism and the European Security State’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, pp. 3–29

Modood, T. (2009) Multicultural Equality, Liberal Citizenship and Secularism. Journal for the Study of British Cultures, Vol. 16/2, 131-150.

Parekh, B. (2000) Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory. Basingstoke: Macmillan

Philips, T. (2005)

Sivanandan, A. 2008 ‘Catching history on the wing – Race, culture and globalisation’. London: Pluto Press.

Taylor, C. (1994) ‘The Politics of Recognition’ in Amy Guttmann (ed) Multiculturalism. Princeton University Press.