On March 4th, the African Scholars Association of Ireland (AfSAI) addressed an open letter to the UCD School of English Drama and Film to contest the module ENG32569 Writing Black: African American Literature and Racial Consciousness.
The letter argued that the way in which the module was designed “invokes the history of the exploitation of Black suffering for personal and institutional gain and profit, as well as the unacknowledged appropriation of Black scholarship”. The letter also accused UCD of showing ‘bias in their hiring.’ The AfSAI suggested that the School was “careless of its Black community of workers and students” in their choice to position a white scholar in a teaching role of one of the two modules in the School focused on Black experience.
Head of the School Professor John Brannigan stated in response to these claims that the “School has been actively engaged in a process of decolonising and diversifying our curriculum.” He also called for retractions and corrections made in the letter about the hiring practices. In a letter addressed to the AfSAI, Professor Brannigan postulates that a claim made by the group regarding a white academic in a teaching role for a module on Black writing was untrue. He states that they were an existing member of staff, and were not hired with the contested module in mind. Professor Brannigan also said that the claim was “not only disrespectful to the module coordinator, but also impugns the reputation of the university.” Dr Ebun Joseph, Chairperson of the AfSAI, responded to this statement by clarifying that the issue is not about a singular coordinator, but about “the system in the University and school which facilitates such programmes.”
The response from the organisation reiterates that it is not enough to teach students about Black suffering and experience through literature, but that it should be taught by Black scholars. Dr Joseph argues that “Black students, students of colour and White students benefit from having Black lecturers and people of colour empowered and teaching them about Blackness or race consciousness.” This comes nearly a year after UCD voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Professor Brannigan said that the module was offered in an “expression of alliance and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and more broadly with anti-racism.”
The AfSAI suggested ways in which UCD can begin to address the issues as stated in their letter. Among them was the recommendation to require staff to complete annual training covering “diversity, equity and inclusion.” They also think that the University should have an equality audit commissioned by an independent body. Foremost, the group argued that UCD should invest resources into the development of modules that aim to topple racial stereotypes and prejudices, and that these seminars should be “mandatory for all incoming students.”
In a letter to Dr Joseph from President Andrew Deeks, he admitted that while UCD is “not yet fully addressing” the recommendations made by the AfSAI, he notes the establishment of a Race and Ethnic Equality Working Group in 2020, who are currently developing a University Level Race and Ethnicity Action Plan. They are aiming to speak to students and find out more about their experiences with race and intersectionality.
When asked how UCD might approach the teaching of anti-racism in third-level, Dr Joseph believes that it is the role of the University to platform qualified, Black scholars and that there is an obligation on universities to “empower Black lecturers who have the expertise to develop materials and teach antiracism courses.” On the importance of this situation, Dr Joseph reminds the university that “It is a privilege to read about racism while others live that experience.”