As long ago as 1492 a scholar pointed out Language always escorted the empire’. It’s not enough to just recognise that: it’s time for action, write Durham academics

Durham’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures (MLAC) launched its decolonisation initiatives in the summer of 2020, following the shocking murder of George Floyd at the hands of white Minneapolis police officers. Many voices joined in support, especially postgraduates and undergraduates. To resist systemic racism in higher education in a meaningful and substantive manner, it was necessary to engage in more explicit structural change not just individually, but institutionally.

The framework of that vision was laid out at our June board of studies. We embraced decolonisation in broad terms as a radically pluralising ethos, following Arturo Escobar’s call for ‘an ethical and political practice of alterity that involves a deep concern for social justice, the radical equality of all beings, and non-hierarchy’. More concretely, we outlined four main areas of intervention: departmental culture, research, education and student support.

Of these, research witnessed the most distinctive changes during 2020–21. Instead of viewing this area as a matter that primarily concerned research-active staff, we formed a group run by postgraduates with staff support and powered by robust undergraduate participation, our goal being to create an open community which rejected traditional academic gatekeeping and promoted horizontal alliances between marginalised groups.

Meetings fostered discussions on the bottom-up practices and subjugated knowledges that would generate active commitment toward concrete, practical interventions. The presence of undergraduates and postgraduate students allowed the group to further serve as a channel for immediate feedback on curricular structure and pedagogical methods.

In 2020–21, the undergraduate curriculum will be our key focus. Durham MLAC includes Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese; a significant proportion of Hispanic studies staff are Latin America specialists. Efforts are under way to survey submodular content across the school, identify zones of convergence and direct staff toward the creation of new modules and curricular pathways which bridge geographies in ways that critically de-centre Europe.

After a year of efforts on those different fronts, we have successfully initiated many difficult conversations with colleagues and students. But deep-rooted structures of coloniality require years yet to dismantle. Vital points on our future agenda include the re-evaluation of assessment practices to address cognitive diversity and the inequalities of cultural capital among the student body, and the reform of hiring processes to increase Black, Asian and minority ethnic representation among staff.

Above all, it is important throughout our efforts to resist the co-optation of ‘decolonisation’ as another branding slogan. It is important, too, to insist that ‘decolonisation’ be more than another exercise in anodyne diversity. Rather, we must continually interrogate the concrete conjunctures that tie the study of languages and cultures to histories of colonialism.

Not in vain did the Spanish scholar Antonio Nebrija state in his Gramática castellana, ‘Language always escorted the empire’. That text appeared in 1492, the same year that the fall of Granada to Christian armies signalled the end of the Muslim resistance in the Iberian Peninsula and the same year that the Spanish monarchs authorised Christopher Columbus’ transatlantic journey that would later evolve into a widespread genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. It is in this sense that we believe that modern languages discipline is both ethically bound to respond to the challenges of decolonisation and situated at the forefront of those responses.

The newly established Decolonising MLAC Working Group at Durham University’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures commits to combating all forms of marginalisation in the workplace and classroom.