Photo credit: Amber Murrey. Protestors gather in Oxford in June 2020 in support of Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall.
In this piece, we contribute to the active and ongoing conversations about how classroom praxis can advance meaningfully anti-racist futures in the UK. We seek to offer one response to a common question from committed teachers and educators, ‘what practical activities help to foster an anti-racist and anti-colonial/decolonial school geography?’
Racism in the curricula and the need for anti-racist approaches
Dominant geography education curricula frequently reproduce racialised and colonial assumptions, normativity, and ways of knowing the world (Milner 2020; Esson and Last 2020). Scholars have criticised the often-unacknowledged whiteness of geography (Kobayashi and Peake 2000; McGuinness 2000), its colonial roots (Noxolo 2017), and its longstanding neglect of racialisation, racism and coloniality (Hamilton 2020). School geography has long engaged in practices of ‘documenting and reporting that indigenous people are singular objects of study that are only and always poor, oppressed, abject, dead, extinct’ (McKittrick, 2021, pp.38-39).
Anti-racist and decolonising practices deconstruct the representations of people and places in existing curricula. Anti-racist school geographies call for more careful and critical consideration of how people and places are conceptualised, discussed, and imagined. This includes evaluating how curriculum can reproduce dominant narratives and essentialise groups of people. British school geography has long neglected race and racialisation (Puttick and Murrey, 2020) and teachers often report not knowing where to begin, how to contribute, or how to sustain momentum in addressing these gaps. This is particularly true for the many teachers working alone, facing considerable time constraints in under-resourced schools. Therefore, ready-made anti-racist teaching resources can be a valuable tool for educators interested in anti-racist and decolonial teaching praxis.
The Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures collective, for example, has assembled valuable teaching materials and created several resources to critically interrogate A Level content. These include the ‘Critical GCE: Heads Up’ tool, which helps educators and students to identify ‘hegemonic practice (reinforcing and justifying the status quo)’ and ‘depoliticised orientations (disregarding the impacts of power inequalities and delegitimizing dissent)’. The collective also developed experiential learning pedagogies, including a booklet titled Global Citizenship Education Otherwise, which uses mapping, imagination, body, and land-based exercises. The Decolonising Geography teaching collective is another hub for critical, decolonial, and anti-racist school geography content. The collective mediates between academic and school geographies to bring innovative scholarship (e.g. Black geographies, like Beatriz Nascimento’s Decolonising Geography) into the classroom. They also created a list of critical questions based on case studies that help students understand social, environmental, and cultural change in cities. Questions include: ‘Do you have a connection with a particular country yourself, through your school or through your community’ and ‘are the examples used from diverse contexts’.
In solidarity with these important resources, we introduce our concept of the ‘parody test’ as a tool that accompanies other critical teaching practices to help educators rethink representation in school geography. The parody test is one way in which teachers might evaluate the ways in which course content and materials reproduce colonial logics. It serves dual functions: 1) it exposes the inequalities embedded within representational practice, and 2) it cultivates and centres a teacher’s critical self-awareness. The parody test is not a holistic solution to the foundation of systemic whiteness and racial capitalism in education (Gerrard, Sriprakash and Rudolph 2021), but is rather a stopgap measure for teachers who are thinking about the urgencies of anti-racist and anti-colonial teaching now, ‘in times of explicit racial violence’ (Johnson, Joseph-Salisbury, Kamunge 2018). Parody, of course, must be used alongside wider critical praxis within the longer collective process of redressing systemic colonial harms and injustice.
Recent discussions of ‘powerful knowledge’ in school geography foreground the importance of disciplinary knowledge (for example, see Maude, 2018), but can minimise this knowledge’s ‘shadow’ (Puttick and Murrey, 2020). This is a key challenge for any school geography that is committed to critically engaging with the academic discipline of geography as well as contributing to anti-racist and decolonial futures. As Rudolph et al. (2018), drawing on Mignolo (2011), argue:
"in attending to the history that has produced the disciplines that are central to the concept of ‘powerful knowledge’, the colonial relations of power become visible and the ‘shadow’ side of knowledge cannot be forgotten or overlooked." (p.25)
For Mignolo (2011) and other decolonial thinkers, modernity is characterised by the simultaneous omnipresence and denial of its colonial shadow. Modernity has been constituted by coloniality. However, the myth of modernity (progress, advancement, universalism) has been maintained by strenuous attempts to conceal the legacy, persistence and violence of coloniality. How else might we explain the ongoing controversies over the legacies of the Colston family in Bristol? Hence, the geopolitics of knowledge are central to the mystifications of modernity and mainstream education is frequently delivered through impositions of coloniality (hence the need for unlearning and re-education for decolonial options, as the Zimbabwean political philosopher Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2020) describes). Teachers might use anti-racist parody tests in their planning and preparation to demystify and think critically about the ways that course curricula and materials reproduce or challenge the colonial logics and the racist ideas bound up within coloniality’s ‘shadow’.
Our approach is inspired by the powerful ‘mockumentaries’ (or spoof documentaries) that parody the sweeping generalisations, patronising assumptions, negative caricatures, and simplistic misunderstandings that characterise dominant ‘neutral and objective’ representations of the Global South. Dark satire and parody have long been strategically used to counter injustice and violence, and colonial parodies have been particularly effective, given the bold absurdity of colonial hypocrisy and simplistic binary logics.
Examples of films this genre include Babakiueria and Kayonge Kagame Shows Us the World: Darkest Austria. In our classes, we encourage our students to see the ways that these films upend the colonial gaze by featuring experts of colour commenting upon predominantly white societies. In both films, Indigenous and African intellectuals offer counter-critiques the Euro-American ‘experts’ who have presumed to ‘discover’ and subsequently interpret and control non-Euro-American people and places. The exaggerated interpretations expose colonial falsehoods and racist untruths within scientific (and pseudoscientific) knowledge, which is often obscured through claims of objectivity and Eurocentric grand narrative. For example, in Babakiueria, an Aboriginal social scientist reports that white Australian children go to school to ‘learn about their culture’, at which point the scene cuts to a chalkboard with an image of an atomic bomb. The moment in the film is intentionally provocative and uncomfortable—it triggers reflection on the part of the spectator, who is compelled to think of the dangerous and dehumanising generalisations made about Indigenous and Aboriginal people by colonial social scientists.Working from this tradition of comedic exposure of colonial violence, we argue that parody tests can help us to interrogate our teaching resources, explanations, and activities through the context of colonial distortions and our own colonial ‘mis-educations’ (as educators, we are also learners and knowers who have been socialised within the colonial matrix of power; see Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2020).
A recent example of colonial parody is the report of the ‘explorer’ Milton Allimadi on ‘discovering’ the ‘River Gulu’. Allimadi narrates his brave expedition through an unknown city (which readers recognise as London) and his discovery of the ‘River Gulu’ (which readers know to be the Thames). Standing proudly on a bridge, arms folded as he watches the river flow beneath, he pronounces:
"I discovered the river you see behind me here in London. I don't know what the natives call it but I gave it a proper name—River Gulu. Like Sir Samuel Baker you can now call me Sir Milton… who discovered the River Gulu in London." (Musambi, 2019)
This Tweet parodies the duplicities of colonial ‘discoveries’ and naming practices.
Another example is Patrick Gathara’s Twitter commentary on the 2020 US elections. Gathara describes the country as a ‘crisis-torn…conflict-prone nation, a haven for armed terrorist groups.’ He reverses the imperial power relations and peace/conflict identities, writing, ‘African envoys have called for Americans to be prepared to accept the outcome of the vote’ (Gathara, 2020). These parodic commentaries reveal the imperial ‘shadow’ of geopolitical events, development geographies, and globalisation.
To practice the parody test, we ‘hold up’ our teaching resources against the sweeping generalisations and negative caricatures such as those in the mokumentaries mentioned above. We ask ourselves, ‘Does this teaching resource/explanation/activity share any features with those exaggerated, negative accounts? Does it unwittingly echo the portrayals used in dark satire?’ If it does – and so would be ‘at home’ in a parody – that material has failed the parody test. This prompts us to further reflection and development. We do not intend for the parody test to be revealed to students, though there is certainly a place for that and we have found the discussion of pedagogical decisions with our students to be meaningful points of debate and growth in our own teaching (including in a postgraduate course we recently collaborated to teach, Decolonising Research Methods). Rather, in a more direct way and across all levels of education, teachers can use the ‘mirror of parody’ as a critical tool to question how people, places, and ideas are represented and taught in their curricula.
The anti-racist and decolonial parody test for teaching resources can involve swapping the countries or regions in question (as in Gathara’s account). Does a statement become a joke if, for example, Wales is exchanged for Ethiopia in a lesson on urban/rural dynamics?
Figure 1: Brief extract from Rowles, N., Holmes, D. and Digby, B. (2016), GCSE Geography AQA Student Book (Oxford University Press)
Imagine if we remove the word 'Nigeria' from the passages above and replace them instead with 'USA' or 'UK'. Do you think students might ask questions about whether these places too have seen that 'services have failed to keep pace with the rate of economic growth'? In other contexts, it is both funny and jarring to describe the US as authoritarian, fraught with ethnic tensions, and ridden with disasters because it runs counter to US state and media representations. British geography textbooks also describe the US as a superpower, not through language reserved for ‘Others’. People laugh when a Ugandan explorer ‘discovers’ the Thames because Britons have known about the river for years—but this ‘discovery’ brings attention to the more violent hypocrisies of colonial ‘discoveries’ (and related place re-naming, land theft, labour domination, epistemic dehumanization and more).
As educators, we work to cultivate our own critical decolonial consciousness as we teach—seeking to unmask and demystify the colonial logics, languages and features embedded within too many of the readily-available and popularly celebrated mainstream Western materials for teaching about the people, places, and spaces of the world. The parody test demands that we stop and think: What is the ‘proper’ name assigned to a place, how is it mapped, and how do both of these dynamics do political work (while masquerading as objective ‘fact’)? Who is said to have seen, known, explored, ‘discovered’—and what are the power implications for the wider circulations of that knowledge, once they circulate as ‘fact’ (here we are thinking especially of Edward Said’s foundational exposure of the imaginative geographies of colonial science in Orientalism)?
Some topics and concepts will be complex and challenging, resisting anything like an easy application of the parody test. We do not wish to overstate the potentials of the parody test, nor to understate our saturation within the colonial matrix of power. The parody test is a limited tool—as we say, a stop-gap measure within the long struggle of decolonisation.
Next time you are preparing your teaching materials, perhaps it may be meaningful to stop and consider if the geographical representations ‘pass’ the anti-racist and colonial parody test, or if they become satirical colonial commentaries. The parody test, alongside other critical pedagogical tools and praxis, can sometimes offer a convenient frame for critically reflecting on (and fundamentally changing) the colonial and racialised geographical representations of people and places.
Steve Puttick is Associate Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Oxford.
Amber Murrey is Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Oxford.
Esson, J. and Last, A. (2020) Anti-racist learning and teaching in British geography. Area 52(4), pp. 668-677.
Gathara, P. (2020) Laugh? We nearly all died – why my US failed state Twitter thread went viral, The Guardian, 15th November, Online, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/15/patrick-gathara-donald-trump-us-election-joe-biden-twitter-thread [Accessed 8th June 2021]
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Musambi, E. (2019) Great African Explorer Discovers ‘River Gulu’ in London, Nairobi News, Online, Available at: https://nairobinews.nation.co.ke/life/ugandan-great-explorer-discovers-river-gulu-in-london [Accessed 18th May 2021]
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Rudolph, S., Sriprakash, A. and Gerrard, J. (2018) Knowledge and racial violence: the shine and shadow of ‘powerful knowledge’, Ethics and Education, 13(1), pp.22-38