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A Cambridge Lecturer Has Accused Two Newspapers Of "What Looks Like Incitement To Race War"

A senior lecturer at Cambridge told BuzzFeed News she felt media reports on potential syllabus changes took "a fairly innocent, responsible, letter from students to stir up a racial panic".

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This is Lola Olufemi. She has been on the receiving end of abuse after a national newspaper accused her of "forcing" Cambridge University to add black and ethnic minority writers to the English Literature Curriculum.

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On the front page of today's Telegraph, CUSU’s women’s officer Olufemi was pictured below the headline "Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors". However, Olufemi has told BuzzFeed News that the Telegraph article was "factually inaccurate as no concrete changes have yet been made".

.@Cambridge_Uni Will you release statement correcting @DailyMailUK @Telegraph 'stories' about #LolaOlufemi work on… https://t.co/w5CqoJMnPd

A spokesperson for Cambridge university told BuzzFeed News that they are "certainly not being forced" into making changes. "Cambridge works on academic discussion," the spokesperson said. "This proposal from students is at a very early stage in those discussions," they added.

Rianna Croxford, a recent graduate in English Literature from Trinity Hall Cambridge, was one of the few BAME students on the course.

Croxford was also one of 150 signatories of an open letter calling for the English Literature faculty to "decolonise its reading lists and incorporate postcolonial thought alongside its existing curriculum".

@tele_education An innocent reminder of how it all started, here's the original open letter to the Faculty: https://t.co/AImS7uOOvt

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Croxford, 23, told BuzzFeed News that many students feel like a "nuisance or token" for wanting to discuss race, gender, intersectionality, and that the only option to write about BME writers exists as an optional "postcolonial paper".

"It is ridiculous that any English student can go through three years of their degree and never be confronted with race, colonial history or postcolonial thought," she said.

Croxford said that the letter was not a campaign, but an attempt to prompt further discussion in the faculty. "There are very few set texts in the course – there is no reason why white male authors will be excluded – and no call for that by the students." She also condemned the "vilification of the students involved".

"The interference of the media surrounding this issue [is] absurd," she said. "They should have no say in our curriculum – that’s for the students and academics.

Priyamvada Gopal, a senior lecturer at the university's faculty of English, told BuzzFeed News that she felt the media took a "fairly innocent, responsible, letter from students to stir up a racial panic".

I repeat: NOT ONE SINGLE WHITE MALE WRITER will be harmed in the adding of a few BME writers to any syllabus. Not… https://t.co/UBTvYXM9mI

"To me, it is actually staggering irresponsibility by the Telegraph and the Daily Mail to take a small-scale matter for the English department to consider and turn it into, what to me looks like incitement to race war," she said.

BuzzFeed News has seen what Gopal, who is a reader in anglophone literature, described as a "horrifically racist email" sent on Wednesday describing how black people lower the IQ of a place and are bad for society.

"Every single time I've written a piece about race I've received vicious trolling in the comments, and I've had a lot of hate mail in the past as well, telling me that I should be grateful that I've been given a job and that if it weren't for the British I would be burning on a pile in India somewhere," she said.

"So I repeat that it is incredibly irresponsible of a national media organisation to try and stir up racial panic, particularly right now when we know that hate crimes have gone up and things are very sensitive on that front," she added.

In a statement shared on Twitter on Wednesday morning a university spokesperson confirmed that a letter was received from a group of students taking the post colonial paper. The statement also said that discussions are taking place but are at the very early stages..

Statement from University of Cambridge in support of Lola Olufemi @CUSUWO in reaction to today's media coverage.

The Telegraph had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication. A spokesperson for the Mail Online said: "The proposal that Cambridge University should alter its English Literature curriculum to accommodate more black and minority ethnic authors is a perfectly legitimate story of considerable public interest to students at all universities, and those at school hoping to study English at Cambridge.

"As we accurately reported, the proposal was put forward in an open letter written by Cambridge Student Union’s womens’ officer Lola Olufemi, signed by 150 students, and reported by the university newspaper Varsity, which quoted Ms Olufemi.

"We are aware many academics have little understanding of what free speech means, but Dr Gopal’s suggestion that reporting this proposal is ‘stirring up a racial panic’, ‘incitement to race war’ and a ‘very ugly radicalised story’ would be outrageous, were it not so preposterous."

Here is the Cambridge University statement in full:

“While we can confirm a letter was received from a group of students taking the postcolonial paper, academic discussions are at a very early stage to look at how postcolonial literature is taught. Changes will not lead to any one author being dropped in favour of others – that is not the way the system works at Cambridge. There is no set curriculum as tutors individually lead the studies of their group of students and recommend their reading lists – those reading lists can include any author.

“The Teaching Forum is a body which has no decision making powers and its decision points are questions to be discussed by the faculty. The Education Committee in the faculty will look at those points in a robust academic debate. Post-colonialism is taught at the moment in a non-compulsory paper – the faculty constantly looks at what papers will be compulsory. We condemn the related harassment directed towards our students on social media as a result of the recent coverage.”

Students Around The Country Want To “Decolonise” Their “Whitewashed” Curriculums

Fiona Rutherford is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Fiona Rutherford at fiona.rutherford@buzzfeed.com.

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