Decolonising the Arts Curriculum: Perspectives on Higher Education
Comfort zones and identity affirmation

Duna Sabri, Staff

The curriculum is often defined in conversations between students and tutors, and tutors and tutors.

Conversations between tutors and students are the most interesting because it’s there that the curriculum is enforced. We think about it as being in reading lists or in the examples that tutors give students or the references. But actually, I think it’s in those conversations that we lay down the boundaries of the curriculum.

So the more we unpack the language rules and what they signify in those conversations the more it becomes possible to dismantle and reimagine the possibilities in our curricula. The phrase that I’ve heard quite often recently is, ‘you need to step out of your comfort zone’. Tutors say this in various instances. They sometimes say it when a student is doing something that relates to her own cultural background. Now there’s no doubt that encouraging students’ experimentation, ambition, and expectations of themselves is a good thing.

However, stepping out of your comfort zone is a heavily value-laden piece of advice. Let’s take a real-life example. A Polish student is producing work about the Polish economy and is told to step out of her comfort zone. Her observation about this advice was that the white British students working alongside her on themes to do with British politics didn’t seem to be considered to be in ‘their comfort zone’. So whose comfort zone are we really talking about?

And which students do we more often perceive to be making work or writing within a comfort zone?

We need to enable all students to explore what they do not know and what is outside of their comfort zone. The white British students who were not encouraged to take an interest, who did not see a model for taking an interest in Polish politics were as much deprived as that Polish student in that particular instance.

When you’re not used to being acknowledged, when your identity isn’t reflected in the day to day in public spaces; that too becomes taken for granted, it becomes part of the wallpaper. And that disaffecting realisation –which is never far away – ebbed into my mind last year when I went to see Black Panther with my son. And the very first line in that film is ‘Baba, Can you tell me a story?’ I’d never before heard the word ‘Baba’ in a public space. It’s the word that I used to address my father.

This article was originally written and published in Decolonising the Arts Curriculum: Perspectives on Higher Education Zine 2 (2019).

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