Meet Cambridge’s first female BAME department head, Dr Manali Desai

‘It’s a wake-up call to moving beyond tick box exercises’

Earlier this week it was announced that Dr Manali Desai, of Newnham College, has been appointed as the new Head of the Department of Sociology – the first BAME woman to head any department in the University of Cambridge’s history.

The Cambridge Tab spoke to Dr Desai about her new role, the movement to decolonise sociology, and diversity within the University of Cambridge as a whole.

The necessity of connection: ‘Otherwise we end up being a kind of inward looking group of people’

Among many objectives that Desai has for the department in her new position, she stresses the importance of continuing the department’s work towards a “more diversity based, decolonial approach to sociology”, adding she is a “really big advocate of a global public sociology” with a desire to enhance the accessibility of the subject in the real world.

Part of this work is the ‘Decolonise Sociology’ working group, which is a collaboration between staff and students who are together pursuing the decolonisation of the sociology department. Dr Desai describes it as a “very broad meeting place” in which “staff aim to keep the momentum without giving it too much direction and really listen to the students: what people have to say about being at Cambridge, where they’re coming from, and how they feel about the curriculum.”

Never before has its work seemed so pertinent: Desai mentions an online session held by the group on the Black Lives Matter movement, in which emphasis was placed on how it may be “affecting particular people within the group”. She aims to “carry on really drawing out what world events mean for us within sociology and to then generate some projects out of that”, affirming that the wider world and the world of academia are inextricable.

This sense of interconnection extends to the frequent amalgamation of the decolonisation movement with the Divestment and Disarmament campaigns in Cambridge. Once again, Desai is in favour of this link, as “the colonial mentality has been intimately linked with selling arms and corporate investments that harm communities in the formerly colonised world”. She stresses the importance of studying and focusing in on these connections, because  “otherwise we end up being a kind of inward looking group of people who are based in academia, who are just talking about how to do better theory and how to use better language”.

“Saying ‘Do we have enough brown people?’ ‘Do we have enough black people?’ … really is superficial”

Our conversation then leads onto a more general discussion of diversity in universities, and onto Desai’s assertion in a recent Guardian interview that ‘A tick-box approach to inclusion, diversity and equality isn’t going to cut it because these concepts do not address that legacy [colonialism]’. In the article, she emphasises the importance (in particular, for Britain and white people) of paying attention to “that line between the colonial past and racist present”, and how the problem is not solved by performative diversity quotas.

She expands on these thoughts, explaining: “It’s not that diversity is not to be pursued, to some extent we do have to pursue diversity because otherwise we wouldn’t change very much, but I think that alone; sort of saying ‘Do we have enough brown people?’ ‘Do we have enough black people?’ ‘OK, done that now we can move on’ really is superficial”.

Desai notes that “Britain still has a connection to the empire” and stresses the need for “some kind of reckoning with the global experience of colonialism”. This “global experience” permeates social relations “even in the most mundane form: in the office, in the college, in the classroom.” She goes on to say that “to detach these relations and historical experiences… is superficial”, because “if you divorce yourself as a white British person from those histories then you haven’t questioned what the purpose of education is.”

There is however a sense of public reluctance to “divorce” oneself in the manner that Desai suggests, to address the actuality and colonisation’s living legacy, and I wonder whether she notices anything generational in this – and if an apparent greater receptiveness to these issues in young people is reason to be optimistic. She replies: “It’s promising and optimistic and it’s obligatory. I think that for the students coming in, this is what they want to learn about, and that means that for those of us who have been teaching for 10, 15, 20 years we have to kind of look at our curriculum and our syllabus. I’ve seen readings on there that are completely out of date and irrelevant, and yes I had to throw out a whole bunch of them”.

“60 per cent of incoming students are state school, so you’ve ticked that box, but when they arrive here what do they feel?”

We go on to talk about the recent publication of this year’s The Times Good University Guide in which it emerged that Cambridge ranked worst amongst all UK universities for social inclusion. While on one hand, Desai sees nuance and applauds Cambridge’s widening participation initiatives, on the other, such changes and initiatives perhaps fall back too readily on the tick box attitude to diversity – at least this ranking is a “wake-up call to moving beyond tick box exercises to really thinking about the everyday practices of the University”.

She says: “Cambridge has done very well in terms of its widening participation programmes. There are lots of colleges, including my own college Newnham, who are just doing better and better in that regard”, but notes the difficulty that students who don’t come from the stereotypical white, upper class backgrounds may face.

“60 per cent of incoming students are state school, so you’ve ticked that box, but when they arrive here what do they feel?”, Desai questions. “When students arrive from marginalised, underprivileged backgrounds and they come to a place like Cambridge, the disjunction between what they see and what they are experiencing can be so radical, and for a young person who’s just turned 18 that could be really quite alienating”.

Desai’s new role, however, allows her to play an even greater role in combating this sense of alienation, as well as affording more visibility of ethnic minorities and marginalised people. She said:: “Now when they come to Cambridge and they see that a woman of colour can be Head of a Department that kind of thing is really powerful, they can think ‘I see myself represented here’. I’ve had students of colour come to me saying ‘thank you for just recognising my experience in your lecture’. 

Cover image credit: Joe Cotton