Institutional Racism, Religious Studies and #BlackLivesMatter

By Suzanne Newcombe

As a privileged white American, I am compulsively drawn to watch the drama now unfolding in the United States; my emotions split between shame and hope. I am also well aware of the parallels and differences of institutionalised racism and discrimination in my adopted country of Great Britain.

As I mature, I become more aware of the multiple layers of institutionalised discrimination – and how I have directly benefited from many of these structures. I have now accepted that becoming aware of my own prejudice – products of our collective culture and history – will be a lifelong project.

Education is crucial to revealing the implicit and structural racisms which still oppress the majority of the world’s populations. The Open University is well placed to promote growing social justice in the face of global challenges, and our understandings of religion are a central aspect of how cultures perpetuate inequalities as well as promote change.

I want here to lay down some of the ways we, as a Religious Studies department, have been trying to address the continuing legacy of colonialism and institutionalised racism as individuals and as a department. #BlackLivesMatter. We do care. We are trying to educate ourselves and our students away from institutionalised prejudice and discrimination.


Decolonising the Curriculum – What We Teach

We work hard show how much of our thinking about what religion is, is based on cultural, colonial and Christian assumptions. Put simply, much mainstream thinking around and about religion is colonialist and racist.

To challenge these assumptions, we emphasise the exploration of how religion is lived, how ‘ordinary people’ create their own rituals and meaning out of larger traditions as well as the blurry boundaries between religion/non-religion or religion/culture. We explore indigenous and animist forms of relating to the world, questioning the basis of common assumptions about the divisions between humans and non-humans.

We show how historical and cultural context as essential to understanding what religion might be for humans – grounded in particular time and place. This approach is part of a broader critical project to demystify the colonial framework of understanding the world that we have inherited, and ultimately, to challenge it. The critical study of religion is inherently decolonising.

For introductions to what this looks like in practice, see our free OpenLearn course Religious Diversity, drawn from A227: Exploring Religion – which really asks our students to explore the questions of ‘What is religion?’, ‘How can we study religion?’ and ‘Why should we study religion?’


Methods of Teaching – How We Teach

Running throughout our teaching is an approach which asks our students to reflect upon their assumptions and consider the beliefs and practices of ‘others’ with an attitude of enquiry and empathy. These are essential interpersonal skills which must be embodied to tackle racism and prejudice in all contexts.

We also require students to take an attitude of evidence-based critical thinking when approaching controversial subjects.  We try to teach students to confront controversial subjects subject head on, with appropriate skills – to come to their own educated, informed opinions and express these opinions well to others. Articulate, evidence-based analysis is essential to tackling institutionalised racism.

For an introduction to how we work in practice see our free FutureLearn course on Why Religion Matters.


What and How We Research

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In the religious studies department, we are all active researchers. Our areas of expertise and research experience are very diverse, but they share a commitment to dialogue and excellence in evidence collection. Many of our research areas directly address areas where inequalities and social justice work are informed by religious and non-religious identities. We see religion as an important cultural resource which can be used to challenge and transform our society.

My own research has largely focused on the complex global and multi-cultural entanglements of yoga in the modern period. Understanding the complexity of the creation of systems of practice, ethics and belief such as yoga is essential if fundamentalist versions are not used to oppress specific populations. For example, neoliberalist ideals of thin, lithe white women who are featured in advertisements, Instagram and grace the covers of magazines, can make the practice seem exclusive to the upper-middle class white women that form the majority of practitioners in the ‘Western’ world.

Simultaneously, yoga is can also be used to promote a narrow Hindutva vision of modern India, where ancient Indian wisdom is verified by modern biomedical methods into a streamlined ideology and export product.,_Shri_Narendra_Modi_visiting_the_Drug_Discovery_%26_Research_Laboratory_after_inaugurating_the_Patanjali_Research_Institute,_at_Haridwar,_in_Uttarakhand.jpg

But the practices associated with yoga and meditation practices are also widely used many individuals and groups to experience greater freedom, empowerment and ability to put in to motion more ethical actions and authentic identities at both individual and social levels. Both of these positions for yoga and meditation practices are real – and both are important to understand and consider.

Making Peace in Prison - Yoga and Meditation are having remarkable effects in turning around Prisoner's lives. Could this be the key to rehabilitating offenders?

Religious practices such as yoga can also be used as powerful as cultural resources which can spaces for reconciliation, social justice, environmental stability and greater respect for non-human life.

I know my efforts as an individual are far from perfect in understanding my own ignorance and prejudices. As an institution and department, our efforts to support #BlackLivesMatter are far from finished. For example, we don’t have enough BAME representation in either our student body or in our departmental staff. We all know that our efforts can and must be further extended, refined and developed. But by being transparent about our intentions is the first step towards change.

#BlackLivesMatter and we look forward to being better able to better serve our obligation to promote equality and social justice in the Religious Studies Department.