The Daily Telegraph has admitted its story suggesting the University of Cambridge was being “forced” to drop white writers from its curriculum was inaccurate, as the black student who featured on its front page spoke out after suffering “racist and sexist abuse” as a result.
The newspaper on Thursday offered a ‘clarification’ after Lola Olufemi, the women’s officer at Cambridge University Student Union, was among dozens of students to sign an open letter to the university’s English department calling for non-white authors and “postcolonial thought” to be “meaningfully” incorporated into the current syllabus.
But many took issue with how Olufemi was singled out in the Telegraph’s coverage, and later followed up by other media, despite the letter being signed by many others.
Critics argued the story had been over-simplified to the point of inaccuracy.
The open letter was specific that it was “not a call for the exclusion of white men from reading lists”, but the students claimed that a refusal to challenge “Eurocentric thought” suggested that the stories “of anyone who is not a white man” are not valued.
“For too long, teaching English at Cambridge has encouraged a ‘traditional’ and ‘canonical’ approach that elevates white male authors at the expense of all others,” the missive read.
“What we can no longer ignore, however, is the fact that the curriculum, taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism.”
According to The Telegraph, the letter was “likely to lead to existing authors being downgraded or dropped altogether”, basing the suggestion on the minutes of a meeting of the university’s Teaching Forum.
The university itself said the it will not be “forced” to drop white writers from the curriculum in favour of black authors, and that the Teaching Forum has “no decision-making powers”.
A day after the story appeared on its front, the Telegraph offered a clarification.
The item on page 2 of the newspaper read:
“An Oct 25 article incorrectly stated that under the proposals by academic staff in response to an open letter from students in ‘decolonising’ its English Faculty, Cambridge University will be forced to replace white authors with black writers.
“The proposals were in fact recommendations. Neither they nor the open letter called for the University to replace white authors with black ones and there are no plans to do so.”
Olufemi later on Thursday appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and revealed how her social media accounts and email had been “flooded with racist and sexist abuse”.
“That is a very purposeful thing that you’re doing,” she added, continuing she thought the story was presented to “incite this kind of abuse, and incite hatred”.
“I think it is very telling that they chose to place a photograph of me, a student, a highly visible young, black woman student on the front of their newspaper, as if to incite this kind of abuse, and incite hatred, and to make me into the figure that people could attack.”
On the BBC programme, Olufemi said what she and others were calling for was “less about this prescriptive idea” of having more black or even women authors on a reading list more a “holistic approach in the way we talk about literature”. HuffPost UK has contacted the Telegraph for comment.