A decolonial approach to color

 

Sandew Hira, July 22, 2017

 

The best way to develop decolonial theory is through discussing its application in real life situations.

Take the following situation from a Summer School. The Summer School attracts activists and academic across the world. The participants are from all part of the world: Europe, USA, Latin America, the Caribbean, India, South Africa etc.

There are white people and people of color, academics and activists.

Obviously in such a space you will have a reproduction of debates and approaches that exists in social movements across the world.

The purpose of the Summer School to exchange knowledge and engage in critical discussion on decolonial theory and practice.

A professor of color who is an expert on Frantz Fanon and his contribution to decolonial teaching invited participants to make a contribution based on their knowledge, experiences and expression. They could sing, recite a poems or share a story. One day a black South African participant shared her story. The next day a white South African participant shared her story. A black participant from the USA objected to her sharing her story because she was white and her story was an example of white saviour. The space of the Summer School should be limited to people of color. The white South African should have been silenced because there white saviour should not be tolerated.

I will use this incident to discuss to questions:

  • How do we deal with racism and color from a theoretical perspective.
  • How to we deal with racism and color from the perspective building social movements in the struggle against racism?

Racism, color and theory

In the lecture on a DTM (Decolonizing The Mind) theory of racism I explained our concept of racism. It is based on four propositions:

  1. Racism is institutional, not individual. It is based on institutions (economic, political, social, cultural, technological) that operate on a global scale and that shape individual experiences.
  2. Racism organizes human relations through these institutions along the lines of inferiority and superiority of communities, not of individuals.
  3. Historically the markers for organizing these relation have been and are religion (theological racism), race (biological racism) and culture (cultural racism). Islamophobia is a form of cultural racism.
  4. Racism was established and is maintained though various mechanisms in the different dimensions (division of labour in economics, violence and intimidation in politics). The colonizing of the mind of the colonizer and the colonized are important mechanisms in the cultural dimension.

 

So color is one of the different instruments in organizing communities along the lines of inferiority and superiority. Furthermore, the colonization of the mind means two things:

  • It shapes knowledge, attitude and skills of both the colonizer and the colonized.
  • It detaches the content of the markers of racism from its form (religion, skin color, culture). So on an individual level a black person can be colonized in his or her mind and a white person can be decolonized in his or her mind. The colonization of the mind means that (s)he reproduces the colonial knowledge.

So if a white South African women speaks in the Summer School we see her as part of a community that has institutionalized racism in South Africa, but on an individual level we still have to judge her in relation to her contribution to or struggle against these institutions. We don’t judge her on the basis of the color of her skin, but on the content of her arguments and her actions.

On these theoretical grounds I object to silencing her from sharing her experiences.

An argument for shutting her down is based on the theory of white privilege. This theory was invented by white liberals and has gained ground in activists of color. I have provided a decolonial critique of the concept of white privilege here: https://www.din.today/the-theory-of-white-privilege-why-racism-is-not-a-privilege/.

The argument for shutting her down is that white people are privileged and that they should listen rather than talk. I argue that racism is not an individual privilege, but an institutional injustice. So I judge the white individual on the basis of his or her contribution to or struggle against these institutional injustice, that is why she should not be shut down, but encourage to speak out so we can make this judgment rather that accepting that she can not make a contribution by definition.

In conclusion: from a decolonial perspective we judge a person not by definition, by but practice, not by belonging to an oppressive community by definition, but by judging their contribution to or struggle against this oppression.

The theory of white privilege can not deal with these questions.

Racism, color and social movements

There are practical and political reasons why I object to excluding the white South African participants for sharing her experiences in the Summer School.

We all come from social movements that are engaged in daily struggles against racism and the global colonial institutions. In these movements we help create different spaces with different purposes.

For example, we argue in Europe that we need organizations of people of color whose main purpose is to organize and empower the communities of color. We urge sympathetic white activists not to join our movement, but to go and engage in white organizations and bring the anti-racist struggle there. There is no place in our organizations for white people in organizing people of color. There is another space we create outside our organization where we work together in combining forces and devising strategies and tactics against institutional racism.

The decolonial movement in the global South might be organized in a total different way. There are many spaces possible.

The organizers of the Summer School have created a space in which academics and activists from different parts of the world and different ethnicities are invited and accepted to engage in critical discussion on decolonial theory and practice. Everybody has the right to express and share their views in this space and the organizers should ensure that this freedom of expression is guaranteed. It is rude and disrespectful towards the organizers if participants demand that th eyclose the space they have created for some participants and open it exclusively for other participants.

If we are in a space that someone else has created we will respect their rules and regulations as a matter of principal of decolonial ethics. We will not impose our rules on the people or organization who have created the space which we enter.

So from a practical and ethical point of view we can not accept shutting down a participant from sharing her views on the basis of her skin color or on the basis of her opinions. Her opinions should be heard and discussion like the opinion of anyone else.

There is also a political argument for creating the space in the way the organizers are doing. The Summer Schools are spaces where people are encouraged to engage in practical political work.  In the struggle against institutional racism the question of white allies is a crucial question. From our political philosophy we need to organize white allies in the struggle against institutional racism. Therefore we encourage white people to engages in political discussion and speak out so we can just their views and actions in the light of how the contribute or obstruct our struggle.