Why Decolonise? Are white, male thinkers no longer important?

By Thahmina Begum.

What a bore, right? Just another self-righteous, brown student demanding special treatment and is on a mission to eradicate whiteness and though she complains about the corrupt, greedy West, she still chooses to live here. This is obviously (partly) incorrect. Those who interpret ‘decolonise’ as synonymous with erasing white people or, in the context of academia, removing the work produced by upper-class, white men, are clearly part of the bigger problem. This issue of ‘decolonising’ syllabuses has gained more prominence and backlash in recent years but one of my first interactions with it was this particular article. Gopal, so eloquently, put my thoughts into words when she speaks out about not only the lack of diversity in the types of thinkers that university curriculums consist of but also this assumption that Western-born knowledge is universal and the centre of all valuable wisdom.

“Decolonising the curriculum is, first of all, the acceptance that education, literary or otherwise, needs to enable self-understanding. This is particularly important to people not used to seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of conventional learning – whether women, gay people, disabled people, the working classes or ethnic minorities.

Gopal goes on to say:

“Knowledge and culture is collectively produced and these groups, which intersect in different ways, have as much right as elite white men to understand what their own role has been in forging artistic and intellectual achievements.” 

Now, some claim that incorporating more thinkers of colour, to ‘diversify’ the syllabus, will decolonise university modules. But I don’t think this is enough to develop a broader and in-depth analysis of the complex structures and intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class and ability in literature and political thought. An educational experience goes beyond just the module outline and encompasses the values and knowledge learned and deconstructed and play a crucial role in validating social and political institutions. Therefore, this is about more than just adding one or two writers of colour into a lecture; more importantly, this is about moving beyond the Western canon, particularly in political thought.

In other words, if you teach a curriculum and it consists of only the work of white males, this would undoubtedly perpetuate the incorrect idea that knowledge is inherently Western. This further exacerbates the false claim that Western values and its philosophies are applicable worldwide and gives the impression that there is a general identity or history that we all share. This neglects and undervalues strands of literacy that are produced in other parts of the world and, as a result, post-colonial thinkers are overlooked or seen more as a counter-argument to mainstream literary work, rather than part of the main argument itself. This division in whose contribution is valued is unsurprising since throughout intellectual work, historians in the global South have continuously needed to refer to events and publications on European history for validation whereas European historians produce their work in obliviousness of non-Western history without having the quality of their work questioned.

The absence of thinkers of colour is too often considered a norm and left unchallenged and by continuing to teach academic literature in this way, we are maintaining this Eurocentric framework which is not only limiting but is also an inaccurate way to learn history. This Western canon, for instance, teaches political theory in a way that ignores the importance of race in determining your socio-economic position and therefore such theories exclude the experiences of BME people. In his book Racial Contract (1997), Charles Mills criticises the ‘social contract’ that is created in European societies, arguing that it is intrinsically racist since it validates and encourages white dominance over so-called subordinate populations. He insists:

[The social contract] “is always differential privileging of the whites as a group with respect to the non-whites, the exploitation of their bodies, land, and resources and the denial of equal socio-economic opportunities for them” and “all whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, not a contract in which non-whites can be a consenting party.”

Such raceless notions that are ruling political theory and works of literature will first need to be acknowledged and critiqued to expose the real character of our world and the corresponding historical deficiencies of its normative theories and practices. For instance, one example of this Eurocentric, raceless model of political thought is evident in the work of Edmund Burke. Burke, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) puts forward his stance against the abstract liberal ideas of human rights and natural equality that the French Revolution was established upon. He believed any attempt to build a new society based on such non-concrete concepts is harmful since society itself was a complex structure that had been sewed together by ancestral traditions. This belief in preserving traditions to support the fragile nature of society and his view of politics as an empirical science, based on past wisdom and experiences, meant that Burke was critical of revolution and believed it must always be the last resource of thinking. My intention behind mentioning his view on revolution is to portray how Burke’s position is one of privilege as a beneficiary in the status quo and therefore he can afford to sustain the very traditions and structures of society that placed him at an advantageous position. Truthfully, while Burke may have supported the rights of a ‘legitimate’ rebellion, he upheld the authority of Empire and cherished the rights of British imperial sovereignty.

I compare Burke’s conservatism with Frantz Fanon’s argument for revolution and the need of violence to overthrow the exploitative nature and psychological inferiority of the colonies, to exemplify how traditional disciplines within political thought and philosophies of European Enlightenment were inherently ignorant towards understanding the societies of the colonised nations. It was common for European colonisers to sermonise this enlightenment humanism to the colonised, while simultaneously denying this in practice. For thinkers like Fanon, complacency in existing conditions was not an option. His book The Wretched of the Earth (1961) is a summation of his experiences of colonialism and provides a synopsis as to how race is a primary axis of oppression and inequality and is linked to other intersections such as class. Fanon even critiqued Marx and Engels’s trajectories of capitalism and revolution as focusing largely on class and as inconsiderate of race:

“Looking at the immediacies of the colonial context, it is clear that what divides this world is first and foremost what species, what race one belongs to. In the colonies, the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”

To redefine the scope of political theory yonder the occidental, many comparative political theorists argue, and I agree, that this necessitates a reflection upon the status and meaning of political life as not restrained to a geographical setting but in a global arena.

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Though academic curriculums traditionally consist of white male scholars, when feminist theory is discussed, it is common to explore the work of liberal, white feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, particularly A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Wollstonecraft, despite her thought-provoking and important ideas on the civil rights of women, like many Western thinkers that overshadow political theory and literature, she does not consider the importance of race, or even class, in her philosophy. Wollstonecraft simply believed that women should not be excluded from political or civic employments as this undermines morality and natural rights. However, her stance was confined to middle-class women, since she regarded them as in the “most natural” state (that is the least corrupted by either wealth or poverty). But this class of women tended to be predominantly white. Therefore, by pioneering Wollstonecraft’s work as the main text within feminist political thought, the conversation disregards the experiences of non-white and poorer women.

Black feminist, bell hooks criticises this very framework of understanding and teaching feminist theory; she disapproves of Friedan’s Feminist Mystique being heralded as having paved the way for contemporary feminism.

“Like many white women who dominate feminist discourse [and] articulate feminist theory, Friedan has little or no understanding of white supremacy as a racial politic, of the psychological impact of class, of their political status within a racist, sexist, capitalist state.”

hooks claims that Friedan’s exclusionary feminism saw victims of sexism as college-educated, white women, “who were compelled by sexist conditioning to remain in the home” and these “specific problems and dilemmas of leisure-class white housewives were real” but were not “political concerns of masses of women [who were] concerned about economic survival, ethnic and racial discrimination.”

I believe this to be very similar to issues surrounding Wollstonecraft’s feminist discourse, since her insistence on allowing women to work neglected the experiences of non-white and poorer women who worked labour-intensive jobs and did not have the privilege in choosing to remain at home. Like most traditional literature which perpetuate a false universal identity that we all share, a central tenet of conventional feminist theory is the proclamation that ‘all women are oppressed’ which implies that there is a common experience. However, in reality, and throughout history, factors such as race, class, sexuality and religion have created an assortment of experiences which define the degree to which sexism oppresses individual women. Feminist theory and more female thinkers do indeed need to be incorporated into the discourse as a part of the decolonisation process. However, the aforementioned points must be taken into consideration, in order to successfully do this. Past feminist refusal, as seen in Wollstonecraft’s philosophy, to draw attention to, or even attack, racial hierarchies have not only repressed the relation between race and class but have reinforced white supremacy. Therefore, it is imperative that, when studying thinkers like Wollstonecraft, it should not be assumed that her feminism is applicable to all women, but rather an understanding that intersections, such as race and class, are prevalent through the study of non-white feminist theorists.

Evidently, this decolonising process in academia is beyond just incorporating a diverse range of thinkers. It is about disposing the notion that Western history is shared globally and accepting that there are significant intersections (race and gender particularly in this piece) that need to be included and taught in academia. This should not be interpreted as an attempt to eliminate the work of white, male thinkers but an acknowledgement that non-Western thinkers are not mere counter-arguments of the main conversation. Rather they should be perceived as part of, and integral to, the main discussion within academic studies.


Header image credits: Mike Hutchings/Reuters