From double standards in media to knowledge and cultural appropriation – features of institutional racism endure in our societies. Unless institutions of power are opened up to marginalized voices and the perspectives of the Other, genuine social progress is bound to be precluded by acts of performative justice, argues E&M author Nichole Wanjirũ.
Oprah Winfrey interviewed the Duke and Duchess of Sussex: Meghan Markle and (former) Prince Harry discussing the mistreatment of Markle by the royal family. The Twitterverse erupted into a tag-of-war narrative swaying between Meghan corrupting Harry’s service to the Kingdom versus Meghan being a victim of racism. One cohort rose to the defence of the royal family as respectable upholders of the British tradition. Others touted the British monarchy as a racist, classist institution. The derision that Meghan was receiving was unnerving. Considerable sympathy was awarded to Harry who many viewed as a passive actor allowing Meghan to drive a wedge between himself and his family. Yet, Harry indicated that it was his choice to leave the royal family, not wanting history to repeat itself having lost his mother to this institution.
Many pointed to Meghan’s privilege denouncing her claims, rather than recognising how her social class and white-passing features did not protect her from racism. This means that no amount of privilege can protect POC from institutions which have been built on white superiority. A bold statement. But, lest we forget: the British are responsible for colonising at least two-thirds of the world, and so respect for people of colour is neither a by-product nor a condition for colonialism. Russell Brand comments on the establishment which serves as “a living symbol of nationhood”. The royal family must be able to remain at par with current values yet maintain British values. This “intergenerational collision”, as he calls it, is not unique to the British Monarchy as an institution.
Many pointed to Meghan’s privilege denouncing her claims rather than recognising how her social class and white-passing features did not protect her from racism. This means that no amount of privilege can protect POC when it comes to institutions which have been built on the premise of white superiority.
Institutions in Education
Friends of mine following a Political Science track at Leiden University specialised in statehood. One class involved a discussion previously brought up by the German-born American political theorist Hannah Arendt. In her book On Totalitarianism, she compares the plight of Holocaust victims to enslaved Americans, arguing that Holocaust victims were worse off due to them not belonging to a state. The lecturer reignited this debate and held a discussion on who indeed had the worse experience. This debate is a disgrace of a conversation. Period. Especially in a classroom taught by a white western man and attended by white students. You may ask why I am making this about race. Because inherently, it is. This discussion is a prime example of struggle Olympics – a tedious and inhumane intellectual exercise. Comparing human rights atrocities is not only impossible but is also a sordid affair. What is more, ranking collective human experiences against a single supposedly objective benchmark, such as belonging to a state, is a reductionist and essentialist exercise, which does not add to the quality of a classroom debate.
These discussions normalise comparing various plights of systemic racism and anti-Semitism. The teacher indicated to a classroom full of mostly privileged Europeans that it is okey-dokey to make judgements on the history of distant peoples, about which they have no actual knowledge or understanding of their experiences. I remain flummoxed by how a classroom in a Master-level class could crassly compare such matters for the argument’s sake. How I am treated according to my blackness and how another is treated according to their Jewish heritage are experiences which cannot be gauged by those who do not wear our experiences nor fare them comparable.
As products of our societies, our membership in various groups disallows us from understanding the experience of others. One’s positionality in matters of identity politics is pertinent, as power dynamics are omnipresent and allow for biases and blind spots. This is highly important in academic settings where such topics must be dealt with the utmost respect. Moreover, language use is important in delving into such topics. Simple changes such as enslaved peoples rather than slaves is one subtle yet powerful change in the narrative. The first steps need to be more elaborate and intentional engagements with the works of Others, and not just through Postcolonial studies, as these discourses too have been built by mostly white bodies who experience the world through their positions in a society. I do not believe in gatekeeping knowledge, however, the way educational institutions are currently upheld opposes actual diversification of knowledge, whereby authors occupying marginal spaces lack access to spaces of knowledge production, thus many of these institutions remain performative.
How I am treated according to my blackness and how another is treated according to their Jewish heritage are experiences which cannot be gauged by those who do not wear our experiences.
Unsurprisingly, after about 20 minutes, the class came to the same conclusion as Arendt. As a product of my own up-bringing, I can comfortably say that such a discussion is an example of a lesser regard for black and brown bodies and their experiences. Again, this is murky water, in which I do not wish to wade. However, to base the entire sentiment on “not having a state” in a classroom occupied by white Europeans (with the exception of one biracial person), who have studied the events of the Holocaust, but not the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, is ridiculous. Moreover, being a part of the state has seldom been effective in protecting the interests of Black Americans. This debate seemed at best lazy and at worst offensive.
I’m not fond of this lecturer, however, my issue lies with the culture of institutionalised higher education. To illustrate: would any Dutch university allow an African such as myself to teach Dutch history/politics? In this imaginary situation, if I lived here from five to ten years, speak the language fluently, have a bachelor’s, master’s degrees and a PhD, I can guarantee that no higher education institution would have me hired as a Dutch specialist. Do I have examples to prove it? Well, no, because it has not happened and is unlikely to happen. I am not Dutch, I cannot personify Dutch interests or the experiences of a Dutch person and therefore, I do not have the cultural and social capital required to respectfully teach Dutch culture and politics to Master-level students. Yet, somehow, this is commonplace in African studies and East-Asian Studies, notwithstanding, the existing power dynamics, wherein Europeans have often been the oppressors in these distant lands.
I made a choice to study Political Science rather than African Studies because I refuse to be taught African Studies by a European who cannot even pronounce my tribal name, often contorting it to “one-euro”. This has happened on multiple occasions in such “non-western” focused classes. There is something convoluted about learning African History from a person whose very ancestors are responsible for a lot of the chaos that is so often studied in African Studies. And even if I am to disregard colonialism and racism, there is something odd and disingenuous about having outsiders create discourses and narratives for African studies. Schools of Social Science often highlight the importance of authorship and reflexivity. Yet, these values are lacking in how these institutions are run.
As long as knowledge is produced by mostly white bodies, this in turn feeds into our regimes of truth that the only respectable knowledge comes from white bodies. So, when knowledge production comes from Others, it often lacks the opportunity to flourish, yet mediocrity, as long as it is packaged by a privileged white man, succeeds.
Institutions in Society
It is #Oscarssowhite. It is the Golden Globes backlash towards Emily in Paris – a film which has been touted as “peak white feminism”, as was Hannah Arendt’s comment, whereby a film showcasing multiple instances of ignorance was celebrated. Whereas the work of art that is Michaela Cole’s I May Destroy You covering themes of rape culture and the various yet intersectional livelihoods of black, white, male, female, straight and queer experiences in London was overlooked. It is Oprah Winfrey and Meghan Markle being seen as rich entitled people complaining, but the extremely rich royal British family being seen as traditional, true and right. It is the differential treatment of Meghan Markle and Kate the Duchess of Cambridge in the British public. It is the outrage toward Black woman Halle Bailey taking on the role of a Mermaid (a literal fictional character). It is Serena Williams, Simone Biles, Caster Semenya, Naomi Osaka and many more. It is institutions, establishments, systems which were built during periods of oppression and were accessible only to rich white straight men and, more recently, women. It is cultural appropriation rather than appreciation.
Until this day, there is a global silence in the art world about how Pablo Picasso’s concept of cubism was influenced by the Makonde tribe of Tanzania. The Tiktoker Tanita.dee reminds us that inspiration without credit is indeed theft. It is the music world being heavily influenced by black musicians with people like Elvis Presley who continually stole pieces. It is the Dutchman Jans Roosjen who attempted to patent teff in 2003 – a type of flour which has been feeding Ethiopians and Eritreans for as long as they have known. It is every John, Jake and Harry selling Kente materials and exploiting African bead makers and cloth makers to sell at premium rates in Europe as “authentic African dress”.
It is me being called an angry Black woman because everywhere I look there are people who look like me and share my experiences, who are unable to be the authors of their own stories. Because of a lack of access to these institutions which apparently give people the authority to speak, to display, to tell. As people we make institutions, which in turn make us – this is the basis of constructivism.
How can we expect these institutions to convey the stories of Others when they literally have no space for them? It is not enough for Leiden University to say that they have “expanded their curriculum” by including African studies or African Art, yet have no Africans teachers. We continue to speak on behalf of others rather than just stepping aside and giving people the platform to speak for themselves. This is the dilemma of intergenerational collision – we are trying to move forward yet attempting that in spaces which cannot even allow the Other to tell their story. It is not enough to expand the curriculum, it is imperative that there is some kind of dismantling. As long as knowledge is produced by mostly white bodies, it perpetuates the belief that the only respectable knowledge comes from white bodies. So, when knowledge production comes from Others, it often lacks the opportunity to flourish, yet mediocrity, as long as it is packaged by a privileged white man, succeeds.