Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

Decolonisation and the end of white male hegemony

Western civilisation has, since the dawn of patriarchy, privileged white masculine reasoning and meanings and depreciated the experience, knowledge and voices of women. With the advent of colonialism people indigenous to the Americas, Africa and other colonised lands, were also brutally constructed as less than human, “othered” and devalued by this monolithic white masculinist logic.

This is why, some 500 years later, the subjects of depatriarching and decolonising academic institutions, smashing cultural imperialism and democratising public discourse is being hotly debated in the demand for an egalitarian future. The white male epoch is finally showing signs of crumbling.

The politicised youth understand that an egalitarian future is not possible when power resides with one group at the expense of others. Gathering data from the student protests — from #RhodesMustFall to #FeesMustFall — it is apparent that all intersectional oppressions stemming from white male privilege are part of the same struggle. This approach sees the need to form other movements that take the shape of structures supportive to the decolonisation movement.

Central to the public decolonisation debate should be the “how to” — that is how to shift this power base from the stranglehold of its white male gatekeepers and a westernised agenda to make way for new, diverse and accessible narratives that speak to a wider knowledge base and resonate with lived experiences of those historically colonised and othered by white male supremacy.

One would imagine that those who are the survivors and victims of colonialism and apartheid would be acknowledged as leaders of this movement and that their voices would be heard the most on public and media platforms. Instead the public debate seems to have been hijacked by the dominant discourse and has been inundated by whitist concerns and neuroses. Certainly in mainstream media, the topic of decolonisation has, in a strange but not unexpected turn of events, become more about the “pathology of blackness”. This is a learned trick of deflection common in the dominant discourse.

Rather than face the inalienable truth of historical and current white masculine privilege and its negative impact on all others, white male gatekeepers it seems, have set about attempting to alienate black people from a process that directly impacts them. This has happened through consistently critiquing the premise for movements such as Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall and Patriarchy Must all, referring to them as fallacious, foiled and violent. It is also clear in the fact that roundtable discussions on decolonisation are frequently set with plenty of white men, most of who have never even thought long and hard about this subject until it threatened their status quo.

Judging from commentary on social media around the Rhodes Must Fall movement, and other student movements that call for decolonisation, there has been a gallant attempt to colonise (as it were) the decolonisation process with reproachful white male voices and curiously, in some cases, it is these same white males who lead the roundtable discussions around this process, which is senseless. The oppressor cannot lead the oppressed into an egalitarian future after expediently accepting all the benefits a colonial history has offered them.

But equally curious is where some black public intellectuals have placed themselves in this debate, specifically those who have, perhaps inadvertently, re-inscribed white masculine privilege by assisting in the circumvention of open discussion about the role of white male academics in neo-colonialism.

Achille Mbembe’s recycled essay on the matter caused particular public ire and black backlash. In his article “The state of South Africa” this Cameroonian-born, Wits academic, hypothesises about the collective psyche of middle-class black South Africans. He writes; “Ironically among the emerging black middle class, current narratives of selfhood and identity are saturated by the tropes of pain and suffering. The latter have become the register through which many now represent themselves to themselves and to the world. To give account of who they are, or to explain themselves and their behaviour to others, they increasingly tend to frame their life stories in terms of how much they have been injured by the forces of racism, bigotry and patriarchy. Often under the pretext that the personal is political, this type of autobiographical and at times self-indulgent ‘petit bourgeois’ discourse has replaced structural analysis.”

Mbembe’s psychoanalytical projection has not sat well with many black South Africans and social media exploded with responses that stood in opposition to his position on them. One social media commentator, Moemedi Kepadisa, had this to say: “We must push back at these ‘embedded intellectuals’. That is the only way they will learn. That being in those lofty university spaces gives them no right to talk down at those who are fighting against oppression. Primo Levi had a fine description for people like Achille Mbembe, ‘crematorium crows’. Those Jewish intellectuals who collaborated with their German jailers in those gas chambers. I guess we must also accept that we will also have our fair share of those in our momentous struggle to unshackle ourselves from racism, white supremacy and capitalist exploitation.”

White and whitist male gatekeepers, on the other hand, were overcome with relief and joy at Mbembe’s articles which ratified their disavowal of “the personal is the political” and apparently shifted the onus for black pain, frustration and rage to blacks themselves, suggesting this is a state of mind that should all too easily be transcended since it is not in fact valid. Mbembe asks, “Could it be that the concentration of our libido on whiteness, pain and suffering is after all typical of the narcissistic investments so privileged by this neo-liberal age?”

These essays set off a protracted public debate on the issue of black pathology, deflecting the attention away from the historical privileging of white males. Unfortunately this intervention occurred just at a time when the momentum had been gathered to effectively challenge the politics of language and power.

On social media platforms white academic gatekeepers congratulated Mbembe for his wise words — many taking the opportunity to denigrate black opinion. They also paid particular attention to the “personal narrative”, which they more or less collectively agreed, was a poor substitute for structural analysis. Terms such as “paranoid”, “over the top”, “pernicious”, “violent”, “self-victimised”, “angry” and “irrational” were bandied about in whitist male dissent of the black responses to Mbembe.

In a fit of spontaneous colour-blindness they joined in the chorus that black and white as racial categories do not in fact exist. This narrative of course, works to obfuscate the truth that they have benefited from the social constructs of black and white which undoubtedly do exist and are undoubtedly what students are fighting to deconstruct.

On mainstream media what should be a robust debate about the historical privileging of white male intellectuals in public and academic discourse, has instead, become a discussion about black behaviours and how to contain and discipline them. It has become a discussion seeped in white outrage at the so-called misdirection of black rage and about the low intellectual quality of personal narratives and accounts of lived experience. All of this casts black people in the struggle as either violent or victims, accuses them of entitlement and generally avoids black concerns. Once again this deflects away from white racism and privilege and overlooks white racist pathology and its dangerous collective libidinal projection onto blacks.

It has also reinscribed the white masculinist tendency to assert power over all it defines. So by defining black responses as “paranoid” “empty” and “personal”, power is maintained in the logic and reliability of the whitist masculine discourse.

These anti-black narratives, some have charged, have created decoys and distractions that only serve the agenda of white supremacy and detract from the real issue of decolonising academic, social and cultural spaces — all of which speak to the actual shifting of white males out of their historical position of privilege.

This it seems is the reality that the white male psyche cannot fathom.

This seeming inability to self-reflect has to do with the white male’s historical godlike status in the field of analysis, which has been shaken to the core by the call for decolonisation, and in a desperate bid to survive this, privilege intact, they have done what they know best how to do — tried to colonise a process that threatens them.

The insistence on the whitist masculine enlightened input into decolonisation, with its talk of staggered transformation, progress and preferential “structural analysis” in opposition to other knowledge systems and narratives of black pain, rage, suffering, humanity and joy, is simply another form of power that legitimates the structural dominance of western, white, educated middle-class males over all others. It also arrogantly assumes that processes outside of this framework are not intelligent, rational and humane.

Those “not white men” are relegated to the status of the other and essentialised. Their narratives are diminutised and scorned as the monolithic white male academic club seem unable to appreciate other human’s capacity for multiple and heterogeneous narratives of knowledge, history, pain, suffering and immeasurable joy, whether in first-person accounts, poststructuralist theory, lyrical lexis or feminist language.

But the time has come when people othered by Western patriarchy have begun to inundate the academic and public spaces with narratives that emphasise the feelings and experiences of the colonised, of women, of gender non-conforming people, of historical pain, alternative knowledge systems and lived experience. This is decolonisation and depatriarching in motion. It will happen on the streets, in communities and public spaces. It lives in the realm of a multiplicity of expressions where diverse narratives, personal narratives, feminine narratives, black narratives are used as a means to disrupt and deprivilege the orthodox language of white patriarchy which has held all those “not white men” hostage for way too long.

Tags: , , ,

  • Aesthetics of power and questioning what a ‘good’ university is
  • Where is the wealth Malema wants to redistribute?
  • Has the time for ‘talks about talks’ come in SA?
  • Better organisation would make Fees Must Fall more successful