Lunette Warren
Lunette Warren

Theory vs praxis in decolonisation

Two recent articles by Shaun Stanley have caught my attention. The first argued that not all pale-skinned people are “white” and the second took issue with the vagueness of words like “transformation” and “decolonisation”. Stanley’s primary interest in these two articles seems to be the proper definition of concepts, ie a focus on the need to thoroughly demarcate the connotation and denotation of a word in each context where it is being used. I would accuse Stanley of overly Western analytic philosophising, but he would accuse me of improperly defining “Western”, “analytic”, and “philosophy”.

It has been a trend in recent social criticism to focus on shifting the definitions of terms that are perceived as problematic. It is especially common in American feminism, which is currently in large part concerned with dismantling symbols of oppression. As such Stanley himself joined this conversation by raising some problems with an article on whiteness and white guilt by Louise Ferreira, and attempting to further the conversation by pointing out that not all pale-skinned people exhibit the behaviours described as “white hegemony culture” by Ferreira, but to oppose white hegemony culture “is to oppose all ‘white people’ who instantiate it”. I think Stanley is mistaken, primarily because he is too focused on the technicalities of his philosophical endeavour and therefore insufficiently engaged with its practicalities.

First and foremost, not all pale-skinned people are “white”, that much is correct. Ferreira describes “whiteness” as a set of behaviours that have become normalised, and thereby defines other cultures in relation to it. When we speak of a white cultural hegemony, we are concerned with a culture that forces other cultures to be considered secondary, to assimilate, to fight for recognition. We are speaking about a culture that describes People of Colour (PoC) as “non-white”, measuring their existence against the standard of whiteness. But PoC can act out whiteness if they have assimilated into the culture. In these cases perhaps we should call complacent coloureds and blacks non-whites, but then we should also call whites who do not act out whiteness non-blacks. Mashupye Herbert Maserumule understands the difference between being racially white or black and acting out whiteness or blackness. The race and the way of being is linked because it finds its origin and its majority expression in these races, but that by no means excludes it from being instantiated by individuals from other races.

Secondly, Stanley argues that commentators like Ferreira see “white hegemony culture” as a “concrete identity quite independent of whichever individuals exhibit such culture”. This is a blatantly false claim based on the author’s own confusion regarding resistance to structures of oppression. Stanley seems unable to comprehend how one can resist and oppose a hegemonic structure without being opposed simultaneously to the individuals instantiating it. Yet what if I were to say I love my mother, despite the fact that she instantiates white hegemonic culture? When one is opposed to hegemonic culture, one opposes the actions and attitudes that perpetuates that culture. It is the goal not to eradicate it by waging war and simply wiping out all individuals who instantiate that culture, but to decrease the power of such culture so as to dissolve its cultural hegemony.

Perhaps a better example is feminist opposition to patriarchal structures, which may easily be said to be instantiated by all individual men in some form or another. Yet it would be incomprehensible, irrational, and illogical to claim that therefore all feminists are opposed to men, because all feminists are not lesbians (despite the popular stereotype). We do not dream of a world in which men are kept in breeding cages while we run the world. Many feminists rather like men, in fact many feminists are men. It is therefore entirely possible to be opposed to a hegemonic culture but not to the individuals instantiating it.

Lastly, Stanley’s latest article continues on a similar track by tackling the vagueness of words like “transformation” and “decolonisation”. Many words are in scare quotes in this article, and I’m afraid that at this point Stanley is starting to doubt the connotation and denotation of the word “I”. Cogito ergo sum, but not too much or you’ll end up in scare quotes. The article here rejects the use of the word “transformation” as too vague, allowing Maserumule to sound profound but to commit to very little. Stanley further outright rejects transformation and decolonisation as a valid proposal for the sciences, and suggests that it might the valuable for the humanities, if we can agree on what these terms mean. Even so he is not convinced that decolonisation will be a worthwhile pursuit.

This argument is in keeping with his arguments in the first article. Stanley does not recognise the extent to which white cultural hegemony has seeped into academia and affects even the courses we teach and the way they are structured. Even now we are measuring the worth of our universities against Western standards, celebrating our place in the top 200 universities in the world. By questioning the validity of transformation and decolonisation as valuable strategies for the establishment of a truly African academia, Stanley admits that he has assimilated into the Western scientific paradigm. The way he goes about his philosophy confirms his roots in Westernism.

The insistence on shifting the meanings of words, constantly redefining and rewording, strikes me as a peculiar symptom of current Western social criticism. When it is too hard to engage with the root of the problem, one redefines it and feels it has been solved. This may make sense on a theoretical level, but theory means nothing if it cannot convert to practice. If the problem is still there in practice, you have done nothing but play with words. It is true that some words have become empty markers of “progress”, and deconstructing them is necessary. But it is what you build on the ruins that really matters.

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