Postcolonial Thoughts from Tunisia: An Introduction

In Robert J.C. Young’s introduction to Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction he writes:

Have you ever been the only person of your own colour or ethnicity in a large group or gathering? It has been said that there are two kinds of white people: those who have never found themselves in a situation where the majority of people around them are not white, and those who have been the only white person in the room. At that moment, for the first time perhaps, they discover what it is really like for the other people in their society, and, metaphorically, for the rest of the world outside the west: to be from a minority, to live as the person who is always in the margins, to be the person who never qualifies as the norm, the person who is not authorized to speak (Italics mine) (Young, 2003: 1).

I enjoy the challenge at the core of this hypothetical. But we must be cautious not to misinterpret its meaning. It does not presuppose, within single racial or ethnic groups, an equality of perceptions or an equality of collective identity preferences. The notion of ‘minority’ cannot be simply expressed by the physical number of persons within a given social space in relation to the greater number of persons of a given group in relationship to which both are measured as having a certain percentage of the total population. This hypothetical is about more than simply counting the numbers of individuals of a certain phenotype in the room, when they are the lone person of X color introduced into a cultural environment outside of their ethnonational, cultural, socio-political borders. It requires us to examine critically the notions of identity, agency, and power.

The issue at stake here is not a matter of feeling minority status simply because you are the only white skinned, black skinned, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, queer, or conservative within the room. The primary difficulty of a representative of the ‘majority’ empathizing with the ‘minority’ is not so easily resolved by plopping a white christian down into a traditional neighborhood in Nairobi, Urumqi, Istanbul, or La Paz, because it neglects the overwhelming power of the ‘majority’s’ monopoly of internationally legitimized cultural, economic, and symbolic capital.

It is far more difficult to bring upon the feelings of alienation, questions of self and collective worth, deterritorialization, marginalization and the other well known conditions of the globally designated ‘minority’ than by simply plopping this ‘only white person in the room’ into whatever environment they find themselves to be the minority in terms of phenotype alone. Again, they may come to some superficial realization of ‘what it is really like for the other people in their society’ but this realization will be fleeting. Firstly it will always be tinted by the knowledge that a return to their position of power, in relation to the rest, is a possibility. Inherent in this realization is the very fact that they come from a position of power, and privilege. But to fully grasp this notion we must withdraw ourselves from both this hypothetical in the local setting and from an unfortunately reductive categorization of the majority and the minority that is based on phenotype alone; after all, an ethnic minority in the United States may well find themselves in a position of ‘majority’ power, in relation to their neighbors in the social space of certain Indian cities or Turkish towns.

I do not mean to discredit the very real situation of racial inequality that exists all over the world. And one that in many respects, has been artificially constructed in relation to the unfortunately dominant conceptualization of worth that has emanated from Western Europe and the United States. After all, my Greek friends have told me that in Greece it is not uncommon that wealthy, well dressed black men are stopped by the police and questioned. There have been cases where Swiss or American citizens, well dressed, or in the costume of the tour bus type, have been verbally assaulted by the police of Greece, accused of being illegal immigrants from Africa, having their passports or national IDs ripped up in front of them, are taken into custody until a word from their respective Embassy wins nothing but their freedom. No apologizes or investigations into racism follow. Many Chinese express distrust or fear of their dark skinned ethnicities: Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongols, and the like, but also reproduce many racist stereotypes. It is the same in many corners of the world. It is a serious problem.

The market value of skin whitening creams, despite an unfortunately unregulated clinical process for testing the products which has resulted in a horrendous number of disfigurements, throughout Asia and Africa is proof of this nefarious and dominant signification that light skin equals higher worth. There is no argument that global racism is a scourge that is far from being uprooted. The rise of xenophobic nationalism and fascism in Europe and the United States, anti-Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese, or the categorical anti-Black African sentiment one might find from Utrecht to Berlin, Barcelona to Sofia, the anti-Mexican, Guatemalan, Pakistani sentiments in the United States, hatred and mistrust of Muslims, the darker the skin the more aligned with Al-Qaeda they appear to many fervent Fox News viewers. But it is more complicated than pigmentation alone.

How will this ‘only white person in the room’ know the experience of the ‘world outside the west?’ He or she will often not be a ‘minority,’ even if she is the only person of a certain phenotype simply because she is a metaphor of the dominant culture. It is in relation to her that the margin in constructed. It is in relation to her that the norm has been constructed and brutally enforced. She is always authorized to speak. The American, the German, the French tourist, exchange student, independent researcher, or medical professional, etc. who finds that he is the ‘only white person in the room’ will also likely find that their worth, their value, is conferred by their possession of placement in this dominant cultural identity. While it is often associated with the color of skin, it goes deeper. As Langston Hughes notes in The Big Sea, when he arrived in Africa he was called a ‘white man,’ not because of the color of his skin but because of the color of his passport.

What is at stake in understanding the alienation of the oppressed and silent global South. I have been, from time to time, ‘the only white person in the room,’ or on the train or some such place. Why is it that in such situations my interlocutors will quickly begin to rattle off the names of American singers or movies? They will show off their knowledge of American culture. They will ask me questions about living in America. How much does this or that cost in America? How much does it cost to fly to America? I often find that people, whether a migrant worker from rural Sichuan province, an engineering student from Istanbul, a panhandler in Tunis, or an Anarchist in Athens, will know more about American politics than many citizens of the United States. I find it amusing that a Swedish friend of mine, living in China, knows more about American popular culture than I do. How do these observations factor into an understanding of ‘majority,’ ‘minority’ power dynamics?

I make these cursory observations to point out a critical problem. A member of the dominant culture, from what has become the dominant political, economic, and cultural norm, will not be able to empathize with the so called Other simply by feeling a sense of temporary phenotype marginalization. Furthermore, we may begin to enquire how this affects understanding and analyzing cultures and people that are distinct from our own. The status of the observer, the analyst, and ‘the only white person in the room’ will still be conferred by the fact of a certain, greater source from which power derives its substance. This is perhaps best explained through Bourdieu and symbolic capital.

The ‘only white person in the room,’ the lone British, Australian, or American in Nagarkote, Nepal or Phnom Penh, Cambodia, regardless of pigmentation, is still in possession of a greater degree of status and prestige than the local ‘majority’ because the world system has evolved to pay an unequal reverence to the status of their home countries. It is an illusory worth, constructed in the logic of Empire and enforced through the sanctions of world trade that has brought this particular weltanschauung its majority share of global values. That is, if the ‘only white person in the room’ is from the United States, Great Britain or France, they will likely find that the discourse, the very language of communication in such situations in fact will tend to favor their native tongues, favor their cultural experience. How could this possibly lead to an understanding of what it means to be marginalized and oppressed by the global order of things?

It is a wonderful sentiment. A simple solution to global inequality: send everyone to live in a village or city where they are isolated by the color of their skin or their convictions and we may well break down the walls of cultural, racial, religious misunderstandings. However, this is an impossibility. If it were simply a matter of those in the majority having never stepped out of their comfort zone, which admittedly many do not, than what is to explain the social phenomenon of the Christian missionary? Aren’t there many who would fit into this category, World Bank investigators, International Donor program administrators, field researchers? They knowingly go into the environment where they are likely to be the only one or two of their race or nationality. Instead of feeling the experience of the truly marginalized they spread their own dominant conception of the good. They are guarded by their conviction that they have it right.

The question becomes, is it truly possible for someone from a majority power holding group to ever know the experience of the one they dominate, whether personally and intentionally or inadvertently simply because he passively receives the benefits of his belonging to that dominant group? I have often marveled that the recent US college graduate with a bachelors in History, Communications, or Hotel Management can travel to China, or South Korea to teach English, qualified simply because it is her native language, and earn a salary five times that of her Chinese instructor colleague, with as it often turns out a bachelors or masters in English or English Education. Does it suffice to simplify it as a matter of paying a premium for native proficiency or is it part of a deeper inequality, an assumed worth conferred by membership in a certain group or culture? I would argue for the later and in relation to Young’s introductory remarks, I challenge that it is this assumed worth that makes the task of understanding all the more challenging.

In general, this appears to be Young’s real point. He continues, asking the reader:

Do you ever feel that whenever you speak, you have already in some sense been spoken for? Or that when you hear others speaking, that you are only ever going to be the object of their speech? Do you sense that those speaking would never think of trying to find out how things seem to you, from where you are? That you live in a world of others, a world that exists for others (Young, 2003: 1)?

The answers to this question vary dictated by one’s relationship to power. Identity, self-worth, perceptions of one’s place in society, and the world at large, these are influenced by one’s relationship to the dominant value system. To simply assert that phenotype alone dictates the answers to these questions is negligent to the complexity of identity, power and people’s relative position within the overlapping structures of power, political and economic, social and cultural, linguistic and personal. It is more than the pure structural domination exposed by Sarte or the psychological, interpersonal domination exposed by Memmi. To explore the answers to these questions, Young first encourages us to turn to the discourse on postcolonialism.

In the conclusion to his 1957 Le Portrait du Colonise precede d’un Portrait du Colonisateur [The Colonizer and the Colonized], Albert Memmi puts forth this one very important question, “If the colonized is eliminated, the colony becomes a country like any other, and who then will be exploited (Memmi, 1991: 149).” This challenge must be treated with the severity with which it deserves. And one may continue by asking, what lessons may be learned to address this fundamental question, what theoretical applications from colonial and postcolonial studies may be applied to address this concept. For when the colony becomes a country, ostensibly autonomous in its own right, who become the oppressed and exploited; and for that matter, who becomes the exploiter? If we extend our understanding of colonization beyond a rigid disciplinary definition biased toward racial or geographic fixation, then one might argue that colonization is itself, indeed as Memmi does, “above all, political and economic exploitation (Memmi, 1965/1991: 149).” To which I would argue, in line with Said and Spivak, among others, that colonization is discursive exploitation.

It is addressing this that postcolonial literature attempts. For, it is more than a treatment of the world in some ‘after the age of colonization and decolonization’ that postcolonialism comes. It does not imply that the evils of colonialism have been transcended. It is the ‘post’ of ‘postmodernism;’ we may speak of postmodernism but that does not mean we speak of the future, which is reserved for science fiction. It as an attempt, however, to alter the dominant discourse, to shift the lens of examination and understanding away from the power relations of Western and non-Western world-views. It forces the discourse to begin from the acknowledgement that examining the non-Western world, the trend of theorists, historians, and above all policy makers, has been to categorize what they are seeing as more a mirror image of themselves and their own assumptions (Young, 2003: 2), first understood in relationship to the dominant world-view. We see this dilemma clearly in the discourse on the Arab Spring. The language, the questions, the assumptions, and conclusions are, with notable exceptions, merely extracted segments of a world as seen from the West.

For the next several months I will be living in Tunisia. With this new blog I will be offering my thoughts and observations on the social and political transformations. I will not presume to present some farcical objective truth divorced from my own experiences and theoretical orientations; especially considering no such truth exists. All I will attempt to offer is a collection of my thoughts on a particular social space. I will be blogging about my own research but also any piquant tidbits that pop up along the way. 

Memmi, Albert (1991). The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press
Young, Robert J.C. (2003). Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Advertisements