The Sound of Disruption

What is happening? What am I witnessing?
The screams and cheers of those around me pierces my ears. The sound is so clear, so distinct, and yet so ….
So what exactly?
Is it new? Or new to me?
Why am I so unprepared?

I didn’t expect to hear this sound.
First Rosa, and than Patricia.
Rosa spoke up and asked a question: “Does this conversation need you?”
The round of questions hadn’t started yet, she disrupted.

Have you ever witnessed a disruption?
An event where someone changes the natural course of events.
Natural is Heleen Mees sitting there up on that stage, it’s natural in Holland, it came natural to her.
It at times even appears natural to me.

That wasn’t always the case,
A Heleen disrupted my world once and caused confusion.
Others ensued.
Repeated disruptions don’t disrupt anymore, they establish.

A new world enclosed me which I learned to maneuver.
I learned about the rules and limits,
I dreamed up scenarios but always acted cautiously.

I expected the evening to be a maneuver.
We would move, we would stir, but within set limits.

Patricia Kaersenhout made a work of art honoring 36 women of color who have been overlooked by history. Gloria Wekker and Philomena Essed, two black female scholars who have done innovative work in their studies of everyday racism in the Netherlands,
Were to come talk about forgotten histories, colonialism and everyday racism.
But their conversation would be moderated by Heleen Mees, someone arguably ignorant about racial issues, as her interview with Sylvana Simons shows.
Despite there being many well-informed and educated women of color in Holland qualified to do the job, she was flown over from New York,
For reasons that remain unknown and without Kaersenhout’s consent.

This arrangement is natural, it’s natural in Holland, it came natural to the organization.
It bothers women of color, but we know that these are the conditions, it is natural.

Mees is ill-prepared, she is getting the most basic information wrong about the works and the writers; She can’t remember the title of the books she is discussing, can’t remember when the works were published, she doesn’t seem to know much about the careers of Wekker and Essed. She doesn’t appear to be familiar with some of the fundamental theoretic concepts such as cultural archives. Reminder; this is not to be confused with The Black Archives an initiative by New Urban Collective.
She can’t remember the name of an artist she brought up herself, the South African artist Zanele Muholi.

Wekker is starting to look more and more annoyed, and people in the audience are getting restless. Mees has now interrupted both Wekker and Essed a couple of times, saying that she was the moderator after all.
She disputed their claims about women of color facing discrimination and exclusion based on their racial identities within feminist movements,
because she includes everyone and fights for everyone.
It is annoying, it is aggravating, but not that unusual.

She goes on after Rosa asks if she is needed in this conversation.
There is not much improvement, just as my friend calls them ‘faux-deep’ questions such as “to whom does black pain belong?” Wekker and Essed don’t know how to answer that question, they don’t know what she means.  Mees thinks that it’s still an important and valid question.

Kaersenhout intervenes.
Her voice is about to crack, but she doesn’t want it to go on like this.
She thinks it’s best if she steps in and moderate it herself.
Complete pandemonium.

I see Mees getting of the stage and leaving the room.
Excitement all around me, relief and bewilderment inside me.
To add to the chaos a black man stands up and comes to Mees’ rescue saying we’re not treating her with dignity.
Kaersenhout is having none of that, she is not willing to let someone disrespect these women, their work or hers by not knowing the basic information
a 12-year old would know how to look up. Think of that my ‘brother’.

After a much needed break the conversation goes on without Mees, and with Kaersenhout as moderator. Wekker and Essed really don’t need a moderator, they have a lot to say.  The question of dignity comes up again in relation to what had erupted
Was Mees stripped of her dignity?
But as Essed declares; respect is something others can give you, but no one can take away your dignity. One can let go of ones entitlement, accept momentary discomfort and learn.

They should have had this conversation from the beginning.
They should have been able to talk about their views on activism and science,
Talk about the experiences they had and obstacles they faced working in their field
And most importantly be able to expand on all of this, and not be stifled.
This should be natural.

Tonight something unexpected happened.
What will the ramifications be? I don’t know.
I am still amazed, at a loss for words, by this sound of disruption.

Impressions of a black woman in the city of Paris: the Nyansapo Festival

I hadn’t been in Paris for quite a while. The last time I visited I was still writing my Master Thesis on African Philosophy. I made quite a few trips back to Paris back then, as I was able to find more books on African Philosophy and postcolonial theory there than in Amsterdam. I could not find these books in Amsterdam, I had to visit the dwellings of the other former master. This one had made more trips and longer stays on the land and fields.

This time it was an Afrofeminist festival that drew me back to the city. The Nyansapo festival organized by Mwasi Collectif, a group of black feminists. The first ever Afrofeminist festival that was to be held in France. The festival caused quite a bit of controversy with the mayor of Paris wanting to shut it down, as word got out that white women were allegedly forbidden to partake in it. The truth was that the festival was open to everyone, it was only the workshops that were to be exclusively for black women to discuss matters that they experience as black women, freely and unapologetically, and they were going to be held at a different location.

Learning about the controversy made me want to go. I have lived in France, and have many relatives who remain there. I know that life ain’t no pick-nick for black people there, relegated to impoverished neighborhoods, faced by police brutality, living on the outskirts of society and being called a ‘bande de racailles’ by politicians for protesting and revolting against their situation. Yet the Mayor would have you believe that these black women are the ones being problematic. I supported them on social media with the #Jesoutiensmwasi hashtag, but thought they would probably need a little more support than that. I decided that I needed to be there, I needed to physically and financially support these women.

Regretfully I couldn’t get there on the opening day of the festival and I apparently missed quite the stir up that day, a journalist from the Russian media outlet RT showed up to the opening, which was open to everyone, with a cameraman and no tickets. They were filming the people entering the festival and tried to get in themselves to film the event. They were denied entry as they had no tickets. The journalist screamed ‘Russophobia’ and accused them of not letting her enter because she works for RT. I have to admit that I am kind of sorry to have missed that.

I arrived in Paris the next morning with only one bag in my hand and Maya Angelou in the other. The city felt different to me now. France has come to mean something different. Despite the history it had still once been to me the place where the Maupassants and Gide’s worked and lived, and where Josephine Baker, Baldwin and Wright defected to. Now the city seemed stale, it looked, it looked straight ahead of itself, but didn’t speak. This city. Cities don’t just change. It was me, I had credited this city for that which had been the works of a few.

I headed to the festival. I was ready to see if I could meet contemporary few.

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“We tell our own stories #thanksbutnothanks”

On my way there I checked the Facebook page once more for updates. One particular post caught my attention. A young woman had written that she had seen that some workshops were to be exclusively for black women, but she was writing a paper on the political activism of Afro-Colombian women and thus wanted to observe black women organizing themselves politically.

I look up from my phone, I frown and than I smirk thinking ‘Is she for real?’, wanting to not take seriously this request, and yet realizing the very sad reality her requested intrusion illustrates.

I would like to further illustrate the mindset I was in coming into this festival. A few days earlier I had received a message from a fellow philosopher. She had worked on the translation of a book called ‘African philosophy through Ubuntu’ by Ramose. Another philosopher who had done his PhD on African philosophy was writing the introduction, yet another one who is currently writing his PhD on African philosophy was also part of the project. They were now all reading and studying the material again, and she was now as she stated, delving back into the material again. They were planning on getting together for a couple of nights and discussing the book along with a fourth party who has done research on Ubuntu. She found certain points discussed in the book particularly interesting, such as the position of women and how this can be interpreted. She wants me to join and and discuss the book.

I read it again.
I did not know about this project. I have not been involved, apparently no person of African descent was. I am to discuss the book with them after the fact. What is my role? I am to be the only person of African descent present discussing African philosophy with four others who aren’t. These four others are involved with this project. They are actually able to do this for a living. Why do they need me now, why am I invited now?

How peculiar. But where lies the peculiarity? Is it mine? I wouldn’t call my situation common or usual, and it’s definitely not trite. Even though it has already been theorized, written in prose and sang in a blue note, you cannot help but to feel it anew at each time. You sense it and you look back thinking; Peculiar, how peculiar. How their world is so peculiar. It’s trying to grasp something that remains out of reach. But this thing is not a thing.

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I arrived at the location where the workshops were to be held. I went to a workshop on intersectionality, on the appropriation of the term to be exact. How do we make sure the term remains a tool for reflection and action? This tool that we’ve developed, how do we keep it a reality? How do we keep it from being depoliticized?
We noted that the term has sadly become a purely academic term, set in frameworks and used as an adjective, by those for whom it is just a concept, who don’t live it. It is being separated from people’s lives, separated from our lives, unless of course they need new study material for research. When they talk about intersectionality, what are they talking about?

This term that is based on our lived experiences, needs to be re-appropriated by life, our lives. Many black women live intersectionality, even when they don’t have the words to express it. What about all these African women, past and present, who live intersectionality without having the words to express this, and those who have lived it when the term wasn’t coined yet?
What about my grandmother who was born and grew up under Belgian colonial rule. Education was not a priority for the Belgian rulers. Education was limited, the only schools available were those set up by catholic missionaries, access to higher education was even more so. My grandfather went to a school led by missionaries, and even worked for them for a while, but than wasn’t allowed to further his education. However my grandmother wasn’t able to attend school altogether as the schools those missionaries set up were only for boys, girls were not allowed to attend. She is not an academic researcher, but her life and those of other women like her have been defined by intersectionality. Don’t erase her struggle and don’t reduce her to study material.

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It was enriching to be among all these black women who came from across Europe to attend this festival. Many of the stories the women at the festival shared, women from various black cultures, were familiar to me. Such as experiences they had in school, at work and their stories of colorism within their families. Others were less familiar, notably the stories of police brutality against black people in France. These sounded like the stories I heard on the news about racial tensions in the USA. A family member of a victim of police brutality was invited to the festival to talk about and lessons were given on how to deal with and protect yourself when facing the police, and how to protect families who have have been victims of police brutality. How do we relate to the police? Are there other avenues for us to resort to when facing problems within our communities?

And then there were stories I was myself oblivious to. During one of the final workshops one woman broke down in tears thinking about all the black feminists and black LGBTQ she knew who are fighting for the black community and never see that effort being reciprocated. They are always at the forefront of black activists movements, but also suffer all the consequences; getting fired and/or not being hireable for being in the system as activists. Besides performing intellectual and emotional labour, their work is also material labour. She told the story of all the black mothers she knows who have been activists and are now depressed. I never fully considered the price of the effort of all those who gave a face to my experiences, or exactly how much I am indebted to them.

Ofcourse the festival was also filled with a lot of laughter, a lot of food, spiced and well seasoned of course, and music. French rapper Casey attended and spoke on her experience in the French music scene, her black and Caribbean heritage and discussed her music and musical influences. People shared their initiatives and projects. Bonds were created and ideas exchanged. The festival ended with a panel discussion on the perspectives for revolutionary Black Feminism, consisting of women from various black feminist organizations in the UK, Spain, France, Belgium and Holland. Afterward a little girl went up to several of the women who sat on the panel and asked them about their work and why they were doing the work they do. She seemed a bit shy and nervous, but ended up hugging them and taking selfies with them as her mother looked on and smiled.

Something happened in Paris. The city gained meaning, one that cannot be attributed to names in the past. I left Paris with a new impression of the city, a city populated by these women.

Xhercis Méndez: On diversifying Philosophy and decolonizing Feminism

Last week was the 4th annual Conference by women in Philosophy at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Where the goal was to focus on the works of contemporary female philosophers. Sponsored by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Society for Women in Philosophy and the University of Amsterdam, one hopes that it marks a new development towards more diversity in the academic philosophical field.

The conference sessions varied from lectures about objectivity in science, religious identities in democratic societies to lectures of an ethical philosophical nature such as the matter of paid surrogacy, showcasing the variety of topics and disciplines that female philosophers do research in. The conference also offered workshops, providing the attendees practical tools on how to get their papers published. A hassle for many philosophers, but especially to female philosophers as they only make up 21% of employed philosophers in the discipline of Philosophy compared to 41% in the Humanities, and they only make up 17% of full-time faculty.

This year the Keynote lecture was given by Xhercis Méndez, assistant professor in philosophy at Michigan State University. She is a philosopher of Puerto Rican descent and a woman of color in the context of the US. She was born in the mainland (the US), a distinction she emphasizes as Puerto Rico has a colonial relationship to the US. Puerto Ricans have US citizenship regardless of where they are born, but due to the anti-immigrant sentiment in the US, which is often specifically aimed at Spanish-speakers, they face the same xenophobic sentiment as Spanish-speakers from other Latin-American countries.

“When I grew up I was aware of the extent to which my homeland, my home-language, my cultural ways of being and knowing, all of the things that were valuable to my community, were not necessarily valued in school. And it wasn’t part of the curriculum, so I did not see myself reflected in that curriculum growing up”.

Méndez is one of the few Puerto Rican women who has a PhD in philosophy. And looking at the conditions this, as she states, is no accident. Hence the reason why she wants us to attend to the way Philosophy, as an academic discipline, is structured. She argues that Philosophy as a discipline is very structured in a Western-European way.

Méndez initially had no intention on ending up in the philosophy department of Michigan State University. She emphasizes the fact that philosophy is bigger than the way it’s organized academically. And the field as it is academically organized was not welcoming to her political concerns as a woman of color, and she did not feel like having to fight for space for that.

“I didn’t want to have to justify my project to philosophers saying “well that’s not philosophy, prove to me that it is”. That is not my project, it is not my job to prove to you that I’m doing something on your terms”.

She calls this a part of her ‘strategery’, her way of navigating through a somewhat hostile environment. “In the US the department was primarily comprised of very condescending white men, and I didn’t feel like having to be in that company for most of my days. And the students that tended to be attracted to philosophy were also hostile to my political concerns to the project. So I thought there is so much work to be done in the world, why do I want to fight so hard here?” When Méndez graduated she ended up getting hired by the Women/Gender studies department, but as the Philosophy department at Michigan State saw that what she was doing was pushing philosophy they ended up recruiting her. One might wonder how she feels about working there now, so did one of the women in the audience, asking her “So how are the men there?” to which Méndez playfully replies “They’ve been trained”, as they are attentive to issues of diversity and are attempting to shift the field.

Méndez made a conscious choice not to sacrifice the project for the discipline, as you don’t need the discipline to justify the project. However doing that does require putting thought into the conditions you’re in. One of the things she thinks that women who want to pursue a career in philosophy need to have is thick skin in order to tensely occupy their space. Noting to having encountered many women looking for the people in their respective Philosophy departments to recognize that what they’re doing is good, wanting to prove that they are doing philosophy. In this regard it is also important not to personalize the criticism one can expect to receive. “It’s not about you, often times it is about people carving out space for themselves worried about the career that they’ve build being destabilized”. Méndez instead suggests that women start to think about how they develop allies both within and outside of the field, to find people who think that what they’re talking about matters and you build from there.

“When I was going to Grad school I found that it was a lot easier for me to build my allies up, than to convince these people (academic philosophers) that what I was doing was philosophy”.

She argues that this is also beneficial if we want to change the terms of how Philosophy is run and if we’re thinking about a global world, as she states that the way philosophy is taught as is, does not prepare us to deal ethically with transnational issues, nor does it prepare us to be global thinkers and actors. She claims that epistemically and ethically this is not justifiable. Diversity at the university should also be more than just the diversity of bodies. In this she considers Michigan State to be very rare as they have seven faculty members of color in the department of Philosophy, which she says doesn’t happen anywhere. Three of them came in last year and one of the changes they all made in the past year was diversifying the program. At Michigan State students were previously required to follow a course on ancient philosophy and modern philosophy to major in philosophy. “They are asking us to recruit students of color, which means they want us to recruit students of color and women into philosophy, we want their diverse bodies, but we don’t want them to do anything different than how philosophy works”. She and the other faculty members of color refused to do that. They were not willing to recruit anyone until the students were given something they might want to learn about.

“So one of the things that we did is that we added three new philosophical traditions; Latino Philosophy, Indigenous Philosophy and Africana Philosophy. From those five traditions a student can come in and they only have to pick two, so a student can come into our program and never having to do Ancient or Modern [Philosophy]. And we’ve woven in Feminist Philosophy at every level, so you have Feminist Epistemology, Metaphysics with a Feminist bend, you have all types of things that gives students a lot of opportunities to fit themselves in. And that speaks to the diversity of students we have”.

After the Keynote lecture Méndez told me more about her work. She started doing her project that was grounded in thinking about women of color, thinking about political concerns of women of color from a trans-disciplinary perspective. In this she was able to look at bodies, power and sexuality from within Afro-Cuban ritual practices, to talk about the methods we use to understand the world around us. This also highlighted the ways in which Western feminist scholars, in their effort to move us to a more egalitarian society, overlook more egalitarian arrangements that people have because they are imposing the categories they brought with them from Western-European arrangements. In one of her articles Méndez argues that “Gender as a category of analysis limits, distorts, and even mistranslates our understandings of social and power relations in ‘non-western’ contexts and ultimately forecloses our ability to recognize alternative logics at work”(Méndez 2015). This is an idea that we also find in the works of Oyeronke Oyewumi. She urges that we need to think about other arrangements people had instead of assuming that the social arrangements between white European males and females is universal. Furthermore the notion of gender that these feminist scholars brought has a colonial history, an idea which we can also find in the works of Maria Lugones. In her article ‘Notes toward a decolonial Feminist Methodology’ she demonstrates that these categories that they brought, the notions of ‘gender’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, function to obscure the histories and bodies of women of color, who bear the historical mark of slavery and colonization (Méndez 2015). These feminist scholars assumed that Woman as a concept is a cross-culturally identifiable category comprised of an identifiable set of bodies.

“However, the tendency to reduce gender to a referent for body type and or even a particular set of social dynamics makes it practically impossible to take into account the ways in which gender has historically been reconstituted and racialized through, what in the context of the Americas and the Caribbean can be understood as, colonial relations of power” (Méndez 2015).

Ultimately in doing so this view fails to recognize the colonial and neocolonial ways in which gender operates. Méndez argues that the incorporation of the enslaved and colonized into gender categories of ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ is ahistorical and misconstrues the different experience of ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ of enslaved African males and females. “The enslaved were not understood as different kinds of ‘Women’ or ‘Men’, but rather imagined and treated as altogether different types of beings, a different type of species” (Méndez 2015). Which is why Méndez proposes to move towards a decolonial feminist methodology, where part of the goal is to denounce and transform these colonial relations of power and colonial ways of relating.

This thinking about ways to decolonizing thought and decolonizing feminism led her to study Afro-Cuban Santéria. At SUNY Binghamton University Méndez had been part of a group that was doing decolonial thought and decolonial feminism.

“One of the questions we were asking ourselves was ‘what does constitute a decolonial thought, decolonial feminism? What kinds of moves do we have to make to disrupt this long intergenerational impact of colonialism? And where do we go for these kinds of knowledge bases?’  Because part of the narrative is that colonialism was successful, while it destroyed all our history, our archives. I was looking for practices that people have today, presently, that would be a sight to which to think from, a non-Western sight to think from”.

And she found numerous examples of such practices. “If you look at Afro-Cuban Santéria, Afro-Brazilian Candomblé and Hatian vodou, the Caribbean is full of practices that are new, different, but they are not Western. I started exploring what those practices have to tell us about new kinds of categories from which to think. How is it that these practices position people in the world differently”.

Méndez notes that looking at the history of slavery in the context of the US one often ends up with these narratives of dehumanized subjects. And the practices were designed to dehumanize. But one of the things that one will find is that practitioners are not moving to the world with a dehumanized sense of self. So Méndez wants to shift the lens from what the colonizers see when they see ‘the other’ to how people have come to think of themselves and what tools they have to affirm humanity by turning to their practices.

“Western feminists may look at religious practices, they may say that it doesn’t have anything useful to offer women, because religion ‘constrains’ women. But that makes no sense in communities of color”.

So following Oyewumi and Gloria Wekker, she started looking at how this affirming of humanity plays out in Afro-Cuban practices. As such in her article ‘Transcending Dimorphism’ she typifies her turn to Afro-Cuban Santéria practices as a “political investment in considering those spaces that ‘marginalized’ and or ‘abjected’ communities have turned to in liberatory ways” (Méndez 2014).

Méndez looks at the logics being obscured in gender analyses of Santéria practices. She wants to explore the non-gendered logics at work in these practices as there are spaces in Santéria that are created by practices that make little distinction between body-types, practices that are open to every ‘body’. The Orishas (divine entities) can inhabit the different bodies of their initiates, they can take up various forms and are themselves comprised of various aspects. They can manifest themselves as an old wise man in some instances and as an old woman, reckless youth or disembodied divine thought in other instances (Méndez 2014). They can inhabit and move through different kinds of bodies. It is the non-gendered head that allows the human body to be permeable, for the Orisha to enter, not the sexed human body. The body as such is not stable as a fixed materiality (Méndez 2014). For example the Orisha Olokun is referred to in androgynous terms, and is seen as male in some instances and female in other instances. But Olokun is also understood as being simultaneously male and female, and being neither male nor female. There is a fluidity, multiplicity and plurality at work that is not centered on a fixed dimorphically sexed body.

Méndez suggests more studies should be done on these practices as they offer alternative and decolonial arrangements of bodies. They allow us to look beyond gender by offering non-gendered and non-racialized logics. As she argues that true liberation for women of color does not lie in them being included into categories that require them to translate their experiences by adopting Western terms such as gender that bear a colonial history.

 

Sources:

  • Méndez, Xhercis (2014): “Transcending Dimporhism: Afro-Cuban Ritual Praxis and the Rematerialization of the Body”
  • Méndez, Xhercis (2015): “Notes Toward a Decolonial Feminist Methodology: Revisiting the Race/Gender Matrix

 

Why Intersectionality?

[A Translation of my column ‘Waarom Intersectionaliteit?’]

Many of us are familiar with the stereotypes and stigmas that are placed on working women, and the expectations that are imposed upon them.

We know for example that they often receive comments about their appearance, and that they are more often self-conscious about their appearance. We are aware of the fact that they receive comments such as “You look cute”. Or that they are seen as ruthless and unpleasant when they are ambitious, like Miranda Priestley, the character played by Meryl Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’.

But there are also women who are faced with additional stereotypes that don’t exist for other women, on whom stigmas are placed upon that aren’t placed upon other women. Certain expectations are held about these women that aren’t being held about other women.

In these women’s cases it isn’t just the men that are guilty of this, but also the women that don’t’ share the same characteristics as them.

I would now like to talk to you about one such woman.

Sophie Olúwolé

Last week Nigerian philosopher Sophie Olúwolé was in the Netherlands. Her book about Orunmila and Socrates has recently been translated into Dutch and she came here to promote her book. She has a remarkable story; she was born in 1935, during the colonial era. She was the first in Sub-Saharan Africa to earn a PhD in philosophy and she was the only female philosophy student at the faculty of philosophy in Nigeria. She is currently one of the most important philosophers in Africa, she has done groundbreaking work by studying the Yoruba language and the ideas that are contained in it. I wrote my Master Thesis on African Philosophy, and had studied her work for it. So for me it was a great pleasure and a great honor to meet her. I also organized a Masterclass and public lecture about her work in collaboration with NiNsee (The National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy), where she came to talk about her latest book.

She talked about her research, notions of gender in Yoruba thought, the differences in Western and African thought, the stigma that is placed on African philosophy. But she also told fun stories about her childhood and how she got the name Sophie. One of my favorite statements of her she made that day was about the difference she noticed between Western and African marriages. There is no polygamy in the West, like there is in many African cultures. But as she said “In the West you marry 1 wife, divorce 10 times”. She called it ‘Progressive polygamy’. It was a successful event that was frequented by a diverse audience.

White/Hipster Privilege

The night before had gone very differently. A certain philosophical institute, that portrays itself as a life school, co-founded by a popular British philosopher, with franchises in various places around the world, had organized a class with Sophie during which they interviewed her about her book.

In the announcement for the event this institute stated that Africa has a rich philosophical tradition that can make the West look at itself in a different wat. African philosophy can help people in the West to dwell on what they’re feeling and what the people around them are feeling. The feeling and emotion is what Africa can enrich the West with, and its Olúwolé task to bring this knowledge.

It quickly became clear to me that Olúwolé had not been invited as an equally-valued Academic colleague, but as a ‘wise’ woman from Africa. She and the class that had been organized about her book functioned as an ‘exotic outing’ for a group of urban, high-educated young people.

This announcement made me think of an essay by African-American author and activist Bell Hooks, who in her essay ‘Eating the other’ said the following: “The contemporary crises of identity in the west, especially as experienced by white youth, are eased when the “primitive” is recouped via a focus on diversity and pluralism which suggests the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives” and […] “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture”(Hooks 2015:25).

On this night the audience was much less diverse, with significantly fewer people that looked like her. The interview started, this was done by Ikenna Aziuke, who is of British and Nigerian descent. They talked about her work, but also about Nigeria’s colonial past and the consequences of it. What was remarkable was that, not even 30 minutes into the program, people started walking out. I looked around me in a state of bewilderment. These people had paid €42.50 for a ticket and didn’t even bother to sit out a 2-hour program. It was shameful. During the course of the evening more people started to leave prematurely.

In the midst of the program a question round was done. A young white woman asked Olúwolé a question; she asked if the interview could go back to African philosophy, because that is what she came here for. They had now often talked about colonialism, about white and black people, but that is not what she came here for. Could they please go back to just talking about African philosophy. It now became awkward.

Was this young woman acting as her ally, her partner in ‘sisterhood’? Why did this young woman think she could learn from Olúwolé’s philosophical ideas without being confronted with the harsh and painful reality from which they originated; the setting of the reason why African philosophy has been systematically ignored and why Olúwolé’s work is being ignored?

Did she want to withdraw the perks of these ideas, or at least aspects of these ideas, to obtain some sort of wisdom from them without knowing their roots? Apparently to her it was not important to know these ideas in their context. It is as Bell Hooks said: “White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure” (Hooks 2015:158). Or another great quote by Bell Hooks: “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other”

Unfortunately this painful evening had an aftermath. The following day I received an email from the philosophical institute titles “Sophie says sorry”. In this email they apologize, on behalf of Olúwolé, for the evening that had not gone as planned. They knew Olúwolé had a ‘complicated’ accent (Nigerian), and this was the reason why they had asked host Ikenna Azuike to do the interview. Participants of the event were offered a free class with a drink included to soften the blow of the disappointment.

I learned afterwards, through her publisher, that Olúwolé was not aware of this so-called apology.

 

Why intersectionality?

So why Intersectionality? So that female African academics such as Sophie Olúwolé will be considered as equally-values peers, and not as ‘wise African women’.

So that what they have to say, their ideas, will be appreciated and acknowledged in their entirety, instead of merely extracting a supposed essence from them.

Grâce Ndjako

Sources:

Hooks, Belle (2015) “Black Looks”

Waarom Intersectionaliteit?

Disclaimer: This is a column I recited at an event called ‘Vrouwenlogica’ in Amsterdam on May 29, 2017. I recited the column in Dutch, so I decided to publish it in Dutch as well. 

Velen van ons zijn bekend met de stereotypen en stigma’s die er op werkende vrouwen worden geplaatst, en de verwachtingen die hen worden opgelegd.

Dat zij bijvoorbeeld veel vaker opmerkingen krijgen over hun uiterlijk en zich veel vaker van hun uiterlijk bewust zijn. Dat ze opmerkingen krijgen als “U kijkt zo lief”. Of hoe ze als meedogenloze krengen worden afgeschetst als ze ambitieus zijn, à la Miranda Priestley, het personage dat Meryl Streep speelt in ‘The Devil wears Prada’.

Maar daarnaast zijn er vrouwen die daarbij ook nog last hebben van stereotypen die over hen bestaan, die er niet bestaan voor andere vrouwen en stigma’s die op hen zijn geplaatst die niet op andere vrouwen worden geplaatst. Men koestert van deze vrouwen verwachtingen die men niet van andere vrouwen koestert.

In hun gevallen zijn het dan niet alleen mannen die zich hier schuldig aan maken, maar ook vrouwen die niet dezelfde kenmerken hebben als zij.

Ik wil het nu over één zo’n vrouw hebben.

Sophie Oluwole

Afgelopen week was de Nigeriaanse filosofe Sophie Olúwolé in Nederland. Haar boek over Òrúnmìlà en Socrates is onlangs naar het Nederlands vertaalt en zij kwam hier haar boek promoten. Ze heeft een opmerkelijk verhaal; ze is in 1935, in het koloniale tijdperk, geboren. Promoveerde als eerste in Sub-Sahara Afrika in de filosofie en ze was de enige vrouwelijke student aan de filosofiefaculteit in Nigeria. Ze geldt momenteel als een van de belangrijkste filosofen in Afrika, ze heeft baanbrekend werk verricht door de Yoruba taal en de ideeën die daarin schuilen te bestuderen.  Ik heb mijn Master Scriptie geschreven over Afrikaanse filosofie, en hiervoor ook haar werk bestudeerd. Het was voor mij dan ook een groot genoegen en een grote eer haar te mogen ontmoeten. Daarnaast heb ik in samenwerking met het NiNsee een MasterClass en een publieksavond georganiseerd over haar werk, waar zij kwam vertellen over haar laatste boek.

 Ze sprak over haar onderzoek, gendernoties in de Yoruba filosofie, de verschillen in het Westers en Afrikaanse denken, de stigma op Afrikaanse filosofie. Daarnaast vertelde ze ook leuke verhalen over haar jeugd en hoe ze aan de naam Sophie kwam.  Een van mijn favoriete uitspraken van haar die dag ging over het verschil dat zij had opgemerkt in Westerse en Afrikaanse huwelijken. In het Westen kent men dan geen polygamie zoals in veel Afrikaanse culturen, maar zoals ze zei “In the West you marry 1 wife, divorce 10 times”. “Progressive polygamy” noemde ze dit. Het was een succesvolle dag, dat door een divers publiek werd bezocht.

White/Hipster Privilege

De avond ervoor was heel anders verlopen. Een zekere filosofische instelling, dat zich profileert als levensschool, mede-opgericht door een populaire Britse filosoof, met franchises op verschillende plekken in de wereld, had een lesprogramma met haar georganiseerd waarin zij over haar boek werd geïnterviewd.

Ter aankondiging van het evenement vermelde de instelling dat Afrika een rijke filosofische traditie heeft die men in het Westen op een andere manier naar zichzelf kan laten doen kijken. Afrikaanse filosofie kan mensen in het Westen tussen alle drukte heen helpen stilstaan bij wat zij zelf en de mensen om hen heen werkelijk voelen. Het gevoel en emotie van Afrika is waar zij het Westen mee kan verrijken, en aan Oluwole de taak deze kennis te komen brengen.

Het werd voor mij al vrij snel duidelijk dat Oluwole daar niet was uitgenodigd als volwaardige Academische collega, maar als ‘wijze’ vrouw uit Afrika. Zij en het lesprogramma dat rondom haar boek werd georganiseerd zouden fungeren als een ‘exotisch uitstapje’, voor de groep jonge hoogopgeleide mensen uit de grote stad.

Bij deze aankondiging moest ik denken aan een essay van de Afro-Amerikaanse auteur en activiste Bell Hooks, die in haar essay ‘Eating the other’ het volgende zei:

“The contemporary crises of identity in the west, especially as experienced by white youth, are eased when the “primitive”is recouped via a focus on diversity and pluralism which suggests the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives”  en “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture”(Hooks 2015).

Het publiek was deze avond minder divers, met aanzienlijk minder mensen die er als haar uitzagen. Het interview begon, dit werd gedaan door de Brits-Nigeriaanse Ikenna Azuike, er werd over haar werk gesproken, maar ook over het koloniaal verleden en de gevolgen ervan. Wat opviel is dat er, na nog niet eens een half uur, mensen weg begonnen te lopen. Verbaasd keek ik om me heen. Deze mensen hadden €42,50 neergelegd voor een kaartje en namen niet eens de moeite om het 2 uur durende programma uit te zitten. Het was beschamend. In de loop van de avond liepen steeds meer mensen vroegtijdig weg.

Midden in het programma werd er een vragenronde ingelast. Een jonge witte vrouw stelde Olúwolé een vraag; ze vroeg of het gesprek weer kon gaan over Afrikaanse filosofie, daar was ze namelijk voor gekomen. Het gesprek ging nu vaak over het kolonialisme, over wit en zwart, maar daar was ze niet voor gekomen. Kon het nu alsjeblieft weer alleen over Afrikaanse filosofie gaan? Er brak een ongemakkelijk moment aan.

Was deze jonge vrouw op dat moment haar ‘ally’, bondgenoot in ‘sisterhood’? Waarom dacht deze jonge vrouw te kunnen leren van Olúwolé’s filosofische ideeën zonder te worden geconfronteerd met de harde en pijnlijke werkelijkheid waaruit deze zijn voortgekomen; de achtergrond van waarom de Afrikaanse filosofie systematisch wordt vergeten, waarom het werk van Olúwolé wordt vergeten?

Wilde zij van de ideeën, of dan in ieder geval bepaalde aspecten ervan, de voordelen eruit kunnen onttrekken, om hier zelf wijzer van te worden, zonder de wortels ervan te kennen? Het was voor haar kennelijk niet belangrijk om de ideeën in context te leren kennen. Zoals Bell Hooks zei:

“White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure” (Hooks 2015).

Of een ander mooi citaat van Hooks:

“When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other” (Hooks 2015).

Er volgde helaas nog een nasleep op deze pijnlijke avond. De dag erna ontving ik van deze filosofische instelling een mail genaamd “Sophie zegt sorry”. Hierin bieden zij namens Olúwolé hun excuses aan voor de avond die niet zo goed was verlopen. Ze wisten dat Olúwolé een ingewikkeld accent had (Nigeriaans-Engels) en hadden daarom de presentator Ikenna Azuike gevraagd haar te interviewen. Deelnemers aan de avond werden uitgenodigd voor een gratis ‘class’ inclusief drankje om de teleurstelling te verzachten.

Ik leerde achteraf via haar uitgever dat Olúwolé niet op de hoogte was van haar zogenaamde excuses.

Waarom Intersectionaliteit?

Waarom Intersectionaliteit? Zodat vrouwelijke Afrikaanse academici als Sophie Olúwolé als volwaardige collega’s worden gezien, en niet als ‘wijze Afrikaanse vrouwen’.

Dat wat zij te melden hebben, hun ideeën, in hun volledigheid wordt gewaardeerd en erkent, en er niet slechts een vermeende essentie uit wordt getrokken.

Grâce Ndjako

Sources:

Hooks, Belle (2015) “Black Looks”

The Idea of An African Philosophy

Based on a lecture given in the Singelkerk on 24/05/2017

The idea of an African philosophy is still controversial with many within Academia denying its existence and/or its possibility to exist. The debate surrounding its existence is, as stated by Kenyan philosopher Masolo, defined by Western discourse on Africa and the African response (Masolo 1994).

Many have denied the existence of an African philosophy, starting with Hegel. Hegel calls Africa the land of childhood and adds “In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence. […] The African is natural man in his completely wild and untamed state”. This means that Africa is ahistorical, outside of history, and doesn’t have morality, religion or political institutions. The Eurocentrism in his thinking consists of a refusal to attribute a developed consciousness to ‘the other’, in this case Africans.

This thinking of Hegel concerning African philosophy is still present, even among Africans themselves. So the problem also arises from within. As the idea is that the Western type of philosophy is a human universal, this idea has affected many African thinkers.  So that modern African thought has focused not on difference from the West but on sameness with the West.  As the Nigerian sociologist Oyeronke Oyewumi notes “The problem is that many African writers have assumed Western manifestations of the human condition to be the human condition itself “(Oyewumi 1997).

And thus the question arises as to which conditions an authentic African thought can arise which will incorporate African discourses. As Congolese philosopher Valentin-Yves Mudime asserts, to fully escape, fully decolonize, from the West, we need to know what it means to detach ourselves from it, to know till where, how far the West has reached us.

“’Echapper réellement à l’Occident suppose d’apprécier exactement ce qu’il en coûte de se détacher de lui ; cela suppose de savoir jusqu’où l’Occident, insidieusement peut-être, s’est approché de nous (Mudimbe 1982).

Can Africans liberate themselves? It seems that the West is indispensable, essential. Europe seems to be a mediator in every African philosophical endeavor. Africa seems to be locked in an embrace with the West. According to Nigerian sociologist Oyewumi, the challenge lies in how to extricate ourselves and how much one needs to do so. This problem is fundamental because without this loosening we will continue to mistake the West for the Self and Africans will therefore continue to see themselves as the Other. However this has proven to be difficult as multiple attempts have been made to achieve an authentic African philosophy, and yet each time it was proven how big an impact the West has had on African culture and thought.

Négritude

There was the Négritude movement, developed during the 1930’s, which sought to fight the alienation that had occurred during colonial rule. It’s a regaining of consciousness of African culture. “A concrete rather than an abstract coming to consciousness” as Aimé Césaire, one of the founders, put it. Negritude can be further characterized as “the affirmation of the distinctiveness of African cultural values, the confirmation of the being of the African”(Gbadegesin 1991).

But the movement has its origin in surrealism and existentialism. They interpreted surrealism as a disalienation and applied it to their particular situation (Césaire 2000). They were also heavily influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology and Heidegger’s existentialism. Furthermore, they rejected rationalism and claimed that the African has an intuitive reason and emotive capacity, which is a claim proposed by European colonist.

Fanon : One needs to reinvent oneself

“Il faut faire peau neuve, développer une pensée neuve”, is what Frantz Fanon wrote in ‘Les damnés de la terre’. One needs to reinvent oneself, develop a new way of thinking. He thought that a complete tabula rasa was necessary. Former colonies should not aspire to become a copy of Europe, in that case one could have let them rule the continent. Which is why he states that Africa should reinvent itself, develop a new thinking. One could describe Fanon as an existentialist as he draws a large part of his philosophical thought from the concreteness and applicability of personal experience. Also he was heavily influenced by Sartre, notably his ‘reflections on the Jewish question’. The freedom he describes, is a freedom in the Sartrean sense, in which man creates himself, freedom is the basic presupposition of authentic expression and action (Masolo 1994).

 Ethnophilosophers are thinkers such as Alexis Kagame, John Mbiti, Placide Tempels and one might also include Léopold Senghor. They view African Philosophy as the philosophical thought of traditional Africans (Gbadegesin 1991). These thinkers are criticized for merely exposing a worldview. Kagame in particular is criticized for being too Aristotelian, he rests his exposition on the assumption of similarities in thinking between the ancient Greek philosophers and the Bantu people. He uses Aristotelian metaphysical categories and imposes them on Bantu languages. His work can thus be seen as Western philosophy examining the African situation.

Mudimbe : Social reality is a construct

The question Valentin-Yves Mudimbe asks in his work is: “Does this mean that African Weltanschauungen and African traditional systems of thought are unthinkable and cannot be made explicit within the framework of their own rationality?” ( Mudimbe 1988). He noted that it was important for African thinkers to not just be African but also that their works are based on African sources and themes.

But in his own work Foucault is present everywhere, notably his idea that social reality is a construct and his ‘archaelogy of knowledge’. He also relies on Levi-Strauss and his notion of the ‘savage mind’.

So at each time we see that Europe seems to be a condition to the development of an authentic form of thought, even though the goal was to distance oneself from Europe.

‘Professional philosophers’

And so other philosophers, such as Wiredu, Towa and Houtondji have tried to deny the existence of an authentic African philosophy and have claimed that African philosophy needs to be rooted in the European tradition. Wiredu states that:

“Philosophy must have the same meaning in all cultures although the subjects that receive priority, may be dictated by cultural biases” (Bodunrin 1981).

As such African philosophy will just be the philosophical work of any African philosopher, even if they study Plato. Wiredu upholds that African philosophers have no choice but to conduct their philosophical inquiries in relation to the philosophical writings of Western philosophers as they have no heritage of philosophical writings. Furthermore he claims that it is in the West that modern developments in human knowledge have gone farthest and where philosophy is in closest touch with conditions of the modernization (Wiredu 1980).

Their position is Eurocentric as Europe is uphold as a measure and is seen as the center of reason, true humanity and objectivity.

According to Oyewùmí Modern African thought has focused not on difference from the West but on sameness with the West. It is precisely because African intellectuals accept and identify so much with European thinking that they have created African versions of Western things. They seem to think that the European mind-set is universal and that therefore, since Europeans have discovered the way the world works and have laid the foundations of thought, all that Africans need to do is to ad their own ‘burnt’ bricks on top of the foundation. (Oyewumi 1997).

“Western theories become tools of hegemony as they are applied universally, on the assumption that Western experiences define the human” (Oyewumi 1997).

 The issue of Language

What makes researching African thought so difficult is that many researchers have difficulty writing in and understanding indigenous languages. One cannot easily separate culture from language.  Culture reflects the world in images, and through those images conditions a person to see the world in a certain way. Colonial education replaced African traditional principles with foreign ones and it cut their intellectuals from their base (Oluwole 1997).

The writers of the Négritude all expressed themselves in the French language, as do, Fanon and Mudimbe. And the thinkers from the former English colonies express themselves in English. And so the conceptual frameworks embedded in foreign philosophical traditions have been assimilated by these thinkers.

 Gyekye

Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Gyekye pays attention to the problem of language in African thought. It is the job of the African philosopher to explicit, reflect on and interpret the concepts in African thought. Language suggests a philosophical perspective. Modern African philosophy needs to have its roots in African experience, cultural values and thought categories and reflect it. Only then can it be called African philosophy.

“If a philosophy produced by a modern African has no basis in the culture and experience of African peoples, then it cannot appropriately claim to be an African philosophy, even though it was created by an African philosopher” (Gyekye 1995).

As such he disagrees with Hountondji and Wiredu when they say that African philosophy is any philosophical work produced by an African. If an African philosopher researches a Western philosophy, he contributes to our understanding of Western philosophy and not to a better understanding of African thought.

As a philosopher he wants to establish the conceptual scheme of African peoples, in his case the Akan, by analyzing and reflecting on proverbs. Though the question one could ask is whether or not African philosophy needs to be systematic or if this is influenced by Western ideas on philosophy and modeled after their philosophical systems.

Intellectual culture – Oluwole

So wherein lies the possible solution? Nigerian philosopher Sophie Oluwole highlights the importance of the intellectual culture. African philosophy depends on the existence of an African intellectual culture, these are the basic principles that underlie thought. Being intellectually cultured means one is rationally and factually enlightened in thought. And as she asserts

“while philosophy as a discipline does not necessarily coincide with the principles of a people’s intellectual culture, it does pay homage to the latter. This is so since an intellectual culture necessarily underlies every rational endeavor carried out under its influence” (Oluwole 1997).

The search for an intellectual culture and philosophy should not mean a revisiting of old values and perceptions. Rather the argument is that we will never have valid grounds for comparing African thoughts with Western thoughts alternatives if we fail to grasp the basic principles under whose guidance African intellectuals operated (Oluwole 1997).Those fundamental principles can be found in old values, proverbs and perceptions. As such this means  that the task lies in identifying the basic assumption of African conceptual frameworks.

 

© Grâce Ndjako

 

Sources:

  • Césaire, Aimé (2000) « Discourse On Colonialism »,
  • Fanon, Frantz. (2002) “Les Damnés de la terre »
  • Gbadegesin, Segun. (1991) « African Philosophy »
  • Gyekye, Kwame. (1995) “African Philosophical Thought”
  • Hegel, Georg. (1956) “The Philosophy of History”
  • Masolo, D.A. (1994) “African philosophy, in search of identity”,
  • Mudimbe, Valentin-Yves. (1982) “L’odeur du Père”
  • Mudimbe, Valentin-Yves. (1988) “The Invention of Africa”
  • Oyewumi, Oyeronke. (1997) “The Invention of Women”
  • Wiredu, Kwasi. (1980) “Philosophy and an African culture”