How academia uses poverty, oppression, and pain for intellectual masturbation

By Clelia O. Rodríguez

The politics of decolonization are not the same as the act of decolonizing. How rapidly phrases like “decolonize the mind/heart” or simply “decolonize” are being consumed in academic spaces is worrisome. My grandfather was a decolonizer. He is dead now, and if he was alive he would probably scratch his head if these academics explained  the concept to him.

I am concerned about how the term is beginning to evoke a practice of getting rid of colonial practices by those operating fully under those practices. Decolonization sounds and means different things to me, a woman of color, than to a white person. And why does this matter? Why does my skin itch when I hear the term in academic white spaces where POC remain tokens? Why does my throat become a prison of words that cannot be digested into complete sentences? Is it because in these “decolonizing” practices we are being colonized once again?

I am not granted the same humanity as a white scholar or as someone who acts like one. The performance of those granted this humanity who claim to be creating space for people of color needs to be challenged. They promote Affirmative action, for instance, in laughable ways. During hiring practices, we’re demanded to specify if we’re “aliens” or not. Does a white person experience the nasty bitterness that comes when POC sees that word? Or the other derogatory terminology I am forced to endure while continuing in the race to become America’s Next Top Academic? And these same white colleagues who do not know these experiences graciously line up to present at conferences about decolonizing methodology to show their allyship with POC.

The effects of networking are another one of the ways decolonizing in this field of Humanities shows itself to be a farce. As far as I understand history, Christopher Columbus was really great at networking. He tangled people like me in chains, making us believe that it was all in the name of knitting a web to connect us all under the spell of kumbaya.

Academic spaces are not precisely adorned by safety, nor are they where freedom of speech is truly welcome. Not all of us have the luxury to speak freely without getting penalized by being called radicals, too emotional, angry or even not scholarly enough. In true decolonization work, one burns down bridges at the risk of not getting hired. Stating that we are in the field of decolonizing studies is not enough. It is no surprise that even those engaged in decolonizing methods replicate and polish the master’s tools, because we are implicated in colonialism in this corporatized environment.

I want to know what it is you little kids are doing here—that is to say, Why have you traveled to our Mapuche land? What have you come for? To ask us questions? To make us into an object of study? I want to you go home and I want you to address these concerns that I have carried in my heart for a long time.

Such was the response of Mapuche leader Ñana Raquel to a group of Human Rights students from the United States visiting the Curarrehue, Araucanía Region, Chile in April 2015. Her anger motivated me to reflect upon how to re-think, question, undo, and re-read perspectives of how I am experiencing the Humanities and how I am politicizing my ongoing shifts in my rhyzomatic system. Do we do that when we engage in research? Ñana Raquel’s questions, righteous anger, and reaction forced me to reconsider multiple perspectives on what really defines a territory, something my grandfather carefully taught me when I learned how to read ants and bees.

As politicized thinkers, we must reflect on these experiences if we are to engage in bigger discussions about solidarity, resistance and territories in the Humanities. How do we engage in work as scholars in the service of northern canons, and, in so doing, can we really admit what took us there? Many of us, operating in homogeneous academic spaces (with some hints of liberal tendencies), conform when that question is bluntly asked.

As someone who was herself observed and studied under the microscopes by ‘gringos’ in the 1980s, when pedagogues came to ask us what life was like in a war zone in El Salvador, Raquel’s questions especially resonate with me. Both of us have been dispossessed and situated in North American canons that serve particular research agendas. In this sense, we share similar experiences of being ‘read’ according to certain historical criteria.

Raquel’s voice was impassioned. On that day, we had congregated in the Ruka of Riholi. Facing center and in a circle, we were paying attention to the silence of the elders. Raquel taught us a priceless lesson.  After questioning the processes used to realize research projects in Nepal and Jordan, Raquel’s passionate demand introduced a final punch. She showed us that while we may have the outward face of political consciousness, we continued to use an academic discipline to study ‘exotic’ behaviors and, in so doing, were in fact undermining, denigrating and denying lessons of what constitutes cultural exchange from their perspective.

From these interactions in the field emerge questions that go to the heart of the matter: How do we deal with issues of social compromise in the Humanities? In unlearning? In many cases, academic circles resemble circuses rather than centres of higher learning, wherein a culture of competition based on external pressures to do well motivates the relationship between teacher and student.

One of the tragic consequences of a traditional system of higher education is working with colleagues who claim to have expertise on the topic of social activism, but who have never experienced any form of intervention. I am referring here to those academics who have made careers out of the pain of others by consuming knowledge obtained in marginalized communities. This same practice of “speaking about which you know little (or nothing)” is transmitted, whether acknowledged or not, to the students who we, as teachers and mentors, are preparing to undertake research studies about decolonizing.

Linda Smith speaks about the disdain she has for the word “research,” seeing it as one of the dirtiest words in the English language. I couldn’t agree more with her. When we sit down each semester to write a guide to “unlearning’,” or rather a syllabus, we must reflect upon how we can include content that will help to transmit a pre-defined discipline in the Humanities with current social realities. How can we create a space where a student can freely speak his/her mind without fear of receiving a bad grade?

Today, anything and everything is allowed if a postcolonial/decolonizing seal of approval accompanies it, even if it is devoid of any political urgency. These tendencies appear to be ornamental at best, and we must challenge the basis of those attempts. We can’t keep criticizing the neoliberal system while continuing to retain superficial visions of solidarity without striving for a more in-depth understanding. These are acts for which we pat ourselves on the back, but in the end just open up space for future consumers of prestige.

The corridors of the hallways in the institution where I currently work embodies this faux-solidarity in posters about conferences, colloquiums, and trips in the Global South or about the Global South that cost an arm and a leg. As long as you have money to pay for your airfare, hotel, meals and transportation, you too could add two lines in the CV and speak about the new social movement and their radical strategies to dismantle the system. You too can participate in academic dialogues about poverty and labor rights as you pass by an undocumented cleaner who will make your bed while you go to the main conference room to talk about her struggles.

We must do a better job at unpacking the intellectual masturbation we get out of poverty, horror, oppression, and pain–the essentials that stimulate us to have the orgasm. The “release” comes in the forms of discussions, proposing questions, writing grant proposals, etc. Then we move onto other forms of entertainment. Neoliberalism has turned everything into a product or experience. We must scrutinize the logic of power that is behind our syllabi, and our research work. We must listen to the silences, that which is not written, and pay attention to the internal dynamics of communities and how we label their experiences if we are truly committed to the work of decolonizing.


clelia rodriguezClelia O. Rodríguez is an educator, born and raised in El Salvador, Central America. She graduated from York University with a Specialized Honours BA, specializing in Spanish Literature. She earned her MA and PhD from The University of Toronto. Professor Rodríguez has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in Spanish language, literature and culture at the University of Toronto, Washington College, the University of Ghana and the University of Michigan, most recently. She was also a Human Rights Traveling Professor in the United States, Nepal, Jordan, and Chile as part of the International Honors Program (IHP) for the School of International Training (SIT). She taught Comparative Issues in Human Rights and Fieldwork Ethics and Comparative Research Methods. She is interested in decolonozing approaches to teaching and engaging in critical pedagogy methodologies in the classroom.

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6 Comments

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  1. OH Thank you, Dr. Clelia! This is medicine –an antidote to what passes for understanding, commitment, knowledge. I’ve just posted on my FB page. Axé!

  2. This articulates what we are all feeling. Brilliant!

  3. Excellent. Thank you for this.

  4. I agree with you. I’m looking for ways to be inclusive of social justice issues without falling into this trap.

  5. As person in the process of decolonizing decolonization i.e. Examining, going into my thinking and the “places” (states of mind/being and subsequent behaviors; suffering and the many ways I try to escape it) it takes me to… I find this article to be precisely the kind of porn one involved in decolonizing would use to masturbate. Orgasmic indeed.

  6. #Documenta14 in Athens..

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