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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Race and Postcolonialism

Notes by Simran Purokayastha, 2nd PSEng.

Mary Klages begins by laying out the basic premises of the study of ‘Race and Postcolonialism’, in an essay of the same name, by highlighting that ‘the field we call ‘English’ was originally defined based on the equation between nationality and language: an ‘English’ department studies works of literature written in the English language by people whose cultural history could be traced directly back to England… The field of postcolonial theory examines the effect that colonialism has had on the development of literature and literary studies within the context of the history and politics of regions under the influence but outside the geographical boundaries of, England and Britain.’

‘Because it is a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity, colonialism forces the people it dominates to ask themselves the question constantly: ‘In reality, who am I?’’ Frantz Fanon

Postcolonialism claims the right of all people on this earth to the same material and cultural well-being. The reality, though, is that the world today is a world of inequality, and much of the difference falls across the broad division between people of the west and those of the non-west. Edward Said in fact argues that the West (or Occident) produced the non-white, non-Western cultures and people as inferior through a variety of discourses which stated the terms of their existence as inferior. This division between the west and the ‘other’ was fairly concretized by the 19th century with the expansion of European and European- derived powers to include about nine-tenths of the entire land surface of the globe under its rule. Postcolonial discourses begin to arise in the 1960s as thinkers from the former colonies began to create their own forms of knowledge, to counter the discourses of colonialism: these postcolonial discourses articulated the experience of the colonized, rather than the colonizer, giving what’s called the ‘subaltern’ a voice.

The history of colonialism is intricately connected with the economics of capitalism. Apart from the necessary monetary transactions that characterize such a relation, the West exported its own ‘legal, religious, educational, military, political, and aesthetic ideologies along with its economic regime’ (i.e. Marx’s ‘superstructure’, and Althusser’s ‘ISA’). So, Western cultural standards were upheld and all other notions of culture were denounced as inferior and subordinated to Western standards. ‘English’ departments were initially designed to perpetrate this very thought (of Western cultural standards beings masters in every respect) and were employed
(i) to establish the hegemony of British culture worldwide, and
(ii) Act as a regulatory mechanism to teach and enforce the ‘correct’ form of English as a language.
Colonial and imperial rule was legitimized by anthropological theories which increasingly portrayed the peoples of the colonized world as inferior and requiring the paternal rule of the west for their own best interests (‘development’). The basis of such anthropological theories was the concept of race. The west- non-west relation was therefore thought of in terms of whites versus the non-white races. White culture was regarded (and remains) the true embodiment of ‘civilization’.

Race and postcolonial theorists are interested in studying ‘how distinctions based on race are made, circulated, and enforced.’ Mary Klages then goes on to explain how, because physiological facts (such as hair color, eye color and skin color) become signifiers connected to specific ideological signifieds, the concept of ‘race’ is actually a signifying system. She defines ‘racism’ therefore, as ‘the connections of physical signifiers to ideological signifieds in this system (of ‘race’)’. By extension, ‘race’ as a genetic or biological construct, does not exist. Rather, it is a signifying system wherein physical signifiers become connected to cultural conceptions (and misconceptions) that the physical signifiers are assumed to be pointing towards. These connections are, of course, arbitrary. But theorist then continue to question how these arbitrary connections ‘get made, enforced, expanded, reproduced, and/or modified’. The answer most often lies in Foucault’s idea of discourse, says Mary Klages. Writings about race from various academic disciplines (think anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology, literary studies…) connect physical signifiers with a particular trait, behaviour or disposition (‘certain kind of eye shape with a certain kind of intelligence, or a hair texture with a social behaviour’). And thus, ‘racial traits’ are created, elaborated and perpetuated. ‘And when we have made those associations, we then view those signs of race as ‘real’, as ‘true’, as ‘factual’’.

What I am interested in doing now is suggesting how the general liberal consensus that ‘true’ knowledge is fundamentally non-political (and conversely, that overtly political knowledge is not ‘true’ knowledge) obscures the highly if obscurely organized political circumstances obtaining when knowledge is produced. No one is helped in understanding this today when the adjective ‘political’ is used as a label to discredit any work for daring to violate the protocol of pretended suprapolitical objectivity.’ Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1978)

Mary Klages then focuses on Edward Said and his iconic ‘Orientalism’ where he posits that a ‘discourse works to create ‘knowledge’ about a supposed ‘racial’ group’. He uses the example of anthropology and shows how it was a discipline used to create ‘knowledge’ from the perspective of the dominant culture, about the subaltern. He highlights that this knowledge wielded great power and aided the creation and growth of social attitudes, ideologies and practices that defined and delimited the group or culture in question.

‘Said uses the word ‘orientalism’ to refer to the set of discursive practices, the forms of power/knowledge, that Western Anglo-European cultures used to produce (and hence control) a region of the globe known as ‘the Orient’.

It is evident that ‘Orientalism’ depends upon the binary opposition ‘occident/orient’ (west/east). What is interesting to note, however, is that the ‘orient’ is whatever is east of the Anglo-European perspective’. This becomes clearer when one sees that England is the place where time and space begin (Greenwich, England’s GMT (0:00) is what the rest of the world measure time in relation to. Similarly, 0º longitude that runs just east of London is the ‘starting point’ of global navigation.).
Even cultural knowledge about, and representations of, ‘the Orient (al)’ constructed by the West make it a place of ‘otherness’.

Consider the following:

Note that the Orient is everything that the Occident does not want to be. Simply, the West’s construction of the Orient is a projection of all that the West considers negative or has to keep repressed. By placing all forms of ‘otherness’ on the Orient, on the right side of the binary opposition, the Occident can construct itself as all positive.

‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much, What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea- something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice too…’
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902)

The history of imperialism is the history of discourses about colonized places in various forms (official government reports, personal travel narratives, imaginative fiction…) and even this creation of discourse about a colonized culture, unmistakably, works also to silence that colonized culture, which cannot ‘talk back’, or write about itself. Any attempt to do so is considered illegitimate, non-knowledge, nonsense.

Postcolonial theory is concerned with what happens when the formerly colonized culture actually begins to produce knowledge by and of itself, insisting upon making itself heard. In such a situation, thinking about it via deconstruction, the binary oppositions ingrained in the culture’s psyche begin to fall apart, resulting in newer and hopefully more accurate ‘knowledge’ (conceptions).

In connection with this deconstruction of binary oppositions, Klages discusses the works and theories of three thinkers: Henry Louis Gates Jr., Homi Bhabha and Gloria Anzaldua.


  • Connection between postcolonial theories and contemporary African-American theories
  • His article- ‘The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Money’

Familiar to literary theorist’s post-Saussure, ‘signifying’ is typically used in the context of ‘signification’. In African-American cultural usage, the same term takes on a different meaning; that of what Gates calls ‘the dozens’, calling out, rapping and testifying. He insists that this ‘signifyin’’ is not just how African-Americans talk as a natural consequence of little/improper education or because they don’t know the ‘correct’ (where ‘proper’ would be that which is ‘hegemonic dominant cultural’, or ‘white’) forms of speech; rather, the activity of signifyin’ comes from an African and African-American tradition, just as classical rhetoric comes from the tradition of Greek and Latin modes of speech. He traces the roots of black signifying to African mythology and specifically to the archetype of the ‘Signifying Monkey’.

‘Signifying’ therefore, is ‘a form of verbal play, centering primarily on the insult, whereby people can demonstrate a mastery of improvisational rhyme and rhythm; the demonstration of such verbal mastery is a mechanism for empowerment within communities where other forms of power- political, economic- are unavailable.’

This practice is linked to the mythological figure of the Signifying Monkey, who is able to trick the more powerful animals in the jungle through his verbal skills. The link between the two is on at least two levels:
(i) the figure, and the practice, come directly from African cultural mythology, and
(ii) the figure of the Monkey in particular, plays on the racist construction of Africans as apes, and therefore less human than whites. The Signifying Monkey thus takes a figure from the white racist idea of blackness and refigures it and signifies on it so as to represent ‘a person with verbal power and the ability to stir up conflict between those who have more social power than he does’, a far cry from the construct of the ‘inferior monkey’.

Gates also looks at the Signifying Monkey as a subject position within language, at the fringes of ‘correct’ i.e. hegemonic, dominant cultural forms of speech. In this position, the Monkey is able to use words with greater flexibility and signify and shift meanings (fluidity), as compared to the speaker closer to the center of language. ‘Gates celebrates the subversive power of fluid language to disrupt existing hierarchies which create binary relations of domination and subordination’.


What does need to be questioned, however, is the mode of representation of otherness.’
Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (1994)

  • Ethnicity

  • Ethnic cleansing

  • The race-ethnicity-nationality connection

  • Identity (examination: humanist model and poststructuralist perspective)

  • ‘Overdetermined’ and multiply constructed

  • Capitalism as ‘connective narrative’

Primary focus: ‘Hybridity’ and ‘Imagined Communities’
People determined by/part of more than two ideologies or those who are not part of any discourse are said to occupy a ‘hybrid’ position, in Homi Bhabha’s words. Such hybridity is inherently deconstructive, as it breaks down any possibility of a stable binary opposition. Klages says ‘any place where you can cross categories, inhabit two subject positions at once, or find the space between defined subject positions, is a place of hybridity’. Examples include refugees, transsexuals, women etc…
Bhabha then moves on to argue that the idea of a homogeneous, stable concept of belonging to a nation becomes prone to profound redefinition once we recognize the idea of hybridity. He says we belong to ‘imagined communities’ that shape our identity and that we claim as our own. Nationality is an example of one. Hybridity challenges the idea of a unified ‘imagined community’ by bringing up the idea that one might belong to many communities or cultures at once.

Bhabha is interested in forces and identities that destabilize the idea of a homogeneous ‘imagined community’ and argues that the concept of ‘nation’ is built upon the exclusion (or even extermination) of those who are described as not belonging to the nation. He concentrates on refugees as an example. ‘The performance of identity as iteration, a re-creation of the self in the world of travel, the resettlement of the borderline community of migration, is where Bhabha locates the project for those not included in unified definitions of ‘nationhood’’, says Klages. One important place where this happens, according to Bhabha, is in literature. Literature has, for long, been solely associated with nationality but, times have changed and literature needs to give voice to the transnational, the hybrid, the postcolonial and the refugee experience. This, he says, will, in fact act as a transformation tool that will change how we think about literature itself.


Homi Bhabha’s idea of the ‘hybrid’ finds a parallel in Gloria Anzaldua’s concept of ‘the border’. The border is both the space between cultures, classes, races, ideologies- the slash- and the place where they meld and mix (both sides of the slash and on neither side of it).
Anzaldua, in her essay, focuses on naming ‘the multiplicity of identity formations she inhabits simultaneously and contradictorily’. Her views concur with that of (post)structuralists who maintain that language speaks us. She asserts that ‘ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity- I am my language’. But those who occupy ‘the border’, she says, are ‘deslanguadas’ (without language)- ‘a linguistic nightmare, those who speak an orphan tongue and therefore culturally crucified’.
It is important to note that while Bhabha fights for the necessary presence of hybridity in literature, Anzaldua asks in what language such texts can or should be written, especially when one’s language is illegitimate or otherwise unacceptable.
Anzaldua’s own essay, in English and Spanish, embodies her answer to this problem. Anzaldua sees her linguistic mixture as a mode of empowerment, rejecting both sides of a choice structured as a binary opposition. Here again, one sees the fluidity of such a de-centered subject position. She claims this fluidity as a form of power: ‘Maimed, mad and sexually different people were believed to possess supernatural powers by primal cultures’ magico-religious thinking. For them, abnormality was the price a person had to pay for his/her inborn extraordinary gift’.

References and Recommended Reading:

· Pinto, Anil. Race and Postcolonialism. Christ University. Mar. 2011. Lecture

· Young, Robert J.C. Postcolonialism A Very Short Introduction. Rev. ed. 2007. India: OUP, 2003. (Available in the Christ University library, MA Philosophy section)

· Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Ed. 2001. India: Penguin Books, 1978. (Also available in the Christ University library)

· Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. Ed. 1994. Great Britain: Penguin Books, 1902. (Also available in the Christ University library)




@modestgrrl said...


This is one of the best pieces on postcolonialism I have ever read. Seriously.

Anil Pinto said...

Extremely well-written. Hats off to you Simran.

Kapitblom! said...

Thank you modestgrrl and Mr. Pinto. I thoroughly enjoyed the entire process- gratifying to receive such response.