The Power to Undo

W.E.B Du Bois’ famous question, ‘How Does it Feel to be a Problem?’ has long underpinned explorations of race as a lived experience. A similar question drives Frantz Fanon querying in Black Skin, White MasksThe answer given by Du Bois sheds light on the fact that the construction of the Other as a problem has little to do with the ontological reality of African-American people, and everything to do with the need of white society to cast those it had enslaved and made into property as the source of ‘the problem’. The casting of Black people in the United States, of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, and Indigenous people in other settler colonies, as well as racialised people of all backgrounds as problems continues to be central to the enactment of racial rule. And essentially, the problematisation of these populations continues to drive much of the research carried out among them by western academia.

This week in Understanding Race, we are considering questions of epistemology and methodology as they relate to research on race more broadly. Last year, I dealt with this topic with a grounding in the crucial work of Māori academic, Linda Tuhiwai Smith on ‘Decolonizing Methodologies‘, and Patricia Hill Collins‘ seminal work on Black feminist epistemologies, paradigms and methodologies in Black Feminist Thought. I ended by considering David Theo Goldberg’s proposal that beneficial research on race employs an interactive and relational methodology that eschews comparativism, recognising the necessary circular, transnational and interdependent nature of racial logics and systems, given that they evolved in a global racial-colonial setting.

This week we are lucky to have a visit from Associate Professor Jason de Santolo (UTS School of Design) who is a co-editor and contributor to the new volume, ‘Decolonizing Research: Indigenous storywork as methodology’ (2019) with Jo-Ann Archibald and Jenny Lee-Morgan (Zed Books) which is very much an inheritor of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s classic work. The volume, and De Santolo’s own contribution, ‘The Emergence of Yarnbar Jarngkurr from Indigenous Homelands: A Creative Indigenous Methodology,’ uses the language of relationality extensively, thus giving meaning and more depth to the comments made by Goldberg some years ago. For example, De Santolo cites Māori scholar and activist, Leonie Pihama as saying that  Kaupapa Māori theory, which emerges through work such as language revitalisation for example, ‘can be expressed more profoundly as a key aspect in the essence of seeking life, resonance and a relational reality for all Indigenous Peoples (Cayete 1994).’

Indigenous research is said to be guided by three principles – the 3 Rs of Respect, Reciprocity, and Relationality (Magnat), or in other places, by 4 Rs – respect, reverence, responsibility and reciprocity (Archibald et al 2019). These principles, were added to with three more by Jo-Ann Archibald Q’um Q’um Xiiem: holism, interrelatedness and synergy. If we look at all of these guiding ideas, they revolve around the idea of deep and reciprocal communication, of respect and understanding of the basic truth that we are all interconnected, not only to each other as humans, but to other species and to the earth. Relationality, as I read it, then, contains two interrelated aspects – the establishment and care for relationships and the knowledge of how things already interrelate. In this sense, Indigenous epistemologies seem to add something crucial to Goldberg’s intent in writing about relationality which emphasised the interrelatedness of systems and ideas (of race) and emphasised less the elements of codependency which emanates from the the first reading of relationality that emerged from Indigenous approaches.

Thinking with this two-sidedness I wish to explore some questions which relate to the ways in which academics, be it students or more established scholars, design and conduct research. De Santolo remarks that there is currently a ‘decolonising research movement’ and an ‘Indigenous renaissance… tied to a global movement that reclaims our narratives, authority, and autonomy from within an Indigenous self-determination framework’ (p. 245). However, there are also the ongoing ‘policies and impacts of colonial governments and neoliberal economic systems’ (p. 244) which as he remarks are subjecting Aboriginal people for example to the ‘disastrous ongoing impacts of mining’ (p. 240), and the threat to water, which is life, as witnessed also in the context of the Dakota Pipeline Struggles as brought to global attention by the Standing Rock protests of 2017. The struggle to protect waterways is there subject of Jason de Santolo’s documentary film, Warburdar Bununu: Water Shield.

Therefore, Indigenous research principles and practices are still contained within the western academy where they remain open to cooptation and becoming their own form of shield. This is the remark made in passing by Eve Tuck in the opening to her lecture, ‘Biting the Hand the Feeds You’, when she raises the possibility that her research, grounded in her Unangax culture, could nevertheless be used as part of a top-down ‘Indigenizing‘ agenda being promoted by Canadian universities.

On the one hand, as the introduction to Decolonizing Research makes clear, Indigenous researchers are proceeding with conducting research on their own terms, often subverting conventions of the academy, for example by refusing to be tied to particular discipline. As the volume, which centres around Indigenous storywork, makes clear this involves giving voice to stories told by Indigenous elders  that contain life lessons and from which we can derive meaning. These stories resist western positivist accounts ‘with an objective facade of research, and an assumed position of racial superiority’ (Archibald et al. 2019: 5). On the other hand, however, those mobilising these commitments to decolonising methodologies are not only confronted with ongoing positivism, which continues to construct Indigenous and other racialised peoples as ‘problems’, but also by white and/or non-Indigenous researchers who wish to either carry out research with Indigenous communities or use these methodologies. The popularisation of decolonisation as a paradigm has already been pointed out for a number of years by those critical of its popularity as a concept in ways that are often not accompanied by its material application. This is the main crux of Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang’s 2012 paper, ‘Decolonization is Not a Metaphor‘ in which they remind readers that ‘Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.’ In other words, while these aims may be important, decolonization has to entail giving up material privileges. They argue that the metaphorization of decolonization enables ‘”settler moves to innocence” that problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity’ (p. 1). Decolonising research methodologies, therefore, run the risk of allowing non-Indigenous scholars and students who employ them to overlook other ways in which they are complicit in upholding and maintaining coloniality.

Relationality, in this way, also opens itself up to subversion in that it is possible to focus on the principle of interrelatedness and connectivity as a mechanism for individualising, for example the researcher-researched relationship, and to put aside the systemic logics within which that exists. It appears to me then that the question is to which extent those committed to really deeply engaging with the principles put forward by scholars and activists such as Archibald and her colleagues can participate in a wider decolonising exercise by using the university, in the sense discussed by Robin Kelley, in order to subvert for the purposes of what he calls ‘Black struggle, Black study‘ (or what Harney and Moten call The Undercommons) – in other words to strategically ignore the university and its demands – or whether this is an impossibility particularly when non-Indigenous researchers benefit personally from the relationships cultivated and (inadvertently) then bolster the neoliberal, colonial academy.

The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary (Linda Tuhiwai Smith)

In the foreword to the new edition of Decolonising Methodologies, Tuhiwai Smith remarks that the above words are those most quoted from her book. She often hears Indigenous people she meets in different countries speak about the fact that they remain the most researched people in the world. Even in Aotearoa where, as she claims, Māori people have become much more active in conducting their own research, ‘many approaches to research remain insulated against the challenges of either indigenous research or stronger ethical protocols, and continue to see indigenous peoples, their values and practices as political hindrances that get in the way of good research’ (Tuhiwai Smith 2012: ix). Therefore it is not possible to consider questions around what a decolonised research methodology would look like in the absence of a structural critique of the institutions in which research takes place.

As William Jamal Richardson notes, in the edited volume Decolonising the University, while it is important to challenge Eurocentric epistemologies in texts, it is insufficient to do so if ‘structural and physical factors of the colonial world help create and maintain the same epistemology that scholars are currently trying to decolonise’ (p. 231). So, while the radical decolonising ideas exist in great supply, they are not given the space and context in which time emerge and have impact. So,

We have to consider how marginalised communities and decolonial scholars need not only to intervene in epistemic debates but also to intervene politically in the physical spaces in which these debates often take place (p. 232).

Richardson, following Frickel et al., writes about ‘undone science’, ‘areas of research that are left unfunded, incomplete, or generally ignored but that social movements or civil society organizations often identify as worthy of more research’ (Frickel et al. 2009: 444). Richardson remarks that the fact that there is so much research that never gets done because it goes unfunded or unrecognised despite being seen as of value by social movements or communities, means that we cannot ignore ‘agenda-setting as an overtly political process that determines what science is done and what science is undone’ (Richardson 2019: 232). He proposes that scholars working in the new political sociology of science (NPSS) unveil how the production of knowledge is never independent from its ‘relationship to societal interests and structures of power’ (p. 233). Undone science operates in the context of Eurocentrism which underpins what science is done and what is not. In this context colonised people, as has long been recognised by anticolonial writers, have not been recognised as knowledge producers leading to their knowledge being conceived as what Knorr-Cetina calls ‘Negative knowledge’ (Richardson p. 234). He remarks that in settler colonial societies Indigenous knowledges are construed as negative because of the imperative to destroy them in the act of domination. An example of this is the dying out of Indigenous languages which is an act of genocide.

In a context today in which there is growing interest in decolonising knowledges and in settler colonies such as Australia and Canada, for example, to ‘indigenise’ the curriculum and research, it is vital to hold together the structural and the epistemological. In his chapter in Decolonising the University, Professor Kehinde Andrews who heads Black Studies at Birmingham City University, remarks that ‘if you decolonize your knowledge base you will quickly decolonize your staffing’ (Andrews 2018: 132). To create the conditions for greater racial literacy, he argues, we have to work within the means available to us, in spaces educators can carve out within the often unforgiving setting of the neoliberal academy, in community spaces created by Black, Indigenous and people of colour along with white antiracists, using publications of various kinds including websites, blogs, social media platforms, and so on. However, while it is important, as Indigenous researchers in particular have shown, to do the work regardless and to trust, as Jason De Santolo remarked during his talk to our class, that the future will happen, Richardson insists that this cannot mean denying the structural violence perpetuated by the university as an institution (something Indigenous scholars and students are keenly aware of and mobilise against). Given the fact that academic institutions, particularly but not uniquely in settler colonies, are deeply imbricated with colonial violences of all kinds, it is incumbent upon these institutions not only to include Indigenous and Black perspectives and so on, but to take action to ensure that the cycle of violence is ended. This could mean universities divesting from fossil fuel, mining, the armaments, and prison/asylum detention industries, for example. As Richardson writes, the first thing universities have to do is to ensure ‘colonised and marginalised people don’t die’ (p. 241). The universities of Chicago (Northwestern and University of Chicago) were birthed via the genocide on Indigenous people and the wealth of enslavement respectively. Therefore, it is not academic (forgive the pun) to argue that universities have been directly involved in dispossession and death. The wealth of private and public institutions is owed to the lives of Indigenous and enslaved people. Therefore, as researchers committed to social justice, it is insufficient only to focus on the purported value of an individual piece of research or research collaboration without considering how it may serve the objectives of a university committed to ‘indigenising’ or ‘decolonising’ agendas that remain at a superficial level.

Epistemically, these questions give rise to an interesting tug between two competing impulses. On the one hand, the decolonising initiatives of various kinds which are exciting scholars and students across the world and which have spearheaded movements such as Rhodes Must Fall and Why is My Curriculum White? present exciting avenues of scholarship that involve ‘listening outside of the pre-established Eurocentric episteme.’ On the other hand, the unavoidable fact that these campaigns and epistemic adventures are constructed in reaction to the Eurocentrism of the academy runs the risk of recentering Eurocentric and white scholarship by focusing excessively on what is wrong with academia as it stands; focusing too much on tearing down and not enough on building up. However, as Ali Kassem remarks, the bind in which decolonial scholars are placed, particularly those from the Global South, is not an easy one because the majority of funding and publishing possibilities still exist in the Global North so that, in order to exist, it is impossible for scholars working from the marines to completely ignore this hegemonic order.

It may be that scholars need to take heed of Linda Tuhiwai’s remarks that it is impossible to avoid positivistic research despite the fact that some (much) of it has been unsympathetic to Māori. She writes that Kaupapa Māori is ‘imbued with a strong anti-positivistic stance’ (2012: 189). However, she writes that there are pragmatic considerations to take into account, such as that positivist research attracts funding and that there are already existing relations between Māori and health researchers for example that can be of benefit when we are talking about communities facing crisis levels of ill health and other severe issues of social deprivation. The attempt of Kaupapa Māori as a research practice, but also as a way of life, is to weave ‘in and out of’ Māori and western values, ways of knowing, Māori experiences and western education, politics, etc. It is a recognition that there is no way to return to a time before colonisation and that there are positives that can be garnered from western modes of knowing, while being cognisant of the myriad ways in which they have also been fonts of oppression.

This leads me to some final remarks derived from my reading of the introduction to Julietta Singh‘s Unthinking Mastery. I would like to thanks my PhD student, Tabitha Prado-Richardson for introducing me to this book. Mastery, she remarks, is everywhere and has been a central axe of the anticolonial movement in its quest for colonised people to become the subjects of their own destiny. She explores how for two anti colonial figures, ‘Mohandas K. Gandhi and Frantz Fanon—key players in the first two chapters of this book—decolonization was an act of undoing colonial mastery by producing new masterful subjects’ (p. 2). The books seeks to uncover the workings of mastery within decolonisation movements and thought in order to notice them with the aim of  achieving ‘forms of what I call dehumanist solidarity, this book reaches toward other modes of relational being that may not yet be recognizable’ (p. 1). In so doing, Singh interrogates the centering of the human as ‘Man’ that accompanies efforts to recuperate colonised peoples from their dehumanisation under colonisation. She is inspired by Black thinkers such as Sylvia Wynter and Alexander G. Weheliye who are sceptical about the possibilities of this recuperation and explore instead ‘other modalities of being human’ that don’t ask for inclusion in the compromised Human of Eurocentric construction. Singh suggests there is potential in dehumanism which would involve stripping away the ‘violent foundations of colonial and neocolonial mastery’ (p. 4). However,

Dehumanism requires not an easy repudiation and renunciation of dehumanization but a form of radical dwelling in and with dehumanization through the narrative excesses and insufficiencies of the “good” human—a cohabitation that acts on and through us in order to imagine other forms of political allegiance (ibid.).

So, as she puts it, ‘dehumanism begins with the dehumanised’ in an effort to decentre the Eurocentric summation of the human to Man, which under colonial logics, has ignored the myriad and denied ways of being human. As such, and this is what is of interest for doing research, Singh suggests that ‘dehumanism is driven by the promises of vulnerability with the aim of forming other less masterful subjectivities’ (p. 6). The openness to uncertainty has practical implications for defeating the hegemony of positivism because it radically questions central controlling impulses such as ‘viability’ and ‘credibility’ which Singh remarks drives scholarship and ‘continuously relies on mastery as its subject’ (p.8).

These ideas are extremely generative but they exist in a structure which remains closed to their full potentiality. I think that in terms of what students are confronted with while designing their research and considering its ethical implications is that it is the academy itself that allows for the flourishing of these ideas while consistently stopping short of actually allowing them to produce lasting change. Nevertheless, as the Introduction to Decolonising Research outlines, the journey begins, perhaps, with storywork, which is a practice of giving voice in order to ‘rectify the damage and reclaim our ability to story-talk, story-listen, story-learn and story-teach’ (p. 7). This permits Indigenous people to ‘collectively become an Indigenous research community across tribal nations, borders and countries’ (ibid.). Given that this is happening and is an unstoppable force, we can but trust that like a rock gathering moss it will bring about the change that is necessary to radically transform knowledge. However, where non-Indigenous and white researchers place themselves in relation to this movement is still a question that cannot be ignored. While there are huge structural transformations that need to occur, there are smaller actions that everyone can participate in that start to make a change. One example that comes to mind is the ‘Cite Black Women‘ movement which has five guiding principles:

#1 – Read Black women’s work
#2 – Integrate Black women into the CORE of your syllabus (in life & in the classroom).
#3 – Acknowledge Black women’s intellectual production.
#4 – Make space for Black women to speak.
​#5 – Give Black women the space and time to breathe. 


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