Cape Coast Castle

All the stone on the castle is painted white in the Cape Coast sun. When you re-emerge from the dungeon, even after only 5 minutes down there, the world will blind you. The dungeon is composed of three or so chambers. The large one –around 7 by 15 metres – is meant to hold a hundred men, easily. There are two slits high in the wall where a tiny amount of light drips through. And if you stand still enough, you’ll feel the faintest of breeze.

When it rains outside, the water spraying through the slits washes the faeces, urine and vomit down two drains chiselled into the stone floor. Otherwise, the kidnapped sit and lie in and amongst their filth. The floor is black, not stone grey. The black has been chemically tested. We are standing on the centuries old sedimentation of excrement that has irrevocably stained the stone. The middle passage begins in the rock of the continent, not on the waves of the Atlantic.

A subterranean passage leads from the dungeon to emerge just before the door-of-no-return. Thereafter that kidnapped will be deposited on the surf, by the waiting boats. After 1833 the dungeon entrance to the passage is bricked-up on orders of the governor. The passage behind remains. Abolition as a plastering over of horror; self-congratulations for good souls. A thin veil.


Immediately above the dungeon entrance stands the chapel. The floor of the chapel is the roof of the dungeon. Christians above chant praises to the white god as the captives below are condemned to his hell. When the congregation mumble their prayers, when they listen to the pastor, when they sing their psalms, do they discern the moans, cries, discussion, argument, chants, songs under their heels? Or does it all merge into the sound of breaking waves, a natural scape?

It can’t be so easy.

To the European sensibility nothing of much note can differentiate the captives from the peoples who surround the castle. Who trade food and provisions. Whose authorities meet with those of the castle. Who are servants in the castle. Who fish besides the castle. Who load the stumbling, blinded enslaved into small boats by the rocks. Those in the dungeon are not minority. Nor uncanny, nor phantasmagorical. They are quotidian – the majority.

What is the level of self-deception that is required to render a human being into a dumb animal? What is the psychic investment that you must make to hate those things who should not be talking like humans? You must deny to yourself even the most basic instinctive empathy, despite the evidence in front of your eyes. You must damn them to non-human hell. You must build a chapel on top of their heads to seal the investment. The beast is never buried. Theirs is a living sickness, an acquired taste that you must learn to enjoy.

20170325_122323 xxThe governor’s spacious living quarters are positioned above the chapel. Catching the best of the breeze, a panorama of blue, ending with the lookout hill. Can he smell the dung? Is incense lit regularly? What can he hear? Is it high enough?

Opposite the dungeon in a corner lies a door that leads immediately to another door that leads immediately to another door beyond which is a medium sized cell. There is no window, not even a slat. With just one door shut, the space is already sweltering. When all three doors lock, the tomb becomes a vacuum. The most rebellious of the enslaved are deposited here. The three doors shut and are not opened until two days later to release the corpse.

As you stand in the cell, attention is directed to the patterns on the floor. They are carved by the condemned. I see circles. Almost perfect circles. They must be carved with the iron of the shackles. The more I look, the more there are. I am standing on them. I don’t want to stand on them.  I feel the intimacy of the prison as an antechamber. Are they portals to the ancestors?  Or are they the Adinkrahene, the symbol of chieftancy and leadership? There is a commonly accepted story that only the strongest – the most rebellious – survived the Atlantic passage. I wonder if this is actually the case.

There is another chamber, quite far away from the chapel, at the end of the castle, just by the door of no return. It is where the women captives are stacked. When you condemn an animal to hell there must be some fleeting  recognition of its humanity. Is it better to not be recognized at all? Not even hell blesses the women. Albeit a special, cramped cell for those who refuse to be raped by the governor. There are no drainage channels cut into the stone floor of the women’s hold. Unlike the men, their faeces, urine and vomit mixes on the floor… and mixes… with menses too. No respite come the rain. Slavery was never supposed to reproduce the enslaved.


Just five metres away, and we are outside. The verso to the door of no return has been renamed the door of return. Looking back we are looking forward. The erasure of one word can reveal a whole cosmos. The enslaved are never dehumanised. Individuals, families, groups,  suffer the worst of dehumanisation. But the practice of humanity is woven into every community of fate. Neither is this purely a new world fabric. Africa bears witness from the beginning. Every retrieval is a creation.

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Liberalism and Fascism, Nov 2016

Should we defend liberal modes of governance from far-right fascist takeover?

Yes. Avowedly. Even as we would be supporting colonial difference in the same defense.

I am addressing this contradictory answer to an imagined company of liberals, leftists and alt-lefters living in European, North American and predominantly-white commonwealth countries.


Liberal governance, at least in its western forms, has always reproduced colonial difference.

What I mean by colonial difference is a multi-faceted and (only) partially mutable racialized division of humanity into the humans who deserve empathy, dignity, rights protections and the satiation of needs – and those who are not deserving of the same.

It’s true that liberal governance has and can make these divisions legally, both globally and domestically, especially in settler colonies.  Nonetheless, in the post-slavery and post-colonial era liberal governance also upholds a public sphere defined by equality – especially in terms of treatment and, possibly, opportunity.

Again, legal censures have and do sometimes guard who can partake in the public sphere. But just as importantly – and this is the point I want to emphasize – even the act of partaking in this liberal sphere is mediated by colonial difference.

Think about legal “personality” – that which allows an entity to claim and exercise legal capacity.

There is the individual personality of liberal lore that affirms entry to the public sphere (i.e. nowadays citizenship, maturity, sanity etc). However, this individual personality exists alongside and is complicated by racialized differences. These differences manifest in collective personalities that are placed in a hierarchy of competency fading through ill-competency to un-competency and implicating gender, sex, class, religion etc.  These de-facto – not necessarily de jure – collective personalities nonetheless impinge upon the universal reach and equitable character of the de-jure individual personality.

For example, in liberal global governance all (or the vast majority of) polities might enjoy a de jure personality that expresses sovereign equality: the individual state sits next to other individual states.

And yet the “international community” constitutes itself as a historically racialized collective personality that deems itself more competent to defend the law of sovereign equality than the rogues or failed personalities of statehood.

(It is telling, by the way, that the key principle in the evolution of European international law was not so much sovereignty for all but more so non-intervention for some – Europeans vis-à-vis other Europeans).

Such racialized divisions of collective personality are also de facto implicated in domestic liberal governance alongside and despite de jure individual personality.

Laws require political will to put into action and to monitor. And that requires empathy for those who are considered deserving. Yet the reach of this empathy is practically segregated through colonial difference. In other words, even within liberal governance, some collective personalities are felt/assumed to be more deserving of the law, of protection and of their needs to be satiated than others.

Remember that the era of neoliberal governance, at least in the UK, was the era of statutory anti-discrimination acts. Yet these acts in no way stopped the counter-terrorist Prevent agenda that de facto targets Muslim citizens from nursery school onwards. “British values” is consonant with the “international community”: both enunciate a competent collective personality in distinction to ill-competent and un-competent personalities (secular-Christian vs Muslims, gay and women defenders vs harbingers of Sharia etc) despite of and in the presence of the proclaimed legal equality of liberal governance.

Neither have the UK anti-discrimination acts arrested a greater disproportionality in the number of black people in UK prisons than in the United States.

Indeed, some worry that the incompetent nature of collective Black personality to be properly “civil” could even be infecting the competent nature of white personality through the reach of “urban” culture. So believes David Starkey when, in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in urban England, he claims that the whites (involved in rioting) are becoming the new “blacks”.

And we could go on.

But where is the outcry?

Tell me, seriously, where is the PUBLIC OUTRAGE over these affronts to liberal principles of governance? I will tell you. The economy of outrage is differentiated along racialized lines and made common-sense through collective personalities. (There is always outrage enough, however, for the “men in Brussels” and spurious stories of straight bananas).

True, the one thing liberal governance offers for all is “recourse” to the law. Yet that is costly and procedurally obscure. And, once more, the political will to uphold the “spirit” of the law is quite simply lacking in the first place. Worse, it seems to be a non-issue.

Yes there are legal victories sometimes, even for the “dubious” personalities. Inquiries too over institutional racism, for example.

Are these important?

Of course.

Must we pursue them?

Every time.

Could we even argue that liberal governance, as we know it now, is a space of formal equality at least partially molded from the struggle against colonial difference?


Is liberal governance the solution to colonial difference?

Absolutely not.


Fascism comes from colonial difference. Examine the history of the first fascist state, Italy, if you are unsure.

What does fascism do? It institutionalizes colonial difference as the fundament of governance by removing liberal instruments that guarantee a formal space of equality – especially the individual personality of civil society.

Fascism generalizes in extremis the difference that liberal governance keeps as its “underbelly”.

That is to say, if contemporary liberal governance by and large manages to effect a de facto difference in collective legal personalities via memories of precedent, tacit knowledge and cultural assumptions, then fascism grasps this difference formally – legislatively and executively.

With the fascist personality supreme, there is ONLY the deserving compliant indigens versus the alien races and race traitors (like the UK judges who dared to return the decision to implement Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to Parliament.)

With fascism, the public space of liberal governance is shut down. Colonial difference is everything.  In that situation, even white people suffer from race. Of course, black and brown people suffer more, even if some of those who already suffer the most might not quite see a difference day-to-day… I don’t know.

I teach a module on Race and World Politics. In parts, I wish to provoke my students to think on the complicity of liberalism in race and racism.

But I shiver at the prospect of not being able to appeal, in the first instance, to the liberal sensibilities of my students, especially my white students who, like all my students, undertake the module in good faith.

If those sensibilities were no longer present, then I guess I would hope that many of my students’ religious sensibilities might still be appealed to. Of course, most of those sensibilities are historically implicated in colonial difference, but then again so is liberalism.

In any case, I would not even be able to offer the module under fascism. Or, someone else would be teaching it some other way.


So now, do I think liberalism is as bad as fascism?


There is NOT an equivalence.

And I don’t believe that the FAILURE of liberal governance is the incubator of fascism.

That’s far, far too comforting.

Liberalism is the governance structure that holds what is called fascism, in abeyance – for some.

Liberalism is not fascism. But it is not the absence of fascism.

Liberal governance HOLDS fascism – in abeyance, as colonial difference.

To hold fascism is NOT a failure of liberal governance, rather, it is liberalism’s post-colonial STEADY-STATE (and post-nothing in settler colonies).

But knowing this, I would still defend existing liberal governance structures against fascism.

And every time I know that we would be left with the problem of colonial difference along racialized lines.


Am I living in bad faith with liberalism? I would prefer that than to live in good faith with fascism.

Or, perhaps, to put it another way:

Before, during, and after liberal governance there are the projects of living other-wise to colonial difference, other-wise to the unjust racialized division of humanity into collectively competent, ill-competent and un-competent personalities (legal and otherwise). These other-wise projects, as un-perfect as they always are, have nonetheless always been the wellspring of resistance to fascism – NOT liberalism.

In the current Trexit moment, AS WE CARRY THROUGH WITH THOSE PROJECTS, we need to defend liberal governance from fascist takeover. Not for liberalism’s own sake. Nor to partake in a comforting fantasy that we are working the dialectic through liberalism in order to get to socialism. But solely for being against fascism.


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The many meanings of Haile Selassie I

In my last blog I bemoaned the return of the theatre adaptation of  Ryszard Kapuściński’s famous book The Emperor.

I criticized the portrait of Haile Selassie I in the book and the play, a portrait of a feudal gothic overlord that even Kapuściński later refuted.

I worried about the consistent artistic reduction of all things African to pathology.

I suggested that “perhaps the complexity of Haile Selassie I is the complexity of Ethiopia, is the complexity of Africa, is the complexity of the Third World, is the complexity of humanity.”

Here, below, are some of the meanings of Haile Selassie I that I know of, from various sources – living, theological, intellectual, political, archival – and many others..



Almighty I

I and I God and King

Black Redeemer

Black Messiah

Christ returned

Christ in his kingly character


Tafari Makonnen

Ras Tafari

Haile Selassie I

Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Or, “the Lion of Judah has Prevailed”)

King of Kings

Elect of God

Emperor of Ethiopia

Ababa Janhoy (father majesty)

His Imperial Majesty

H.I.M. (called by both members of the Rastafari faith and British diplomats)

Prince of Peace

Prester John

The “Catholic” (called by some in the Orthodox Church during his early reign to signify a dangerous harbinger of foreign influence)

God-fearing member of Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church

Defender of the Faith (officially titled by the Eastern Orthodox churches)

The diminutive but charismatic Emperor

First ruling resister of fascist aggression



Amhara overlord

From the minor Southern line of Shoa nobility

Inscrutable Amhara

Suspiciously Oromo by bloodlines and birthplace (Ejersa Goro)

Governor of the multi-faith Eastern city of Harar


225th descendent of King David

The African Frederick the Great

The African Machiaveli

Usurper of Menelik II’s lineage (Lij Iyasu)

Of the English Public Schoolboy disposition

First Emperor to insist on crowning of Empress on the same day

The modernizer

Great reformer

The Traditionalist



Feudal lord

Best dressed figure of the 20th century

American stooge


The Elder World Statesman

Father of Africa, first Chair of the OAU

Accomplished diplomat

Wise Counsellor, with the “wisdom of Solomon”








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There is more to Ethiopia and Africa than Dog Piss

I write this blog as a response to the new production of a play  due to run at the Young Vic, London, based on Ryszard Kapuściński’s famous book The Emperor, about the final days of the reign of Haile Selassie I, emperor of Ethiopia.

The book was turned into a play in the late 80s. Salman Rushdie personally recalled the reception of the play:

Some years later, a stage production of The Emperor, put on in London at the Royal Court Theatre (an English adaptation of one of those mentioned by Ren Weschler), led to one of the most surrealist political demonstrations I have ever seen. (And I say this as someone whose work has occasionally led to protest; I’m something of a connoisseur of the form.) Outside of the Royal Court Theatre, in Sloane Square, there was a protest that only Kapuscinski could have conjured up. Half of the demonstrators wore extremely expensive suits and carried rather well printed placards and were members of the old Ethiopian monarchist party, which objected to his portrayal of Haile Selassie, because, after all, he had been their emperor. The other half of the demonstration were people in knitted hats and dreadlocks who were Rastafarians and thought of Haile Selassie as God and objected to the blasphemy of Ryszard’s portrayal. So you had on the one hand ganja-smoking Rastas and on the other the cigar-smoking Ethiopians. And I thought, this book must be doing something right.

Good for Salman.

I wonder, though, what did he actually know of Haile Selassie I, or Ethiopia, or of Rastafari?

Or did that not matter?

Was the spectacle sufficient in that it was abstractly amusing for its gothic mix?

But knowledge of things African has never been needed to judge things African.

Kapuściński, the famous Polish war correspondent of the Cold War certainly had vast experience in and of the African continent. Yet his book on Haile Selassie I is largely a fiction. It is a work of art. And people treat it as an actual biography. Kapuściński was never entirely honest as to the nature and purpose of his book, although it is true that he wrote it more as a poem on courtiers than he did on the reign of the Emperor. Still, he never stopped the overwhelminging majority of readers from reading it as a factual biography of Haile Selassie I.  It must have surprised many readers to learn of his positive assessment of His Majesty in his later years.

That being said, take  the book’s infamous first “report” from an informant in the royal court: it is about the Emperor’s little dog, Lulu, who was allowed to piss on the feet of dignitaries.

The amount of times I have heard this story repeated as fact. It is FICTION.  The only truth in the story is the existence of a dog called Lulu. Any amateur reader of Ethiopian society and culture would know that this would NEVER have happened. Just as unlikely as Queen Elizabeth II allowing her corgis to piss on the feet of dignitaries.

Yet the complex, dynamic, and CENTRAL part that Haile Selassie I played in Ethiopian, African and World History in the 20th century is reduced in the popular mindset to dog piss.

Well, that can’t stand. I want to bring it back to basics. I’m not interested in hagiographies of His Majesty, nor in “converting” people to the Rastafari faith.

All  I want you to do is consider, for one moment, that investigating the life of a leader from 1916 (when Haile Selassie took on the title of Ras Tafari) to 1974 (his overthrow by the Derg) – almost 60 years of rule…

…the life of one who entered Ethiopia into the League of Nations in 1923, who addressed both the League and The United Nations,  sought to abolish slavery AND PROVIDE MEANINGFUL REHABILITATION to the previously enslaved (unlike the European slaving powers), gave the African Diaspora supporters of Ethiopia a place of return to the continent, provided – on his own initiative – the first constitutions, a modern military, a general education system – for boys and girls, funded and built more mosques than any other Christian King I am aware of, launched legal battles against South Africa and more…

…one who also had to most definitely navigate with realpolitik the impossible waters of intra-Ethiopian political intrigues, intra-African imperial politics, inter-national imperial politics, cold war politics, inter-African postcolonial politics, the frictions and fractures of old and new political, tribal, religious and ethnic faultlines, etc etc…

…well, I want you just to consider that this life might be instructive of many of the things that make us human in every aspect, that’s all.

Perhaps the complexity of Haile Selassie I is the complexity of Ethiopia, is the complexity of Africa, is the complexity of the Third World, is the complexity of humanity.

Or is Haile Selassie I a pathological despot, Africa pathological despotism, the Third World a lost cause, humanity only for certain humans and not others?

One example of a different Ethiopia.

In 1943, 6000 Greek refugees, fleeing Nazism, crossed to Turkey and there, having made arrangements with the British government, were taken via the Sinai to Djibouti and also to Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. After the liberation of Greece, most returned home, but some remained.

Today, that crisis is reversed, and people, as we know, flee the other way, to an impoverished and crumbling Greece.

In 1943, Ethiopia had barely recovered from the appalling and savage occupation of fascist Italy. It remained in the war. Yet still, Ethiopia welcomed the Greeks.


What of this smells of dog piss?

How many more stories of all types and interpretations litter 1916-1974?

I want to salute the late and great Ras Seymour McLean who tirelessly worked to present a different image of Ethiopia and Africans, one more befitting of equitable engagement. Here’s a dramatisation of his works; watch it in parallel to the BBC2 TV production of The Emperor.

I am aware of the present-day myriad struggles in Ethiopia. Still unfinished after all these years. I know it is extremely complex. I claim no expert knowledge, just an amateur’s commitment to understand better. I write this only for the humanity that Ethiopia has blessed the world with. That is our Rastafari tradition.




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Black Academia 1.2

For the last couple of years I’ve written a bit of commentary on the Equalities Challenge Unit’s statistical reports on higher education, paying especial attention to what they say about the state of Black Academia in the UK. So here are some comments on the latest report, incorporating data from the 2013/14 academic year. I’m not a quants or stats person so do let me know if you think I have figures wrong.

Please note that, if I don’t mention it otherwise, I am mainly talking about UK-national students and academics rather than non-UK-national (i.e. international). This is because, while international students and academics can most certainly be affected by racialized structures of discrimination and exclusion, I am  fundamentally interested in the sources of these structures and the way in which they interact with other such structures in the UK life-cycle. Additionally, I do not talk about those who have defined as “mixed race”, which to my mind is not necessarily a useful category for doing the following kind of analyses.

First, a few comments on the status of Black academics.

The percentage of UK-national staff on academic contracts  who are Black is now back to 1.19% – the same as when I wrote the first of my reports in 2014. Not only is this proportion far less than the proportion of Black people in the UK population (3.3%); it is also far, far less than the proportion of UK-national students who are Black – 6.4%. In contrast, 91.7% of UK-national staff on academic contracts are white, and thus not only overrepresented in academia as a percentage of the broader UK demographic (at 86%)  but also visavis the 79.6% of the student population who are white.

There are now 70 UK-national Black professors and 30 non-UK-national Black professors, giving a total of 100 Black professors, or 0.55% of all professors working in UK academia. As a comparison, there are 16,465 white professors (UK and non-UK national), and they comprise 91.1% of all professors in UK academia. Nonetheless, this figure is an improvement. But I want to draw attention again to the importance of the UK-national distinction: it is easier to “buy in” diversity from abroad; not so easy to cultivate “equality” at home. What we really want to see is an increase in UK-national Black professors, although, of course, a general increase is also to be encouraged and welcomed.

There are now 5 UK-national and 5 non-UK national Black academics who have senior managerial roles. A slight improvement from last year, yet still, only 0.67% of all senior mananger academics are Black. Compare, again, with white academic senior managers – 1400 of them – who comprise around 94% of all senior management academics. As much as academics still hold institutional power in the Higher Education (HE) sector, these are some of the ones who do so. And they are overwhelmingly white.

Meanwhile, out of all ethnicities, Black academics are by far the least likely to earn over 57,032GBP – only 8.9% of UK-national Black academics do, compared to 20.7% of Asian academics and 19.7% of white academics. This, again, demonstrates a significant lack of Black academics at the higher reaches of UK academia.  

At the start of the career ladder, Black Postgraduate Research students are most likely, amongst all ethnicities, to be part time. 48.4% of Black PG students are part time, compared to 36.5% of Asian PG students and 36.4% of white PG students. Moreover, out of all ethnicities Black PG students evidence the biggest decline in full time numbers after the 1st year of study –  a 10% decline compared to an 8% decline in white students and a 7.6% decline in Asian students. It is well known that, all other things being equal, part time PG research students are at a disadvantage to full time PG students in terms of introduction and access to research networks and other career-forming opportunities. 

ScreenHunter_02 Jul. 10 07.43

Delegates at the First Black Writers And Artists Congress, 1956, Sorbonne University, Paris

Now what about students? In what follows I discuss solely the UK-national demographics.

The percentage of Black students vis-à-vis the whole UK student population remains high at 6.4%. In England, the figure rises to 7.5% and in London, further still to 16.7%. Bear in mind that Black people constitute just 3.3% of the UK population as a whole (and 13.3% of the London population).

The concentration of Black students in London is notable. Working in a London institution I have some thoughts on the implications of this. Anecdotally it seems to me that many London-based Black students live at home and continue to heavily rely upon their existing social and friendship networks. If they attend an institution that is somewhat alienating to them – i.e. institutionally and visually white – their response is often to fall back on those existing networks. This might mitigate against the building by Black students of meaningful associational and professional (not necessarily friendship) networks within university. This could be a hidden, unintentional but long-term detrimental effect of the notable concentration of Black students in London, although it might be experienced differently across different institutions. I also wonder if the same issue applies in Birmingham.

Also of note is the slow but inexorable increase of continental-heritage students as a percentage of Black students and the relative decline of Caribbean-heritage students. This reflects the changing composition of the UK Black population. It is also interesting to note that continental-heritage Black students (or “Black African” in the stats) is the LARGEST defined BME group 22.6% of the total BME student population; the second largest is Asian-Indian at 16.7%. These points are important because, as we’ll see, continental-heritage Black students are, in the main, not doing as well as their Caribbean-heritage peers, and indeed usually do worse amongst all groups in most indicators.

The highest concentration of Black students by subject field are in: Subjects Allied to Medicine (19.3% of all Black students), Business and Administration Studies (16.7%), Social Studies (14.3%) and Biological Sciences (9.2%). I thought I would try and calculate some student ratios  of UK-national Black students to UK-national Black staff.

There are 10740 Black students in Biological Sciences; and there are 65 Black academics in Bioscience. (I’m not sure if the Biological sciences include other subjects so please let me know if I have this wrong). This gives a ratio of 1 Black academic to 165 Black students. The comparative ratio for white students in this area is 1:20.  There are 19455 Black students in Business and Administration; and there are 210 Black academics in Business and Management Studies. This gives a ratio of 1:92. The comparative ratio for white students and academics in this area is 1:18.

You get the picture. Black students – even in the subjects that they tend to take most – will find far fewer Black academics than white students will find white academics. I don’t mean to infer by this that Black students are better taught (or even want to be taught) by Black academics. I am simply pointing to the fact that even amongst subjects most popular with Black students there is still a relative dearth of Black academics. In short, there are no “black” subjects and no “black” parts of the university.


NUS Wales Black Students conference

Let’s now look at the figures that tell us what happens to students at the end of each academic year (except the final year).  I am especially interested in transfers (which usually indicates that the student has some kind of problem with their institution), and “no longer in HE” (the student has left university before gaining a degree).

1.6% of white students transfer at the end of the year compared to 3.7% of Asian students and 4% of Black students.  Black students tend to transfer more than any other white or BME group. And this suggests that Black students are relatively less settled and secure in their institution than any other ethnicity. 6.5% of white students leave higher education without finishing their studies, compared to 6.8% of Asian students and 11.1% of Black students. Look at that figure: far more Black students fail to gain a degree at university than any other ethnicity including white. It’s also important to note that slightly more continental-heritage students transfer than Caribbean-heritage students, and that more Caribbean-heritage students leave before gaining their degree than continental-heritage students.

It seems that the most recent statistics on GCSE results for continental-heritage Black students shows a slight reversal of their recent success story. The last time that I looked these students were performing just above the national average for attaining 5 or more A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. Apparently these students are now 1.3% below the national average (which has also increased). Nonetheless, continental-heritage students are now performing at 0.4% above the national average in terms of achieving an EBacc. The English Baccalaureate is the new “gold standard” recently put in place by government to ensure students going through to college and higher education have undertaken “core” subjects.  It remains, then, unfair to automatically ascribe an academic “deficit” to continental-heritage students as they enter university (and also to Caribbean-heritage students, but that is another story).

It is crucial to note that the long-term increase in attainment at secondary school by continental-heritage students has yet to be reflected in a proportional improvement in university attainment. A number of years separate GCSE results from Undergraduate attainment, and what we should be seeing now, I would say, is the dividend from the drastic improvement in secondary school results for continent-heritage Black students over the last 6 years at least.  But we are not. In fact, these students are attaining the same – if not slightly worse – than their Caribbean-heritage peers, who still suffer from various discriminations at secondary school resulting in attainments that are a good 10% less than their continental-heritage peers.

22.4% of white students attained a first class degree compared to 14.7% of Asian students and only 8.7% of Black students. Alternatively, only 3.7% of white students attained a Third Class/Pass mark compared to 7% of Asian students and 11.7% of Black students.  Again, Black students suffer the worst attainment amongst all ethnic groups – and by a significant margin. (Black students do marginally better in Scottish institutions, it must be noted. Additionally, Black students get marginally more first class awards in SET subjects than non-SET subjects).

Let’s put this in context. It is well known that the major graduate employers will cut through CVs by excluding all applicants who have a 2:2 (second class lower honours) award or less (ie a Third/Pass). So to have a chance at landing a good graduate job you really need to have a 2:1 (second class upper honours) or a 1st (first class honours) degree. And even that result is increasingly a basic requirement nowadays.  77.3% of white females attain either a 1st or 2:1 compared to 46.3% of Black males. That is the widest differential of attainment when it comes to the intersection of gender and race. It is a difference of over 30%. Think of the challenge that this difference presents to inter-generational social mobility along race lines. Yes, it’s true that the attainment of white and BME groups has experienced a secular rise over the last 10 years. But the differential between groups has remained fairly constant.

What is more, slightly more Caribbean-heritage Black students attain 1sts (9.5%) than their continental-heritage peers (8.5%). And again, more Caribbean-heritage students attain 2:1s (43.2%) than their continental-heritage peers (40.1%). Conversely, more continental-heritage students attain 2:2s (39.8%) and 3rds/pass (11.6%) than their Caribbean-heritage peers (36.2% and 11% respectively).  In other words, despite massively outperforming their Black Caribbean-heritage peers at secondary school, Black continental-heritage students have worse attainments than them at the end of university life! And out of all ethnicities, Black continental-heritage students have the worst attainments – by a notable margin.

I’ve said this before and I want to keep saying it: something is seriously wrong if a relative success story at secondary school is being reversed through higher education. When it comes to continental-heritage Black students specifically, university seems to be complicit in reversing their social-mobility, or at the very least dampening or slowing down this mobility.  And remember, this is the largest defined group of BME students in university.

So let’s look at employability after university.  

61.5% of white students find full-time work six months after graduating, and 49.7% of them find professional full-time work.  53% of black students find full-time work and 41.3% find professional full-time work.  4.6% of white students and 9.7% of Black students are unemployed 6 months after graduating. So there is a 10% difference between Black and white graduates finding professional work and a 5% difference in terms of unemployment, both to the detriment of Black graduates. Approximately the same percentages of white and Black graduates enter into postgraduate study. It is also important to note that continental-heritage Black graduates are less likely than Caribbean-heritage Black students to gain professional and general full time-work, and more likely than their Caribbean-heritage peers to be unemployed.

Certainly we can see here an effect of the attainment differential. But I also want to suggest, at least on first glance, that even with the inequitable attainment differential Black graduates are doing really, really well to shrink the difference when it comes to securing general and professional employment. What positive resources are our graduates drawing on in this respect? I would like to know more.


Blackness in Britain Conference, 2015

Finally, I want to look at the institutions through which Black students graduate. This is important because there is a de-facto hierarchy of higher education institutions in the UK despite the nominally “public” nature of the vast majority. We should be careful to conclude that more “prestigious” institutions are actually better at delivering higher education. Rather, I would want us to parse “prestige” through Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of “cultural capital”. Higher education has, for a long time, (decreasingly so nowadays) professed a meritocratic aim to set adults up for their future on the basis of their work and talents rather than their family name and connections. Yet it is still the case that the existing “cultural capital” that comes with inherited privileges by and large reproduces itself through the differential of “prestigious” and “less prestigious” institutions. That is why the more prestigious institutions tend to gift more employability to their students than less-prestigious institutions.

The Russell Group are the most prestigious higher education providers in the UK. 82.3% of their student population is white, 8.6% Asian and just 2.8% Black. Consider that the general demographic of Black peoples in the UK is 3.3%. Consider that Black students compose 6.4% of the student population. And compare this with the percentage of Black students who compose the less “presitigous” Million+ group student population: 14.7%. Let me parse this another way. 22% of white students go to Russell Group institutions; 22% of Asian students go to Russell Group institutions; only 9.6% of Black students go to Russell Group institutions. Now you can see how woefully under-represented Black students are in the most “prestigious” institutions. It’s difficult to find another similarly stark differential in terms of percentages of students across the various groupings of institutions than the Russell Group statistic for Black students. Seriously.

Nonetheless, whilst there is still concern over bias in admissions from Russell Group universities, a recent parsing of UCAS datarecent parsing of UCAS data suggests that differences between offer-rates to Black students and general offer-rates do not map neatly onto e.g. Russell Group universities. It is certainly a diverse set of institutions who suffer from this differential.

Does geography have something to do with this? I suspect that relatively more Black students study and live at home than white students. And Black students are far more likely to apply and be admitted into institutions located in cities and BME population centres – London, Birmingham etc. We also know that Black students tend to have a much older (“mature students”) demographic and to be more female than any other ethnicity. So thinking intersectionally, it might be the case that Black students tend to be less mobile than other ethnicities, with perhaps more social and familial responsibilities that require them to use the social networks that they already have.

I wonder then: which Russell Group universities have seriously undertaken outreach to potential Black students? Not to “disadvantaged communities” per se – I know a number are doing that. But let’s not conflate prospective Black students with “disadvantaged communities”; and also let’s not assume that the outreach to Black students is going to be the same as outreach to (usually white) disadvantaged students. I would be really interested to find out which Russell Group universities are expressly seeking to attract Black students by putting actual resources into targeted outreach.

Well, in conclusion I wish I could say many more positive things about the stats. But it’s hard to do so. What’s clear to me is that “inclusion” is not enough. In fact, in some ways,  inclusion is the wrong emphasis. There are plenty of Black students in the university system! The far more pressing and challenging issue is to change institutional and sectoral cultures and practices that lead to such outrageously skewed differentials regarding the placement, experience, retention, attainment and success of Black students. The difficulties in effecting such change is compounded by the refusal by many (and overwhelmingly well-meaning) academics to believe that their practices and non-practices have anything to do with the problem.

But I do want to end by listing some positives:

These positives suggest that Black is not a deficit colour. Rather, it is institutionalised whiteness that generates deficiencies.














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Racism, multiculturalism and Brexit

I take it as a given (by polls) that the most influential reason why people voted  Brexit was not to restore British sovereignty in the abstract but more precisely to “take it back” in order to stop more of “them” coming over. I also take it as understood that  this statement does not infer that all who voted for Brexit  are racists. Structural racism does not make of every individual a racist but implicates every individual, variously, in the reproduction and/or contestation of racial structures.

I’m sorry I hard to start with Political Theory 101 and Political Reality 101 but I’m afraid that’s the quality of some of the responses to Brexit so far.

Glad that’s over with.

Because I want to move away from an analysis that puts the white English voter at stage-centre and key interlocutor of the Brexit drama. I haven’t got anything that’s too formulated; just some thoughts about the other kinds of relationalities in Britain’s postimperial and multicultural polity that are implicated in the referendum.

Let me give you two examples. They emerge from the fact that, while 73% of Black peoples voted to Remain – the HIGHEST % of any demographic parsed so far, some Black people voted Brexit and it doesn’t make them any less black for doing so.

I have heard solid and compelling anecdotes of Black people voting Brexit because, in their experience, white employers were preferring white (Eastern) Europeans to Black people. In other words, they felt that EU migration was eroding the tentative gains made against structural (and often anti-Black) racism in the UK.

I’ve also heard a number of people of African heritage in the UK talk about the opportunity that Brexit might give to a renewal of links with the Commonwealth. We might dismiss these ideas as post-traumatic-imperial-melancholy. But some of the arguments I have heard reference the UK’s effective abandoning of the Commonwealth with the European Communities Acct of 1972. And now they see an opportunity to focus back on the Commonwealth, especially regarding reparations for slavery, the ills of colonial rule, and the inequitable settlements at independence. Some even talk of a renewal of pan-Africanism through renewed commonwealth links.

In other words, these responses are parsing Brexit in some way shape and form through a postcolonial (global) justice framework.

Yesterday all this got me thinking back to one of the things that really shook me when I was living in Aotearoa New Zealand. It was this: government and society seemed intent on painting over the historical challenge of “biculturalism” with a gloss of “multiculturalism”. Let me explain.

The “bicultural” challenge is code for “reparations regarding settler colonialism”. More specifically, biculturalism emerges from a movement by Māori people to get their “partners” to honour the Treaty of Waitangi that was signed in 1840. Article 2 of that Treaty assures that Māori shall retain control over Māori things – including land, language, culture, etc. Through intensified Māori and Pasifika activism and struggles in the 70s and early 80s the bicultural model was to some extent “constitutionalised” in the Waitangi Tribunal process, which ultimately sought to repair – fiscally and otherwise – successive breaches to the Treaty by settler governments.

Yet, at the same time that this bicultural “settlement” was being crafted  in the mid 80s, NZ took a neoliberal turn (termed “Rogernomics”  after Finance Minister Roger Douglass of the 4th Labour government). Consequent to this “opening up” of the economy, different peoples started to move to and settle in Aotearoa NZ. Like many global population flows of the 1990s onwards, these peoples did NOT all travel the well-worn colonial/imperial routes.

Previously, those old routes facilitated the increasing arrival of Pasifika peoples post-war, for example. In fact, in the late 1960s and early 1970s many Māori and Pasifika activists were calling THIS movement “multicultural”. There lies a hidden conceptual history of a very different mobilization of the concept “multiculturalism” that does not place the white man as the foundational cosmopolitan.

But anyway, the 1990s saw the arrivals of peoples from especially China but also India, other South East Asian departure points, and, of course, small refugee populations. All this gave rise to a “new” kind of “multiculturalism”, buoyed by a paternalistic refugee industry, restaurants serving “kiwi hot” (not hot at all) South East Asian cuisine, internet cafes, flat whites and long blacks.

But what I distinctly remember is how many white New Zealanders – primarily from settler stock – preferred multiculturalism as a lifestyle over biculturalism as a responsibility. And from a political-economy perspective, because these new arrivants brought capital and skills (not just labour), multiculturalism promised far more easy access to and positioning within the global economy than biculturalism ever could. None of this, of course, has stopped a casual and occasionally not-so casual racism towards these new peoples.

Still, just how much Government structures have differentiated multiculturalism from biculturalism (read colonial legacies) can be gleaned by the fact that there is Te Puni Kōkiri (effectively, Ministry of Māori Affairs),  Ministry for Pacific Peoples, and then an Office of Ethnic Communities (for all other non-whites), part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Anyway, I remember one elder Māori activist tell me, bluntly, and with great concern, that Chinese were going to outbreed Māori. In fact, I think the % of Chinese living in NZ is now as great if not slightly greater than the indigenous population (around 15% – unless things have changed drastically).Racist you might say?

Perhaps. Or we could take the line that racism can only be an exercise of power, and indigenous people – similar to Black peoples in the West – do not hold that kind of structural power to make a structural difference on another group of people. Then this would count as xenophobia, or prejudice?

Again, perhaps. But I don’t think this was the intention. Really, this elder was conveying to me a deeper concern: how can you have a harmonious multicultural society that has been placed precariously upon a foundation that is out of skew because its colonial wrongs have never been righted? The ethical dilemma being communicated to me was actually this: how can Māori ensure the well-being of all those who live in their lands (their duty as tangata whenua) if they are not able to be meaningful partners – at least! – in the governance of those lands?

I want to return to Brexit UK. And think along similar lines, even though it is a very different context.

The struggles from the 60s onwards by “minority” peoples in the UK to a) address racism and racialized inequalities IN the place where they now live and b) confront postcolonial legacies in the points of departure  of their parents/grandparents: neither of these inter-linked struggles have been adequately resolved or sufficiently addressed. They are not history. These wrongs are living. And for some “minority” groups more than others.

Nonetheless, our multicultural make up is now composed significantly through migrations that are NOT from the old British imperial and commonwealth circuits. Some of these routes are from outside of Europe, but many – and increasingly half – are from inside the EU.

In  the last week the media has been awash with reports of quotidian and/or organized racism or xenophobia against Polish peoples, Jewish peoples, Muslim peoples, South Asian peoples, and Black and African peoples etc. In short, what we have right at this moment in time is a mini conflagration of racism and xenophobia. It was always there, of course, but it has now seen the light of day in an intensely political fashion.

How could a white English person tell a Pole and a Black person to fuck off back home, at the same time? Well, I would argue, that’s because of the one constant. English nationalism is necessarily postimperial and necessarily has a racialized – white – dimension to it.

In empire, Englishness assured that white people could differentiate themselves from the “darker” peoples of the colonies and dominions. They had to do this because by the late 19th century all were subjects to the British crown same way. So the racial-colonial division became articulated as English and/versus British. The Commonwealth always had and has its racial divisions codified as old and new members. And the “Anglosphere” still finds it hard to include within its reach the biggest national demographic of English speakers – India. Then there’s “expats” versus “migrants”.. etc etc.

Of course, when those who considered themselves British came to live in England – well that proximity was problem enough, and to all “classes”. But then when children grew up in England as, ostensibly “English”: all hell broke loose. Only in 1985 did the British government categorically disavow the eugenicist claim that the poor schooling of African-Caribbean children was due to the fact that they were educationally sub-normal.

So against this history it becomes clear just how seminal English nationalism is to the situation we are presently in. Even against other ostensibly white people, even “working-class” white people, it’s still the (post)imperially-crafted nature of English whiteness that is doing the talking, spitting, hitting.

That’s why I am convinced that ANY agitation to return public services and even meaningful jobs to areas hardest-hit by neoliberalism WILL fail if it does not unquestionably oppose racism and xenophobia. More, even: both agitation and opposition have to be intractably and organically connected. To my mind, English nationalism is the key faultline – from a cultural, political-economic and ideological point of view. Anyway you cut it.

But enough of the white English. What, now, of those Black peoples who I mentioned at the beginning? People who can’t so easily take succour in English nationalism, even if they and their parents were born in England?

I think this position resonates with that of the Māori elder I was talking about. It’s something to do with the sedementations of migrations and movements upon a base that was always skewed, wonky, uneven, fractured. Here’s how I visualise it: multiculturalism, placed on top of postcolonial racism, and then, in a granular way, falling partly into that base, while nonetheless keeping a somewhat defined stratum.

How to address this challenge? Ideally, I would say this: First we need to attend to the long-standing and deeply-entrenched colonial wrongs that continue to visit racialized inequality and discrimination upon “minority” peoples in the UK (some more than others). And second, after that is resolved, we could deal with the xenophobia that emanates from an English nationalism even towards EU migrants. For hopefully, by that point, English nationalism would be neutered and could no longer be either a lived identification or an instrument to be wielded by elites as they seek to divide and rule.

But that’s just abstract thinking. We live in a racially sedimented society (global formation, even), which, being unevenly laid, makes the layers intractably blurred: they can’t be neatly separated out in any kind of strategic or political sense.

So, thinking about this kaladescope of racism and xenophobia, of postcoloniality and multiculturalism, I want to take those Black peoples who voted for – or sympathised with – Brexit seriously. Even though I voted for Remain, no apologies!

What does that mean? Not too sure. I would like to know what you think. But I could say, at least, that for me it means cleaving to some small, albeit important principles, as we go forward from here.

  1. Every locality – whether regional, town, city, or intra-city – will have its specific ecology of this sedimentation that I am talking about. The political economy of the UK is complex when you get down to the level. There can be no abstract model to fit everywhere. Everywhere, the articualtion of colonial wrongs with multicultural xenophobias will be of a particular history and mix, and must be engaged with in light of those balances of forces.
  2. The point is, though,  that everywhere  they DO articulate. That means that we must push for the redressing of living colonial wrongs as we push against the demonization of non-EU (but not traditionally commonwealth) and EU migrants.
  3. That means that we should take care to keep our moral and political sensibilities fluid, while retaining fundamental pinciples. If a Black youth voted exit because she witnessed East Europeans were taking her jobs, we should not presume that she hates East Europeans. Perhaps she voted against white racist employees? In any case, the conversation has to begin from a recognition of the intersectionalities of race and xenophobia, colonial wrongs and multicultural prejudices. Nor a willful exclusion of either. Everything, all at once, necessarily in fluid hierarchies, but always in relation.
  4. Hence the terrain of struggle is not narrowly national, even though the intensity of the fall-out from Brexit is – at least at the moment. To be intersectional in the sense I am talking about here means that our arguments and actions, even if they take place mostly in the UK, have to be informed by a horizon that includes not just the UK and EU but also the Commonwealth (especially the brown and black commonwealth and under-wealth) and those places and peoples scarred by fifteen years of fallout of the war on terror fought by the UK and the EU, amongst others.



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The Black Pacific: forum, critiques, responses

Recently The Disorder of Things ran a forum on my book, The Black Pacific. After an initial post by myself, Heloise Weber (University of Queensland), Sankaran Krishna (University of Hawai’i), Ajay Parasram (Carleton University), and Olivia Rutazibwa (University of Portsmouth) provided commentary and critique, and then I finished the forum with my response.

Since then, I’ve been very fortunate to receive an extremely valuable critique from Ponipate Rokolekutu (University of Hawai’i). Below is Ponipate’s critique, followed by my response.


Heterogeneity, Race and Genealogical Connection of Spiritual Hinterlands  

My issue with Shilliam’s book is first, the disingenuous nature of the book title: The Black Pacific – which not only erases the issue of race and its dynamics in Oceania, but ignores the heterogeneous nature of the region. And second, Shilliam predicates his theory – “anti-colonial science with deep relation” – on an encounter between two colonized groups (the Māori and Africa as represented by Keskidee and Ras Messenger) with questionable authentic genealogical connection, or genealogical links between their respective “uncolonized spiritual hinterlands” (p31).

Let me elaborate.

Polynesians, in Oceanian epistemologies, are considered brown or red. Such categorization articulates superiority over other Pacific Islanders, namely the Melanesians and Micronesians who do not exhibit the physical built and skin color that those in Polynesia display. Polynesians include, but are not limited to, the Māori of Aotearoa, the Kanaka Maoli of Hawaii, the Maohi of Tahiti, Tongans, Samoans, and Pacific Islanders who are articulated under the Freely Associated States of New Zealand, which includes the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau. As such, the title of the book The Black Pacific is misleading simply because the Māori who are the focus of attention in the book (and of course Africa) are considered either brown or red but certainly not black.

Aotearoa, as a site of Shilliam’s intellectual engagement, is a brown or red space. Despite experiences of dispossession and marginalization the Māori are still held in high regard purely on the basis of their skin color and socio-political organization, as opposed to Black skinned people-inhabiting egalitarian structures that are “represented” as socio-politically deformed, and hence inferior. While Shilliam acknowledges the mapping of the Pacific Islands as a racialized project, he overlooks, or perhaps underestimates, the ways in which such a racist project shapes the epistemologies and race dynamics in Oceania. A such, to represent the Māori as Black is to be oblivious to the colonially constructed superiority of Māori as Polynesian, while at the same time ignoring Melanesians as the black people of the Pacific.

The Māori, undoubtedly, exploit the opportunity to use the ideology of “Blackness” as a political tool and a forum to articulate resistance against colonial dispossession and institutional racism, in view of the fact that race, in the global institutional context, is defined as black or white. One needs to demarcate the line between “identifying with Blackness” as a political forum; and “inhabiting Blackness” as a state of being (p107). There is a significant difference between notions of Blackness in the context of Africans/African Americans/British Americans and Melanesians on the one hand, and brown skinned Polynesians on the other. The former were characterized by Dumont d’Urville in his paper On the Islands of Great Ocean (1832) as the black people of Africa, and in the case of Melanesia – the Oceanic negroes. As black-skinned people they were categorized at the lowest in the racial hierarchy and the most primitive people of the human race.

The Polynesians on the other hand, were constructed as pale olive-yellow complexion that “displays almost as much variety as the white race of Europe”. Given the institutionalization, or the colonial construct of race, I am unsure if Māori or Polynesians for that matter would prefer to inhabit blackness. Polynesians have undoubtedly internalized the racial and colonial construction of their superiority. Therefore, and to assume that Māori embraces beyond its political utility, is questionable.

Further, the title conjures notions of homogeneity or uniformity. There is a fundamental obliviousness, and perhaps, the absence of reverence particularly by Western academia with regard to the complexities of the region. Oceania (excluding white colonial settlers and non- Pacific Islanders in Australia, New Zealand and French settler colonies in the Pacific) encompasses a population of approximately 12 million people that are culturally, linguistically, epistemologically, cosmologically and physically heterogeneous. Melanesian countries, for instance, feature more than one thousand languages. There are 700 different languages that are spoken in Papua New Guinea, 112 in Vanuatu and 87 in the Solomon Islands. Linguistic diversity is also reflected in Micronesia. Oceania is also characterized with socio-political fragmentations. Melanesia for instance, is featured with egalitarian structure, while Polynesia exhibits social stratification with centralized authorities.

Shilliam’s obliviousness of the complexity of Oceania is illustrated for instance, by his claim of Maui’s familiarity in the region – “Maui is well known throughout Oceania, although he is always integrated in particular ways into particular cultural constellations” (16). Maui is a Polynesian god who is unknown to millions of Melanesians in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, West Papua, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji, let alone in the scattered islands of Micronesia. In fact, I only learnt of Maui during my undergraduate years in college. Melanesia and Micronesia also have their own spiritual deities which ranges from seven headed snakes, to sharks, to eels, and to some of the most exotic birds in the world, of which little is known to Polynesians.

In addition, to envision the Polynesian Panthers as a broader forum that will include Micronesians and Melanesians or “indigenous peoples generally considered not to be Polynesians” is to assume that the people of Oceania share similar colonial experiences of dispossession and institutional racism. While land dispossession and institutional racism are featured in settler colonies of Australia, New Zealand and New Caledonia for that matter, they are not necessarily reflected in other parts of Oceania. In Fiji for instance, the British colonial government created policies that “protected” indigenous rights to land and the preservation of their culture. It was the indentured Indian workers and Fijian of Indian ancestries, and not iTaukeis that experienced institutional racism. In fact, an overwhelming majority of ordinary iTaukei still romanticize the ‘benevolence’ of British colonial rule. In many villages today, portraits of British monarchs still adorn the living rooms of iTaukei homes. While I take issues with such assumptions, the fact is – iTaukei appear to have experienced colonialism differently from the Māori of Aotearoa, the Aborigines of Australia, or the Kanaks of New Caledonia. Despite colonization iTaukeis maintain customary rights of access to their native land in the post-colonial, and so is the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides) and Papua New Guinea. The people of Tonga pride themselves in the fact they were not colonized, in ways that other Pacific Islands were dominated – in terms of the imposition of a colonial state or direct foreign domination. As such, it is important that the establishment of anti-colonial forums such as the Polynesian Panther be sensitive to the vast diversity of the Oceania region.

Further, The Black Pacific pays inadequate attention to the issue of race and its dynamic amongst the people of Oceania with particular reference to Melanesia and Polynesia. While Shilliam acknowledges the race factor as instrumental in the “super-exploitation of labor and super of dispossession of land” he ignores the ways in which race shapes and perpetuates the racialized epistemologies and race dynamics in Oceania. Oceanian epistemologies are deeply racialized.

Race in Oceania and elsewhere is a European construction. In Oceania it had its origin in the European mapping and naming of Oceania as Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. The French botanist and explorer Dumont d’ Urville calls it the tripartite division in his 1832 paper, Sur le iles du Grand Ocean (On the Islands of the Great Ocean). D’Urville’s tripartite division was both a geographical mapping, and a racialized division as well. While Polynesia and Micronesia were named on the basis of its geographical configuration, Melanesia on the other hand, was named on the basis its skin color.

Melanesia means black-skinned people that according to D’ Urville exhibits very dark, often sooty skins with curly and fuzzy hair. The Polynesians on the other hand are seen as having brown complexion and proportionally built. In his paper Climate to Crania: Science and the Racialization of Human Difference (2008) Bronwen Douglas argues that the term Melanesia reflected the discourse on race which existed in Europe – where human beings were categorized in a racial hierarchy, with white or Caucasian at the top, and black people at the bottom. These ideas about skin color dates back to the 16th century.

Tcherkezoff in his paper a Long and Unfortunate Voyage towards the “Invention” of the Melanesia/ Polynesia Distinction 1595 -1832 (2003) asserts that the invention of the tripartite division of Oceania:

…..was not a simple matter of geography and map making, but of race…..long before Dumont d’ Urville ‘s invention, the black races were already labelled in the most disparaging terms…..The history of contrast between Polynesia and Melanesia is not the story of the 19th– century French navigator, but the history of European ideas about “skin colors” between the 16th and the 19th centuries”.

The European discourse on race has subsequently informed racialized epistemologies and racial categorization in Oceania. Melanesia are represented as inferior while a degree of deference is accorded to Polynesians. Both Melanesians and Polynesians have internalized such perceptions which subsequently dictates race dynamics in Oceania.

In Tonga for instance black is “uliuli” and is associated with dirt, darkness and paganism such as witchcraft.  Hence, Tongans view Melanesia, the black people of Oceania as dirty and undesirable. Interestingly despite the close association with Fiji and Tonga which dated back in the pre-colonial days, Tongans have stereotyped notions of iTaukei or indigenous Fijians. Virtually everything that is derogatory such as, thieving, fornication, adultery, etc. is considered “fakafisi” or Fijian way. Such view is articulated under the notion of “uliuli” that enunciates the derogatory nature and undesirability of Black in Tongan epistemology. In fact, to stay in an adulterous relationship is called “fakasuva”. Suva is the capital of Fiji. One can argue, that in this sense, Suva epitomizes a space and place of human depravity and not Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa.

The other sticky issue that I find about Shilliam’s book, is that the author takes an ordinary encounter between two disenfranchised or colonized groups to develop a theory that is intended to “retrieve the relationship between Africa and Māori anti-colonial struggles as a space that supports spiritual, intellectual, and political commitments to mana motuhake” or self- determination” (p11).

The first problematic aspect of this encounter is that the author did not name the kaumātua that welcomed them, neither did he quote what he said.

What he quoted was Rufus Collins response to the welcome:

  “……You talked of our ancestors, taking part and making a meeting some place and somewhere; the ancestors are meeting because we have met. I do agree with you”.

I view the above response with suspicion simply because one cannot ascertain Collins’ claim with regard to what the kāumatua actually said. The fact that Shilliam did not name the kāumatua is quite offensive, because it gives a sense of disregard, or rendering him as unimportant and invisible in this encounter. This, in my view, compromises the author’s attempt to establish deep relations between the Māori and Africans.

The second sticky issue about this encounter is Shilliam’s claim of a connection in the realm of the spiritual hinterlands. The Māori and Africans undoubtedly share similar colonial experiences of dispossession, marginalization and shared histories of institutional racism. However, the claim of genealogical connection in the realm of the spiritual space, or in the context of their respective spiritual hinterlands is questionable. What Shilliam seems to overlook is that, the concept of tātou tātou is articulated under the language of relationships that entails metaphorical expressions.  Shilliam unfortunately takes the notion of tātou tātou “everyone being one people” – literally to articulate colonial, genealogical and spiritual connection between Māori and Africans.  Simply put, the author took a metaphorical expression and interpreted it literally.

This piece is not intended to discredit Shilliam’s work- far from it – but instead, to create conversation about Oceania – its complexities, its disconnection, its racial categorization and metaphorical element that is embedded in indigenous cultures of Oceania.


Response by Robbie Shilliam

What is especially important about your critique, Ponipate, is that, unlike my other interlocutors, yours is situated in Oceania. You claim that my book not only erases the issue of race and its dynamics in Oceania, but ignores the heterogeneous nature of the region”.

I wish to say, unequivocally: you are entirely right and entirely wrong.

In addressing this seemingly contradictory assertion, I hope to be able to excavate from the book some crucial elements to do with race and resistance, and so I want to thank you deeply for providing a crucial and fundamental critique that impells the development of a conversation aroud these issues.

But first, I want to clear the way in terms of some of your misapprehensions with regards to the meeting at Te Hāpua, from which I present the trope: “the ancestors are meeting because we have met”.

The meeting at Te Hāpua is recorded in a documentary called Keskidee Aroha. The final cut of the documentary does not relay the entire welcome of the Ngāti Kuri elder, only parts. I presume that the selection of Rufus Collin’s rehearsal of the “ancestors are meeting because we have met” rather than the actual utterance of the elder is an editorial decision: both parties are given voice, while there is no repetition for the viewer.

I want to explain to you that the documentary was co-directed by award-winning indigenous documentary film maker Merata Mita. Having conversed with Merata about Keskidee, and knowing (as many do better than I) her clear principles on the representation of indigenous peoples, I am confident that Merata would not have undertaken that edit and cut if she was not happy that Collins represented in good faith and adequate fidelity what the elder had said – in Te Reo, first, and then translated by his whanaunga (family member) into English for the visitors.

The name of the elder is not given in the documentary and I was not told it. But Ponipate, you are right to ask of his name, and I have made further inquiries.

In the forum on my book at DisorderofThings I have explained in some detail (as I do in the book) the cosmological, philosophical and ethical architecture that frames the concept tātou tātou and so will not repeat this here, except to say that my usage is far from a naïve “literal” as opposed to “metaphorical” interpretation.

Now, onto – what is for me – the cutting edge of your critique: race and Oceania.

Despite your focus on heterogeneity, I think that you conflate the colonially induced and policed racial formation of Oceania (expressed by d’Urville) with the diverse lived experiences of race held by peoples of the region. Both are real, but they are not necessarily homologous. Or at least, when it comes to Māori, you seem to balk at the possibility that they might have experienced their colonial oppression as Black, because the regional colonial racial formation of Oceania delineates them as red/brown/olive etc. In this sense, I feel that you treat Māori almost like “privileged subalterns”; relatively privileged, but unable to speak for themselves about what this privilege might mean, or the degree to which it is actually felt at all.

I’m going to come back to this. But first I want to dwell on that regional racial formation you so powerfully focus upon in order to also suggest that its lines of delineation, although real enough, are not as sharp as you state.

I feel it important to point out that travellers, scientists, artists, anthropologists and soldiers do not always stay true to the classic and stark racial divisions articulated most famously by d’Urville. This racial division speaks to the adjudication of savagery or civility and thereby legitimises extra-ordinary violence upon those categorised as black (who d’Urville associates with Kaffirs, an Arabic term that colonial sojourners pick up, which denotes unbeliever, but especially African unbelievers). In truth, though, all peoples of Oceania are treated with suspicion of being savage – or of lapsing back into savagery – and thus all are in danger of being blackened. This even includes so-called “Polynesians”.

For example, the colonial sensibility that you report of Polynesian’s being of “brown complexion” and “proportionally built” is not always evident in European travelogues. Charles Darwin, for instance, differentiates within “Polynesians” such that some start to take on characteristics supposedly reserved for “Melanesians”:

Looking at the New Zealander, one naturally compares him with the Tahitian; both belonging to the same family of mankind. The comparison, however, tells heavily against the New Zealander. He may, perhaps be superior in energy, but in every other respect his character is of a much lower order. One glance at their respective expressions, brings conviction to the mind that one is a savage, the other a civilized man .. Their [Māori] figures are tall and bulky; but not comparable in elegance with those of the working- classes in Tahiti.

Such a distinction is also gestured to by d’Urville (Darwin’s contemporary) albeit not as strongly. In any case, the basis of Darwin’s ruthless comparison is simple: in his estimation, Tahitians have become the faithful tutees of Christian missionaries whereas Māori have not. It is difficult to find in Darwin’s observations a “degree of deference” as you put it Ponipate, accorded to Polynesians per se.

What about colour? As part of the last chapter of my book I reach into the colonial archive of travelogues and directly engage with the Melanesian/Polynesian colonial distinction. And one thing I want to say forcefully is that in the 19th century the attribution of relative lightness to Polynesians  does not necessarily detach them from their Melanesian kin in the eyes of European sojourners.

For instance, many European commentators argue that Māori are borne historically from a mix – to use a race science term – of Negro, Malay and other bloodlines. Māori are not “pure” brown. They are under suspicion: while “Asiatic”, they “nonetheless betray evident marks of a Negro extraction” as Tyrone Power put it in 1849. Some European commentators explicitly surmise that the Māori “race” are genealogically composed of a Melanesian and Polynesian mix. (d’Urville also suggests such “interbreeding” in general).

In short, brown blood is also contaminated with blackness.

Therefore the colonial gift of lightness, that is, the gift of superiority accorded to lighter colour, although clearly promised, is nonetheless a provisional one, and is easily and often taken away by Europeans. All are under suspicion. No discussion is required; no court needs to be convened.

Just one example from my book will hint at this complex phenomenon and is provided by William Swainson, a mid-19th century adventurer. Swainson considers that Māori have “nothing of the gentle, loving nature, the affectionate disposition, and the child-like docility of the negro race”.  Swainson differentiates Māori from Negros– at least, docile Negro “slaves”. But the savage temperament that he attributes to Māori in making this distinction is, in the d’Urville schema, associated stringently with Melanesians which, in turn, is intimately associated with African traits. (The chiefs of Melanesia, for d’Urville, apparently exercise authority “just as tyrannically as any African despot”). Despite not being categorised distinctly as “Negroid”, Māori are nonetheless blackened by Swainson.

But there is something else that happens in the 19th century. It forms a central point of investigation for my book. And it is all about the lived experience of Māori under colonial rule and how, regardless of and in opposition to colonial race schemas, some of them know themselves to be Black.

By mid-century Māori are increasingly taking on the missionaries’ religion. Nonetheless, many have acculturated this religion to their own cosmologies. Missionary Christianity damns Ham – the Black – and raises Japheth – the white – to be God’s emissary. At this juncture, Māori have the opportunity to identify with Shem (the “brown”), in whose tents an “enlarged” Japheth shall dwell (Gen 9:27): a cosy colonial relationship. Some Māori accept this gift of association.

But some Māori do not wish to associate.

And they make common cause with Ham – the damned – not Japheth. They argue that their redemption, as Shem, is dependent upon the redemption of Ham. One of – if not the most – influential Māori prophets of the 19th century, Te Ua, testifies to this solidarity, as does the chant of those who fight under his banner: “Shem, Ham, Father Glory, verily, Hau.” Hau can be glossed as “breath”, Hauora is the spiritual agent of reciprocity. Divine restitution for the crimes of European colonialism requires Ham and Shem to walk together.

And more.

Some of those who at this time resist settler encroachment with force of arms proclaim their Blackness in no uncertain terms: “my skin is black skin, my canoe is a Māori canoe”. At the height of the wars over land, one Māori newspaper even looks to the Haitian Revolution for positive instruction, hoping that “God will protect his black skinned children who are living in Aotearoa”.

Forward to post-war 20th century. Urban migrations from rural lands and islands. Now Māori are the “niggers”, as are Pasifika peoples albeit in slightly different ways. I mean this in terms of the place that Māori and Pasifika urban youth are made to occupy in racialized structures of exclusion, discrimination and oppression. I am not being flippant. One of the gangs out of which emerge the Polynesian Panthers is called “The Nigs”. Who did they learn that term from?! Who called them that?!

And what is one of the (very contested) responses by young Māori and Pasifika to the racism they have experienced as mainly urban youth in the 1970s?: to do what their ancestors have done and reclaim their Blackness. Only “the blanket of black skin” can act as “a whāriki – a cloak of dignity”. It is the women who reclaim Blackness the most. They categorically refuse to know themselves as a comfortable “brown”.

This is more than strategic identification. Although at times, it is this too. It is, as I develop in the book, an inhabitation – even enfolding – of Blackness borne of, firstly, being blackened, (despite being categorized as “Polynesian”), and secondly, finding redemption and liberation in and through Blackness.

As you note, Ponipate, in the 1970s the Polynesian Panthers, as I report it, hope for an Australasia–Pacific common front, a Black Power collectivity that also includes indigenous peoples generally considered not to be Polynesian (i.e. the peoples of Australia, Papua New Guinea and the New Hebrides etc.). I want to point out that this hope does not necessarily rest on the expectation that all colonial situations are the same everywhere. In fact, the project of a “common front” speaks precisely to the requirement to find solidarity across difference. Perhaps some of the Panthers already have resources to begin to understand the heterogeneity of Oceania. You mention that the peoples of Tonga, “pride themselves in the fact they were not colonized, in ways that other Pacific Islands were dominated”. I want to let you know that, although the main chairperson of the Polynesian Panthers grows up mostly in Auckland, his family is Tongan with close genealogical links to royalty.

Meanwhile some of the Māori activists who have come to know themselves as Māori again through their Blackness subsequently form the Pacific People’s Anti-Nuclear Action Committee, who make more common cause with all Oceanians, not just “Polynesians”.

Regional and global racial formations, as depicted by d’Urville are real. Ponipate: I agree absolutely. But at the same time, race happens and is experienced and lived in micro-cosms. I want to make this point very clearly and resolutely: it makes no discernible difference to downpressed, socio-economically impoverished Māori and Pasifika youth living in Aotearoa NZ that they might be viewed, if they were to ever permanently join the ranks of global travellers, as preferable in polite company to brethren and sistren from Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea etc.

It is the same as the issue I have with the dominance of African-American studies of slavery.

A little over 4% of Africans who are trafficked across the Atlantic end up enslaved in the colonies of what will become the United States. The dominant experience of slavery in the Americas, by far, is to be found in Brazil. The US colonies distinguish themselves as amongst the very few places where a policy emerges to reproduce the populations of enslaved peoples via “breeding” projects etc. For most other enslaved peoples, it’s work to the death while massa imports fresh meat in lieu of reproduction.

We know that the dominance of the African-American experience in academia when it comes to slavery and Blackness is due to the economic, political, military and partially cultural dominance of the United States in global affairs. None of this is representative. It’s not right. Yet, does any of this mean and should any of this mean everything to those who experience – and/or try to explain – the downpression of mainly poor Black peoples within the United States?

Perhaps I am sensitive to these issues due to my own experiences, especially in Aotearoa NZ. In my time there, aside from the usual airport dramas, I rarely felt any consequence for that element of my heritage that is African diasporic. What was more important than anything else in peoples’ initial apprehension of me was that (aside from being a man, still) I was “English”. This was all disarming, especially due to the consequences I have always received back in England. It was also a great lesson in humility when it came to the cultivation of my relationship with Māori and Pasifika, who are firmly on the receiving end. (This humility also extended to Pākehā allies).

But above all, I am making these points because I must bear witness to the longstanding, exemplary and beautiful resistance of Māori and Pasifika peoples to their colonial damnation and their principled relation with Blackness. Tāne/Maui-Legba; Shem-Ham.

Despite your critique, Ponipate, you reproduce some of the easy homogenisations of colonial-Pacific anthropology: “Melanesia for instance, is featured with egalitarian structure, while Polynesia exhibits social stratification with centralized authorities”. Really? With such certainty? According to what sources and from whom? I think many Māori I know would take issue with your claim that their authority evidences no egalitarian structure. And, likewise, some “Polynesians” I have known, heard and read about, know themselves to be Black… despite and because of the race science of d’Urville.

Still, let me repeat another element of your critique: There is a fundamental obliviousness, and perhaps, the absence of reverence particularly by Western academia with regard to the complexities of the region.”

You are absolutely right. And I think your inclusion of the term “reverence” is crucial.

Alongside – and enwrapping the micro-cosms of race – lie larger regional and global racial formations. They are real enough. They are especially reflected and refracted through academic knowledge production, as they are in all those circuits of expropriation, accumulation and exchange that are immediately more global in their constitution and circulation.

I don’t believe in being paralysed by power. Those of us who, in (an important) part of our lives, inhabit Western academia, and who wish to cultivate knowledge in a decolonial manner, are accountable to our necessary complicity despite other discriminations and exclusions that might be marked by our bodies (with different intensities). This recognition must not slide into an opportunity to be narcissistic. The academy does not define our very existence neither is it the energy source for all our intellectual work. But we must be accountable.

My book, Black Pacific, focuses mainly (albeit not entirely) on Aotearoa New Zealand. Here, I am an author in the Foucauldian sense, and whether I intend it or not, whether I like it or not, this book enters into a broader racial circulation that historically and presently demonizes – or at best ignores – those in Oceania who have been and/or are delineated as Melanesian. That the politics and methods of my book, on their own terms, are antithetical to this onerous regional racial formation in no way arrests its unavoidable complicity when situated at this particular level.

Moreover, for some Oceanians this level is also constitutive of the micro-cosm of race that they reside in. I must acknowledge that.

Ponipate, you claim that my book “erases the issue of race and its dynamic amongst the people of Oceania with particular reference to Melanesia and Polynesia.” I think concern over this erasure is what is behind your raising of the issue of heterogeneity. So perhaps, with my reply, you might understand why I think that on this point you are both entirely wrong and entirely right.

When I presented my work at the University of Hawai’i last November I was drawn into a discussion with you, Lee Kava and Joy Enomoto amongst others, about Blackness in Oceania. And I learnt greatly from our grounding. It confirmed to me the utility and integrity of the journey I had taken with and in the Black Pacific. And it taught me that I would have to journey more in order to contribute to the healing of the colonial wound that I am concerned with.

How might I appropriately undertake this work, and what might it consist of? These questions will occupy me as the book forum closes.


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