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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The Black Pacific

This year I published a book called The Black Pacific: Anti-colonial Struggles and Oceanic Connections. You can buy it, or download it for free from the publishers:

Because so much of the book was based on community stories, I wanted to make sure that the conversation could and continue and that the end of the book was not the end of the story.

So I creaed a page on this blog-page – BlackPacific – you can see it in the options above. I encourage people who read the book and who are in various ways related to the material, and who want to contribute, context, extend the stories to post on this page.

I’m not sure how many people might do this in the future. But anyway, I just received my first response.

I was recently emailed by Jeannette Ehrmann, from Goethe University, who is currently researching her important PhD on the Haitian Revolution.

This is what she says:

(PS It was Lachlan Paterson who first told me about the Maori/Haiti relationship)

Dear Robbie,

I hope your are doing well.

I am right now sitting in a light-flooded library in the heart of Paris, reading Jean-Louis Janvier’s book “The Detractors of the Black Race and the Republic of Haiti”, published in 1882.

I just stumbled over a passage that I would like to share with you in case you haven’t come across Janvier yet. It opens up another relation between Haiti and the Black Pacific and a shared identification across the pacific.

Janvier speaks of Australia, where the indigenous population has been slaughtered; the Sandwich Islands where the population is dimished day by day; the Gambier Islands whose population has to suffer from a theocratic, catholic regime imposed upon them; Tahiti whose population has been diminished dramatically through colonial exploitation, tobacco, alcohol and opium. And New Zealand, where “the extermination of the Maori race has been executed systematically and coldbloodedly by the English. This was accomplished within 40 years.” (p. 54)

“Don’t we have the right to raise our shoulders when some very ignorant voyagers tell us foolishly that Haitians should open their land to a mass immigration by whites?” (p. 55)

Unfortunately, there seems to be no English translation except from a short extract (

The French original is available online:

I was so astonished when I read you chapter on the Maori/Haiti relation. Now, it’s great to see that this relation was not one-sided but grounded in a solidarity from Haiti’s part as well and that it could transcend the boundaries of colonial empires and languages.

With this new discovery (at least for me), I wish you a great day on the other side of the channel.

All the best,

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Black Academia 1.1 (update)

Last summer I uploaded a blog post called Black Academia, which outlined the state of staff and students of African heritage (which for the purposes of this blog I term as Black) in UK academia. This is what I concluded:

 Black students are over-represented in general, but especially – and perversely – in less prestigious institutions. They are significantly under-represented when it comes to high attainment and career progression.  Black academics are under-represented in general, and they are acutely under-represented at higher levels of management and leadership. … While academia has opened its doors, it has been unwilling or unable to dismantle the norms, networks, and practices that reproduce white, rich male privilege in the first place.

Just recently I looked at this year’s ECU Equality in higher education report (2014) with data from the 2012/13 academic year. For my previous post I used a lot of data from ECU’s 2013 report (from the 2011/12 academic year). I was curious as to what changes the statistics might reveal, over the course of a year. Obviously only so much can change within one year. But I was curious nonetheless. Here’s what I found.


Reparations conference, 2014, at Queen Mary University of London, organized by Rastafari Movement UK

There are now slightly more Black people working in UK academia; and this, combined with a shrinkage in the total number of staff, has raised the percentage of Black workers from 2.10% (in the last ECU report) to 2.24%. However, in terms of UK-national staff, the percentage is almost exactly the same as last time: 1.75%. Out of the total population of Black staff, both UK-national and non-national and including “mixed” people who identify as such, 41.1% have a “Caribbean” background, and 51.0% have an “African” background, with the remainder categorised as “other” Black. These figures are also almost exactly the same as last time. (As was the case in the last blog I am only including data on the Black category and not including “mixed” where it is not broken down into more specifics).

At 3.3% of the UK population, Black people remain, then, under-represented in staff positions across the university system. In fact, the percentage of white staff has grown. Last time, I calculated that white staff were 84.27% of the working population of academia compared to 86% of the UK population as a whole. Now white staff are 88.6% of the working population in academia. Last time, I calculated that if Black staff were to be represented on the same equitable basis as white staff (who had a differential of .97 between general population and academic work force), then Black staff would have to make up 3.2% of the working population of academia instead of their actual 2.10%. This time round, the differential for white staff is 1.03. Hence, the equitable percentage of Black staff would need to be 3.39% instead of the current 2.24%. 

Black people now constitute 1.2% of UK-national academic professionals: that’s a rise from last time of 0.1%. Which I guess is better than a fall of 0.1%. This is still, though, the smallest percentage of academics out of the working population of any ethnic group including white, although not far off the Chinese figure of 1.3%. Black people constitute 1.61% of both UK-national and non-national academics. This is an increase of .07% from the last report. But to put this increase in perspective: at this rate it would take 24 years for Black academics to become proportionally representative – i.e. to reach 3.3% of the academic population so as to match the percentage of Black people resident in the UK.  Yet this exercise does not take into account the growth rate of the Black population of the UK. So I wonder if, at this small rate, we would ever reach parity, at least in my lifetime. Alternatively, white people constitute 87.23% of academic professionals and remain overrepresented at 86% of the UK population.

In this latest report the ECU has changed its categorisation of academics workers and “cleaners, catering assistants, security officers, porters and maintenance workers” seems to have been replaced with “elementary occupations”. Hence direct comparisons are not really possible. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that in the last report, 6.91% of white workers in academia were “cleaners, catering assistants etc.” in contrast to 19.27% of Black workers. While in this report, 6.2% of white workers are employed in “elementary occupations” in contrast to 17.8% of Black workers.

So the upshot is that: Black people remain significantly under-represented in academic roles and significantly over-represented in manual jobs.

The lastest ECU report no longer breaks down the different types of academic job contracts beyond the BME category. In other words, the report no longer investigates job types by reference to Black, Asian, Chinese etc. Hence it is no longer possible to assess the change in percentages of Black academics in full time, part time, research or teaching only contracts. This is a great shame. And I am dissapointed with the ECU. Surely they most know that the BME category conceals more than it illuminates?

It might be interesting at this point to add an observation that I did not make last time. As a lecturer in International Politics I am especially interested in non-SET subjects (i.e. the social sciences, humanities and arts, as opposed to Science, Engineering and Technology). Incidently, Black students are the only ethnic minority group who are represented in non-SET subjects more than in SET ones. Within non-SET disciplines, anthropology, area studies and the classics have the least amount of UK-national Black academics – hardly any. Following them are theology, philosophy, politics and international studies, history and continuing education. For non-national Black academics, classics is the worst, then politics and international studies, continuing education and music/dance/drama/performance.

The now infamous statistic of 85 Black professors in UK academia – yes just 85 –  that’s right, 85 – remains exactly the same in the new ECU report! These professors are spread equally across SET and non-SET subjects. Black academics still have by far the smallest percentage of professors amongst any ethnic group. But the picture has got even worse when it comes to academics occupying senior management roles. Last time round, there were just 15 Black academics in senior management roles. Now there are reported only 5.

– You read it correctly, it’s not a typo.

— Just 5 Black academics in senior management roles across the whole of UK academia.  Seriously.

How about the filthy lucre? Across UK-national and non UK national staff, 29.2% of white academics make over 50,000GBP, roughly the same as last time. But the number of Black staff earning above 50K is down from 17.7% to 14.2%. The median salary for UK-national Black academics is 40,834GBP, while white academics pull 44,607GBP.  Black academics remain behind all other ethnic groups, except for “mixed”, in terms of their wages. Finally, UK-national Black academics have the largest gender differential amongst all ethnicities including white: 60.6% are women; I wonder if this is at least something to do with these earning differentials.

Overall, then, when it comes to staff, the new ECU report suggests that over a year Black academics have enjoyed an extremely modest – but positive – increase in presence, but quite possibly have suffered a decrease in position and power. This is why Black academics – and UK academia in general – need now, more than ever, initiatives like the Black Studies AssociationBlack British AcademicsBlack Doctoral Network (UK) and other institutional-building initiatives.

Ok, let’s now look at the situation with students.

 NUS Black Students Conference 2015 (NUS use the term Black in an expansive way to enable an intersectional constituency)

Starting with undergraduates, Black students now make up 6.3% of the UK-national student population in Britain, up from 6.0% in the last report. In England, Black students make up 7.2% (up from 6.9%) and amongst first year students 6.7% are Black.  So the more-than-a-decade long increase in Black students continues as does the significant overrepresentation relative to the broader Black population of the UK (3.3%). 4.4% of Black students have an African continental heritage, 1.3% a Caribbean heritage, and 0.3% an “other” Black heritage. This would suggest, when looking at the last report, that the increase in Black students is primarily coming from those with a Continental heritage, which also reflects the broader changing composition of the UK Black population.

Incidently, within non-SET subjects, history, philosophy, combined studies and languages attract the least amount of Black undergraduate students, although we would have to break down the ECU category of “social studies” to get a proper picture.

Happily, the number of Black masters students also continue to be overrepresented visavis the Black population of the UK. And Black research students have slightly grown to now provide an exact parity with the broader Black population of the UK at 3.3%. However, the percentage of Black research students enrolled in part-time study has increased from 46.2% to 47.8% (still by far the largest percentage of part-time research students amongst any ethnic group). This suggests that as the Black research student constituency grows, it does so primarily via part-time study. In the last blog I detailed why this is an important observation: part-time research students find it hard to build networks and translate their PhDs into full time research-positions.

What happens to UK-national undergraduates at the end of an academic year? In the new ECU report, 92.2% of white students continue to the next year, 1.5% transfer institutions and 6.4% leave higher education. In comparison, 86.4% of Black students continue, 4% transfer and 9.6% leave. By contrast to the last ECU report: very slightly more Black students are now continuing (good news); slightly more Black students are transferring (suggesting, I would say, little change in attitudes to diversifying institutional culture); and less Black students leave (great news). With regards to this last statistic it might be interesting to note that less Black students with Caribbean heritage leave compared to last year’s report; alternatively, more Black students with Continental heritage leave compared to the last report. Nevertheless, it remains the case that more Black students transfer than any other ethnic group except for Bangladeshi, and the percentage of Black students leaving higher education remains significantly higher than any other ethnic group.  

Here are the latest comparisons for end of degree attainments for UK-national undergraduates, focusing on white and Black students:

Class                      Group               % of group attaining award

1st class:                white women          20.3

1st class                 black women          7.4

1st class                 white men               20.6

1st class                 black men               7.7

2:1 class                white women          54.5

2:1 class                black women         41.3

2:1 class                white men              50.6

2:1 class                black men              36.4

Compared to last year’s report, the percentage of women and men achieving first class honours (1st) has risen for both white and Black students. However, Black women have increased their achievement of upper second class honours (2:1) by 3% from last year and Black men by 1%, while the percentage of white women and men attaining 2:1s is effectively the same as last year. This is a bit of good news in so far as it means that the significnat differential of attainment between white and Black students has decreased by a small amount. 

Yet the overall difference remains stark: 74.7% of white female students achieve either a 1st or 2:1 compared to 44.1% of Black female students; 71.2% of white male students achieve either a 1st or 2:1 compared to 44.1% of Black male students. This statistic is crucial because key graduate employers will only look at students with these achievements, not those who fall below – i.e. 2:2s and 3rds. If everything remains as it is, if white students do not increase their percentage of 1sts/2:1s and Black students continue to increase theirs at the current rate of 3.6% a year, then it will still take roughly eight years for Black students to obtain parity. That’s eight generations of finalists going out onto the job market with an attainment record, like it or not, differentiated across race lines. And of course, it is by no means the case that this increase will continue on its own accord at a rate that has only been sustained for 3 years so far. This is especially so if the race equality agenda continues to be dismissed, nay ridiculed, by the current Conservative administration which is otherwise obsessed with austerity.

Two final observations on attainment. 

Firstly, there has been a lot of talk about the closing of the attainment gap at school and significant improvement in Black student achievement. The achievements of children from a Continental African heritage are especially remarked upon.  It could be, perhaps, that African Continental parents have relatively more capital (social, economic etc) to invest in their students’ education as recent arrivants than their African Caribbean counterparts. (Although the latter fought exactly the same battles with similar social capital forty odd years ago). Yet, regardless, the undergraduate attainment rates of Caribbean and Continental heritage students are almost the same. In fact, in last year’s report, Continental students outperformed Caribbean students in attaining 1sts, but in this year’s report these attainments are on a par (both groups are within 0.1% of each other). And this year Caribbean students attain 2.5% more 2:1s than their continental counterparts, 1% less 2:2s and 1.4% less thirds. In short, Black students of Caribbean heritage are, relatively speaking, doing as well if not better than Black students of Continental heritage. We know that education is one of the key facilitators of social mobility in the UK.  So could it be that university is a key site wherein the social advantages of continental African children are being neutralised or reversed? Institutional racism is, after all, the great equaliser: Black is black is black. Perhaps we can see this struggle between migrant parents’ social capital and the insertion of their children into structures of racial inequality in the following statistic: upon leaving university more students of continental African heritage than those of African Caribbean heritage enter into full time postgraduate study; however, more students of continental African heritage enter unemployment than their African Caribbean counterparts.

The second observation is this. Amongst ethnic minority groups, Black students still exhibit the lowest attainments. Even if there has been an increase by Black students, it has been matched by, for example, increases in Asian student attainment (which is the second lowest to Black students). I am of course happy that Asian students are increasing their attainment, as I would be for any individual student. Nevertheless, I want to point out, as uncomfortable as it is, that those insipid intra-minority hierarchies seem to be at least partly remaining, even if small improvements are generally occurring.

Attainment issues also speak to the distribution of students amongst the uneven landscape of higher education institutions. I want to say, straight away, and reflecting on the comments of Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ think tank, that I do not personally believe that you will necessarily get a better education at a Russell Group university – recognised by government and industry as the most prestigious group of academic institutions in the UK-  than at, say, a Million+ university – one of the least prestigious recognised groups. This economy of prestige directly relates to career prospects and, to my mind, is really all about the reproduction and transference of inherited privilege rather than acting as the mark of an excellent education. But for this very reason it is important to look at the distribution of students across these groups of institutions.

Black students remain at the same percentage of the whole student population in Russell Group universities: 2.7% in last year’s and this year’s report. Whilst this figure might not seem a million miles away from the 3.3% of Black people in the UK population, we need to remember the overrepresentation of Black students in the academy, especially at undergraduate level (6.3% of the whole). Once this overrepresentation is remembered, the Russell Group figure is by no means as positive as it appears to be. Moreover Black students have increased their presence in all university groups except the most prestigious Russell Group. And the least “prestigious” Million+ group have the highest percentage of Black students at 11.9% of the population (the highest percentage of all ethnic minorities in this group). Overall the Russell Group – the most prestigious – remains the whitest (at 82.8% of the student population), and the Million+ – the least “prestigious” – remains the least whitest (73.6%).   This all suggests that the increase in Black student numbers is being served by the least “prestigious” universities. This would then qualify the success on attainments being made by Black students if they are proportionally more likely to obtain a 1st from a Million+ university than from a Russell group university. And again, I am not talking about the actual substance of the education but the economy of privilige it is embedded within.

One more thing to add to this mix. Black students have the highest amount of mature students than any other ethnic group including white, and significantly so. And again, Black students have the highest percentage of women.  So here, age, gender, race, institution and socio-economic privilege intersect.

How do all these intersections play out in terms of life immediately after university? 59.1% of white students find full employment after graduating compared to 49.5% of Black students. Both percentages have increased since last year’s report, but by pretty much the same amount, although there is a slight narrowing of the differential. More worringly, 5.2% of white students enter unemployment compared to 12.1% of Black students. Again, both these percentages have decreased since last year’s report, and again, there is a slight narrowing of the differential. A bit of positive news. Yet the difference still remains stark, and is consonant with wider disparities concerning minority youth employment.

So for Black students the gap has narrowed very slightly, but student outcomes and experience remain solidly and starkly differentiated along race lines that reproduce existing privileges. 

To finish, though, I want to point to one more invisible outcome for Black – and I would say many ethnic minority – students. A university education is supposed to be an experience and not just an “outcome”, that is, a process of critical reflection and clarification of one’s self and one’s place in the world at large. How many of our Black students find their years at university delivering them the absolute opposite? How many find a world painted white, a world that they are therefore effectively barred from investing in by the institutionally racist cultures of university? How many leave with a distaste and distrust of institutions that are supposed to enable and cultivate a civic life for all? How many of our academic colleagues even imagine that this might be taking place under their very noses?

 Afewerk Tekle’s 1967 “”African Heritage”


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More notes for discerning travellers

A little while ago I wrote a blog, Notes on Europe and Europeans for the Discerning Traveller. It was a fictional travel guide, but with all points speaking to historical realities.

What is it about a certain “European” sensibility? Not all people who live in European countries have it, of course, but this sensibility seems to define in the main what it means to be essentially “European”). I want to ask: what is it about a sensibility that can never, ever, look at itself, for itself, and in relation to what it does to others?

We all know that the European enlightenment was supposed to be built upon the pillars of self-reflection and accountability in thought and politics. It is funny, then, that the “European” so rarely seemed to be able to hold him/herself to reflexive account especially over European colonial pasts.

It continues.

I swear, if I believed in such a cosmology called “Modernity” I’d be calling the “European” a backward, traditional native ensconced in his/her own culture, taking his particulars for mystical universals, and unable to look at him/herself in the mirror to start the process of socialization and “childhood development”.

But I don’t believe. So I’ll just have to call this sensibility by more mundane descriptions, such as un-reflexive, un-accountable, un-relational.

Example (twitter response to my Travel Notes blog):

Feb 25

@X @RobbieShilliam The intellectual’s version of Boko Haram.

Ok, that just made me giggle. Must have seen my dreadlocks. I was tempted to add that response to my Travel Notes. It almost carried on writing itself.

And then this response:

  1. X    Feb 28

@RobbieShilliam Would it be any different if someone wrote on Asia and Asians (or Africa and Africans) for European discerning travellers?:)

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏   Mar 1

@X yes it would. This is specifically about Europe and it’s colonial pathologies, one of which is avoidance of its pathologies!

  1. X Mar 1

@RobbieShilliam But it sounds as if European were intrinsically greedy and evil, and the rest were noble human beings dedicated to goodness

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  Mar 1

@X I didn’t say anything about the rest. Your projection. All the statements have truth behind them.

All quiet on the Northern front.

Until just now (same tweeter):

  1. 2h2 hours ago (19th April)

BBC News – South Africa anti-immigrant violence: Hundreds held … Who is to blame on this, @RobbieShilliam? 😉

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  2h2 hours ago

@X why ask me? I am not a south Africa expert.

  1. X 1h1 hour ago

@RobbieShilliam Sadly, racism and xenophobia are not exclusive of white people: they are a human (and ape) disease. No need to be an expert!

  1. Robbie Shilliam‏@RobbieShilliam  57m57 minutes ago

@X that’s your obsession X not mine. I never said those were exclusive to white peep. Ask yourself why u are defensive. 

Over the last eight years, one experience I have constantly had, mostly in the academic world it has to be said, is people from a very strong “modernity” (read, partially, “European”) perspective (variously articulated) consistently interpreting my work as “essentialist”, “nativist”, “racialist”.

All my work in this time period – ALL of it – is about cultivating deep relationality required to heal the wounds of colonialism. Isn’t that a global concern?

I have to ask myself: why can’t these people see my relationality? It’s not a matter of me writing badly. I own up to when I do that. But this is on a different level. It’s a wilful un-reading.

Case in point: I finish a paper which is engaging with but sympathetically criticising the Communist Manifesto on the grounds of its use of the slave analogy but at the same time consigning real-living enslaved Africans to the distant past of political economy. I finish by saying (pithily, I admit), “Forward, then, to a Manifesto coloured human”.

Respondent: Is worried about my engagement with Marcus Garvey in the paper. What do I want to replace the Manifesto with? (Computer code: do you want to replace class with race, Marx with Garvey?) My last sentence!!! LAST sentence!!! THE LAST SENTENCE!!! I don’t want to replace it at all. I want to reckon with it fully. Is that unclear? Did I say, “forward only to Marcus Garvey?” Or, “Forward to a new manifesto written by blacks only for blacks… in black ink, on black paper”?

Neither is it about people agreeing with me. There are plenty of grounds of disagreements and I really don’t mind them – I usually love them and learn from them. But it’s beyond disagreement through a dialogue. There was no dialogue!

As Gurminder Bhambra puts it in this blog, I have engaged with the Hegels, Kants, etc, the intellectual folk of the “European” culture. But their avatars never engage with my folk. They have an epistemological stereotype in their head – Fanon will tell you where they got it from – and then they respond to a stereotype.

Who is accountable? Who is self-reflexive? Who is seeking to cultivate relations? If I decide that I don’t want to waste any more energies on a conversation with a wall, then I guess it will be my “essentialism” that will have been the cause of my retreat.

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Four quick paradoxes of the welfare state for Black communities

1) The welfare state was supposed to provide universal provision but was never extend to British subjects outside of the UK. However, British subjects in colonial territories were just as much subjects to the crown as those resident in the UK.

2) The era where, in large part due to the welfare state and the ethos of public goods, social mobility was most pronounced in the UK (late 60s, early 70s) was also the era of the proliferation of violent and visceral racism and entrenched institutional racism in public and private institutions.

3) In the 80s, funding the ethos of public goods allowed for the development and expression of community initiatives, especially with the Black community through Ken Livingstone’s GLC. It was a golden era, in this respect, despite being a high point of the battle against the BNP and far right.

4) The end of the ethos of public good, and the massive diminishment of the welfare state has done nothing to dampen institutional racism, and now visceral racism is on the rise again.

Welfare and social mobility did not get rid of racism. Welfare provided for an opportunity to fund provisions to ammeliorate racism. The material basis for ammelioration has now diminished and is disappearing fast. But a return to an ethos of “public goods” will not in and of itself get rid of racialised inequalities and discriminations. No triumphal leftist narrative is possible for Black communities – nor was it ever – when it came to the welfare state. How can we re-make the relationship of public goods to racism for a better tomorrow?

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RasTafari and reparation time

I’ve just published a little piece about the August 1st reparation march through London on OpenDemocracy.

You can access it here:

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Exhibit B

Here’s my take on the Exhibit B furore that has been going on at the Barbican.

  • I recognise that art is the exemplary expression of the stunning multiplicity of human experience.
  • I recognise that slavery and colonialism is everyone’s history and that everyone should be ethically and politically invested in critically attending to its contemporary manifestations especially in terms of racism, visceral and structural.
  • I recognise that the issues implicated in Exhibit B are difficult and complicated, and that you could be black, critical, and still support the exhibit without being a sell-out to white supremacy.
  • I have also supported and celebrated what are on the face of it similar installments such as Teresa María Díaz Nerio’s Hommage à Sara Bartman which critically engages with one of the  “original” and most heinous “human zoos” of colonial rule.

So why do I firmly support in principle (if not in every point expressed) the opposition to Exhibit B articulated by Kehinde Andrews, Akala, Sarah Myers and others?

The core issue, for me, is about the structural power of representation, that is, who enjoys the institutional support through which they can, on the public stage, represent racial experiences, especially in terms of oppression and dehumanization.

In the UK this issue of representational power is especially crucial to grapple with because its art industry is not just hegemonically white in terms of ownership, directorship and funding but has got even more white in these regards over the last number of years, especially after efforts to create a self-directed Black arts world were largely defeated in the 1990s. Where, we might ask, is the vibrant Black arts world in a multicultural UK? I do not mean individual artists – there are many fine Black artists of all kinds. But I mean an arts world that is able to direct itself and can set its own agendas including its own disagreements?

It is a suprious argument to say that the personal background of the curator or director – i.e. his race, colour, gender, sexuality, nationality, class  and the combination of all these elements – is of no importance. After all, isn’t  the very purpose of Exhibit B to personalise the experience of the audience in order to sensitise them to issues of racism and colonialism? For that to work, it must mean that who you are and what lived experiences you bring are crucial ingredients to the succesful cultivation of this particular piece of art.

Two provocations are therefore forthcoming.

First, I support  Nerio’s Hommage and not  Bailey’s Exhibit because Nerio is a Black artist who is directing, setting the agenda and performing a critique of the racial gaze on African women. This is a different kind of power that is implicated in artistic critique to that exercised by Bailey, regardless of whether or not Bailey is sincere in his endeavours, which I take as for granted that he is. This is not to say, of course, that you couldn’t critique Nerio’s  Hommage; but the point is that you couldn’t critique it on the basis that it shared an equivalence with Bailey’s Exhibit: different executions of power are at play.

So, second, let’s cut to the chase: Exhibit B is an instillation that is addressed to white people. It is trying to conscientize white people – as white people – to their (often unconscious) complicity in systems (often global) of segregation, oppression and dehumanization. Very much like 12 Years a Slave, it is designed to first and foremost edify white people as to the deep wounds of racism and colonialism. I seriously cannot see how either Exhibit B or 12 Years a Slave was designed to edify the majority of peoples of African heritage at an existential level – that is, in terms of providing a bodily shock that reveals complicity in the same violence that shocks you. You might say that on occassion Exhibit B could even shock Black people in this way. Ok, but then I would ask you, in all honestly, do you think that these pieces of art are designed to gain their aesthetic and moneterary value primarily by shocking black bodies – or white bodies? And let’s also remember, Exhibit B is not being exhibted at the Black Cultural Archives, for example, but at the Barbican – a heartland of the British arts establishment.

And this is precisely my main problem with the Exhibit: who pays the price for white people educating white people about racism?

Chinua Achebe made this point perfectly, some years ago, in an interview with Caryl Phillips about why the celebrated Nigerian writer thought that Joseph Conrad’s “postcolonial” masterpiece, Heart of Darkness, (the book that inspired in part the film Apocalypse Now), was a piece of racism.

Phillips could not understand why Achebe could not see that Conrad’s book was a critique of European colonialism rather than a support of it. Phillips protested to Achebe that Conrad did not paint the African continent as primordially dark; his point, precisely, was to show that Europeans brought that darkness with them.

But Achebe replies that this critique or expose misses the point: this is NOT where Conrad’s exercise of racial privilige lies. Rather, the fundamental point, says Achebe, is that:

 you cannot compromise my humanity in order that you explore your own ambiguity. I cannot accept that. My humanity is not to be debated, nor is it to be used simply to illustrate European problems.”

And that:

I expect a great artist, a man who has explored, a man who is interested in Africa, not to make life more difficult for us. Why do this? Why make our lives more difficult? In this sense Conrad is a disappointment.”

This is why I think that the opposition to Exhibit B is so important. It has raised the fundamental question: who is setting the agenda for whose healing at whose cost?

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