The decolonised mind isn't black and white

The Balinese fire ritual of Perang Api may be a cultural norm for some, but those outside of the culture adopt the colonialist stance of viewing it as a spectacle. (Reuters)

The Balinese fire ritual of Perang Api may be a cultural norm for some, but those outside of the culture adopt the colonialist stance of viewing it as a spectacle. (Reuters)

So, a cartoonist insults Lord Ganesha by depicting him collecting money, and an editor dislikes ukuthwala (the practice of abducting young girls and forcing them into marriage). So what? How do we decolonise the mind and stop breathing colonialism?

Let me be disrespectful up front and say I do not respect any one culture in particular, steeped as they all are in patriarchal norms and values.

Who knows what "culture" really means? Let's give it a shot: culture is who we are, where we come from, learnt behaviour, patterns we adopt from our ancestors, how we live our lives, and the identities that come with that. It could be some or all of these things. There are cultures within cultures, and many slippages in between.

There is much abuse of women and children in the name of culture, from genital mutilation or clitoral circumcision in Islamic Africa to child marriages in India and the abduction of young girls by older men in parts of South Africa.

Yet, when we describe this as abuse, does it mean we are part of the single narrative of the colonial (Western, liberal) mind? I don't think so. Surely we can throw out the bath water without the baby as well? There are some near-universal cultural practices that are good – greeting, hugging, saying "please", "thank you" and "sorry".

Is it the adoption of English that gives us the "grammar" of colonialism? For some of us, that adoption goes as far back as our great-grandparents, who were colonised and Christianised by Methodist missionaries in the 1800s.

Now, through the spoken word, writing, academe, newspapers and other media, in our communication, we breathe ­colonialism. Like tiny beads of sweat, this colonialism pops out of our pores, it is all-pervasive in our bodies and minds.

Does this lend itself to a lack of respect for some cultures? Surely there are some universalities that can be based on, say, gender equality, which can be adopted? This could allow one to insult cultures without worrying about which narrative this is part of, or to whose ­culture this belongs.

When I look at Indian religious (and cultural) practices in photographs – fire-walking, pierced tongues and other spectacles – I understand it through the phrase "what a spectacle", because I don't understand what else they are, in any other language. Thus, my very language of understanding (or lack of understanding) breathes c­olonialism. It's alien.

And so, cartoonist Zapiro depicted Lord Ganesha in the Sunday Times two weeks ago, with the Hindu deity shown collecting money, which Zapiro intended to depict the corrupt state of cricket. How apposite – what a hilarious image! This, for me, shows that democracy has a good sense of humour.

Likewise, City Press editor Ferial Haffajee dislikes the African cultural practice of ­ukuthwala. Is she a racist? That's a cheap card.

For French philosopher Michel Foucault, discourse consisted of ways of constituting knowledge, together with social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations. He looked at the history of different modes by which, in our culture (he should have said "cultures", plural), human beings become subjects. That is: subjects as possessors of subjectivity, as well as subjects in the sense of beings subjected to power.

Foucault spoke of dividing practices that, paradoxically, constitute our subjectivities. The subject is divided internally and/or divided from others.

Knowledge-as-power puts us in opposed categories: the mad and the sane, for instance, or the sick and the healthy. For some of us, too, that could mean that culture provokes such divisions: we are torn between respect for cultures and rejection of the abuse inherent in some practices. Enter the issue of identity.

The latest trend now seems to be to discuss degrees of blackness and whether you are indigenous enough to be called African.

Banal facts, Foucault would say. I say, how futile.

On decolonising the mind, Biko said that the most potent weapon of the oppressor was the mind of the oppressed. So, as a prelude, whites must be made to understand they are only human, not superior, and the same for blacks: they must be made to realise that they are also human, and not inferior.

Biko's voice, like Nelson Mandela's, goes beyond the narrow particularities of race and moves towards universality, towards a greater humanity.

What if the black feminist ­lesbian voice, say, the marginal, the "other", so often portrayed as the voice of extremism, became the mainstream? This might actually be the voice of the real, the decolonising option, and one way to turn away from the present heteronormative, white, male, liberal narrative.

True transformation means more than a change from white to black, from male to female. I venture there is a Bikoesque option, a way to set the mind free, to liberate it from past norms and stereotypes.

Let us not be fixated on victimhood, for instance, or strict racial categories.

Identities are multidimensional, they are fluid, the opposite of fixed and given. They are definitely not culturally determined.

There will always be slippages, and there will always be cultural practices that we must throw out because of the abuse inherent in them.

It is possible that, through these slippages, we can seek and find answers to the plaguing question of how to decolonise the mind.

It must be possible for us to critique some cultural practices without feeling that we are ­breathing colonialism.

Glenda Daniels, a senior lecturer in the University of the ­Witwatersrand's journalism school, is black, South African, a lipstick feminist, journalist, author, ­academic, mother, African, agnostic and supporter of Orlando Pirates, among other things.

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