Re: decolonising anthropology

Robert Johnson (johnsorl@COLORADO.EDU)
Thu, 9 Feb 1995 08:02:08 -0700

On Thu, 9 Feb 1995, Professor Robert Thornton wrote:

> Dear folks, and *Oh dear me!*, but I don't think I know what
> 'decolonising' could possibly mean -- when I think about it -- when
> applied to Anthropology. It shows, however, that buzz words like
> this come to be used as adjectives, adverbs, verbs, nouns and any
> which way that English, broadly construed, will permit, and she is
> very broadly construed ineed in these circumstances if not simply
> misused. As a scholar of South AFrica, in South Africa, and now
> more or less of it, I do know enough not to engage with people whose
> minds are already made up. During a recent 2 year stint in a couple
> of US East coast high profile academic institutions I learned that
> lesson very well indeed, especially with respect to the difficulty
> of talking aobut South Africa in the US (and parts of UK and Europe,
> too, though some kinds of discussion are much easier there, as they
> are in South Africa). I have had ample experience with people like
> Robert Johnson. I try to stay away from them. Somehow, however, he
> touched a nerve, or rang a bell and I sprang to action: responded to
> his post. It seemed to me that he did represent a broader tendency,
> broadly construed again, that upset me in American intellectual
> discourse in particular, and on this list in even more particular.
> In other words, it was not just Mr. Johnsons trademark left margin,
> or his pseudo-aphoristic style -- though these bothered me,too --
> but the sense of righteousness that we have heard too often in this
> century from nationalists and fascists and leftists of all
> varieties. It is an attitude that has directly and often interfered
> with my own work, and has caused me personal pain, and an attitude
> which has served to underwrite probably the bulk of humanity's pain
> in this century. It also was so contrary to the stance on culture
> that the anthropologists in South Africa have taken. Unlike Mr.
> Johnson's Colorado, people kill and die for these things in
> countries like South Africa. My colleague in this department, David
> Webster was killed by gunmen who thought he was interfering with the
> cultural and political 'ownership' of 'their' culture(s). To this
> day, we do not know who killed him, but we know that it was people,
> whether Black or White, who opposed his active research and efforts
> to support an open, sharing and free society in South Africa in any
> way that he could. He was not the only one, but I can tell Mr.
> Johnson that no 'justice' or anything else was 'bought' in this way,
> either with David's death, or with anyone else's death here.
> A number of people have made suggestions about what to do with
> this thread. Kathi Kitner has suggested that discussants, especially
> Mr. Johnson, declare where they are coming from. I, for instance,
> was born in Colorado, but you can read more in the 'Potted bios' that
> Danny Yee has sent out and made available. I don't think this fact
> of birth tells very much about me, but it does have implications --
> for instance, that my godfather at baptism (Catholic) was a nissei
> Japanese-American who was involved, with my parents, in community
> attempts to resettle Japanese Americans after WWII after they left
> the internment camps. Elements of my history such as this one
> naturally predispose me to snap at people like Mr. Johnson. Lief
> Hendirckson has suggested that it would be better not to discuss SA
> while Mr. Johnson is on the list. I agree: he very likely has, as LH
> says, his answers all worked out before he has heard the questions.
> I will simply ignore Johnson's snide remarks, but I would like to
> provide him with a challenge.
> Here are 3 cases that pose a number of problems for the approach that
> he has outlined for us in his 'proposals'. I would like him to read
> them carefully, and then explain how his proposals 'fit' or otherwise
> make sense of this material. I would like to ask him to make
> specific policy suggestions, or to suggest how further research might
> be stimulated by his proposals in these cases, or how his proposals
> would help the people I have described in these brief cases.
> The cases: (1) Yesterday, I accepted the registration of a woman who
> wanted to study anthropology. She was a refugee from Yugoslavia.
> She cried about the 'stupid war' there, and about her close
> relations who had died and/or been abused in concentrtion camps there
> -- now. They had got caught between the self-righteous people
> (apparently of Robert Johnson's persuasion) who were 'buying justice'
> with blood, as Mr. Johnson thinks might (should?) happen in South
> AFrica, and those who were fighting for the rights to their cultural
> heritages, and against those who had --in their belief -- taken them
> away from them. I will not recite the history of YUgoslavia and its
> parts and people and their complex histories -- I am sure Mr.
> Johnson is well versed in this. The problem with my student's
> relatives was that they had Montenegran names, but were 'mixed'
> Bosnian/Serbian, and had been 'mistaken' for Muslims.
> On Mr. Johnson's principles, I would have to say: let them be
> punished! - - they are too 'mixed', obviously, to be the just
> inheritors of any pristine cultural heritage, and therefore useless
> breathers of the air, and since they come from the Balkans it is a
> virtual certainty that some one or many of their ancestors have
> oppressed someone at some time and/or disrespected someone's
> cultural heritage. Why should they not suffer for your principles,
> Mr. Johnson?
> But what about my student now -- a Yugoslavian in Africa? a
> would-be anthropologist who is a refugee, who loves her country and
> her heritage even though she weeps for it? Who comes here for safety
> and for a love of African culture. Will she steal it? By learning
> an African langauge/dance/culture does she deprive the 'rightful'
> owners of this 'good'? Can you tell us, Mr. Johnson, how
> decolonising anthropology applies to her?
> Should I teach her anthropology? Should I deny her access to my
> knowledge because she is Serbian? Perhaps she should be sent back
> to Europe 'where she belongs'? Is she a settler? an exploiter? She
> was once forced to be a Communist: does this make her a better or a
> worse person in your regard? How much force would I be permitted
> to use to do this if she did not immediately agree to the wisdom of
> your principles?
> (2)
> I had another student. He sells denim 'Levis Blue Jeans' made in
> Botswana, from fabic made in India, imported by a Chinese (Taiwanese)
> business man in Johannesburg, and he, a French-speaking refugee from
> Zaire, sells them in the streets of Johannesburg along with a
> selection of masks and genuine Zairean cultural artefacts, to South
> Africans.
> Please help me sort out whose 'cultural' and 'patent' rights belong
> to whom, and how these could be enforced. At the moment in some part
> of Johannesburg, black South Africans are beating people like this
> (also black) from other parts of Africa because they are taking jobs
> away from South Africans and thereby debasing their culture (by
> being 'non-South African blacks/Aricans') and depriving them of their
> economic rights as native South Africans. The masks he sells to
> tourists and other Africans are unambiguously Zairean, and on your
> principles, assignable only to 'Zairean' owners (whatever that may
> mean since Zaire did not exist when they were created). He makes a
> living from this, however, and without it would starve or ahve to go
> back to Zaire where he would be killed. He is, however, 'ripping
> off' the Zairean cultural heritage for a living, not to mention the
> Levi Strauss brand name via his Chinese suppliers. Who do we punish
> here, and how, Mr. Johnson?
> (3)
> Another student in this department is currently studying the efforts
> of the UN Highh Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) to return --
> 'repatriate' is their term -- Mozambiquans to Mozambique after the
> recent war. The in tention of the UNHCR is to return these deserving
> 'owners' of the right to be Mozambiquan citizens, to their
> 'patrimony' (they are by the way, largely matrilineal, but never
> mind), that is, to their 'sacred geography' of (mostly defunct)
> chiefdoms and kingdoms of old. The problem is, most of them don't
> want to go. They and their ancestors have migrated across the region
> now divided into countries like Mozambique and South Africa for many
> centuries. They like to live in Mozambique, but they like to work in
> South Africa. They wil be forcibly returned to their 'heritage'
> however, whether they like it or not. They will be forced t give up
> whatever goods they have achieved in South Africa and in return they
> will be given seed and hoes by the UNHCR (even tho southern Mozambique
> is way too dry for agriculture) so that they can 'go back' to their
> 'traditions'. Is this what you would recommend, Mr. Johnson?
> As Todd Nims said on the list yesterday, lets have a little less
> 'blah blah blah', and a little more concrete argument. I have given
> you 3 case studies that raise a myriad of questions fro your approach
> to 'decolonizing anthropology'. I look forward to hearing how you
> will solve these problems based on your 'propositions'. Be warned,
> however, that you will not be the first. All of these problems have
> been addressed by the previous Apartheid government, by colonial
> administrators, by misisonaries, by African chiefs and kings and
> their councils, by party caucuses in the townships and cities, and
> by South African academics, and they continue to be addressed. I
> would assume that you would be
> familiar with their proposed solutions before you step where even the
> architects of Apartheid truly feared to tread.
> Good luck, Mr. Johnson.
> =====Professor Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology====
> University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
> South Africa
> Office tel. : (011) 716-2900
> Secretary, fax and answering machine: (011) 716-2766
> Home tel: (011) 646-2578
> ---------------------"The New South Africa"--------------------------