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Te Kāhui Kura Māori, Volume 0, Issue 2

Postcolonial theory

Postcolonial theory

Postcolonial theorists use the tools of critical theory to deconstruct the Western knowledge systems that have been used to justify and sustain colonial domination of indigenous communities. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is a good example. Fanon describes a “compartmentalized” colonial system, which must be deconstructed in the name of decolonization (Fanon 2004).  Bhabha refers to a situation of “universality-with-racism” (Bhabha in Fanon 2004: xxiv), in which the colonised individual is in principle offered equal citizenship, and yet is constantly marked as inferior and “other” through the colonisers gaze. This requires a delicate balance of concepts of “sameness” and “difference”. To maintain their identity and authority, the colonizers have to uphold a myth of strict differences between “us” and “them” (Rennes 2008). Because these fictional lines tend to blur, especially in relation to sex and children, Françoise Vergès calls this the “colonial family romance” (Rennes 2008:65). The MomDad (colonizer) demands that the children (colonized) becomes like them, through assimilation. Fanon describes this paternalistic coloniser attitude as “a mother who constantly prevents her basically perverse child from committing suicide or giving free rein to its malevolent instincts” (Fanon 2004:xxiv). The colonised is expected to remain perpetually indebted for this protection, for the “gifts” of “civilization”. Yet the coloniser expects them to remain child-like, different, inferior, “like us, but not too like us”.

This fear of sameness led to the scientific racialism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. For example, in 1824 Julien-Joseph Virey attempted to prove that there were two separate human species (“white” and “black”/non-white) (Rennes 2008). This can also be seen in the fear of miscegenation (“mixing of races”). Sartre concludes that “one of the functions of racism is to compensate the latent universalism of bourgeois liberalism: since all human beings have the same rights, the Algerian will be made a subhuman” (Sartre quoted by Bhabha in Fanon 2004:xxiv). Within this colonial system of thought, the large body of research done with indigenous peoples has been objectifying and disempowering. “Research has not been neutral in its objectification of the Other. Objectification is a process of dehumanization. In it clear links to Western knowledge research has generated a particular relationship to indigenous people which continues to be problematic” (Smith 1999:39)

It is easy to talk about “colonisers”, like they are ‘out there’, in history, the villains of Victorian Africa etc. However, I have to face the ugly reality that I am those colonisers. While I may personally side with tino rangatiratanga, my attachment to the university makes me an agent of the Crown (Nursing Council of New Zealand 2005). Framed in more positive terms it means I am in a position of responsibility to uphold my side of the Treaty partnership. However, this association between research and the Crown has many unsettling connotations.  Further, as Don Shamblin notes in “Reflections of a White Racist”, no matter how progressive we may consider ourselves to be, we are so steeped in racist rhetoric that it is impossible for Pākehā to distance ourselves from it (Shamblin 1996). Thus, this theory must be personalized, taken into the body. I believe this relates to what Zalewski describes as theory as everyday practice: “To understand theorizing as a way of life implies that we must take into account many more human activities and behaviours than would be considered sensible by those who utilize theory as a tool” (Zalewski 1996:348). It also makes me think about Haunani-Kay Trask’s comments that the university can only be a training ground for struggle – you have to actually go out and struggle (Trask 2001). In this sense, I identify very strongly with what Angela Brew has called the “journey variation” of research, which is experienced as personally transformative (Brew 2001:25). Research into biculturalism cannot be merely read and written about, it requires a substantial remaking of my entire self and life.