Imagining Africa: ‘White Civilizational Vitality’ Across Time and Space

The first commentary in our symposium on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Lisa Tilley is currently Lecturer in Politics and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. Her work focuses on political economy/ecology, race, and historical/present-day colonialism, extraction and expropriation. She has analysed key sites of colonial/capitalist expansion – the plantation, the mine, and the city – with particular attention to the social and ecological formations, technologies and logics produced through those locations. Most of her research has been conducted in Southeast Asia, specifically across the rural and urban frontiers of Indonesia. See, for example, “A Strange Industrial Order”: Indonesia’s Racialised Plantation Ecologies and Anticolonial Estate Worker Rebellions, forthcoming in History of the Present. She also co-convenes the CPD-BISA working group, is Associate Editor of Global Social Theory, and has visited with us several times before.

The full collection of posts in this symposium is available here.


I happen to be reading Clive Gabay’s new book in a homestay owned by German missionaries in West Papua. The European owners themselves are not here but their presence is made vivid in the written instructions printed in cordial, civilised italics on two sheets of A4 and pasted onto my door: “do not bring prostitutes into your room; do not chew betel inside or near the homestay; do not wear Western swimsuits at the beach, this is seen as almost naked and Papuan men will think you want a boyfriend; respect the Papuan culture by covering your body in public; God bless you!” On the adjacent wall is a National Geographic-style photo montage of Papuan men in penis gourds and adolescent Papuan girls in grass skirts, bare breasted, looking suspiciously into the camera. It is gradually made clear to me that the Mission still concerns itself with that most nineteenth century of burdens – the ‘civilising’ of those assumed to be lazy, savage, and infantile, yet who are simultaneously idealised as noble and innocent.

Papuan Mural

Public mural from West Papua (Jayapura).

Occasionally I make it to the local internet café and engage with a distant reality through social media. But this only tells me that the academic sentinels of white supremacy ‘back home’ are still rehearsing their appeals for the overt reassertion of white pride: whiteness is just an ethnicity like any other; white majorities are set to become minorities in their own lands; whites have higher IQs; whites can be distinguished by skull measurements. I carry my visible phenotypical whiteness with me wherever I go, of course, but what Gabay calls “Whiteness” – with a capital W – as “mythologised genius” (p.2) and “a system of privilege that rests on a set of supposedly universal and ahistorical codes that represent a civilised status” (p.237) is clearly already everywhere, whether phenotypical whiteness is present or not. With all of this as my immediate personal backdrop – ongoing white missionary tutelage in West Papua and academics fostering narratives complementary to white supremacist resurgence in Europe – Gabay’s historical analysis of Whiteness feels far too contemporary for comfort. And so, I’ll willingly fail at the challenge of starting this engagement with anything other than seemingly cliched descriptors: Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze by Clive Gabay is timely, important, and necessary.

Gabay’s focus is the British and broader Western gaze on Africa but has wider resonance in European interferences across the Global South. The analysis pivots on the seemingly counterintuitive construction of ‘Africa’ in idealised forms – from the 1924 British Empire Exhibition presentation of Africa as a place, in Gabay’s terms “where Whiteness could be redeemed” (p.50) to the jubilant “Africa rising” narratives which gained prominence after the global financial crisis. Conceptually, Gabay has bestowed us with a vocabulary which clearly enriches and sharpens the study of the production and operation of Whiteness over time. Empirically, his seven years of careful archival work have resulted in the curation of an important historically traced narrative. Methodologically, he has presented an exemplary way of crafting an informed and illuminating history of the present. One central contribution is the mentioned separation of phenotypical whiteness from capital-W Whiteness, that “system of privilege” which has “always needed a place called Africa” (p.2). Another is the argument running throughout the text which holds that it is “racial anxiety” rather than economic imperatives alone which explain the way in which Africa itself is constructed in the white/White imagination.

There is an important complexity to the argument which, supported by careful evidence, both complements and challenges some of the rehearsed postcolonial theoretical work on the construction of the Western self through an inferior racialised Other. Specifically, Gabay recovers and closely examines narratives of Africa as a place with “the potential to save White vitality from a degraded West” (p.24). “Africa rising”, once the evidence is considered, is not a sudden break from racialised imaginaries of an inferior Africa, but part of a long “constitutive sociological pathology of Whiteness” (p.34) which constructs the continent in unstable ways. Chapter Three, for example, richly details anxieties in colonial Kenya across a spectrum of political groups – from explicitly racist white settler communities, to Fabians and humanitarians. Despite their outward disagreements, these groups all converged on a central concern for the health of what Gabay calls “White genius” – specifically in the form of governance and Christianity – and consistent anxiety over the future of “White vitality” on the African continent as much as in the metropole. In this chapter and others, Gabay’s careful examination of the anxieties of individuals and organisations over time gives us a fine granular picture of the turbulence and instability of Whiteness. In the aggregate, however, the detail Gabay presents down to the pixel makes up a work of historical and political sociology which says much about how changing forms of white power informed the shifting dimensions of state power and the broader formation of the international order.

There is, however, another vital story hovering between the lines of this text which perhaps could have been parsed out through an interwoven engagement with feminist theorists of race. Gabay follows some key female agents of Whiteness through colonial time and into the present across the African continent. We meet Sally Shay (p.60); Daisy Chown (pp. 66-68); Virginia Woolf and Helena Swanick (p.72); the East African Women’s League (EAWL p.85); Elsie May Bell-Grosvenor (p.131); Katherine Courlander (p.139) and others as the book progresses. Gabay’s explicit intention in the text is to reveal “Whiteness to be an intersectional phenomenon, constituted by constructed characteristics and demarcations of class as well as race” (emphasis added p. 37). But is this possible without looping the class-race threads through the already-refined analytics of gender too, I wonder? Shay and Chown, for instance, both appear in the context of Kenya Colony in Chapter 2. Chown uses an aide to persuade a local woman to remove her earrings and exchange them for a price Chown believes is enough to “purchase a little copper wire and the few beads necessary to replace them” (p.68) without regard for what spiritual, cultural, or sentimental value the earrings may have had. Later, Courlander reflects on how, as a white woman in Africa, she can live a more fortunate life than other white women due to the abundance of domestic labour, thereby leaving “the housewife free to follow an unhampered social life” (cites Courlander, p. 140).

East African Women's Association

Published by the East African Women’s Association, 1962

What do such anecdotes tell us, other than that white women’s engagements in the world have so often been exploitative and unconscionable? In the wider context of Gabay’s text, in which we learn that White vitality is being shored up against perceived degradation in the metropole, including against burgeoning suffragism, how were these female agents of their race placed in relation to the antagonisms and synergies between White power and white female emancipation? Were Shay and Chown specifically seeking to boost the vitality of white femininity against a perceived degraded suffragism? Or, would they divert from their white male settler peers in Africa and support suffragism in the metropole in conjunction with the empowerment of the white woman over racialised women in the colonies? Was the shift towards racialised domestic labour another kind of emancipation which preserved the proper gender order of Whiteness while displacing drudgery onto the colonised Other (herself not strictly within the frames of ‘womanhood’ in the white imagination)? Whiteness is convincingly presented as a classed phenomenon – poor whites are perpetually degrading to elite visions of White vitality – and yet Whiteness is left essentially genderless in the text. There is something more important here, I think, than simply the observation that white femininity differs from white masculinity. Instead there is something to be said about the insight the lives and outlooks of Courlander, Chown and others give us into how Whiteness is co-produced through (and in relation to) a specific gender order.

As we’ve seen, Imagining Africa recovers in close detail the important function of idealisations of the continent in terms of how these have served “white civilizational vitality” across time and space. My own reading of idealisations – like Africa rising and market emergence constructions more broadly – would hold more firmly to the material functions these serve which Gabay convincingly transcends in this text. The author reads idealisations as “suggestive of a deeper set of anxieties that transcend purely material concerns and are, in fact, racial” (p.211). Here a separation is made between the material and the racial which is made possible by the literature Gabay engages with. The materialist explanation for post-financial crisis ‘Africa rising’ idealisations is provided by David Harvey’s account of Western capital searching for a ‘spatial fix’ in new areas for productive investment. But what if we begin with materialist readings, especially those within the racial and colonial capitalism and intersectional feminist political economy literatures, which have always seen the racial and the material as integral to one another? Throughout the course of the book, my mind kept returning to the forms of “exclusionary inclusion and inclusionary exclusion” – in AbdouMaliq Simone’s words – which bind racialised populations into extractive economies which profess to lift them up, even as they drag them down. What if we bring the material back into the analysis through an engagement with literature on the political economy of race?

Notwithstanding the provocation above, Gabay’s analysis sets us up for a deeper consideration of the present in which the acute economic pain of Brexit is accepted by Brexiteers as a price worth paying for its anticipated effects of reduced immigration and increased deportation in the UK. Those who have decided to opt for economic decline, entrenched austerity, and the further unravelling of the one-time eugenic ideals of the welfare state, have effectively conjoined White pride with economic decline in the Brexit moment. Perhaps there is a more complex reading of the racial and the material here in which the deeply rooted demographic question over the racial balance of power in population terms has usurped the economic question of white vitality in wealth terms? Perhaps some inclusionary forms of exclusion have given way to straightforward ‘exclusionary forms of exclusion’ for which the Farages of our time have decided that extended poverty in the old metropole – for people of colour but also poor whites – is a fair expense? The entrenchment of white degradation in the lower classes is the sacrifice made by little nationalists for the sake of boosting white demographic power across the colour line.

Overall then, Imagining Africa presents an exemplary way of crafting an informed and carefully considered history of the present. With every week that passes since the manuscript’s completion, the analysis seems to grow in importance in the light of contemporary mutations of white pride in every sphere of social life, from the office of the executive, to the television studio, to the lecture theatre. Along with texts such as Harris’s Whiteness as Property, Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness, Ware’s Beyond the Pale, and classic works by Du Bois and others, this book needs to be taught and retaught to counter the ills of the present and dispel the myths peddled by those who would return us to the days of skull measurements and explicit racial hierarchies of genetic competence. German missionaries in Papua may not read it, busy as they are cultivating “White genius” through Christianity among native Papuans. Closet white supremacist academics calling for whiteness-as-ethnicity accounts certainly won’t read it – careful, historical work contradicts their own commitment to reaffirming White civilizational vitality. Nonetheless, a sharp and engaged generation of students – with their admirable commitment to recovering the historical truths which inform our present – will benefit greatly from its insights.


One thought on “Imagining Africa: ‘White Civilizational Vitality’ Across Time and Space

  1. Pingback: A Response | The Disorder Of Things

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s