A Response

The last contribution to our symposium on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press, 2018), in which the author responds to commentaries from Lisa Tilley, Lisa Ann Richey, and Toussaint Nothias.


I am (racialised as) white. My dad is (racialised as) brown. We’re both, unavoidably, even if unevenly and occasionally conditionally, White, participants in and enablers of the supremacy of logics, structures, and ways of doing things and modes of being that privilege, if not always people that look like my dad, then certainly people who look like me (as long as we go on presenting in ways coherent to White supremacy). Imaging Africa comes from occupying this liminal set of spaces, spaces that, however uncomfortable they make me, remain a privilege relative to those who do not have the luxury on reflecting on exactly how white, or not, they really are.

Writing Imagining Africa was a complete departure for me. Previously I’d been writing about civil society in Southern Africa and the politics of international development targets. So far so ok. But it wasn’t enough; I struggled to find my ethos in that work, and I felt like a gatekeeper. And so I started to think a lot about myself. Being born Jewish also added layers to the experience of being white and it became something I wanted to write about in more depth. Writing Imagining Africa thus became a bridge from the work I was doing previously (in and on bits of continental Africa) and what I wanted to be writing about then/now i.e. race, (re)racialisation, and specifically whiteness/Whiteness.

All of this made writing Imagining Africa incredibly difficult. As the excellent contributors to this Symposium clearly show, while incorporating Whiteness centrally into how we configure our readings of the international in the way I tried to do is vital, there are also a series of lacunae that I wished I’d addressed. I spent most if not all of my time researching and writing the book feeling like I was stabbing around in the dark. New literatures would confront me on a regular basis, and new possibilities for research, all the while that my own sense of self and my ethical commitments were being reshaped and tested out the deeper I got into it. And what kind of book would it be anyway? Where would it sit within the disciplines? Would it be REF-able (urgh!)? This does not justify the gaps within the work that Lisa Tilly, Toussaint Nothias and Lisa Ann Richey have identified, but it does perhaps explain them.

That said, I am particularly grateful to all the symposium contributors for how closely and carefully they read the book, during busy periods of marking, holidays, injuries, fieldwork, writing, and everything else that life throws up. They have all thrown up such important questions and issues that I look forward to exploring in further detail now I’m ‘post-book’. And thanks also to Nivi, who I worked with directly on this, as well as all the other DoT editors, for giving me the opportunity of bringing this symposium to the site. 

To return to some of those lacunae though, when Lisa Tilley suggests that I have painted “a fine granular picture of the turbulence and instability of Whiteness”, she is of course right to point out (and Tousaint Nothias also picks up on this) an enormous blind spot in the book in its approach to gender. Lisa asks of some of the female protagonists in the book “how were these female agents of their race placed in relation to the antagonisms and synergies between White power and white female emancipation?” Were they in hock with their white male settler peers in defending White vitality from the perceived degradations of suffragism, or did they confront these peers with their support for metropolitan and colonial empowerment of white women over other racialised women in the colonies? There are moments in the book that point towards the answers to these questions, and I’m grateful to Lisa for encouraging me to amplify them. The East African Womens’ League for instance (still going over 100 years later), established in Kenya Colony in 1917, and which numbered amongst its members the author and documenter of settler life Elspeth Huxley, was deeply embedded in what Ngugi Wa Thinog’o called the “Draculian elite” of settler society in the colony (with Huxley described as “a scribbler of tourist guides and anaemic settler polemics blown up to the size of books”). And yet, in an example of the raced politics of suffragism, the League was also an early adopter of suffragist demands, and put pressure on the male settler leadership to allow (white) women in the colony the vote.

I am even more grateful to Lisa however for the alighting on one of the main arguments I wanted to make with the book, which is that there are times and places where race eclipses materiality, all the while that both remain deeply imbricated with each other. For while it is certainly the case that, writing the book now I think I would have tried to present a more intertwined picture of materiality and race, I also think that there is something worth hanging on to here, for understanding race as always embedded in material relations (and vice-versa) perhaps prevents us from seeing clearly those moments when race untethers itself from the material as the overriding principle of social and political ordering. For as Lisa goes on to note, how else might we understand our present Brexit and rightist conjuncture, where “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”.

Lisa Ann Richey also raises a number of wonderfully provocative questions. When I began to think about the book, it wasn’t actually framed by Whiteness at all. In fact, the original research proposal that I worked up sat in the ‘eurocentrism’ literature. Whiteness came later, while I was in the archives and trying to figure out how people so disregarding of Europe could be straightforwardly Eurocentric. Indeed, in the book I suggest that as magisterial as John Hobson’s work on eurocentrism was, it didn’t fundamentally deal with the underlying racism that provokes Eurocentric self-regard. And so while I definitely grappled with my own positionality while writing the book, and share Lisa’s concern about the “increasingly common genre of white people talking about white people talking about Africa”, the book isn’t really about Africa at all, or at least not about Africa in any territorial sense, but rather as what Graham Harrison has elsewhere called a “cognitive space”. For sure, there are places that feature in the book that are to be found in the continent called Africa, and yet continental Africa is not the book’s subject. Indeed, how could it be? Even the sites chosen as the empirical meat of the book cohere to the imperial division between ‘North Africa’ and ‘sub-Saharan Africa’; ‘Arab Africa’ and ‘Black Africa’. In that sense, while I share Lisa’s concern for the colonial constitution of so many of our disciplinary bodies (and as a former board member of Third World Quarterly Lisa will know about that more so than many people), I do think it’s entirely appropriate, indeed vital, for people racialised as white to be talking about Whiteness.

Lisa poses some wonderful questions, particularly around the relationship between cosmopolitanism, race, class and radical politics. Most notably she asks whether we can “move beyond a Eurocentric notion of cosmopolitanism and if we do, will this have any possibility of countering the globalized power of Whiteness?” These are questions that scholars such as Simon Gikandi, Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nutall have been turning their attentions to, but it seems to me that there is scope to pursue this issue further than they have. Cosmopolitanism for me has always been a subsidiary concept to broader questions of power and struggle. That anti-capitalist and anti-imperial struggles have long been networked, ‘cosmopolitan’ in the sense of engaging with the world-as-cosmos rather than the world-as-nation-states, is beyond question. The issue then is whether the term ‘cosmopolitanism’ has any analytical purchase, or whether it represents an form of elitism; an attempt to corner the market of radical terminology. I think that this interpretation has merit, for what indigenous and decolonial literatures argue clearly is there are peoples and struggles that have long defined themselves as embedded in the rhythms and temporalities of a cosmological order, without ever having to discipline themselves in the concepts of the academy, of which cosmopolitanism has long struck me as belonging to. So to answer Lisa’s question, I would offer both a yes and a no; that alternative narratives of world-making/engaging absolutely do channel the power to exist otherwise to the racialized world-ordering of White supremacy, but also that attempts to categorise and make commensurable such cosmological projects risk denuding them of their radicality.

Toussaint Nothias related the story about the young child in the 2011 Economist front cover to me a few years ago. I’m glad he’s mentioned it here, as it gives me the opportunity to reflect again on how affirming I found this information at the time. It fit with everything I was then thinking about what was still an as yet unrealised project; that Africa did serve a cognitive function for certain Anglospheric elite anxieties. The Economist front cover was indicative of this. The Economist didn’t even need Africa, or as Toussaint notes, Africans (we don’t know where the child on that front cover is from). It simply needed to represent a particular idea of the continent, and then feature selective and highly partial stories (for that is what they were) that would confirm that original idea.

Toussaint also picks up on an aspect of the book that I struggled with. How to foreground these positive idealisations of the continent without making it seem like this was all that was going on at any given time. In the first chapter I do suggest that it would be inaccurate to portray the history I present in the book as cohering to some form of linearity, or indeed taking place in some kind of dialectical relationship with conventionally derogative narratives of Africa. And so I absolutely agree that the double helix represents a most useful means of presenting the occurrence of ‘Afro-optimism’ as well as its relationship to ‘Afro-pessimism’, and one which I wish I’d have thought of!

Toussaint is also correct to foreground the place of technology in the racialized optimism that attended itself to Africa in the period considered in the final chapters of the book. Indeed, the same celebration of social media that underpinned analyses of the 2008 Obama campaign, or the 2011 Arab Spring, similarly seeped into the laudatory literature on Africa in the same period. Specifically, smart phone technologies in the hands of ‘ordinary’ Africans were going to reel in the venal self-interested elites that dominated some of Africa’s not-so-democratic spaces by creating monitory agents and mobile panopticons out of those presented as holding the future of Africa in their hands; its youth.

Toussaint urges me to be more explicit about what ‘deracializing Whiteness’ might mean in practice. The idea is to abnormalise Whiteness, to wrench it from its neutrality, its non-colouredness. I’m not sure I want to address what this might mean in practice in any given context and for any given political subject, but in the academy I think it means thinking about our pedagogic and research practices as not-normal, and to pluralise our methods of teaching, assessment, research production, and so on. I am lucky enough to work in an institution where in office next door to me on one side I have a BAFTA-nominated film producer, and on the other a mapper of colonial train lines whose work emerges from embodied “multiple transgenerational colonialities that link the practices of conquest, empire, settlement and migration in Eastern Europe, Palestine, Canada and the UK”. This is not an advert for where I work! The point I want to make is that maintaining research and teaching as an objective science is one way in which Whiteness continues to structure the lives and experiences of scholars, teachers and students. Abnormalising research and teaching, by centring ourselves, and as a result unavoidably doing research that isn’t considered ‘disciplinary’, teaching with humility, is one way (several ways?) that we might bring Whiteness out into the open and see it for the parochial force that it is.

I want to finish this rejoinder where I began. I am (racialised as) white. My dad is (racialised as) brown. We are both White. Writing this book, if nothing else, helped me rediscover my love of research. I’d always felt slightly uncomfortable with the work I had been doing previously. That work had been explicitly concerned with the ways in which targets in international development amounted to neoliberal social engineering, and yet here I was, churning out work with decreasing returns just to try (and fail) to meet the standards of UK higher education targets, being socially engineered in the process! It’s not like I’ve somehow stepped out of that system, striding purposefully off into my own research nirvana, but I do at least feel more like I’m engaging with the perniciousness of the UK HE system purposefully, slightly more on my own terms, and perhaps (I hope) making the Whiteness of that system more strange as a result.

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