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.
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.