Last week the University of Helsinki played host to a conference on (de)colonization, racialization and above all whiteness in the North. (You can have a look at the program here). It was, in many ways, a success: attracting a number of engaged, exciting scholars, bringing influential international voices to Helsinki to join in the debate, and leading to the kind of interdisciplinary cross-over that doesn’t always happen in academia – and there are many things I (as part of the organizing team) am very proud of.
At the same time, as these kinds of occasions necessarily will, the conference and its aftermath has also left me questioning the structure of academic discussion, and indeed my own role (as someone who, for better or for worse, is implicated in ‘academia’) in discussions such as these.
At the start of the first day, I’d gestured to some hopes and goals for the conference – and I like to think that these are genuine ambitions I also bring to my own work, trying – borrowing a phrase from Audre Lorde- to ‘dismantle the master’s house‘ even as I increasingly seem to inhabit it, amplifying the work of ‘other’ academics rather than reiterating a canon of privilege. We would try
- to not look at minorities as a set of problems to be overcome, but to see the space they occupy in- and sometimes outside- society as a fruitful opportunity that can be embraced as a scholarly perspective as well (in the spirit of bell hooks)
- to not disenfranchise ’tradition’ by elevating history over it as a superior form of knowledge about cultures and their histories but to acknowledge the agency of carriers of tradition as participants in an ongoing cultural dialogue (as pointed out by Linda Tuhiwai Smith)
- to go beyond questioning ’race’ as a category and start thinking about the ways in which colonization and segregation have shaped humanity itself as a category (taking inspiration from Achile Mbembe)
- and to see how ‘we’ and our scholarly disciplines have shaped Europe as a place that imagines itself (wrongly) as simultaneously colourblind and white (as recently pointed out by, e.g., Olivette Otele)
Did we manage to do any of that? I’m not so sure. Despite the critical and deconstructive ambitions of both speakers and organizers (and, I must stress, a number of absolutely excellent contributions), our conference was far from perfect – and indeed far from radical. It featured an uncomfortable number of all-white panels (a situation that can be explained in some ways, but not really excused), it circled back to national and regional understandings of the white ‘self’ far more than it should have and it relied on conventional academic structures (the form of the scholarly paper; understandings of hierarchy, seniority and the right to speak; forms of politeness that are comfortable mainly for the selected few).
It is the latter that probably bothers me the most, because they make it so acutely clear that, in helping to uphold these structures (all in the name of civil debate and smooth organization, of course) I am effectively wielding the master’s tools – and have become so accustomed to them, that I genuinely struggle to think of viable alternatives.