The academy and colonialism


Years ago I was invited to a conference about Bedouin in the Middle East. It was at a nice campus with nice professors and a nice audience of other academics and students. We talked and talked and presented about Bedouin.  People debated if they are indigenous. People talked about what was “best for them.” An academic from Australia was there and told us what was best for “aboriginal people.”  He talked about “our solution” and how “we helped our aboriginals.”

When it was over people went to have coffee and tea and drove home.  A fancy restaurant beckoned along the way. It was a “productive” conference.

One problem nagged at me. There were no bedouins in attendance. No bedouin academics.  No activists.  No students. The white professor from Australia who told us what was “best” for “his” aboriginals, like he might have been on the plantation in the Old South talking about “our blacks”, hadn’t come with an aboriginal.

It wasn’t the first time I saw this. In Italy on another academic conference circuit, between pasta and wine, the all-white academic corp gathered on the rooftop of a villa and discussed the “natives” also.  There had also been an Australian “expert” on aboriginals there.  He knew what was best for them also.

Back in Arizona, when I was doing my B.A there were also experts from Australia.  A white woman on a Fulbright scholarship, (they call themselves “Fulbrighters”), had explained how “the reason aboriginals drink so much and have domestic violence problems is due to colonialism.”  She knew.  She’d studied them.  She was an anthropologist and a historian.  She had poked and prodded and found out the truth. There were no aboriginal Fulbrighters at U of A, just the white woman who “knew best.”

There is a point at which the charade cannot continue or one cannot participate in it anymore.  When I attended the conference about Bedouin I decided I would no longer go to another conference like that.  No more all-white rooms talking about what was best for the “indigenous people.”  No more all-male panels talking about “bedouin women.”

But there are still papers being written by non-bedouins about bedouin. They are the “experts”, they always know the truth.  There is an irony in all this.  Most of those researching “natives” tend to be on the liberal-left end of the political spectrum.  Many of them think they are working on “behalf” of the “indigenous people.”  They believe they are doing good.  But what they are actually doing is reproducing the legacy of colonialism in a new white man’s burden, and in their dominance of their field of research they work as neo-colonialists, keeping native and other minority people out of academy and reproducing racism and all-white environments.  If you want to find one of the least diverse spaces go to an academic institution.  Ironically the dominant voices at these institutions may support diversity but they rarely empower diverse voices and they work very hard to reproduce elites-only environments, which often tend to be nepotistic and include quiet networks of people who all know eachother and come from the same background.

Why is academia sometimes a reproduction of colonial forms?  Colonialism was a form of dominance, often by one foreign ethnic group over another.  One had power, the other did not. One exploited, the other was exploited.  Colonialism produced institutions, one of which were local academic institutions.  They also produced institutions in the home country, to study the resources and the “native” environment.  They looked at demography, eugenics, and divided groups up into sometimes imaginary tribal groups, sub-tribes, confederations, all neatly scientific so that they could understand it on their own terms.  Natives were “clannish” and tribal, they had “traditions”, rituals, and holy sites. There were witch doctors also.

Later as the post-colonial period dawned, institutions remained.  Many academics embraced the new post-colonial struggle.  But they didn’t support that struggle within their institution, instead they fought rigidly to maintain their ethnic preserve.

In 2016 this academic problem persists.  The dominance of one group, the colonial group, persists.  The dominance of one ethnic group over another persists.  One is the “studied” group, one is the one that studies.  Aboriginal academics don’t go to the UK or Sydney and study the “folk ways of the white men” and poke and prod the “indigenous people of Inverness” and study their “ancient agriculture” and “burial methods.” Why aren’t their aboriginal women studying the drinking habits of upper class people from Melbourne and positing theories about their “domestic routine” and “marriage habits.” No studying of the “sexual rituals of the white men Western Ohio”?  No anthropology of the “rituals of white people and American football.”  Oddly no.

The continuing dominance of the colonial group in academics is also a form of perpetuating exploitation.  Because one group dominates the academic sphere, the sub-group, the minority group, loses out on jobs, while the dominant and the elite create academic opportunity and jobs only for themselves.  Bedouin would be perfectly capable of studying other bedouin, or of studying power structures in the Middle East, but by keeping them out of academics, they suffer a form of colonialism, no different than the displacement they receive on the ground from state authorities.


So when you see an academic conference and it deals with minorities, bedouin or aboriginals, or you see an academic paper and the authors are all non-members of the studied group, ask why that is.

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