Gary Okihiro on subject, struggle, liberation in decolonial politics

Part two of writing up notes and thoughts on Gary Okihiro’s Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation. The juicy bit for me I think. (Part 1 is here).

So we have thinking about world systems: imperialism, colonialism and settler colonies… all of it driven by the desire to dominate and underpinned by white supremacy. But Okihiro makes the point that ideology is always fragmentary and contradictory, this is what allows for contestation and change. He gives a useful short list of the theorists that can handle this — Marx, Freud, Saussure, Lacan (oof, I haven’t read Lacan because I don’t like what I know and wish we could all just read Fromm instead, but this is making me realise I maybe need to to challenge myself), Foucault, Gramsci, Althusser — these are the theorists of power and change. He writes:

There are no sovereign subjects with agency over their consciousness. Subjects are produced through discourse. As we will see, subjectification and not identity formation is the analytical category for Third World studies. (110)

So what is the world that white supremacy embedded within the violence of colonialism and imperialism has created?

Self-hatred is a consequence of the colonial condition, and loving oneself can constitute an anticolonial affirmation of human dignity and self-determination. (110)

But of course, this isn’t just about race, it is about the biological model underpinning the many intersections of difference, and the ways that difference itself is constructed as constitutive of social ills rather than the subject of oppression which is itself the cause.

In these biological models of human development, deviations from the norm constitute unnatural and even pathological conditions. Central to that assumption is the normative, white, heterosexual, middle-class, citizen man, and degenerations from that standard invite racism, sexism, homophobia, exclusion, laws, poverty, and personality disorders. (112)

This requires a certain kind of liberatory praxis to shift

Still, per Freire and Mills, we must position the subject-self within the social formations to be “truly human.” Our liberation depends upon that apprehension. (113)

I truly love, here, the problematisation of experience. I have been struggling with this so much recently. He draws on Raymond Williams theorising how experience ‘involves the whole consciousness or being — the personal, subjective, and emotional’ (113). This is the power of it, but just ‘experience’ is not enough. Okihiro writes

Difference and experience are social constructions and require deconstruction… Experience adduced as uncontested evidence reproduces rather than refutes discourses of oppression and hegemonic systems involving sexuality, gender, and race. (114)

This. I am so all about this. I am in meeting after meeting with ‘experts by experience’ but it is this level of experience. There is no critical reflection, no collective thought. Freire offers a way through this. I’ve also been thinking about the role of scholars and love this, love Alcoff though I have not read enough:

Scholars, Alcoff argues, must speak for and about others to nurture a critical consciousness and promote social change. A retreat into silence is not liberating and, in fact, advances disempowerment. Further, to speak only for oneself falls back to the old liberal humanism and individualism that isolate the self from society as if one is not constituted by or related to others. (115)

Okihiro makes a clear distinction between this third world conscious and liberatory praxis, and identity politics.

Identity politics, as charged by critics of post-1968 ethnic studies, is not the breeding ground for Third World Studies. Subjectification understands the subject not as humanism’s “I am” but as complex subjects in formation and in constant engagement with society. That recognition emerges not from a trivial, youthful search for identities but from profound acts of power or agency. Self-determination by the oppressed against the forces of colonial, hegemonic discourses and material conditions is the objective of subjectification; the agency of the subject-self drives the movement for Third World liberation. (119)

As so we turn to racial formation, and the ways that ‘as coined by Omi and Winant, has deservedly captured the field of post-1968 ethnic studies‘ (122). He quotes Omi and Winant in defining it as:

the process by which social, economic and political forces determine the content and importance of racial categories, and by which they are in turn shaped by racial meanings. (123)

It is ceaselessly contested and in motion, subject to change. Race is neither epiphenomenon or superstructure, not false consciousness. It is instead a fundamental organizing principle of social relations at both the individual and societal level. He draws on Mills again here, the work on whiteness by Ian Haney-Lopez (which I have only dipped into). Okihiro continues:

The white subject position, hence, is normativity, privilege, and domination. Correspondingly the nonwhite subject position is marginality (deviance), disadvantage, and subordination. (129)

This binary is of course disrupted by the various kinds of racial hierarchy always at play. Just one example, of course, is

the crazy conniptions of the census, in which white has remained constant but other racial classifications constantly shifting (130) … The US census produces race (and citizenship) and confirms what the courts have historically ruled: white and nonwhite are not scientific concepts but categories of privilege and rights as determined by whites. (133)

In the census, however, ‘white’ remains unproblematised, and Okihiro highlights the need to racialize whites. Du Bois of course did the same thing, he wrote The Souls of White Folk (much harder to find) as well as writing The Souls of Black Folk. Du Bois was just so fucking awesome, right? The more I read the more in awe of him I am, despite those talented tenth missteps. Anyway, Du Bois decades ago showed that ‘whiteness has a history… whiteness is a discourse, subjectivity, and social practice‘. By doing so, Okihiro writes ‘Du Bois marked what had been left unnmarked: he rendered the transparent visible‘ (134). And of course, since 1968 there has been a white ethnic revival and a new rise of white identity politics, both of which have employed the ideology of self-determination as voiced by Third World Peoples. All part of a wider backlash decrying racialism, and putting forward an ideology of color-blindness (135).

So where are the tools that we need to better talk about these complex dynamics, to locate and fight oppression. Okihiro writes

Masters tools can only partially dismantle the master’s house, we need to supply alternative languages and ideologies (136)

There is much in teh third world movement to draw upon–and of course Vijay Prashad documents so beautifully the power of that movement. Feminism, of course, has developed a powerful set of analytical tools. This is necessary given that Okihiro argues that while racial formation and critical race theory have been a huge step forward, they still are not really able to manage multiple intersecting oppressions.

Thus we have the movement towards theorising ‘social formation’. The tools emerge out of activism — from SNCC to the Black Women’s Liberation Caucus (which then changed its name to Black Women’s Alliance (BWA)) to the Combahee River Collective (I am so looking forward to reading How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor). So for Okihiro

Power becomes the organizing principle, its locations and articulations the objects of analysis. This is expressed along lines of color and gender, but also sexuality, class, nation, discourses not just identities (141)

Social formation allows, like articulation, an understanding of how these evolve over time (and space)

Social formation, then, marks the forms of society in their entirety and their passage and changes over space/time. Power and its articulations around the discourses and material manifestations of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation conceive and cultivate the social structure. (143)

This concept of social formation is not just a sum of oppressions, but it maps points of intersection as well as resistance, and how mutually constitutive and shifting relations between discourse and material conditions works. It

supplies a rubric for affiliations among discourses of racial formation, feminist, queer, Marxist, and critical theories and for solidarities in political insurgencies emanating from people of color and across imposed divides of race, gender, sexuality, class, and nation. (144)

I need to think about this more. I keep coming back to Hall’s ideas of articulation, Patricia Hill Collins’ domains of power, these different ways of trying to grapple with immense complexity in ways that can feed effectively into victorious struggle.

Okihiro, Gary (2016) Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

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