CN: discussion of whiteness & colonialism
Organized by the Trans Awareness Campaign, last Saturday’s “Decolonizing Gender” panel brought together fantastic and powerful speakers on the topic, each with a distinctive background in academia, the arts, and/or activism. Having attended a few other events by the Campaign and looked at the line-up, this was the event I had been most looking forward to. I came in expecting to be challenged and confronted by my own ignorance; I left with a completely revolutionised way of viewing gender and activism.
There was no warm-up to the panel: the facilitator began with the challenging question: “what does it mean to decolonize gender?”, and each speaker went through their own interpretation of the topic. What struck me most was the idea of unlearning the norms that have been established and enforced on all of us by society; history has shown that people of colour have been forced continually to conform to colonial perspectives of gender as imposed on society, and such a practice has led to the immobilization and erasure of a wealth of knowledge, experience, and identity. The neat, compartmental remnants of white colonialism have confined us – now, they seem inescapably pervasive. Beyond a politics of inclusion and representation, which merely serve to reinforce the oppressive divisions that characterize the colonized world, then, we must strive for an active dismantling of the world order, a critical movement away from the white gaze, and a reclamation of language and gender.
The distinction made between the postcolonial and the decolonial was powerfully polemical; coming from a context in which the white gaze is still preeminent, my ideas about the destructive permanence of colonialism found articulation in one speaker’s affirmation that we have not reached the era of the “post-” – we must not be deluded into thinking that colonialism is behind us. Rather, we must acknowledge its presence, and initiate its undoing. More than anything, we must remember that decolonising a concept does not necessarily mean undoing experience – the process of active deconstruction is reflexive, and thus must begin and end with the multiplicity not just of voices but of experiences. I had encountered such a view in bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, but put in the context of gender, I was able to observe just how damaging the delusion of the “post-” can be – it lulls us into believing that oppression is a given, that it is an intractable, irreversible phenomenon, and that the binary is a fact of life that we must accept, rather than something we can and must resist.
The part of the panel that was most important for me was the acknowledgement that decolonization is inevitably a painful process. It threatens the very roots of one’s experience, and removes the labels that give the various components of one’s identity a shape and a voice – it extricates one’s colonially-imposed, and thus most universally recognized, identity from one’s own sense of self. As a result, I found the speakers’ advocacy of self-care as activism a beautiful one; one of the greatest tricks colonialism has played on the world is the decentering of one’s self for the sake of the larger (capitalist) collective, and so the act of reaffirming oneself according to one’s own terms is a practice of resistance. Activists often face the pressure of achieving a certain level of impermeability, of perfection, but such a facade is not only deceiving but also destructive: there is a certain radicalism in returning to one’s roots, and if one’s aim is to enact change, one must focus on the fulfilment of the self as a project. The fight is central to one’s identity, but it must also be able to shift to the periphery, in order to allow for self-care and self-healing.
The speakers at this panel were phenomenal at articulating the anguish I had felt about the idea of gender as a colonized concept – they gave a voice to the discomfort I still feel about the intellectualism of this institution, and its consequent failure to consider questions outside the comfortable white canon. What has stuck with me most throughout the last few days is the idea that radicalism is not an uncontrolled outpouring of rebellious emotion, unsubstantiated by fact – it is the rational exercise of one’s faculties to see the oppression that is perpetuated every day by structures, institutions, and individuals; it is a way of reevaluating the world and one’s place – one’s role – within it. At the Trans Allyship Workshop, I concluded that it was important to have my own ignorance laid bare in order for learning to truly begin; after this panel and after Trans Awareness Month, I walk around with a better understanding of what it means to be truly aware, a clearer grasp of the multifold oppressions that have led such a Month to need to exist, and an appreciation for the team of Make No Assumptions for organizing a range of events that have been revolutionary in their initiation of dialogue and praxis.
Jun Pang, Get Real. Contributor