Thursday, April 02, 2009

Transcultural Education for Clinical Psychologists, Part #3

Postcolonial Theories

“I think postcolonial scholarship provides a theoretical and historical focus to multiculturalism that makes it attractive to scholars who want to escape the narcissism of mere identity scholarship” Spivak in Hegda & Shome, 2002, p. 271.

“The theoretical base of postcolonial studies also allows for multiplicity to be thought of in a way that is different from just simply the Rainbow Coalition. Within the context of globalization, to be postcolonial seems more appropriate than to be merely metropolitan multicultural. It is a way of dealing with globalization which is after all a fairly recent phenomenon. In order to give globalization historical depth you must move it to postcoloniality” Spivak in Hegda & Shome, 2002, p. 271-272.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s quotes speak to two of the reasons underlying my proposal for incorporating Postcolonial Theory in a social justice curriculum: (a) the limits of liberal identity politics, and (b) the need to attend to cultural oppression everywhere, particularly now when the politics and economics of globalization are impacting everyone. There are two other reasons, (c) learning from the oppressed, and (d) attending to the psychology of oppression, voiced by Homi Bhabha:

  1. "it is from those who have suffered the sentence of history—subjugation, domination, diaspora, displacement—that we learn our most enduring lessons for living and thinking" (p. 172).
  2. "the affective experience of social marginality—as it emerges in non-canonical cultural forms—transforms our critical strategies. It forces us to . . .engage with culture as an uneven, incomplete production of meaning and value, often composed of incommensurable demands and practices, produced in the act of social survival" (p. 172).

While there is no single uniting definition of what is meant by Postcolonial studies, Homi Bhabha’s elegant introduction captures those elements most relevant to my purpose in this paper:

"Postcolonial criticism bears witness to the unequal and uneven forces of cultural representation involved in the contest for political and social authority within the modern world. Postcolonial perspectives emerge from the colonial testimony of Third World countries and the discourses of ‘minorities’ within the geopolitical divisions of East and West, North and South. . .[their aim is to] intervene in those ideological discourses of modernity that attempt to give a hegemonic ‘normality’ to the uneven development and the differential, often disadvantaged, histories of nations, races, communities, peoples. They formulate their critical revisions around issues of cultural difference, social authority, and political discrimination in order to reveal the antagonistic and ambivalent moments within the ‘rationalizations’ of modernity . . .The postcolonial project, at the most general theoretical level, seeks to explore those social pathologies ‘loss of meaning, conditions of anomie’--that no longer simply ‘luster around class antagonism, [but] break up into widely scattered historical contingencies."

The controversial writings of Fanon, Said, Spivak and Bhabha have decentered European intellectual hegemony in Europe through their criticism of white, patriarchal eurocentrism (Young, 2001). Said extended Foucault’s critique of western epistemic disciplinary power exercised by academic institutions to Orientalism, arguing that European studies of the Middle East had the effect of securing and maintaining western hegemony over the Arabs and Islam (Sharpe, 2005). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has revealed imperialism’s “epistemic violence” perpetrated upon colonized women.

Homi Bhabha carried on Said’s poststructural critique incorporating the ‘psychopolitics’ of Antillean Franz Fanon, whose writings demonstrate the unprecedented challenge to understanding unleashed by colonial racism and violence, and convinced one “that the colonial moment of epistemic, cultural, psychical and physical violence makes for a unique kind of historical trauma” (Hook, 2005). Bhabha observed the failure of ideological and discursive approaches “to account for the persistence of racism, its pronounced irrationality, its compulsive qualities, the visceral quality of its hatred, its continuous, seemingly repetitive nature” (Hook, p. 487). Derek Hook suggests that Fanon’s and Bhabha’s application of a psychoanalytic lens to understanding “the vicissitudes of colonial power and its resistances” reflects the hope that these analyses would result in opportunities to intervene “within the life of power” (Hook, 2005, p. 481).

There is a reserved hope that destabilizing the Western canon through resistance could lead to new ways of being that no longer are dependent upon, through accommodation or opposition, imperialist hegemony. For example, Robert Young considers the emergence of postcolonial studies to be “an historical moment of new tricontinental forms of critical analysis and practice” (2001, p.XX) that could lead to the end of western hegemony.

Lyn Carter in Australia, one of the few educators I have found to apply postcolonial theory to diversity issues in teaching (Carter, 2004; 2005), attributes postcolonial theory the means to:

"construct more complex conceptualizations of cultural difference as hybridized and fluid, always in the making, and recast culturally diverse students’ homogenized identities into multiple, mobile, and provisional constructions, more accurately attune to conditions of living and learning under the indeterminacy of the transforming global world” (Carter, 2004, p. 833).

Carter (2005) appreciates in postcolonial criticism what she perceives to exceed western epistemologies, and the practice of double consciousness as “thinking about how thinking intersects with the disciplinary categories themselves” (p. 917).

The postcolonial attitude implicitly calls for immersing oneself in the world of the other. The critical imperative of postcolonial critique, which is addressed by those of the tricontinents to us in the West, is to suspend one’s hegemonic assumptions and disciplinary methodologies and, in true dialogic presence, open oneself to the other from a position of not-knowing. For example, Obioma Nnaemeka asserts that,

"imperialists and colonists never learn from the colonized: they teach them. They do not ask questions; they manufacture answers in search of questions. Border crossing has its dangers, its seduction, its unpredictability, its humbling moments, but it also has its enriching rewards. Border crossing entails learning about the ‘other,’ but more importantly, it should entail learning from the other. Learning about is a gesture that is often tinged with arrogance and an air of superiority; learning from requires a high dose of humility tinged with civility. Learning about often produces arrogant interrogators; learning from requires humble listeners" (2003, p. 374).

From her experiences as an African feminist, Nnaemeka argues for a postcolonial critique that critique lead to the “clearing” of a dialogic third space between borders, where theory and practice, planning and action coexist. She explains:

"Theorizing in a cross-cultural context is fraught with intellectual, political, and ethical questions: the question of provenance (where is the theory coming from?); the question of subjectivity (who authorizes?); the question of positionality (which specific locations and standing [social, political, and intellectual] does it legitimize?). The imperial nature of theory formation must be interrogated to allow for a democratic process that will create room for the intervention, legitimization, and validation of theories formulated ‘elsewhere.’ In other words, theory making should not permanently be a unidirectional enterprise---always emanating from a specific location and applicable to every location---in effect allowing a localized construct to impose a universal validity and application. I argue instead for the possibilities, desirability, and pertinence of a space clearing that allows a multiplicity of different but related frameworks from different locations to touch, intersect, and feed off each other in a way that accommodates different realities and histories" (Nnaemeka, 2003, pp. 362-363).

Nnaemeka’s words point me to the importance of service learning requirements for multicultural education for social justice and a better world. Humbleness and service, combined with openness and not-knowing are the ontological components of a professional’s integration of a heartfelt engagement in social justice work.


I have tried in this essay to articulate a vision of a multicultural education that fosters the commitment to social justice, nourishes the interest in theory, challenges the comfort zones of unconscious hegemony, insists upon informed action, and embodies dialogic reflexivity. I welcome your comments and suggestions.