Ep. #23 Decolonizing anthropology, with Sana Ashraf and Bruma Rios-Mendoza: this month on TFS

iTunes Button (via NiftyButtons.com)We think we are supposed to be comfortable. As long as we are trying to do everything to be comfortable, we will never make a change.”

Subscribe on AndroidIn this themed panel discussion, our own Jodie and Simon sat down with Sana Ashraf and Bruma Rios-Mendoza, two PhD candidates in anthropology at ANU, to talk about decolonization: what it is, and what it means for anthropology, in the academy, in the field, and inside our own minds.

Sana Ashraf‘s work looks at blasphemy claims and related violence in Pakistan. To learn more about Sana’s research, check out her latest publication:

Ashraf, S. (2018). Honour, purity and transgression: Understanding blasphemy accusations and consequent violent action in Punjab, Pakistan. Contemporary South Asia, 26(1), 51-68. doi:10.1080/09584935.2018.1430745

Bruma Rios-Mendoza‘s research looks at ritual and world-making among Biak people in West Papua, Indonesia. Find more of her work at Academia.edu: http://anu.academia.edu/BrumaRios


Sana: “Decolonisation to me means recognising the privilege we hold and exercise in everyday life, in our everyday interaction. It’s not just limited to governments and the militaries anymore, it’s the various organisations, institutions, universities, the development sector, a lot of other areas where this privilege is exercised.”

Bruma: “Decolonisation is always a process…because there are many new ways in which power is inflicted over others and subjugates them, because there will emerge new ways in which people are being subjugated, no? So this decolonising has to keep on going.”

Simon: “As someone who lives in a settler colonial state, I would say that decolonisation is a recognition of the mental and physical violence that was meted out to indigenous peoples by European settlers, and the fact that that was not just at one particular point in time, but has been an ongoing process that continues to this day.”

Bruma: “Colonisation is not only about territories, it’s also about ways of engaging between each other…So even countries in Scandinavia, where many have not been active colonisers, still, being part of a world system, we are all kind of in this domination by the status quo of disparity.”

Simon: “It [decolonisation] is a matter of justice… people who have been colonised have – again, not a historical gripe, but a legitimate, ongoing claim to having been meted out an injustice that deserves to be corrected, in the same way that you would expect an injustice done to you to be corrected.”

Jodie: “We’re talking about making a fairer world, making a fairer society, right? So for the people who have all of the power and all of the privilege, or the majority of it, what is their motivation to do this, how do we convince people who have in these most privileged positions that this is in the best interest of, not just people that they don’t care about, but also themselves?… because they are the ones with most power to make change.”

Bruma: “We think we are supposed to be comfortable. As long as we are trying to do everything to be comfortable, we will never make a change.”

Sana: “I think making decolonisation convincingly beneficial to the people who are in positions of power is basically making it all about them, again, and it’s not all about them, it does not have to be beneficial to them. Why does everything, including decolonisation, have to be beneficial to the people in power?”

Sana: “Your skin colour and your nationality and where you come from does not define how you can, or whether you can study a particular country or not. But being conscious of the privileges you bring to the study or to the field is really important, because if you are not conscious and aware of your privilege you can sound and be very patronizing towards a culture, which is not okay.”

This anthropology podcast is supported by the Australian Anthropological Society, the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific and College of Arts and Social Sciences, and the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, and is produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

Music by Pete Dabro: dabro1.bandcamp.com

Show notes by Ian Pollock

Image: A collection of National Geographic magazines, from the library of the SVD Catholic mission in Todabelu, Indonesia. Photo by Ian Pollock

Transcription for Ep 23: Decolonisation

Jodie:                                         00:00                       Hey everyone. First off, we at The Familiar Strange want to acknowledge and celebrate the First Australians on whose traditional lands we are recording this podcast and pay our respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples past, present, and emerging. Let's go.

Jodie:                                         00:27                       Hello and welcome to The Familiar Strange, brought to you with support from the Australian Anthropological Society, the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific and the College of Arts and Social Sciences, produced in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association and coming to you from the Australian Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. I'm your Familiar Stranger today, Jodie-Lee Trembath, together with my fellow Familiar Stranger, Simon Theobald…

Simon:                                      0:50                          Hello

Jodie:                                         0:51                          …and we've got two very special guests today with us, fellow PhD anthropology candidates here at the Australian National University, Sana Ashraf,

Sana:                                          0:59                          Hi

and Bruma Rios Mendoza.

Bruma:                                      1:01                          Hello

Jodie:                                         1:02                          Sana is a Pakistani anthropologist and PhD student here at ANU studying blasphemy-related violence in Pakistan. And Bruma is a Mexican anthropologist and PhD student at ANU doing research in West Papua learning from Biak people about rituality, worldviews and personhood. So, this month for our panel, we're going to have a theme, we'll be talking about decolonization, what it is, where it applies, and why it's so important.

So, I'm actually going to start us off today with what I've been thinking about this week, which is what decolonization actually means. So if you Google ‘decolonization’, you get websites talking about decolonizing whole countries, talking about decolonizing specific industries, particular spaces, even decolonizing one's own mind, and a lot of the hits are about land and the end of colonial military occupation and about things that happened in the past, though of course the history is different in places like Africa or in South Asia or in the Pacific. So, then there are lots of other hits about the need to decolonize thinking or decolonize societal ways of doing things and that is really based on an enduring colonial legacy. And if you Googled ‘decolonize Australia’, you’d get something quite different because Australia is still colonized, right? So the British imperial forces just never withdrew. And Simon and I are very conscious that we are that legacy, that we’re here making this podcast on Ngunnawal and Ngambri land. So, I guess my first question for the panel is what's your understanding of the term decolonization? What does it mean for you and what does it mean across different contexts as well?

Sana:                                          2:39                          Decolonization for me means realizing and recognizing the privilege that we exercise and hold in everyday life, in our everyday interactions, and it is not just limited to the governments and the militaries anymore. It's the various organizations, institutions, universities, the development sector, a lot of other areas where this privilege is exercised.

Bruma:                                      3:06                          Well, I would only add to that, that decolonizing, decolonization, it's always a process. It will always be and will always keep on going because there are many new ways in which power is inflicted over others and subjugates them, because there will emerge new ways in which people are being subjugated. So, this decolonizing has to keep on going.

Jodie:                                         3:33                          What do you think Simon?

Simon:                                      3:34                          I will say this with a recognition of my own positionality that I'm sitting here as a white man from a settler colonial country, so I can only really speak about what I think decolonization means for me from that position, but I think it's, it's about recognizing that for those of us, I think those are particularly, I mean, it's, it's a broader, it's a much broader topic than we can really cover in any five minute segment and I think Bruma and Sana have already kind of covered some broader issues of it, but to kind of boil it down to the real settler colonial perspective. As someone who lives in a, in a settler colonial state, I would say that decolonization is a recognition of the mental and physical violence that was meted out to Indigenous people by European settlers and the fact that, that was not just a process that happened at one particular point in time, but has been an ongoing process that continues to this day.

Jodie:                                         04:28                      Okay. So that kind of works in some contexts and then in other contexts it doesn't seem to apply so much. Right? So, if we talk about colonization for a moment instead of decolonization, if you're somewhere like Sweden for example, Sweden considers itself, sort of, separate from the whole idea of colonization, but does somewhere like Sweden need to decolonize in the same ways that somewhere like Australia does and in the same ways that somewhere like India does, where the British forces have removed themselves. Like, what does it mean to colonize in this day and age, compared to in the past.

Bruma:                                      5:10                          Okay. I would think that, at least for the case you are talking about, they would need to be decolonized too. Colonization, it's not only about territories, it's also about ways of engaging between each other and they have to conform to the rules, no? of the world system that still is based on this disparity. So even countries in Scandinavia that they haven't, haven't been actively colonizers or haven't been colonized either, but still being part of the world system, we are all kind of in this domination by this status quo of this disparity.

Jodie:                                         5:59                          That segues us quite nicely, actually, into our next segment. So Simon, what are you thinking about?

Simon:                                      06:02                       What I've been thinking about is why decolonization is important and I think that for a lot of people out there in listening land, something like decolonization can seem, such a big topic that it's almost hard to think about, but I think it's really important for us to engage with because it comes down to, ultimately, for two, two reasons, at least for me, and I think one of them is more academic and one of them is much more kind of generalist.

So, most generally it's a matter of justice. I think we have to realistically grapple with the fact that people have been colonized, have… not some kind of, again, not a historical gripe, but a legitimate ongoing claim to having been meted out a historical injustice that deserves to be corrected in the same way that you would expect an injustice done to you to be corrected.

The second point for me, I guess it is a more academic issue, but I think it's a matter of, kind of, academic integrity. It's about recognizing that decolonizing the work that we do, allowing a plurality of voices to be heard, bringing out something in… like anthropology, like bringing our participants into the creation of knowledge rather than just writing about them. All of these things actually create, I think, a more honest and a more valid anthropological project than something that has historically been very much about a kind of us versus them. The informant versus the anthropologist. I think if we want to do good anthropology these days, it's no longer possible to do it without some kind of effort towards decolonizing and at least in the way it's been framed of this - which is recognizing one’s privilege, vis-a-vis others. I guess. So, for me the question then becomes - why do other people think decolonization is important?

Bruma:                                      07:44                      Well Macron (the President of France since 14 May 2017) would disagree with you. According to him, even Africa and America and all that, have benefited from being colonized. Well that has been always an argument that has been there now. I'm like, oh, because how would humans develop? Achieve all these development in technology, in knowledge, you know, academia, sciences and all that. Without this coming to other places and taking all for the benefit of a few?

We should keep creating other ways of relating with each other instead of just perpetrating this dynamic of disadvantage between different people. And when I say different people, it's not only colour, it's class, is also about feeling entitled because maybe you are in a way ‘the chosen ones’, or whatever, but it's still whatever thing that would make from difference disparity, that's where the problem is and that's what has to be addressed and keep being addressed as humans. We have to keep creating ways to address that and change that to be more just.

Jodie:                                         08:54                       So you both, uh, both Bruma and Simon have now used the word just, justice… for the people who have all of the power and all of the privilege, or the majority of it - how do we convince people who have those most privileged positions that this is in the best interest, not just of people they don't care about, but also of themselves?

Bruma:                                      09:18                       First, I think it's not only about convincing these people that are at the top because now it kind of… trickles? Is that the word?

Simon                                        09:25                       Trickles.

Bruma:                                      09:26                       Trickles down, no? And we all participate in structuring that dynamic, but I think one - my particular point of view - is that one big issue is that we think we are supposed to be comfortable and as long as we keep trying to do everything to be comfortable, we won't achieve any change.

Sana:                                          09:49                       I think making decolonization convincingly beneficial to the people who are in positions of power is basically making it all about them again, where it's not about them and it does not have to be beneficial to them. Why does everything including decolonization have to be beneficial to the people in power to make it, like, make it sound like a convincing target or aim?

Bruma:                                      10:18                       I would add to that. I think - again, it's my own opinion - that we have historically put the responsibility of this kind of meeting to be drastic changes to the grassroots and because they are the ones that are suffering the most and they are the ones that have less time and really less… leverage…?

Simon:                                      10:38                       Leverage.

Bruma:                                      10:38                       And it… Yeah. So for me, I think it's more … middle class should be... we should be more active on it. Yeah. Because first, we have the privilege of being educated, most likely to have permanent jobs and we also have economical power. Yeah. So if we do try to be more active in making a change, we have more leverage than the grassroots. Yeah, because it's just, load it on the lower classes when they are already have so many struggles and their everyday life is a struggle with this. No? That's the only thing I would want to add, that responsibility, it must be more focused on middle class because we do have more leverage.

Sana:                                          11:29                       Actually, I was just wondering about the responsibility on the middle classes point that Bruma was making and I'm thinking that anthropologists, and we in the academia generally, probably fall into that category and we are extremely comfortable in what we do and also have the leverage to be able to talk about these issues, but what happens is even though we claim that anthropology is a discipline that aims to bring plurality and different people's voices together and value people and cultures despite the colonial history of the discipline itself, we are not fully aware of the extent of privilege we have as anthropologists and also the dynamics of power within the… within the academy, where white anthropologists still have a lot of power and credibility just because of their skin colour.

I feel that, even to this day, Indigenous scholars and people of colour, they're still seen as somehow visitors in anthropology. They're not core producers of knowledge. They are here and they have to establish their credibility and words to be taken seriously as anthropologists. An anthropologist is still a white person who will or will not let the people of colour into the discipline and decide whether their anthropology is worth it or not.

What do you guys think about the politics of knowledge production and the colonial relations in that context and also how these relationships stay so upright in the university itself?

Bruma:                                      13:09                       I think, at least in our discipline, anthropology, there are different angles of this that either were confronted with this structure of powers and so we should be reflexive on it. No? So, one angle is, us doing field work. So, our relationship with the people who we are learning from. In the discipline, we have talked about that a long time. It's still not completely positively resolved, but working on it. Another one is even the way we produce knowledge, what we take as knowledge and even our methodology for it. How is… it all comes from and this specific line of tradition, of knowledge. When we as anthropologists, we are constantly learning from other traditions of knowledge, so why that hasn't come in really to, in, in our own ways of creating knowledge?

And third, in the dynamics in academia, of what Sana was talking about, and how it's still predominantly white anthropologists that have the positions of power in academia on that regard. For example, just it's, it might seem silly, but it's not. When you live it constantly, it kinda gets into you and gets into, you know, from my own experience, every time I meet an anthropologist here, the first question they made to me is why, being a Mexican, you are studying West Papua? Why not? I don't think they asked the same way to other people that are not, that don't come from a usual place of study of anthropology. I haven't seen it. I've been in the same situation with other schoolmates meeting the same person and they, if they are, if they come from… either they are Australian, they come from the US or from England or whatever, they, they, they don't get that question. They are not… that's not asked.

Jodie                                          15:09                       Because If you're Mexican, you should want to study Mexico…?

Bruma                                       15:10                       Yeah, yeah. Why are you interested? If you are Australian, why are you studying, I don't know, somewhere else in a country, in the world, when you are also Australian, you have plenty that you could do research on here! If you are from the US, same wise and it's not only about doing research with First Nations or whatever, with whoever we are, humans, and we can do real anthropological research with any group of humans. So, being asked that once and again and again and again, like, I ended up at questioning: So what? Shouldn't I? Or, can't I? Or, what is behind that?

Sana                                            15:48                       You don't have the right set of physical features to be able to choose the topic and people that you want to study because historically it has been the white people studying whoever they wanted to and even now they could get upset when there are too many natives studying themselves because it's somehow taking away their privilege to study them.

Bruma                                       16:13                       But because it happens, I mean, it affects us all. You know? And this… this idea of who, who can study, who. You know? Who can learn from whom - because even ‘study’, that word ‘I'm studying’, what are you? What? It's not a chair or something. No, you aren’t studying, you are working or learning from other people. No. So why some groups can't have the freedom to learn from whoever they choose to, or can… many times you don't choose it, it kind of chooses you, you know? And so why, why not? Why some are entitled to and some others are not?

Jodie                                          23:20                       Okay. So where does the topic of representation come into this discussion that we're having, because we know that we talk a lot in anthropology particularly about ‘who can study who’ and… and again, I used the word study then didn’t I?...So again, ‘who can learn from who’ and also ‘who can speak on behalf of who’? And lots of people do say that, you know, maybe we should move to a model where people only study people who are like them, whatever that may look like. So where does that idea come into…? Would that be a better way of decolonizing? Would that actually make things worse? What do you think?

Bruma                                       17:25                       I don't think there should be any limitation or prescription to it because if you do learn from your own - the group you belong to - or don't - it has its own complexities in both cases. It still will enrich knowledge of human beings. No? So, either studying someone, and it's not of like learning from a group that you don't belong naturally to it. It creates a specific complexity that, that will allow you to learn in some specifics in a particular way and the constant coming and going of you being… reflect on it will also enrich, whatever you are learning.

Same as when you, eh, but not exactly the same, but it kind of – it has its own enriching complexity. If you do learn from the group you naturally belong to. It has its own complications, but it also has its own advantages. Yeah, so I don't think it has to be either - just either one of them. I think we should be free to learn from whoever we are keen to. Yeah, and the point is to enrich this knowledge of the diversity of, of humankind. And that's not only ethnically, of ethnic differences, but it's also in, in the same ethnic group there are different world views and ways to engage in social dynamics. No? And so, it's either a case of, of studying with your own or others, it will deepen human knowledge, not only for the discipline but in a broad sense.

Jodie:                                         19:16                       So you chose to study - well Is that true? Did you choose to study in Pakistan because it's your country?

Sana:                                          19:24                       Yes. I chose to study this because it's my country and not just because it's my country and it's convenient for me to study my country, which is also a perception that anthropologist and academics, usually have of native and Indigenous scholars, that we go to study our own countries because it's convenient and we're not really being hardworking anthropologists if you're doing that, which is really not true, but it's simply because I can relate more to a… and I feel strongly towards a certain cause, a certain social phenomenon which affects my life and my family's life in so many different ways. So it's a more personal and political reason that I'm studying this, but I have met, in my life I have met some really amazing squatters who, who know Pakistan better than me and they're white, and so it's basically to say, no your skin colour and your nationality and where you come from does not define how you can or whether you can study a particular country or not. But being conscious of the privileges you bring to study or to the field is really important because if you are not conscious and aware of your privilege, you can sound and be very patronising towards a culture which is not okay.

So yes, there are both examples. There are people who are, who study a country and then they think that they are experts on that country. Nobody's an expert on anything. If somebody says that, oh hey, I'm an expert in Pakistan, I'm really suspicious of them because I don't say that I'm an expert in Pakistan and nobody is. Even if you're born in Pakistan and have studied Pakistan your whole life, you know a little bit of the whole big reality that this really complex country or field is and that's true for any field or any topic, so people posing as experts on certain areas or experts on certain people need to check their privilege and also be conscious of what they're representing.

So yes, the, the questions of representation, of representation are really important, but with deeper engagement and recognition of our own insignificance in the grand scheme of things and how much we can know and how much we're capable off is really important.

Jodie:                                         21:48                       Actually, I think that's a really powerful note to finish up on. Can I say thank you so much to both of you for being on the show because I think it's such an important topic and I appreciate you sharing the perspectives that you have. So, thank you.

Sana and Bruma:                 22:01                       Thank you for having us.

Jodie:                                         22:19                       Today's episode was produced by all of us at The Familiar Strange. That's Julia Brown, Ian Pollock, Simon Theobold, and myself and this month we're also welcoming some new team members: Deanna Catto, Matthew Phung, and Sarah Passmore. Have you subscribed to The Familiar Strange Podcast yet? You can find us on iTunes and all the other familiar places. You can find a transcription of this episode at the base of the episode’s show notes which also include a list of all the books and papers mentioned today, on our website, http://www.thefamiliarstrange.com, and while you're there, check out our blog about anthropology's role in the world. And if that floats your boat and you decide you'd like to contribute to the blog, or have anything to say to me or the other hosts of this program, email us at submissions@thefamiliarstrange.com; Tweet at TFS Tweets; or look us up on Facebook and Instagram. Our music's by Pete Dabro, and special thanks today to our fabulous interns, Alina Rizvi and Alisa Asmalovskaya, as well as to Nich Farrelly, Will Grant and Maud Rowe. So that's it. Thanks for listening and until next time! Keep talking strange.



Leave a Reply