Monday, 5 March 2012

"Disrupting the Dialogue”? Who Speaks in the Garden of Academe?

A garden to be proud of
"We cannot talk to you in our language because you do not understand it... The power of white Anglo women vis-a-vis Hispanas and Black women is in inverse proportion to their working knowledge of each other... Because of their ignorance, white Anglo women who try to do theory with women of color inevitably disrupt the dialogue. Before they can contribute to collective dialogue, they need to ‘know the text’, to have become familiar with an alternative way of viewing the world... You need to learn to become unintrusive, unimportant, patient to the point of tears, while at the same time open to learning any possible lessons. You will have to come to terms with the sense of alienation, of not belonging, of having your world thoroughly disrupted, having it criticised and scrutinized from the point of view of those who have been harmed by it, having important concepts central to it dismissed, being viewed with mistrust.” ( original statement by Maria Lugones, quoted by Alison Jagger, quoted by Norma Alarcon)

This kind of discussion used to take place amongst scholars of feminist law. Who could speak, should speak, whose voice represented what. Whether the experience of a white woman was in any way relevant to the experiences of women who were not white. This discussion occurred at the same time of the growth of new ways of examining and discussing law through the embrace and explosive growth of offshoots of critical race theory. At least in American scholarly discourse, as critical race theory seems to have only recently tiptoed across the Atlantic to British shores.

There were and are lively discussions of colour-blindness and colour-consciousness. Terry Cross, the Executive Director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association has written a not to miss article on exactly what is meant by colour-blind and colour-conscious and how their operation in child welfare systems.

But the prior lively discussion and debate about voice, narrative, consciousness of culture and colour seems to be largely absent from much of the scholarship on indigenous peoples today. It might be that law has moved on from the scholarship and research themes that marked feminism and critical race theory and that these sorts of discussions are as out of date and fashion as a Sony Walkman. It might be that indigenous rights lacks the universality conundrum of feminism—no parallel question of whether a white woman can speak for non-white women. But here and there hints that percolate to brief visibility of a controlling academic hand over who speaks about indigenous issues and in what manner. There are articles by scholars who are indigenous Robert Wilson and Jeff Corntassel who detail being told not to write about indigenous issues from a certain angle or even at all if they valued progression in their academic careers. Whither academic freedom? Is this a colonisation of indigenous rights issues by a non-indigenous Garden of Academe—that wants to assert who speaks, when and about what—and that voices of indigenous peoples at the door are annoying and to be permitted only in necessary degree?

Gunther Teubner and Andreas Fischer-Lescano write stingingly of the “lie” of indigenous legal incorporation into British colonial laws: “The whole thing was a scam.... The trick was hidden in exactly this lie: indigenous or customary laws were not “rules that trace back to the habits, customs, and practices of the peoples” as had been assumed by traditional anthropologists, but were “constructs of European expansion and capitalist transformations” and therefore nothing more than a “myth of the colonial era.””

Which all begs the question—what is the dialogue going on in the Garden of Academe on indigenous issues—who is welcomed and who is not?

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