the unbearable whiteness of theory

Thanks to Colleague Cheryl’s gentle and supportive urging, I dropped my Sunday afternoon plans and started assembling my exam bibliography. As I looked over the emerging list, I was immediately shocked by how white it was. I realized that it was a personal academic failing to neglect non-white, non-European perspectives. It is illogical to accept that my topic areas, whatever they may be, cannot be and have not been viewed through any other lenses. And privilege being what it is, white theorists and narratives predominate in the academy. There’s the cynical charge and risk tokenism, of course, but I need to look elsewhere.

Several years ago, I had taken a class with Prof. Cheryl Metoyer (no relation to Colleague Cheryl) of the UW Information School, my Masters alma mater. Prof. Metoyer’s class, listed as “Native perspectives in information science”, would best be described as “red methodology” or “indigenous epistemology”, as gleaned from the course readings. It struck me as a good starting point to strengthen my bibliography. First, my topic areas will likely be North America. Native perspectives obviously speak to historical property theft and political disenfranchisement close to home. Beyond that and more importantly, however, current indigenous scholarship highlights the agency of indigenous groups in recent times. Secondly, as I am interested in the ground-up re/appropriation of space, indigenous movements and actions throughout the Americas have produced ample knowledge on insurgent actions and tactics in space. Finally, as capitalist wealth accumulation as well as the concept of private property are always in my critical cross-hairs, it seems indigenous perspectives complement my existing sources. For example, there is my beloved, old Lefebvran saw of use value versus exchange value. Many indigenous approaches to property privilege use over exchange, at least as far as land (usufruct) rights.

In any case, I went back and I’ve drawn up a list of sources from Prof. Metoyer’s class for follow up. Additionally, there are many other areas to explore, both for theory but especially for street-level and everyday-life tactics/methods. We have covered some of them in Mark Purcell’s democracy seminar. There’s the EZLN, for whom I’ve had much respect, but I’d like to look more into the ANC in South Africa, perhaps, both for their street-level work as well as their political organizing. At some point, I’ll need to zoom in and figure out what exactly I’m looking for–or what emerges.

It should go without saying this is not an attempt to get a diversity cookie1. Rather, there’s a huge world of experience and thought. And limiting myself as I was–even if inadvertently and unconsciously, cuz that’s how privilege operates–to only white, mostly European, thinkers largely because they are the dominant voices in the academy is not only intellectually sloppy and stifling but it also reproduces within the academy the marginalization and disenfranchisement happening outside.


1. Everybody should print this out and post it on their wall: The Angry Black Woman’s “Things You Need To Understand #9 – You Don’t Get A Cookie”. Retrieved from http://theangryblackwoman.wordpress.com/2008/04/29/no-cookie/

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One Response to the unbearable whiteness of theory

  1. cheryl gilge says:

    yes!
    and on a side note, you might find something interesting in Ackbar Abbas, who looks at media and the urban, or Ravi Sundaram, who looks at ‘pirate modernity’: pirated media + urbanism.
    But, D & G are already multiple, so at least there is that… ;)

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