Orientialism and Blackness?

After reading Said’s piece on Orientalism, I couldn’t help but think of the similarities in my case study. Although Kenya and Tanzania wouldn’t be considered Oriental, the same ideas of power and discourse can be applied. For instance, it was the white British men who brought the Bible to spread their religion and English language onto subaltern groups–groups who were only denoted as “subaltern” because of their race and “backwards” “primitive” “other degrading term” way of living according to Western construction…i.e. British colonial construction. This also relates to epistemic violence whereby the colonizers control the knowledge by controlling the language. Moreover, speaking English is viewed as speaking the language of the elite, of the intellects. I would argue that blackness and orientalism are two subaltern groups that the West has represented as the “other.” As Dr. Stoddard stated in class, the knower is the West and the known is the “rest”–in my case study, the “rest” would be Kenyans and Tanzanians subject to colonial rule. The discourse surrounding colonialism involves a certain representation of the colonized. Unlike the exoticism of Orientalism, the perception of Africans was not glorified or envied, or viewed with beauty. To be quite blunt, it was more of “You’re uncivilized and barbarous and you need to be like us” kind of perception. Said argues that Orient and Occident are “man-made.” Similarly, so is race. Said states: “…men make their own history, that what they can know is what they have made, and extend it to geography.” Thus, British colonizers constructed this idea of blackness and difference. This construction paved the way for generations to come, to perceive blackness as difference via the eyes of the West.

In his essay, Said refers to Gramsci’s ideas about culture and domination. According to Gramsci, “culture operates within civil society, where the influence of ideas, of institutions and of other persons works not in domination but  by consent.” Cultural leadership is what Gramsci calls hegemony. Yet, I would almost refute this statement if I applied it to the culture that comes with English language learning in Kenya and Tanzania. If I were to take what Gramsci said, then it would mean that Kenyans and Tanzanians would be OK with the infiltration of English and Western culture associated with the language…wouldn’t this almost be related to false consciousness whereby the allure of learning this elite language would place Kenyans/Tanzanians on a pedestal compared to their fellow East Africans who do not know the language? I’m still trying to work this out.

Said also discusses this idea of intellectual authority…again, relating to Foucault and power and discourse….and he states: “There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated, instrumental, persuasive…” etc. This relates to the power of whiteness that laid the foundation for colonialism and domination of colonial powers like Great Britain to divide up the African continent to satisfy their hunger for power and desire for resources. From an American standpoint, we make sense of colonialism from a white and Western perspective. In history books, we just glaze over the surface of Western imperialism. Actually, I don’t think we really discussed much of African colonization in my high school history courses. Again, this relates to the power of the discourse which is written/controlled by powerful elite–i.e. white men!

Thus, we see a struggle. A struggle of black versus white, of “tradition” versus “modernity,” of cultural preservation versus cultural adaptation. Understanding the role of English in Kenya and Tanzania can be thought of as these dichotomies. Indeed, the these East Africans make up the subaltern group that answers to the powerful Western elite, who Paulo Freire would call the oppressors. The idea of whiteness and Western power is a form of cultural domination that exists on the African continent, and specifically, on the countries that were once colonized by white elites.

As far as the exoticism goes, I think there is some similarity in Kenyan and Tanzanian culture. One example that jumps out is the traditional Maasai culture that has become commodified. Westerners perceive the image of a warrior as aesthetically pleasing, especially when they travel to Kenya or Tanzania and purchase artwork depicting the strength of a male warrior. Maasai women are adorned with jewelry–earrings, necklaces, bracelets, etc. These images are visually pleasing–there is nothing similar to this kind of culture in Western life, so the Westerners construct Maasai life as something exotic. This is where the “othering of the other” comes into play. Maasai culture is opposite of Westerners, as it is viewed as primitive and traditional and lacks their civilized ways of living.

How does this relate to the power of language? As stated earlier, the controller of discourse controls a culture. Thus, with the power of colonizers and their whiteness, they are able to get a hold over traditional languages and cultures–like the exotic Maasai culture–to recreate their own space within a space…to create a Western place in a non-Western space, forming a new identity of Africans speaking the language of them, of the West.


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