‘Decolonizing Stories in Academia’, by Sarah Cheang

One of my lecturers, a young white woman, once related an experience she had had in an English stately home. Seeing a wooden figure of a black boy serving chocolate, she asked the guide a question about the history of slavery in relation to the house and its collections. She was told there had been no slavery in Britain, therefore this topic was not of concern. This was an astoundingly comprehensive denial, a calculated ignorance, of Britain’s multiple and central roles in the transatlantic slave trade that had produced the wealth on which that stately home may well have been founded. The lecturer used this story as an opportunity to tell her students that many British cultural institutions were established on the riches of the slave trade, and that black people had lived in Britain before the arrival of the Windrush in 1948. Her blushing anecdote delivered in a heart-felt aside, the lecturer then went back to her main topic, which was historic houses and English heritage, with black history revealed and then immediately concealed as the thing about which one could not speak.

This incident stands out in my memory as the only time when histories of colour were ever really mentioned during my core undergraduate studies in the early 1990s, and that in the spirit of rebellion and filtered through white western eyes. Any reflections on ‘race’, ethnicity and colonialism seemed tangential or optional; footnotes and appendices to the curriculum. In that year, living on the south coast of England, I was enduring racist insults from the man in the flat above mine, and my brother had his name imitated in mock Chinese sing-song voices by the staff in a London bank. As a child, my parents had told me proudly that I was a ‘Eurasian’, which was different from everyone European and everyone Asian – basically, different. Growing into my half-Chinese/half-white womanhood entailed a search for the means to recognise, let alone understand, my own sense of invalidity, of the half-missing, and the silences and the abuses within the British cultures that I inhabited, the privileges and the pains.

Fast forward to 2018. I realise that I have devoted all my studies, from BA through to PhD, to the presence of Chinese culture in British modern history. We might call this work restorative on many levels, and it continues to this day. In my teaching which spans twenty years and four higher education institutions, I have consistently written courses that attempted to offer something – at times, anything – beyond a purely European narrative.

I have not been plugging a gap. To say this would imply that a space had been left for an appropriate person to deal with (or tumble into), while the majority skirted cautiously around. Actually, I was dealing with the things that no one seemed to realise were missing. As postcolonial studies became more influential, more global approaches to art and design history started to take hold. This meant that I was certainly not alone. There were increasing numbers of fellow scholars with whom I could join forces, and insightful, inspiring writers and curators of colour from whom I learnt powerful lessons. The experience of trying to create what might now be termed a ‘decolonized’ curriculum, was more like taking a balloon and inflating it as large as I dared before the whole thing went bang. Other aspects of the curriculum would have to move over or shrink in order to accommodate my material, for there are only so many courses that can be on offer at any one time. More often than not, therefore, my balloon did not have the space to assume its intended shape, let alone create an explosion. Sometimes, I lacked enough material, experience and insight to fulfil my aims. I made many mistakes and still do. Feeling my way, strange new forms of teaching emerged within university departments that gave space for this kind of work.

It was specialising in fashion history from 2004, however, that really gave me the opportunity to think through what cultural difference means. At first, this was through creating new courses on fashion, ‘race’ and nation, where my students and I could critically engage with day-to-day embodied and visual experiences of ‘raced’ identity. We used ethnicity as a location to speak to and speak from, celebrating as well as interrogating the many ways in which fashion enables us to live out our cultural identities. For example, we gave serious attention to how getting dressed that morning made us feel, how the fashion industry made us feel, how our dress traditions made us feel, as black British people, white British people, Polish people, Korean people, Finnish people, Indian people, or as mixed-raced people without ‘a people’. We saw how design processes and consumer choices can be infiltrated by power relationships rooted in colonial histories of oppression and racist hierarchies of value. Fashion can be used to culturally pin people down, rub people out, to celebrate, castigate, proclaim and hide. The things we do when delighting in fashion affect ourselves and others profoundly. Regardless of our intentions, the visual, economic and material systems of fashion implicate our dressed bodies. Our clothes, our hair, our body decorations, bring us into constant dialogue with histories of oppression and resistance, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. We are all involved. For most, this is not a comfortable thought.

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Student-led event, MA History of Design, Royal College of Art, March 2018.

Since 2010, my work has shifted to think more closely about how fashion histories are written, and how fashion itself is understood as a global phenomenon. There are hierarchies in knowledge that need to be challenged. Who writes, who speaks, how they speak and how they are heard have become pressing concerns. Fashion is often designed in one place, manufactured in another, and sold and worn globally, but whose perspectives and value systems tend to be uppermost when fashion is studied? It is useful to consider how clothing, jewellery, beauty products and body decoration circulate around the planet and also take root. How do these movements (between cultures to create cultures) affect experiences of being and belonging? Twenty-five years or so after I began my journey through academia, I find that states of the in-between and cultural exclusions are again uppermost in my mind. Can we speak more meaningfully about fashion through the mixed cultures that challenge our ability to imagine concepts such as ‘race’ and ‘nation’? Can we teach fashion studies in ways that avoid reinforcing systems of power and exclusion?

The current decolonizing movement is offering new ways of being, its activists prioritizing how we live, behave, and practice. The newest preoccupation with, for example, safe spaces draws attention to the ways in which everyday life is unevenly dangerous, according to how we are ‘raced’. Once we have realised that even the most private decision involves an ethical and political dimension, the most trivial-seeming phenomena of daily life require a new consideration. But, it is important that this does not lead to fear and paralysis. Rather, what is wanted might be an acceptance that emotional ease and discomfort could be more evenly shared by all.

The telling of personal anecdotes has had a key role in speaking up about the impact of racism within society and its institutions. Cultural critic Rey Chow warns that in the search to make society more inclusive and less life damaging, we may be drawn to narrate our past and our heritage as a way of demonstrating the authenticity of our claims concerning ethnicity. She writes that when we do this, we ‘complete the circuit’ and directly add to the structures of ‘race’ that feed racism. But I do not read Chow as saying that autobiography should not be used. For me, she is drawing attention to the ways that power structures take up and use all narratives for their own ends, even our most deeply felt or best-intentioned utterances. Decolonizing is a work in progress. ‘Decolonizing’ practice is now emerging as a particular kind of intelligence that enables all of us, however we are positioned, to pay attention to the implications of all areas of life, and consider what we might try doing differently.

References:

Rey Chow, Ethics after Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998)

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