SOAS and the ‘white’ debate

In the light of the last news on white philosophy, political correctness, and other attacks from the “reverse racism front” , this is a golden opportunity to showcase the relevance of our work in today’s world.

When the Student Union called for decolonising SOAS and increasing the centrality of non-Western modes of knowledge, the vulturous press translated it into ‘dropping white philosophers’. The debate went international prompting  diverse opinions, including from within the institution (see international debate in: uk 1, uk 2, spa 3, rus 4, pol 5, uae 6, ita 7, uk 8, aus 9 soas 10, soas 11).  Press harassment on representatives of the Student Union made of this an uncomfortable situation, but this was only expected from their click-bait strategies and flashy rethoric. Furthemore, activist manifestos need to be combative because that is exactly its defining nature. However, the overall flavour of its decolonising actitudes is shared by the students and the university at large.

soas1SOAS is one of the first choices for student who aim at producing quality knowledge on non-Western world. ‘Power is knowlegde’ is the university motto and SOAS community is very aware of the importance of circunstances surrunding the production, conservation, teaching, and practice of academic works. Until very recently (and even today), the role of academia was not only to defend and sanction the hierarchical relations between Europe and its colonies; it was the epistemological cannons constructed by the academia that established and perpetuated colonialism. In fact, this institution was founded in 1916 as a center for world languages and it furnished the British Empire with translators, censors, interpreters, colonial officials and all sorts of ‘spies’. Therefore, it is not surprising that the project of decolonising academia has taken deep roots in SOAS. If its students wanted to glorify imperial achievements in civilising the heathens from an exotic island they would have made other choices.

Yes, categories are a double edge tools and when we juggle words like West, centre, metropolis, white, capital, Enlightenment, or an infinite list of  nouns, we dramatically change the orientation of the discourse. But they all have in common a tighly held Other to recreate themselves in their own power and prowess. It is not the colour of their skin what makes some philosophers replaceble, it is their abundance and resemblance to each other as a result of their dominan position. Even if they are not directly related to ideas of oppression, their ideas might have been used to support such enterprise or they have indirectly benefited from such situation.

Increasing the amount of non-Western philosophers in syllabuses for non-Western cultures, languages and societies is just plain common sense. But a step further is that SOAS is the Other within academia. It’s one of the most international and diverse universities in the world, both in its population and its research lines. An institution that thrives in difference and aims at understanding and preserving it; a blub of heterogeneity facing the siege of neo-liberal forces and their ’empty homogenous time’. For one, the frames used at this school deal with governmentality instead of governance. From this I can only say that a world class “School of Oriental and African Studies” not only must defend its need to give some colour to its syllabuses but it must question the whole category of disciplinary learning or at least acknowledge its location within debates on epistemological power and empowerment. Otherwise, who else is going to do it?

Last but not least, this is not an issue of racial categories or positive action. Nor it is a matter of freedom of speech versus political correctness. This is a core issue for contemporary academia: impact. The global academic community is familiar with the research that we produce at SOAS, but it is the vast majority of the population who demands from us to explain our work. Regardless whether the “reverse racism front” is able to identify the Orientalist tropes of The Book of the Jungle; regardless their unawareness of Fanon in our syllabuses; we need to be sure that society at large understands SOAS’ role in today’s increasingly xenophobic world.

We need to ask ourselved the question of why is SOAS relevant in a world of high pace social media, prompt reactions, and click bait?

What can the project of ‘decolonising knowledge’ offer to the society of the grotesque and the amusing?


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