Decolonising ‘follow the things’ teaching and learning? Defeated

In the summer of 2020, Geographies of Material Culture, the undergraduate module behind our website, was totally reorganised for online teaching and learning. As detailed in our recent post announcing the launch of its public archive, it brought together 10 ‘follow the thing’ films and 10 followthethings.com pages about their making, discussion and impacts.

This module was also redesigned – from the selection and sequence of these films to the content and appearance of its website – to try to decolonise its pedagogy. Over the past couple of years a brilliant decolonising network has taken shape at our university with all kinds of exciting initiatives involving staff and students all over the place. The changes made to our module were informed and inspired by this wider movement. Some were generic strategies for decolonising a module and others were more tailored to the module, its materials and its aims. Module leader and followthethings.com ‘CEO’ Ian has been trying to channel his white privilege through anti-racist education for over 20 years now (see this from 2000). But this felt like a step change for his research and teaching about the ‘follow the things’ genre of commodity activism which simply asks ‘Who made my stuff?’

If you check the module’s public archive, you will see how the following decolonising strategies helped to shape it. There were five aims:

  • to disrupt the ‘white saviour complex’ of ‘guilty’ Northern (white) consumers wanting only to shop more ‘ethically to help exploited (POC) workers by trying to shift responses to ‘who made my stuff’ filmmaking ‘from guilt to solidarity’ (Young 2003).
  • to show activism taking place throughout supply chains by choosing films where workers in Cambodia, Mexico, Bangladesh, Nicaragua successfully fight together for better pay and conditions, document this themselves and do so not only in order to change ‘guilty consumer’ behaviour in the North.
  • to include readings from diverse perspectives and include photos of their authors – so students can see & learn from people like/unlike themselves.
  • to set Padlets to ‘Anon’ in Zoom discussions so that students of colour can talk from a personal standpoint without everyone ‘looking around’ to see who it is saying ‘edgy’ stuff in class.
  • to TOTALLY BAN any writing that states ‘we this’, ‘our that’, etc… cos who is this ‘we’ you’re taking about? Who’s included and who’s excluded? And go ON AND ON AND ON AND ON… about that. There’s a great reading on this.
  • to set broad first person, creative coursework to make space for diverse student voices and perspectives.

At the end of the module, however, we learned that there’s a limit to the decolonising of any module because there are only so many things that a single academic can have any power over. Like the make-up of their discipline and its diversity. Like the staffing of their university and its diversity. Like the backgrounds and diversity of the student body that their discipline and university seems to attract. And that shouldn’t be too surprising.

But what if you identify as the only black student in the class? How could a decolonised module like this seem to you? Its final piece of coursework gave students 2,500 words to answer a simple, open question: What has this module been about for me? This guest post is that student’s answer. Her name is Dani Tosin-Talabi and she kindly gave us permission to publish this. We wanted to publish it as a contribution to decolonising initiatives at the University of Exeter, in the discipline of Geography and beyond. We hope that it becomes widely read and discussed and helps to inform and encourage further change. We have added some links to relevant module website pages and embedded the films Dani talks about. Otherwise, this is exactly what she said. Its title was, very simply


Defeated

For me, this module was supposed to be about delving deeper into commodity chains and developing a deeper understanding and appreciation for material culture. However, this has not been the case. As this module has gone on it has left me feeling desensitised to the issues plaguing the material culture supply chain but has also left me defeated to the possibility of any real change. My white counterparts on this course feel completely new and inspired to do so much as create a film on this module whereas I am left feeling almost completely numb. These feelings began to manifest in the second week of term when we had a look at commodity fetishism.

From the moment the Kaepernick [Nike Anniversary] advert was released in 2018, I hated it. I thought it was a lazy, vapid attempt to gain woke point [1] and make us forget about the fact that Nike is literally one of the most exploitative companies on planet earth [2]. AND they didn’t even do it well! I don’t understand why so many people loved this advert and why my white counterparts thought it was completely ground-breaking. Actually, I do know why, the general black community liked this advert because we are so used to black people being depicted in unbelievably negative lights in the mainstream media and white people liked it because it depicted black people in the stereotypical and racially subservient position of us entertaining them through the medium of sport [3] and also because they DON’T ACTUAL CARE ABOUT BLACK PEOPLE. Their expressions of inspiration and a desire to “do better” is nothing more than white saviourism [4], and this was no more evident than in the responses my white peers gave when discussing this advert, and this module in general, in our breakout rooms during our lectures. I am willing to bet that not a single one of them, or very very few of them, have actively done anything to show solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement. Did any of them sit and really reflect on themselves; look into themselves to see how they benefit from systems of oppression and how they may even perpetuate these systems. From my breakout rooms, the answer to me is quite clearly, no. And I can’t call them out for their white saviourism and pandering mentalities without being accused of attacking them because being the only black woman, the only black PERSON on my course, there is no one in my corner [5]. I am underrepresented and I am voiceless. And for the white people who were angry about it? [6] Personally, I just think that they lack the brain cells to realise the emptiness of Nike’s message. I mean this advert quite literally ROMANTICISES black people having to struggle [7], having to crawl their way up to receive the same accolades as their white counterparts and even that isn’t enough! We’re supposed to be even BETTER than perfect whilst white people get to continue to thrive in mediocrity and it makes me angry. BUT I am not allowed to be angry [8] because anger is an emotion that white people don’t like to see blacks express because that means we might rebel; it means we might reject the subordinate positions they want to place us in society [9]. So, they ostracise us for being angry and prevent black women from being able to succeed if they dare raise their voice, so I remain quiet. This advert quite literally tries to hide the exploitation of black people in third world countries through glamorising the exploitation and struggle of black people in the West! And don’t even get me started on Jamelia: Whose hair is it Anyway?

Jamelia: BBC3 ‘Whose hair is it anyway?’ from InterTalent on Vimeo.

This documentary literally uses a black woman and has her act ignorant and unaware in order to tug at the heartstrings of who? White people [10]. Not only this but everyone knows how integral hair is to many black cultures especially in comparison to white people. So, in my opinion what Jamelia does in this documentary is go “look at me! I’m the good black, I’m exposing all these terrible negroes and what they do to other people so that us blacks can look like you whites with your long flowing hair!” And it’s bloody infuriating. It’s like oh wait you blacks are just as bad as us whites. Because of YOU NEGROES little girls have to shave their heads just so you can feel better about yourselves. But remember, you negroes will never look like us, don’t forget that! Let me backtrack a little to explain. Hair and hair patterns are an integral part of black culture due to the texture of our hair. Our hair texture was not built for cold weather, so when slaves were stolen from Africa to go to Western nations, protective styles such as braids were worn in order to protect the hair from the cold weather. Not only this but black people would braid escape routes into their hair. Weaves came about as not only a means to protect black hair but also a means of assimilation into white societies. To this day, natural black hair, styles such as braids and dreadlocks, are seen as untidy, messy and unprofessional due to their inherent Africanness whereas weaves are seen as professionally, tidy and most of all BEAUTIFUL due to its likeness to white hair. The praise of Eurocentricity and condemnation of black features have led to black woman having to adopt certain hairstyles in order to feel like they belong, in order to feel BEAUTIFUL. Jamelia, herself very clearly has relaxer in her hair. Relaxer is a horrible burning treatment that practically fries black hair straight, ridding it of its kinky texture that typically lasts 6-12 months. This is something a white person wouldn’t notice. All of these nuances, Jamelia’s hair, her supposed ignorance, her over-exaggerated sympathy [11] towards the process, the narration itself SCREAMS pandering to me. Pandering to a society built on a structural racism that makes black people feel they need to have to wear these hairstyles in order to have worth, the same structural racism that puts women in these countries in a position where they have no choice but to shave their hair to sell for money because of the colonial ruins that the West left their country in that was upheld by what? STRUCTURAL RACISM. And by the time we got to the end of the module when we were looking at Beautiful Clothes; Ugly Reality I came to realise that I was [having] the same feelings as I was towards the beginning of the module, and these feelings had only grown more firm as the module had gone on.

And although Maquilapolis and Udita (Arise) and Beautiful Clothes; Ugly Reality were explored at opposite ends of the module timeline; they evoked the exact same feelings in me.

After watching all three of these films, of course it is sad the situations they’ve been forced into and of course I have a level of privilege that they will never have due to being from a middle-class family living in a rich Western nation. But it just doesn’t break my heart the same way it used to when I saw these things when I was younger, because now I’m a woman; a black woman at that, and shit has gotten real. I’ve also been forced into similar situations. No, I’m not forced to work in a factory for 12 hours and get beaten if I try to fight for my rights [12]. But I am forced to work twice as hard to get half as far as white people. I’m forced to silence my voice as to not potentially ruin my chance at getting into the university I want or getting a job in the face of discrimination. I’m forced to walk down a street and have slurs screamed at me and I’m expected to keep quiet, because God knows what would happen if I attempted to retaliate. Both me and these women, are in the streets fighting for our rights, protesting, holding signs [13] and in some cases even writing music as well, even I have written poetry about my experiences and performed them at Women of Colour poetry nights at my time at University. Both me and these women have had friends and family injured, even killed by the same authorities meant to protect us and meant to be fighting for our rights. And just the same, as we have seen in these films, sometimes we have wins, but most of the time we face losses. We have both been fucked by the same system [14], just in different cultural spaces, different corners of the world. These women didn’t ask to be born in the situations they were, they had no choice. I didn’t ask to be black; I had no choice. That’s not to say I don’t love being black, like I’m sure the Mexican women, the Bangladeshi women, the Cambodian women love to be Mexican, Bangladeshi and Cambodian it’s just that we wished the world loved us back.

11 January 2021

Dani Tosin-Talabi


Footnotes

[1] The idea of ‘marketing the brave’ (Preece and Kerrigan 2015) is a narrative employed by brands in an attempt to gain “woke” points. In the case of the Nike advert, not only was bravery being marketed by depicting several marginalised elite athletes, both know and unknown, but also by casting Colin Kaepernick as the face of the advert, a man known by the general public for his “bravery” when he risked his American football career in order to show solidarity with the black lives lost to police brutality. Chakravartty et al. (2018) emphasise the need to pay more attention to the persistent use of the marginalisation of racial minorities in mainstream media.

[2] As detailed by Fairclough (2018), if Nike actually wanted to make a difference with human rights they would have started with their own company. They would have made changes to their business model which exploits the same black people in the Global South they are claiming to show solidarity for in the Global North.

[3] Although Nike is a sports brand, by drawing so much focus on the excellence of Black Athletes they are reinforcing stereotypes that make white people comfortable, that is, placing black people in positions of entertainment for white people. Depicting Black people in this way shows how powerful black characters as glorified ‘in so long as they are placed in racially subservient positions’ Hughey (2009, p. 544) as to not compromise hegemonic whiteness.

[4] White saviourism refers to when ‘white people provide help or aid to non-white people in a self-serving manner’ (Smith 2020). It comes from a sense of wanting to appear “good” rather than fostering a genuine desire to tackle the racist systems of oppression that they are complicit in and benefit from.

[5] This feeling is perfectly encompassed by a statement made in Littler’s (2005, p. 228) paper: ‘For those who are low in different kinds of social or cultural capital, it can be hard enough to even get a foot onto the pitch let alone attempt to reconfigure the game’. Being a black woman, this module has cemented the fact that like many of the women in the stories we have explored, I feel like I do not foster a place in society where I can make real change.

[6] See the responses to this ad on its followthethings.com page.

[7] Sobande (2019, p. 2734) details how this romanticisation of black people and struggle illuminates Nike’s ‘use of disembodied expressions of Blackness, in pursuit of capitalist-inspired social messages.’ The inequality black people face at the hands of society is being marketized without the nuance it deserves.

[8] This is a worry of tone policing. In an effort to control the conversation, a person’s tone is used as a reason to devalue the valid points they are making. On everydayfeminism.com, Hugs (2015) depicts the problem with tone policing via comics. Hugs (2015) details how tone policing draws focus away from the message by focusing on the emotion behind the message, insinuating that one cannot be angry and reasonable but also working to protect privilege by silencing those who are hurting.

[9] This subordination of black women is due to being “angry” is a reflection of the Sapphire myth, commonly known in modern society as the “angry black woman”. Mulata (2020) details how the simple adjective of “angry” has upgraded to a stereotype used to describe black women and is used as a powerful tool to shape how society sees black women. When this stereotype is applied it comes loaded with exclusion and oppression regardless of the intent or context.

[10] This begs the questions of who decolonisation is for, who were the BBC trying to de-fetishize the commodity of hair for? I would agree with Siddiqi’s (2009, p. 155) sentiment that movements and documentaries such as Jamelia: Whose hair is it Anyway? deploys ‘a sensationalised narrative generalised from individual stories that may or may not be representative as a means of capturing the attention of ethically conscious consumers in the North’. This is done as it is a repeatedly effective tactic in garnering public support however I argue that this support is not genuine as it is driven by sympathy rather than empathy.

[11] A genuine attempt to de-fetishize the commodity would come from a place of empathy, rather than sympathy. In Wiebe (2015)’s paper detailing the importance of collaborative film-making she sheds light on how in co-creating knowledge with the participants, you remove them as an “other” and one develops actual deep connections among the participants. In the case of Maquilapolis: city of factories and Udita (Arise) the technique of collaborative filmmaking is incorporated and notably the responses to these two films are less positively received than Jamelia: Whose hair is it Anyway?, further demonstrating that de-fetishizing commodities are often for the viewing pleasure of the Global North, rather than to elucidate the real lives of garment workers to create true change.

[12] As Hoskins (2015) notes, the women depicted in Udita (Arise) fight for their rights despite the risk of being intimidated, beaten and fired by the ‘thugs’ who run the factories as well as noting the 14-hour shift some of these women have to work just so that they can feed their children.

[13] Similarly, to the peaceful protests and numerous demonstrations that coincided with the results of the 2013 elections in Cambodia we see in Beautiful Clothes; Ugly Reality (Ziv 2015), in the summer of 2020 we saw and engaged in peaceful protests and demonstrations coinciding with the repeated murder, wrongful arrests and general mistreatment of black people in both the United Kingdom and the United States, simply due to the colour of our skin.

[14] ‘Capitalism and racism… did not break with the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of racial capitalism dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism and genocide’ (Kelley 2017). The system that oppresses these garment workers and the system that oppresses me are the same system, one cannot exist or function without the other.



References

Chakravartty, P., Kuo, R., Grubbs, V. and Mcllwain, C. (2018). #CommunicationSoWhite. Journal of Communication. 68(2), pp. 254-266.

Fairclough, S. (2019). Kaepernick Doesn’t Give Nike the Ethical High Ground. [online]. Available at: https://pittnews.com/article/135647/opinions/kaepernick-doesnt-give-nike- the-ethical-high-ground/ [Accessed 30 December 2020]

Hoskins, T. (2015). Udita: the Women Garment Workers Standing Up for Themselves. [online]. Available at: https://www.redpepper.org.uk/udita-the-women-garment-workers- standing-up-for-themselves/ [Accessed 30 December 2020].

Hughey, M. W. (2009). Cinethetic Racism: White Redemption and Black Stereotypes in “Magical Negro” Films. Social Problems. 56(3), pp. 543-577.

Hugs, R. (2015). No, We Won’t Calm Down – Tone Policing is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege. [online]. Available at: https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/12/tone-policing-and- privilege/ [Accessed 30 December 2020].

Kelley, R. (2017). What is Racial Capitalism and Why Does it Matter? [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–gim7W_jQQ [Accessed 30 December 2020]

Littler, J. (2005). Beyond the Boycott: Anti-consumerism, Cultural Change and the Limits of Reflexivity. Cultural Studies. 19(2), pp. 227-252.

Preece, C. and Kerrigan, F. (2015). Multi-stakeholder Brand Narratives: An Analysis of the Construction of Artistic Brands. Journal of Marketing Management. 31(11-12), pp. 1-24.

Siddiqi, D. (2009). Do Bangladeshi Factory Workers Need Saving? Sisterhood in the Post- Sweatshop Era. Feminist Review. 91: 154-174.

Smith, A. (2020). White Saviourism in Ethical Fashion. [online]. Available at: https://sanchosshop.com/blogs/news/white-saviourism-in-ethical-fashion [Accessed 18th December 2020]

Sobande, F. (2019). Woke-washing: “intersectional” femvertising and branding “woke” bravery. European Journal of Marketing. 54(11), pp. 2723-2745.

Wiebe, S. (2015). Decolonizing Engagement? Creating a Sense of Community Through Collaborative Filmmaking. Studies in Social Justice. 9(2), pp. 244-257.

Young, I.M. (2003) From guilt to solidarity: sweatshops and political responsibility. Dissent 50(2), 39-44

Ziv, C. (2015). Creative Campaigning: How Cambodian Garment Workers Used Fashion to Fight For a Living Wage. [online]. Available at: https://ajws.org/blog/creative-campaigning- how-cambodian-garment-workers-used-fashion-to-fight-for-a-living-wage/ [Accessed 30 December 2020].

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