How kin do you mean it?

And again another editorial testimony

By Olave Nduwanje

‘The cultural sector is deeply indebted to the tools of racial patriarchal capitalism’, and they are not dismantling this house.

For the last five years or so, I have been receiving an average of 2-3 emails a month from groups, organisations and/or programmers asking me to either: - train their colleagues on all matters relating to race, gender, feminism, intersectionality, decoloniality, etc. or - join their group or project because their group or project is lacking ‘diversity’ or ‘inclusivity.’

As a general rule, I do not respond to those requests

More accurately: I don’t respond to such requests anymore. Meaning it took me the better part of the last five years to uncover the violence that these requests reproduce. A violence that is hidden underneath thick layers of noble intentions, but violence nonetheless. My co-editors allowing, I would like to explain here what this violence is and how it operates to reproduce the status quo.

To begin with, 99% of these requests either offer no remuneration for my time and expertise or propose extremely low fees. The 1% of these requests with budgets that offer a living wage, in turn, almost never mention in their requests that they have a budget, and certainly not what it is. It took me perhaps the longest to decipher the violence lurking behind this practice. At first, it seemed contradictory to me. I was under the naive impression that my interlocutor shared my belief and understanding that the perspectives held and knowledge produced by marginalised and oppressed communities was valuable and critical. I imagined that they would otherwise not be going through the trouble of contacting me and subjecting themselves to the often painful and always uncomfortable process of unlearning their privileges, challenging their problematic practices, etc. And yet, more often than not, those who reach out to me do so without any apparent intention of paying for my time or my expertise.

I situate the latter, primarily, in the fact that one of the tools of white supremacist capitalist ableist heterocisseixst patriarchy in the oppression and marginalisation of communities, groups and individuals is the marginalisation and oppression of the knowledge held and produced by those communities, groups and individuals. The frequency and consistency by which I – and many others like me who are committed to acquiring and producing embodied knowledge of the intricacies and weaknesses of oppression from our lived experiences and those of others – am expected/asked to labour for free or for very little, is a rather overt demonstration of the value ascribed to the knowledge I have laboured to acquire and improve upon.

I imagine that those seeking me out to teach, correct and confront must be under the impression that what I know about racism, cissexism, trans and biphobia, sanism, ableism, classism comes natural to me. That I must not have acquired this knowledge through arduous study, painstaking research and hard work in the same way that say, an economist, a lawyer, a surgeon, a nurse, a plumber, a painter or a dancer has. All this, while any serious researcher, student and practitioner of anti-oppression will tell you that most of the liberatory knowledge has been expertly hidden for centuries, that oppression permeates in all sectors of life and that knowledge of it requires becoming intimate with a dizzying variety of fields of expertise, that practitioners are systematically silenced and effectively excluded before they have had the chance to pass on their worlds of knowledge, that the founding parents of our field were murdered, and that our elders self-exiled after decades of exploitation, abuse and rejection from the very same organisations and groups in my email inbox inviting me to labour free or for very little.

Cheap Labour

Readers with a more than fleeting acquaintance with the art and cultural sector are likely to be non-plussed by this testimony; free/cheap labour is so widespread in our sector that one may rightly posit that it is systemic and a condition sine qua non for the production of value and wealth in the arts and cultural sector. The arts and cultural sector, as we know it, celebrate it and fight for it, is deeply indebted to the tools of racial patriarchal capitalism: hierarchies of value in not only labour but also those who perform that labour. Acknowledging the latter, however, does nothing to allay the validity of my observations, namely: asking/expecting free or cheap labour from marginalised communities is oppressive, exploitative and reproduces their marginalisation.

In my early years of activism and organising, I would be surprised – and maybe even a little charmed – by how naive the programmers and organisations emailing me seem. Asking me to come in to give one training, or perhaps join their board that meets 2 to 3 times a year, or perhaps consult them on a project over a cup of coffee, and expect me to somehow effectively offset their personal and organisational investment in racial patriarchal capitalism. The charm of it wore off pretty quickly, however, when I found myself on what I thought were romantic first dates with white cultural workers and artists. I realised halfway through consulting them on whether or not their project was inclusive, how their organisations could hire more people of colour and – more times than I care to count – how they could whether the mental and emotional burden of trying to make their white colleagues and bosses understand the need for inclusivity. It was only when the charm had worn off that I started to question this ‘naïveté’. Let there be no doubt I am an excellent educator, but yet my trainings/interventions in your organisation or your project won’t undo or dispel the racism, cissexism, classism and ableism embedded in it by virtue of centuries of systematic oppression, decades of interpersonal biases and a life-time of brainwashing. I am many things, but a magician, I am not.

Why I’m co-editing this almanac

I have thought long and hard about it, and I have come to the conclusion that no one in my inbox is under the illusion that I am a magician. They cannot be – and are not – operating under the blatantly false preposition that any one of my interventions within their projects/organisations will effectively ‘decolonise’ them. Take, for example, the almanac you are reading right now. In May 2022, I was asked to join the core-editing team with the specific task of committing myself to its decolonisation. How exactly does one decolonise a fair practice in the arts almanac? Do I confront my fellow editors with the rich body of post-colonial theorising, critiquing and exposing of the ongoing (neo) colonial entanglements of the concept of ‘art’ and the figure of the ‘artist’ with the unceasing imperial project? Or do I argue that the only way to decolonise this almanac is to reconstitute the entire editing team and hire only Belgium-based Black and Brown, LGBTQI+, disabled and poor artists, writers, etc.? And if the new team decides to use the funds for the almanac to engage in, say, direct solidarity actions instead of publishing an almanac, would SOTA accept it? Or should I rather problematise the fact that the almanac is not published in Arabic – an important artistic and cultural language community in Brussels? Or perhaps I should focus on the use of inclusive language in each submission to the almanac – slaves vs enslaved, poor vs impoverished, empowerment vs liberation, etc.? Or perhaps it would suffice to make sure that racialised and marginalised writers are invited (and paid) to offer contributions on each and every subject and theme raised in this almanac? Or does decolonising a fair practice in the arts almanac require doing a bit of everything of the above? But can I do all of the above in more or less ten Friday afternoons? Or is it something that all my co-editors should commit to, regardless of their race, gender identity, etc.? If it is a collective endeavour, then should I accept the task of ‘decolonising’ the almanac?

I chose to take the job of co-editor, not ‘decoloniser’-in chief, I explained to my colleagues that the decolonisation of the almanac must include and involve discussion, debate, introspection, learning and unlearning, researching and decision-making within SOTA. Decolonisation, as a commitment and challenge, must be taken up by SOTA as an organisation and as a community to have any chance of being impactful in the way programmes like the almanac are conceived of, planned, executed and disseminated. I chose to take the job of co-editor because I wanted to gain experience as an editor, not because I have any delusions of messianic grandeur; I cannot save the almanac from missing important racialised and marginalised perspectives or making mistakes born out of privilege and differential access to resources, or platforming writers/organisations that produce and reproduce the violence of racial, patriarchal capitalism, etc. I took the job because I am an aspiring (literary) writer, and I believe that editorial experience will improve my skills and competencies. I took this job because I am a junior cultural programmer/curator, and I believed that this opportunity will enlarge my professional network and knowledge of the Belgian artistic and cultural sector. I took this job because the almanac offered me remuneration that I could accept because of the non-monetary benefits I expected to gain from joining the editing team.