Markus Hoehne: Critical whiteness in Somali studies and how to improve analyses of Somali affairs
Editor’s Note: For the past few days, there has been a debate on social media over the launch of the inaugural Somaliland Journal of African Studies (SJAS). Safia Aidid, a doctoral student at Harvard University, said the debate was “inspired by the exclusion and erasure of Somalis” in the new SJAS issue. Safia and others used #CadaanStudies – #WhiteStudies – hashtag campaign targeting Markus Hoehne, who is on the advisory board of the journal, in particular, and the new Somaliland Journal of African Studies (SJAS) in general.
In the interest of fairness and objectivity, Sahan Journal has given Hoehne the right of reply.
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Hawa Y. Mire summarized her view of a Facebook discussion in which I was involved a few days ago. This is, thanks to Sahan Journal, my chance to issue a first reflection on this event and reply to Hawa Y. Mire’s piece on “#CadaanStudies, Somali thought leaders and the inadequacy of white colonial scholarship.”
I will present two lines of argumentation here. One tries to respond to the accusations voiced by Hawa Y. Mire, Safia Aidid and many others that I was “racist,” “orientalist” and “white supremacist” based on my comments on the Facebook debate. I argue that this is a reflection of “critical whiteness” in Somali studies – which seems necessary. The second argument concerns analyses of Somali affairs and Somali and non-Somali involvement in these.
Critical whiteness in Somali studies
A few months back, I was asked if I would like to be on the advisory board of a newly founded journal called Somaliland Journal of African Studies (SJAS). I did not know the editors, and had not been involved in planning the journal. After some doubts about the name – I was weary of the political implications of the name, since I worked for years in northern Somalia between Somaliland and Puntland, and I did not really wish to position myself firmly on one side – I accepted.
I thought that, after all, I had been concerned with Somaliland for a long while and now, if my job was to occasionally look at papers to be published in the new journal or think about relevant topics to be pursued in this journal, it would be an acceptable contribution to Somali studies.
On March 26, 2015, Safia Aidid initiated a conversation on SJAS on Facebook planning to go on Twitter the next day under the hashtag “#CadaanStudies” to hold the editors of the journal accountable for “the exclusion and erasure of Somalis” in the new journal. Looking at the editorial board of the journal, one finds one Ethiopian faculty member from the University of Hargeysa as deputy editor. There are also two Ethiopian colleagues from Addis Ababa University involved, besides another two from Chicago University and School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. To call this “cadaan studies” (“white studies”) is a slight misnomer.
However, to be frank: this was not where my allegedly “racist” (see Hawa Y. Mire’s article) comments came from. I had stated on Facebook before – in another, but related debate – that a “Somaliland Journal of African Studies” is NOT a journal on Somali affairs. It is – similarly as the “Canadian Journal of African Studies” – an Africanist journal. Its scope covers Africa as a whole. Therefore, there is, in my view, no problem with the lack of inclusion of Somali topics or authors in the first issue.
However, I agree that it is questionable that a journal in which only one member of University of Hargeysa is involved, and all other members of the board are non-Somalis, has “Somaliland” in its name. It could have as well been called “Ethiopian Journal of African Studies,” given the representation of Ethiopians on the board.
My comments, which triggered harsh reactions first on Facebook, then on Twitter, were driven by another feeling: that the whole “#CadaanStudies” campaign was wasting its energy on complaints instead of practically changing things. Now, to put it to the reader herself to decide if I am racist (as Hawa Y. Mire and many others claimed) or not, I will provide a few key quotes from my own comment (the complete comment was provided by Safia Aidid on social media).
First, I stressed that “Knowledge should not be the privilege of one group (be it racially, religiously, class-wise or otherwise defined). This being said, we know that knowledge and power are bed-maids and that much knowledge was monopolized by various groups at various points in time and various places […].”
Then, I added what, in my eyes, was a call on anyone complaining about “predominantly white Western scholars dominating the discourse on Somalis/Somalia and positioning themselves as experts and primary producers of knowledge about Somalis/Somalia” (this was Safia Aidid’s formulation which I fully agree with, in principle).
My call was: “How to change this? By becoming active, by striving for knowledge, but using knowledge.” So far, I assume, no racism can be detected here. What “broke my neck” in the eyes of most Somalis in this debate was when I continued to say that “I did NOT come across many younger Somalis who would qualify as serious SCHOLARS – not because they lack access to sources, but because they seem not to value scholarship as such.”
I then continued (in a rather casual, Facebook-style) that a career in social sciences usually takes long time, does not pay well and needs a lot of work for one little text published.
Now, ex-post, I admit that these formulations were careless at best, and indeed the expression as “white privilege” (as one commentator later in another but related conversation told me).
Here, critical whiteness comes in. It shifts attention from the “objects” of racism to the “subjects” of racism. It aims at confronting “whites” who take their “race,” “color,” “position,” “views,” and so forth, as the norm with the fact that all of these are not normal. Practical exercises entail, for instance, shutting white people up when they speak and subjugating them to experiences of being dominated, underprivileged and excluded. Ideally this leads to reflection on the side of whites and attempts to compensate (for past exploitation).
Now, after having stepped back from the Facebook debate on March 26 and the Twitter campaign the following day, I must say that the discussion initiated by Safia Aidid was indeed a solid experience of “critical whiteness” for me. I have been shut up, put in my place, and eventually excluded from the further discussions. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, from the perspective of people who have in their lives been subject to daily overt or covert racism.
Still, I do not see my comments in the Facebook debate, particularly the sentence about ‘[…] come across many younger Somalis who would qualify as serious SCHOLARS […]’ as racist – at least in the traditional sense of the term, of ascribing fixed character traits to people distinct by more or less visible features of skin color, etc, and creating hierarchies between the thus defined “races.” I did not say “Somalis cannot be scholars” or “should not be scholars” (and, just to clarify this: I always explicitly talked about social sciences, not medicine, economy or other disciplines).
I meant that in my subjective experience, I had met many Somalis who were extremely clever and from whom I learned a lot – and indeed I see myself as student of those Somalis I meet, not as anything else – but not many decided to pursue a career in social sciences – which is a pity since it indeed leaves this field to mostly non-Somali scholars who will never be as close to things Somali as Somali people (albeit there is a certain essentialism involved in this claim).
I also talked explicitly NOT about the old guard of Somali studies (involving many of those people mentioned by Hawa Y. Mire in her piece and some others – like Abdi Kusow, Mohamed Mukhtar, Ali Jimale, Said S. Samatar). Of course, these scholars shaped and continue to shape the academic production on Somali affairs.
I was voicing my disappointment about the relative lack of younger Somali scholars in social sciences, e.g. compared to Ethiopian studies.
Now, I also admit that I overlooked in my Facebook comment at least three major structural factors inhibiting the ascent of Somali social scientists in the younger generation (these factors appeared to me when discussing the events of March 26 and 27 with two female Somali colleagues):
First, there is a generational gap. Due to civil war and flight, many Somalis in the mid-level generation (born in the 1970s) could not pursue a proper career in academia. Their children (born in the late 1980s and in the 1990s) are now the first generation again who can concentrate on studies and hopefully have a long career.
Second, many Somali students abroad have not only to worry about themselves. They support families back home and this economic and social obligations influence their choice of career. A career in social sciences must seem a luxury in this regard for many, since the time and energy spent on disciplines like social anthropology, sociology or political science usually does not translate quickly into adequate income.
Third, given the persisting instability of the motherland, many engaged younger Somalis rather feel the call to invest their energies in concrete projects aiming at helping their people instead of writing academic texts.
I herewith sincerely apologize first, for not reflecting adequately in the Facebook discussion on my white privilege (mentioned above) and second, for this oversight of at least three (and there may be more) critical structural factors leading to the relative absence of middle-aged and particularly younger Somalis in social sciences so far.
Obviously, there is a whole new generation to come – and some of its exponents put me in my place in the debate mentioned above. Albeit this was an unpleasant experience for me personally, it was necessary.
How to improve analyses of Somali affairs
Having said this, I feel uneasy about the tendency in critical whiteness – and some of the Somali activists in the “#CadaanStudies” campaign certainly come from this school of thought – to “interdict,” “shut up” and “punish” or at least “threaten” others (not only whites, by the way, but also fellow Somalis who dare to voice dissenting views).
It is one thing what critical whiteness can teach us about white privileged scholars still dominating area studies, curricula and academic thinking. But it is another how to go about this practically in Somali studies.
In my view, it is unproductive to erase all the whites in the field just because of their skin-color or structural positioning. Certainly, people like Bogumił Andrzejewski (who was Polish born and had to flee Nazism before he encountered Somalis), Ioan M. Lewis, Martin Orwin (who all were named in the #CadaanStudies Twitter campaign), but also Enrico Cerulli, Lee Cassanelli, Lidwien Kapteijns, Virginia Luling, Ken Menkhaus, Mark Bradbury, Bernhard Helander, Francesca Declich, Catherine Besteman, Anna Lindley, Marja Tiilikainen, Laura Hammond and many other non-Somalis in the field tried and still try hard to represent some “truth” about Somali affairs (and we all know that “truth” is relative and contested).
Just for the sake of completeness, I would include myself here and emphasize that in my academic life I strive to represent what I learned from Somalis correctly – still, seen through my personal lenses.
Outsiders’ views can reveal things taken by insiders as self-evident and thereby contribute to controversial but productive debates (and this is the case in any discipline; there are, for instance, “German studies” in the U.S. run by all non-German scholars; or there are very good books on German history by British, American, French, or Israeli authors who confront Germans with aspects of their history which native scholars tend to overlook or actively silence).
Therefore, what would be more productive, in my eyes, would be to create space for intensive academic exchange beyond a rather limiting anti-racist discourse, like critical whiteness. The latter is relevant politically, no doubt about that, but it is practically often “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” (as a fellow Somali commentator in the Facebook debate on March 26 mentioned).
Put to the extreme: if you (Hawa Y. Mire, Safia Aidi and others) insist that “white scholars” shall just leave Somalis alone (as was indeed voiced by some commentators to the debate), lots of interesting voices would be lost. This does not mean that non-Somali voices need to dominate – by no means. They should not. But they can be part of the discussion –as in all other disciplines.
One last point on Hawa Y. Mire’s piece: She wrote that “Somalis have cultivated and created modes of knowledge transfer that go years beyond whatever it is institutions consider legitimate. The transmission of stories and histories across space, generation and location has taken place precisely because Somalis have perfected an oral scholarship.”
I never doubted this and my comments on Facebook did not discuss the question of “legitimate knowledge” or “legitimate institutions.”
Just to remind you: the debate started with a stand against an academic journal (SJAS) that excluded Somali scholars. My response began here. Certainly, I realize the importance of knowledge produced outside of academia and it is clear that “scholarship” in the sense I used it in my comments is only one tradition of knowledge among others.
But Somali studies, like other academic disciplines, follow this tradition involving publication of peer-reviewed journal articles and books. If in the coming few years, Somali studies will see an increasing number of young Somalis overcoming structural barriers in “traditional” academia and enrich the debates once begun by non-Somalis (for all the wrong reasons, I guess, but that is what has happened historically), and challenge older analyses, this will certainly be thrilling.
Eventually, one can go beyond critical whiteness and arrive at critical Somali studies in which not a “largely Somali crowd is being bored by an cadaan (white) panel saying obvious things,” as a commentator on ‘#CadaanStudies” hashtag correctly stressed, but in which Somalis and non-Somalis together challenge the established wisdom in their field and beyond.