York Will Miss You, Himani Bannerji
By: Shaunga Tagore
I’m not as complicated a person or as intellectual a person as some of you may be. Nor is theory of great importance to me. I don’t…know what that means, really. [But] I need to understand what I’m going through and what people around me are going through. I want to use any tool I can find in order to do that.
-Himani Bannerji, Dec. 11, 2009
The work, knowledge, and presence of Professor Himani Bannerji have been some of the most valuable assets to York University over the decades. This has become even more apparent to many students, colleagues, and friends as her upcoming retirement signals the closing of her journey at York. A professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies, Bannerji has been a groundbreaking theorist within Marxist, Post-Colonial, Anti-Racist, and Feminist studies, as well as an influential writer, speaker, and thinker on concepts of capitalism, globalization, multiculturalism, and nationalisms. Not only are her contributions as an academic deep and far-reaching, she is also an accomplished writer of poetry, short stories, and children’s stories.
On Dec. 11, 2009, large crowds gathered in Founders College Assembly Hall for a day-long symposium honouring and celebrating the work and career of Bannerji, organized by the Centre for Feminist Research (CFR). Critical Race, Feminist, and Marxist scholars such as Sherene Razack, Sunera Thobani, Radhika Mongia, and David McNally, among many others, spoke on panels engaging with the breadth and depth of Bannerji’s contributions and the influence her work has had on various academic fields. Bannerji’s own professors and mentors even flew in for the occasion: Dorothy Smith from Vancouver and Jasodhara Bagchi all the way from Kolkata, India.
If that isn’t enough to describe the impact Bannerji has had on the York community, just ask your friends at Berries and Blooms at York Lanes how annoyed they were with me on Dec. 11 when, as an employee of the CFR, I kept having to unexpectedly request them to boil more and more tea and coffee for the overflowing amount of students, teachers, and friends who kept piling into the Assembly Hall, eager to participate in the Bannerji symposium.
Taking a course with Bannerji was without a question one of the major highlights of my undergraduate career, and I don’t doubt that many other students who have had the pleasure of being in her class feel the same way. I remember going to class every week and sitting in awe while listening to her speak; it was like watching a waterfall of knowledge and inspiration powerfully fill the room. I recall the articulate way she was able to make so many overwhelming concepts and histories of racism, slavery, patriarchy, capitalism, and globalization fit together and make sense; how it was suddenly impossible–under her simple and matter-of-fact tone of voice–to separate intimate, day-to-day violences, politics, and resistances from global systems and dynamics of power.
In acknowledgement and appreciation of the influence of Bannerji’s work at York University, the YU Free Press is excited to include Bannerji’s own writing in this Issue: excerpts from ‘Re: Turning the Gaze’ from her edited collection Thinking Through: Essays on Feminism, Marxism and Anti-racism. Particularly relevant to our theme of knowledge production in relation to York is Bannerji’s reflection of the impacts that racism and sexism have had on her as a racialized professor in a dominantly white institution.
What I find especially interesting is to read her thoughts in ‘Re: Turning the Gaze’ alongside her theorizations in her book, The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Gender. This book interrogates Canada’s history as a settler colony and explores the ways in which colonial violences are contemporarily naturalised within discourses of multiculturalism and liberal democracy. This book especially points to the gendered and classed impacts these violences of Canadian nationalisms have on racialized, Indigenous, poor, and non-status people’s–particularly women’s–everyday lives. In this sense, it is important to assert that the university institution is an apparatus of a colonial state, and therefore very powerfully operates in conjunction with projects of colonial, racist, sexist, classist violence. The complex and intimate violences expressed by Bannerji in the piece below can thus be understood within this larger context.
Even though Thinking Through was published in 1995, Bannerji’s reflection in ‘Re: Turning the Gaze’ still resonates deeply with many people today who struggle to navigate through an institution built upon colonialism and oppression. Personally speaking, Bannerji’s writing and overall presence have given me the strength to keep going, when daily and pervasive experiences of racist, sexist, classist violence at York cause many to drop out or to never make it through the doors in the first place. Honestly speaking, one of the very few times throughout my graduate career at York that I believed I could survive this experience was while listening to Bannerji speak about South Asian Feminism. At the end of the talk she said to me, “You should stay in school. If people like you leave, the ground disappears…” But it is you, Himani Bannerji, who has grounded me, and so many others, with the strength and support to keep striving to learn and pursue knowledge.
Excerpts from ‘Re: Turning the Gaze’
By: Himani Bannerji
Usually I write quickly. Usually I like writing. It’s like fishing with a net, it’s flung far, pulled in and gathered to a point, gathering me together into thoughts and images. This time, months of false starts, procrastinations, a nerveless dead centre. My mind turns its back on the project. I want to/have to and I don’t want to/cannot forget/remember my years of teaching, being perhaps one of the oldest non-white women teachers in Ontario universities, on what has become trivialized and sanctified at the same time as the “mantra,” or perhaps a hegemonic device for teaching a certain kind of feminist theory in the universities, namely “Gender, Race and Class.”
What I want to write about finally is this not wanting to, of a persistent refusal by me, the writer, an Indian woman, to write about me, the Indian woman teacher, in a classroom at York University and in many public spaces for lectures. The private and the public parts of me refuse to connect in a meaningful formulation, and actually simply even to recount…
The other night I tried to describe what is going on to two of my students in a course on “Race and Racism” that I am currently teaching. I tried to speak to them as thoughtfully and honestly as I can, trying to bring across the “essence,” as it were, of this teaching experience. And what comes out of my mouth is not “pedagogic” or “conceptual”; I am recounting, I notice, about being a body in a space. And since it is a body, in a space, I am speaking particularly of my own non-white Indian woman’s body, in a classroom where the other occupants are mostly white, and in a classroom in Canada…
The course material is about racism. We are going through books that critique socio-biological theories about “race,” the political economy of slavery, colonialism and imperialism, we are discussing histories of pillages, plunders and conquests, we are watching classes forming in Canada and other “Western countries,” we are decoding images of bodies which are not “right,” not “normal,” grossly noticeable as “visible minorities.” We are reading all this through class and gender. But my lecture and the readings are touching the edges of disbelief of many of these students, going against years of their living and institutional education. The method and the content are alien, and they hug the upper edge of the class as though getting away from the centre, from me from whom these sounds float up and spray the edges of their consciousness. But their disbelief, discomfort or down-right anger, float down to me as well. They confront me. They look at me. Their look tells me volumes. They stop on the outer edges of my skin, they pick out my colour, height, clothes, and I am aware of this look, “the gaze” that both comes from and produces fixity. And I am teaching about bodies and how they are constructed into signs of differences tinged with inferiority. How histories cultures, ideologies of Europe constructed a “European – White self,” in relation to whom the “others” now called “people of colour,” “visible minorities,” “immigrants,” “third world people,” are “different,” the inferiority of whose “difference is signalled physically – materially, by skin colour, a nose shape, a mouth, a yellow star, leg irons, or other symbols of danger and domination…And while I am lecturing on “bodies” in history, in social organization of relations and spaces, constructed by the gaze of power, I am actually projecting my own body forward through my words. I am in/scribing rather than erasing it. First I must draw attention to it, focus this gaze, let it develop me into a construct. Then I take this construct, this “South Asian” woman and break it up piece by piece. In every sense they are leaning on my body. I am the teacher, my body is offered up to them to learn from, the room is an arena, a stage, an amphitheatre, I am an actor in a theatre of cruelty…
The social relations of teaching and learning are relations of violence for us, those who are not white, who teach courses on “Gender, ‘Race’ and Class,” to a “white” body of students in a “white university.” I want to hide from this gaze. I don’t want to be fixed, pinned with meaning. I hear comments about a Jamaican woman with 13 children being “related to rabbits or something.” It hurts me, I don’t want to have to prove the obvious to explain, argue, give examples, images from everyday life, from history, from apartheid, from concentration camps, from reserves. And my body from which all this information emanates, fixed, pinned and afraid, hiding from the gaze.
And I dissociate.
I dissociate from my own presence in the room. But I signify, symbolize, embody a construct and teach on it. But I would rather not, I am tied to a stake and would rather not be – a “Paki,” a “visible minority woman,” an “immigrant woman,” a “they,” an “other” – but be “I” among many. But this body, along with centuries of “knowing,” of existential and historical racism, is my “teaching” presence and tool.
And I dissociate. My own voice rings in my ears, my anecdotes of the street feel hollow, I am offering up piece by piece my experience, body, intellect, so others can learn. Unless I am to die from this violence of the daily social relations of being a non-white South Asian woman, in a white Ontario, Canada classroom – I have to dissociate. I hold a part of myself in reserve. All has not been offered up. A part is saved. That is mine. I step out of the half circle of the teaching space; here and there I meet “students.” They say “You’re great”; the teaching assistances say, “That was a good lecture.” Some student wishes to speak after class, she is young, white and good natured. She is asking very basic questions, I can see that the course is working. But I, the “I” of me that has been preserved feels no connection with what is being said. But asks instead, “What has this to do with me?”…
Teaching does not permit or perform anger, but real life, meanings, grievances and injustices are daily brought into the room where I teach, a real relation of violence obtains the room itself. I am a real person who is angry at having to prove to real people grown accustomed to racism, that it has a history, political economy, culture, a daily existential dimension. Skeptical, brutal, shame-faced questions dart out at me; a white woman defends the killing of a Black young man, herself a part-time member of the police force, her husband implicated in the killing. I hear her, I see the stoney faces of the Black students in the class, the uncomfortable body motions of some white students, I hear a few hisses. My body feels tense and hot, I want to shout at her, just plain scream – “you fucking racist idiot,” “you killer” – but I cannot. The theatre of teaching, its script, does not permit me to do that. I have to say it, I have to say it pedagogically; exact a teaching moment out of it. I must build up a body of opinions and explanations here, which I challenge and crush her racism. Carefully, cunningly, smoothly I create with comments and statements and debates an ambush for her racism. I begin to summon up previous police killings, the work of the police in general. I invoke Sophia Cook, I remind her of the essays on the state, the police and common sense racism…on and on. I am teaching. The point is coming across, the meaning of racism is becoming evident and wider; but in the meanwhile there is me, there is she. My anger seeking the release of name-calling, a slap across the face, not this mediated rage. Of course I dissociate. My work and I part company. I am aware of doing violence to myself by choosing this pedagogic path…
And yet I choose to do this violence to myself. Because I choose to de-colonize, to teach anti-racism, not only for myself but for others as well. This slow, long, extended anger of a method, perspective, theories, ideology, instances, political economy and history – these hours of lectures, examinations and essays, are my spontaneity, my anger, formalized, expanded and contained, occasioned and stymied by the regulations of a white university. Subversion, protest, not revolutionary yet, or perhaps will never be. Yet a stream moving on its way, a little tributary to join what I dream of – a real socialist revolution, feminist, antiracist, Marxist, anti-imperialist. The voices, the logic, the politics of my students, who are also my fellow beings, may become a little clearer, more convinced. An anger motivates me. I work on the anger of others with reason, so that somehow it will take shape of a sustained politics, of strategy and goal…
Yes, it distorts me or us. Because anger against the daily ordinary violence and anger of racism distorts us. But there is no way out, no clean hands. Undoing history soils us, cuts us up. We are in the front line. Others are coming along with and behind us, someday we will be whole.
So yes, I disassociate. The mediation of my anger cuts me into two. But here in my actual, immediate work of teaching, I am not silent. At least not that…
‘Returning the Gaze’ was originally published in Thinking Through: Essays on Feminism, Marxism and Anti-racism. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1995.