The Empire strikes back? Post-colonialism and European culture

Thursday 18 October, 21:3023:00, Maus Hábitos, Rua Passos Manuel 178, 4º PISO, 4000-382 Porto, PortugalBattle of Ideas Europe

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It is often said that we live in an era of ‘post-colonialism’. While former colonies today have their own government and autonomy, many people have expressed concerns that long-standing European powers still exercise control over people from the developing world through the dominance of Western culture. Campaigners lament a shortage of black faces in politics, business and the media and point to studies suggesting ongoing discrimination in areas ranging from education to housing, employment to the justice system. Racism is ‘deep-rooted, is systemic and it’s structural’ says Beatriz Gomes Dias, president of Djass, the association of Afro-Portuguese citizens that recently launched a memorial to millions of Africans carried into bondage by Portuguese ships during the period of the Atlantic slave trade.

The question of how Portugal’s relationship to the past should be memorialised in the present has also become the subject of much debate, with the news that Lisbon is to create a new Museum of Discovery. In the Portuguese historical lexicon, ‘discovery’ stands not only for the action or process of discovering or being discovered for the first time – it’s also associated with the imperial project undertaken by Portugal from the 15th century. An open letter signed by more than 500 academics and cultural leaders in Portugal expressed strong objection to the creation of the new museum, stating that ‘museums are not archives, they are mainly instruments of representing power, legitimising a partial knowledge based on Portuguese domination over parts of Africa and South America’. They argue that the role of museums as ‘imperial technologies’ should be questioned, as should the repercussions of history in the present. This includes ‘nanoracismos’, small-scale racist gestures and attitudes which still punctuate everyday language and action.

Debate about the British Empire has also re-surfaced within the UK, with many radical students calling for university education (particularly in the liberal arts) to be ‘decolonised’. Student activists have called for statues and symbols of Empire to be removed from public spaces. University administrations are under pressure to ‘decolonise’ courses, buildings, libraries, and reading lists to avert the domination of white ‘Eurocentric’ writers and thinkers. Students today can even discover how to ‘decolonise’ their diet. Some argue that the drive to decolonise society is more about censorship and intolerance than a desire to understand and learn from history.

Why is this explosion of outrage about Eurocentrism happening today, when European rule over other parts of the world is so small? Is this generated by a desire to have a robust debate about colonialism? Do we still live in a racist society? Or is this more about censoring controversial ideas for fear of offence? Are we living in a post-colonialist era?