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Transcript: In conversation with Olivia U. Rutazibwa


Paul Gilroy: Good afternoon everybody, I'm Paul Gilroy, I'm the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre at UCL for the study of Racism and Racialisation. I'm very excited this afternoon to have as my guest, Olivia U. Rutazibwa, who is a Senior Lecturer in International Development at the University of Portsmouth; as well as a Senior Research Fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, an associate editor of International Feminist Journal of Politics, editor of International Politics Review and Review of International Studies. Olivia has participated very recently in a really fantastic discussion in foreign policy, back in the summer, on the issue of why mainstream international relations is unable to analyse or accommodate analysis of racism and the dynamics of colonial power and government. Olivia, thank you very much for making the time to have this conversation. So, I was really struck watching the amazing chapter of the uprising in the Belgian cities in the summertime, the statues of Leopold seemed to be falling very quickly after the statue of Colston; I think one in Antwerp was set on fire, another one in Ghent was covered in red paint, and then during protests in Brussels - which were very well attended considering the pandemic was unfolding at that time - another statue was combined with a giant flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo; and in the little video I saw of these events, the crowd was chanting 'murderer' and 'reparations'. So, I wonder if you have a view of how these feelings and patterns of organisation have been transmitted into that environment, and what the current state of play would be there.

Olivia U. Rutazibwa: Thank you so much for having me, Paul. It was very interesting for me to watch because while all of this was unfolding I was all the way in South Africa because of Covid, and I was very excited first of all by what happened in Bristol - these little moments of joy when something is destroyed, I usually don't tend to have them but it was something very profound; and the reason why is that because I was born and raised in Belgium - myself a product of the colonial encounter, second generation Rwandan - I have been growing up with a complicity almost in the normalisation of the figure of Leopold. I remember when I was working in Antwerp, already an adult somewhere in my late twenties, and I was working for a peace centre and we had the delegation from colleagues from all over Africa and we were sitting in the room of one of the offices of the province of Antwerp, and those rooms - official places all over the country - are filled with statues, busts, paintings of the royal family, and Leopold II is also part of that. So we're explaining super proudly all the peace work that we're doing, and suddenly one of the guests actually interrupts and just asked very simply 'am I looking at a statue of Leopold II behind you?'; and I remember the shame that came. It's not that before that I didn't think of it, but this process of denaturalising their presence - in street names, square names, tunnels, statues, all of these things - it has been going on for a long time, mostly carried by peoples from the colonies, whatever generation they were, but a lot of us have been very late to the party. So, for me what we saw this summer was maybe the latest iteration where you see a larger participation of well-meaning white people joining into that conversation, making it hearable. So, I don't want to be too cynical about it, but that's the thing that we've seen; it was hearable. But there's been a lot of very creative ways that people have engaged, apart from red paint and chopping off some of the hands of the statues, often in Ostend and that's years ago. More recently, it's an artist of Rwandan descent, her name is Laura Nsengiyumva, and she made a huge ice sculpture of the statue of Leopold, and so the whole installation was about it melting away and actually having it disappear. And so, all of these things in part have landed in people's minds. So, I would say this summer somehow was kind of a culmination, but there's a lot to say of where this will go.

Paul: One of the things that worries me about how overly dependent on social media and new technology these mobilisations are, is that they can appear very fast but then disappear equally quickly. And is the defence that this mobilisation is being sustained and reproduced and solidifying, if I can use that expression, into something that will maintain the demand for reparations, for reckoning, for the decolonisation of institutions and public spaces?

Olivia: My answer to this would be that it's not automatic, but it's possible. So, I think acknowledging that certain things become hearable that weren't before is a really important realisation that we then have to work with. So, it won't roll out of it automatically in that respect. And I think the same is a bit with Black Lives Matter coming from the US and the demand of the fund police or abolition; abolitionists work was not hearable in the mainstream until very recently. And then it can go both ways, so you can have then the co-optation of it and making it so docile that it's not dangerous anymore, and that's why it's hearable; but at the same time I think radical activism needs to be really vigilant to keep the radicalness of it alive. And so, we've been trying in Belgium to do this - and I was not the only one - I've done it through refusal to participate, for instance. So, on the back of the statues that are then toppled - which I think the one in Bristol is the same - they're gone but then they're retrieved and then maybe they're put somewhere else or in a museum. But the idea that they can just be gone because of the activists taking it down, establishment is still very squeamish about it. So in response to that at the very local level in Belgium, people that have been working around this already for the longest time - civil servants - are putting together a toolkit for local governments on how they can engage their own citizens and communities in the conversation of who is in the streets, what are the street names, and all of these things. So that was quite interesting, I was contacted for consultancy- that I do with pleasure, because this is long term work that is important. On the other hand, at the federal level, you see politicians coming together, scrambling to do something meaningful even though we still didn't have a government then, as we've been without one for a year and a half- it's actually not funny at all, but so the mediocracy and incompetence sometimes is quite baffling. But there was this interest to do something, or to be seen to do something - and again I don't just want to be cynical about it - so the parliament managed to push through a proposal to have a Congo commission, and they called it 'memory and reconciliation' or something, at the level of foreign policy somehow. And so they were putting together very quickly expert panels to advise this parliamentary commission, and there for instance I used the politics of refusal because it was very quickly and had a very, very bad engagement with the different diaspora communities that had been asking for reparations and for recognition of the colonial for the last five to six decades. And so it's singling out people like myself to make it sound slightly more radical, also safely in another country by now; but there is no recognition that the parliament in Belgium is extremely white, even literally; that there is an incompetence within the political ranks at the moment to even kick start something like that. So, my proposal was to say take at least a year for consultation, where the communities tell you what this should be about, but don't just desire to be seen to do something very quickly. I think for me those are some of the dangers, where I'm happy we're starting to use the language of repair, reparations, recognition at least; but then it is done in a way that caters too much to the status quo.
 
Paul: Yeah. Are the Flemish and the francophone components of the country equally invested in the colonial history? I'm sorry if this is mistaken, but my limited knowledge and experience in Belgium suggests it's a very, very deeply and particularly divided polity, and I just wondered if these component elements of the polity were equally invested in the- last week I talked to Gloria Wekker about 'white innocence'- so are they equally invested in the kind of national innocence? Because there's very little I think - again excuse me if this is wrong - very little that's really national there; so, I'm curious to know if the colonial history is equally resonant for both elements in the polity.
 
Olivia: Yes, so I think because of the history, the Flemish parts can pretend to be slightly more distant from what happened, but there is an equally enthusiastic embracing of a white superiority - that we find in the Netherlands, that we find in the UK, that we find anywhere where empire and colonialism happened - which makes it quite interesting. So you have then, in divided Belgium, I would say that racism - overt racism - is most rampant and in your face in Flanders, because there is this imagination like 'we were the underdog during the world wars and we were also not that bad in the colonies'; so your life as a non-white person would be easier sometimes in the French speaking parts. But then when it comes to attacking either Leopold II or the actual colonial histories, you have more older white men and their whole families invested in that history, so they might feel slightly more hurt when we attack it. So that's where we have to decide how we decide to look at it; is it these individual actors or not? And I would say I'm in favour of using the language of Whiteness, with a capital W, and accepting that it manifests itself in slightly different ways; but it's not fundamentally different, because trying to make that distinction I think a lot of people in Flanders make this gesture towards innocence that I can testify to is really deeply uncalled for, let's say.
 
Paul: Again, I'm not any kind of expert, but I remember that two or three years ago the Catholic Church apologised for its involvement in the kidnapping and segregation and the colonial nomos which sought to prevent contact across the lines of racial division and hierarchy, and the resulting catastrophe and assault on the so-called 'Métis' children of that. And I remember that was a few years ago, and then did the Belgian state also apologise last year or something?
 
Olivia: Yeah so the case of the Métis children is really interesting, and also parts of my own family actually- I figured out through all of these processes that one of my closest aunts was actually a product of those particular ways of segregating children from their Rwandan mothers at that time. And so, what we have seen I think in the last few years in terms of apologies in Belgium, one was research done by a white male colleague on Lumumba and the role of Belgium within that. So, we had a parliamentary commission about that, and there was somewhere an apology there between the lines; but very, very limited to that particular murder and incident. And then with the Métis children as well, again, it is seen as an isolated slight aberration of a colonial system we still refuse to know details about; but again I think it's literally decades of work by these children and the descendants themselves through very legal language of adoption, abduction, any of these things. So again, when it's contained within existing legislation, and if it's seen to not cost the state or the church too much- it doesn't cost much to say 'I'm so sorry I kidnapped you from your mother'. So what we see now with the whole commission thing there, their ambition is wider, but they are neutralising it before it even starts, because for me having a commission that takes one month to quickly map what happened during colonial times, first of all, is an insult, but secondly we don't have to start with what happened in the past- literally, we know; everybody knows what happened. You can decide to teach it in school, that's something else; but you don't need a commission to investigate that. So if you were to turn it around and actually say let's have a commission of both internal affairs and external affairs that looks at racism today, and then works back to the colonies, it would be much more costly, but it would be much more honest. And I think for me, my work on development aid comes in there where I think that's a conversation we need to have, and not just apologising for stuff that is easy to apologise for.
 
Paul: That's a very useful lead into the next thing I wanted to ask you, because I know you've been doing this work, a very substantial body work, on the critical and anti-colonial decolonising perspective on development aid. And I was just wondering how that problem enters into a different discussion about reparation than the one that comes out of the Atlantic slave trade; although of course these things are connected.
 
Olivia: Yeah, so I think the reason why I ever got interested in North-South relations was -and I often mention it because I think it's important sometimes to think why we are interested in something - and it is going up as a teenager in Belgium, seeing on TV what was happening in Rwanda during the genocide in '94, but mostly I guess seeing how life continued on; and it was only when I was with my Rwandan family that I could feel the weight of the horror that was unfolding. So, the clash between these two was insane. But then mostly also I just couldn't understand why an international community left at the eve of a genocide. So, I go on then to study international relations, the UN system, human rights- all the discourses of a moral superiority of the West and how we've been able to institutionalise it. And for the longest time my approach was not that critical to the extent I just wanted to expose the hypocrisy; which is again not that difficult, you count when we say something, when we don't, when we punish, when we give gifts, any of these things. But I think what I found useful in post and decolonial scholarship eventually was to ask radically different questions. So, I got to the question of why do we take a western presence as salient? How can we understand that we have been trained to naturalise a completely historically ridiculous idea that a western presence tends to be positive for previously colonised peoples? There is no historical precedence for that, and still the whole discipline of international development, and to a large extent international relations, is built on that idea. How can we perfect our presence? How can we do it more like this? How can we do it more like that? But at no point do we seriously ask how fundamentally detrimental is our presence. And so today I think I'm at the point of trying to think about development as also an abolitionist term - international development - because I think using the language- and it's only possible again when we include these ideas of erasure and white innocence that Gloria is talking about- that a language of aid is possible. Once you do get rid of that then just the word 'aid' is so obscene that it actually opens avenues for just rethinking it; and it's not about not thinking about solidarity, it's just refusing that aid and the idea of the linear development led by the west - and again there's a lot to unpack there - is in any way something that we should accept ever.
 
Paul: That's a very bold and interesting statement. In this country, I am not in any way playing down our continuing global crimes and the forms of neo-colonial military adventure which have been indulged in and are being indulged in in the interests of prosecuting a sort of global counterinsurgency campaign that began 20 years ago and still continues today- although I'm sure if I went out into the street and started asking people about whether there were still British soldiers fighting people- I'm sorry, 'advisors', 'military advisors'...
 
Olivia: ...'trainers'...
 
Paul: ...exactly; well they would all say 'all of that's over, it's all over'; and the barrier of innocence kind of extends into that. But I know that in the context of what you'd call Francophonie - which is very much invested I would say in my interpretation of how the genocide became possible in Rwanda - I think there are particular kinds of geopolitical or diplomatic and corporate interests still involved; and it's very hard to have that conversation at the same time as having one about reparations, because we never get to a point where we can say we're in the past. So how do you feel about that? Is it really a matter of drawing a line then and saying aid is military diplomacy in disguise? Which of course it is, but how do we get to a point of being able to say, 'no more of this'? Because the colonial, the neo-imperial projects are still- we're still hostage to that. Do you have a view of that problem?
 
Olivia: Yeah, and I've found myself to also struggle with- or trying to be conscious that there is not one positionality from which we can answer the whole question. Because I've had conversations with friends and colleagues in Rwanda, for instance, and they just get sometimes a bit impatient with our obsession with blackness, and also a bit impatient with the language of reparations because they're like 'we've moved on, we want a different relationship with the global North, and we don't want any handouts, so we'll just formulate for them what we need'. And I've learnt to accept that; at the same time I think that going through the phase of stopping to call something aid, and focusing, for instance - and that's some of the work I'm trying to do now - to concepts of repair. It doesn't even have to be just a financial reparation, but the idea of repair, of retreat, and then also dignity, is something that we need to do from a western positionality; including the diasporas or somewhere in between there, but I could not speak of this from a position of innocence either. And so, I found actually maybe when people speak about de-imperialising solidarity, that for me is a specific task of a global North in how to think about it. And being in the academic world, I try to translate this into what it is that we offer students that have this desire to go to the global South and save children in Africa; and those are my students. Again, how are we not cynical about it, on the one hand; but on the other hand, train next generations into people that are able to imagine this de-imperialised way of doing solidarity.
 
Paul: I've been really influenced in my own work by the South African psychologist, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who was a truth commissioner as well as an academic psychologist of the great distinction; and she has developed in her practical political work with communities, not just in the governmental moment of the truth commission, but her practical political work, for example, if someone commits a crime in the community, goes to prison and serves their sentence and wants to come back into that community- how do you expect it to be made possible? So, this question of 'empathic repair', that's what she calls it; empathic repair becomes not an abstraction but a really concrete political problem to be engaged in. And I know that in the context of Rwanda there was a political battle over the meaning of justice, alongside these kind of paralegal patterns of recovery, repair and reconciliation through the transformation of the court system and other ways of adjusting one's thinking about what these gestures can mean, and be composed outside of the vocabulary of the colonising power, outside of the vocabulary of the dissident observers and critics of colonial administration.
 
Olivia: Sometimes I am uncomfortable when in a western context this is what we might bring up to make sure we don't have to go through the painful recognition of the colonial guilt that we have not being able to form - when I say 'we' I literally mean mainstream western society, I don't necessarily mean all of us in it, but at the structural level - so that's why I think I insist sometimes on this idea of ethical retreat; there needs to be an end of some imposition before you can even try and rethink how we could enter in communion again; but without skipping that phase. Whereas again, speaking of positionality, I think the priorities - if we were to see ourselves as part of the polity from the continent - a lot of work needs to be done on how to push back against the imposition but also the own participation of different African actors in their own colonisation on their own. So those are different conversations sometimes that should not be had by the same people with the same authority over all bits of that conversation, if that makes sense. And that's why I don't always find the right language to use where, but I think that's why today abolition and retreat help me to draw that line where I say as western actors let's stay in this lane for a minute, because we have not done the work yet.
 
Paul: I suppose when you said earlier on that some of the people that you talk to in the Sub-Saharan Africa are rather impatient with the obsession with blackness, I guess I have some sympathy with that.
 
Olivia: Me too.
 
Paul: I do wonder about how we understand the arch of these political movements in a global frame. And if you grow up in a place where there are no white people or if you grow up in a place where the kind of administrative and juridical and governmental residues of colonial power don't conform to a black-white dynamic, then to be offered the doorway to blackness as the only legitimate sort of political gesture, legitimate political step you can take; it's a kind of impoverishment really. And so, I think there are losses there as well as the obvious gains involved. I guess I'm also - I'm probably going to make myself even more unpopular by saying this - I also think that the language of North and South only takes you so far in this conversation because although there are of course and obviously pockets of the South in the North, and pockets of the North in the South, there is a kind of failure of imagination implicated in really seeing what experiencing over-developed life is, and being so separated from scarcity that you can't really imagine what another life might be; a life which is not separated from scarcity, actually. And it's something I suppose that's been raised a little bit through some elements of what's happening with the pandemic, because people are fighting over toilet paper in the supermarkets; it's such a big distance to fighting over bread in the supermarkets, and it can happen very fast and can move from one situation to the other very rapidly.
 
Olivia: I've tried to make sense of the words that we use in terms of maybe refusing certain labels as strictly describing; but as analytical tools there are moments, especially when we speak from the west, that we do have to engage with the division between North and South because it's to speak to a history. Mostly it's to speak to a history that we'd love to erase; so sometimes I am attached to that, not because I think it literally describes the world, that is much more complex, but because we need to do that work as well. On the other hand though, for instance, for me by spending most of the Covid moments up until now when I was in South Africa, I did see a lot of reflections that I would not have made myself had I been in the UK or in Belgium. And a concrete example was that the whole idea of using a lockdown as a way to mitigate something has been very much shaped on middle class life- average middle-class life in the western context. But what is shocking, and that's where I think again some language of blackness but then at a global level, it is useful because it's an imagination of a maybe not even existing white middle class everyday life that makes a lockdown a good solution; but the whiteness of the world makes it so that it can be adopted from India to South Africa, for situations that are so radically different, and that the use of a lockdown then actually engenders many more deaths for many different reasons. That for me is the global colour line where it does not have to be experienced literally between white people and black people, but it's a continuation of an imagined white life having so much value that it can actually define or shape the understanding of life in general, even if all these other lives literally have a completely different experience. And the other thing also is the fact that it's this global pandemic, people in South Africa were saying we have lost more people to TB and other diseases on a daily basis for the last I don't know how many decades. And again, it's the absence of these imagined white lives being subjected to that that at no point was any of these diseases a global state of emergency. And so that for me makes it still useful to think even in black and white, but again not to describe literally what's going on, but to analyse the value of life and which lives can be prematurely endangered or ended.
 
Paul: Yeah, I absolutely agree with you. I worry though about the transfer of political strategies, political mentalities, from one part of the world to another without sufficiently acknowledging the necessary priority of local factors and histories. For example, the idea of defunding the police in this country has a very different history that ties it into the struggles over law, criminalisation, incarceration, and so on; and that doesn't approximate in any way the story of what goes on or has gone on in the United States in the past. But people are looking for answers, and they are trying to find a vocabulary that speaks to the political work and the political hopes that they have, and they find it useful to borrow this kind of idea or borrow this formulation without necessarily interrogating it very much, because things are moving so fast that the language can also move very, very rapidly. And then we have to step in and say, well actually, the history of controlling the police in this space has these documents in it, it has these enquiries, these political controversies about criminalisation; that the relationship between the police and the army in the policing of the island of Britain is one way, and the relationship between the police and the army in the policing of the island of Ireland is something different; and both of them are relevant to this story in a way that might trouble your understanding of who's colonised and how that colonial processes have worked. And I worry too that a lot of the kind of archive that we need - the writing, the pamphlets, the enquiries, the minutes, the magazines, the print culture, all of this - very little of it has really found its way online. Often these are community initiatives, these are activists initiatives, that have been so busy and so engaged and so committed that they don't have time to archive, never mind stand at the photocopier scanning everything and compressing it, making it searchable so that the historians of the future can come along and make some vivid history out of it. So, I worry about that, and I do hope that the impulse to archive and to write the history and to narrate it in ways that can be usable is not something that we've given up on.
 
Olivia: Yeah, I think it's two very important things that we need to do at the knowledge level. And so often we are pushed to choose either we copy something or we refuse it; when people say you're importing American, and I would say the push back should be how can we cultivate more this idea of knowledge cultivation or generative readings of things. So, when they say in the US defund the police, I make it travel not to say let's defund the police as well, but what do we need to defund here. And to answer that question properly, first of all we need to be willing for there to be many answers, but then also the archival work that you speak of needs to be either unearthed or it needs to be present or rebuilt as a systematic practice as well so that we know where to go and look for the answers. But I often feel that we are pushed to always, in a very linear way, choose either or, and somehow there's going to be one answer; whereas I just think there's so many different options and I just enjoy that literally sky is the limit and the information that comes to you can speak in many different ways, rather than having to either copy or reject; and that I find is also very limited and often has been seen as a colonial way of knowing, it's like one of the other. So it's a part of the decolonial thought that I'm also attracted to, to have a radically different relation to knowing; not just saying 'you guys didn't think about this', but can we know for different purposes than we've done so far that tends to be control and discovery and extraction, and any of these things. And what does that mean in an activist moment like now, where we are all looking for the language to say what is actually going on? We literally don't know. I don't want to sound super relativistic, but I think there is something there that is part of that same activism that is about knowing differently and not just what do we know more or less.
 
Paul: No, I'm 100% behind you. And I know you touched on this earlier, but I'm just wondering about the state of play within international relations. I know that we all know that the boundaries between disciplines are permeable and we know where they came from and how they were organised, and the history of that organisation relative to the unfolding of imperial and colonial administration. So many of the great anthropologists and analysts of pluralism and institutions and anthropology were colonial administrators. Thinking about the symposium that you did in foreign policy, how do you see the state of play inside your own field? Do you feel that there is a real opportunity there now? Is the window open? And how are you going to keep it open?
 
Olivia: So, a few years back we wrote in Postcolonial Studies, the journal; we had a forum around a book by John Hobson, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. And we had a huge discussion about the 'r-word' - racism - racism in international relations (IR) is absent, everybody is squeamish to use it. I think that was 2016. The point I was making then, and I would still make today, is that the way we're trying to figure out how many people are in the streets now, and the fact that we rejoice that there are more white progressive people with us in the streets protesting, is actually similar to what is happening in the discussions in IR today. The thing that really disheartens me, to some extent, is that it's a ritualised consternation, and that is both in the public space and in academia, where people keep on discovering this topic of racism. And especially the ritualised thing is that let's say every 10 years there is a special issue that is going to centre race and racism; and so many of our colleagues have done all this work. So that's where I'm a bit sceptical, but when I'm most optimistic I would say it's a moving object of always going back to 'oh my God, racism is this bad, let's do something about it now'. It lulls and it comes back. So, similarly to rejoicing at the statues that are toppled, how do we make sure that there are some fundamental steps that are done within IR? And I think again it would come down to can we rethink what the purpose of the discipline is, rather than how many people use #race when they talk about IR; so that's the bigger question. And so far the purpose was status quo of power; I think having race and racism and colonialism and capitalism at the centre of IR means to have a discipline that is supposed to do something else; and that I'm not sure everybody's on board with that, but we can just keep going I guess.
 
Paul: Yeah, some years ago I remember Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien editing a special edition of Screen, and the title of it was Last Special Issue on Race, so that is a syndrome I recognise. I guess what helps me is - you mentioned earlier on guilt as being something that was unhelpful in these conversations - I guess for me I try to draw a distinction between guilt and shame, as to say guilt is paralysing and useless and makes you inert, but actually a measure of shame can make you productive, and it can help you to work through- it can promote a kind of working through. So, I guess I'm committed to shame, and I'm optimistic for once because it seems to me that shame will help us get through this.
 
Olivia: Yeah, I'm optimistic as a political choice, because again I don't think we have the luxury of being paralysed somehow; that's a commitment rather maybe than a prediction, because with predictions sometimes I can feel the cynicism creeping in, but then on the other hand it's really about what actions do we decide to centre. And maybe I'm going to try to centre less trying to decipher what white progressive world is doing, because that we know and we can quite easily read. But as you said, how can we unearth and centre all these different ways of push back that we have been taught to forget so that everything remains the same. Maybe that's a translation of a chosen optimism or something like that.

Paul: Olivia, thank you so much. That's a nice note to end on. I know how busy you are, and I'm just so happy that you were able to make the time to have this conversation. I really look forward to maintaining the connection with you, so thank you so, so much.
 
Olivia: Thank you for having me.