Humiliation and policing the borders of the university

Humiliation and policing the borders of the university

Yasmeen Narayan

This article is based on a conversation with Eddie Bruce-Jones that took place in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck College, University of London on 25 November 2019. It draws from my response to his work on Indian indenture in the Caribbean and furthers the argument that I previously presented in this article.

I discussed connections between the transfer of wealth produced in the colonies and the formation of modern corporations, public institutions such as universities and the colonial classes. I examined how respectability emerged together with colonial nationalisms towards the end of the eighteenth century and how it demarcated the emergent colonial classes from both the colonised and the lower classes and divided the deserving poor from the undeserving. I argued that ideals of propriety and property ownership, respectable formations of love and kinship and the mythology of individual accomplishment are normalised in postcolonial academic communities. I try and raise, in this piece, questions on the connections between the erasure of this history, humiliation and racialised subjectification.

Where are the spaces where students and academics can remember those who died on the street, from addiction, in prison, in psychiatric wards or those who were killed by the police? Where are the conversations on the bus drivers, supermarket workers, cleaners, care workers, nurses and doctors who have died during the pandemic? Why are we not discussing respectability and our ideas of love when faced with all the women who have been killed by their partners during lockdown?

Where is the reckoning with histories of police violence and corruption and the undercover infiltration and destabilisation of different political collectives in the U.K over the past fifty years? Where is the recognition that these histories of policing are central to British political history? How are these silences cultivated and protected? Do we need to conceal how our lives have been engulfed by these histories of state and corporate negligence and violence if we are to belong? How do the anti-colonial and anti-racist histories that we have all benefited from disappear?

The silences on the colonial beginnings of postcolonial respectability conceal the histories of land expropriation, slavery, indenture and death that Bruce-Jones (2019) recovers. These absences erase the inseparable formation of empire, modern universities, academic disciplines and departments and culture. Said argues:

‘The main battle in imperialism is over land, of course; but when it came to who owned the land, who had the right to settle and work on it, who kept it going, who won it back, and who now plans its future – these issues were reflected, contested, and even for a time decided in narrative… Most professional humanists … are unable to make the connection between the prolonged and sordid cruelty of such practices as slavery, colonialist and racist oppression, and racial subjection on the one hand, and the poetry, fiction, and philosophy of the society that engages in these practices on the other.’ (Said 1993, xiii–xiv)

There is hardly any record of these histories and their legacies in the everyday life of academic departments. How is this erasure related to racial humiliation, racialised subjectification and who can be faced with indifference if not contempt?

The story of Fanon’s confrontation with a terrified white child in a street in Paris is well known. He remembers being faced with the horror of this child, looking back at himself and finding to his shame that he has been ‘given back’ (Fanon 1986, 113) to himself in monstrous form, ‘spattered. . . sprawled out, distorted, recoloured’ (ibid). But what happens to the white child at this moment? There continues to be important discussion on humiliation and racial subjugation but comparatively little on the psychopolitical life of contemporary beneficiaries of empire even in work on whiteness and psychoanalysis and racism.

Is the humiliating act of seeing the other as grotesque or ridiculous an act of erasing histories of violence and accumulation? Does this shaming reimagine the subject who humiliates the other as the one who has so much as the humiliated becomes the one who has and is nothing? Does this act of humiliating another thus offer relief and pleasure?

Do some expel their desire for others into them? Does this expulsion preserve their sense of themselves as good and decent as it protects the lives that they have built with others? I have noticed how terrifyingly easy it is to push disruptive sexual desire into the unprotected such as those who grew up in care, those who suffered institutional abuse and isolated academics and students from minoritised communities. Do we thus need to draw histories of postcolonial respectability, racial humiliation and sexual degradation in universities together with histories of institutional abuse in Northern Ireland and England and Wales?

How can someone who has been ‘given back’ (Fanon 1986, 113) to themselves as a rapacious, monstrous being clearly see that they have been persecuted if the only history of humiliation that there can be is one that they have produced through violating others? These racialised imaginations of voracious creatures of all genders who are never sexually unavailable are intertwined with histories of slavery, indenture and other forms of colonial labour (Bruce-Jones 2019, Hartman 1997).

The act of racial humiliation is an act of racialising another. It is what Fanon calls ‘epidermalization’ that Hall defines as ‘as the inscription of race onto the skin’ (Hall 1996, 16). The insistence that the other must be ashamed of being unrespectable erases why and how respectability was normalised. It erases the inseparable histories of respectability, land expropriation, imperial labour demands and racial categorisation.

I want to further argue that humiliation transfers the responsibilities of different public institutions such as universities. The shaming of others who were young carers, for example, through the normalisation of respectability is not just an act that positions the subject who did not have parents who were able to take care of them as the one who must be ashamed. It leaves students and academics who were young carers with the responsibilities of state bodies and the private companies that they work with to provide numerous public services to both children and adults.

Davis (2015) observes how ‘we often do the work of the state in and through our interior lives’. I notice how some students and academics inscribe themselves with a shameful innate inability to understand or write. They thus assume culpability for the negligence of different public institutions such as schools and universities who are responsible for cultivating these abilities. Incapabilities and a lack of potential, which are properties that were produced by academic disciplinary discourses, are identified as the source of the subject’s failure.

These inabilities descend from the incapacities ascribed to indentured labourers in the administrative records that, as Bruce-Jones (2019) notes, are used to explain debility, short lives, early deaths and suicides. This illustrates how clear distinctions between the neglect and violence of institutions and corporations and violence against the self are indefensible (Bruce-Jones 2019, Davis 2015, Fanon, 1986).

Can those academics, who students turn to with their disappointment and despair, flourish when so much discontent and hopelessness has been left with them? Can academics thrive when they have been abandoned with the responsibility of trying to mitigate the impact of their colleagues’ negligence? How can they stand next to other academics as they clean up after them? What happens when we turn to psychoanalysts, psychotherapists and counsellors who also leave us with the legal duties of other academics, public institutions such as universities and their private contractors as they insist that the focus must remain on the family?

Is it possible to prosper and carry the responsibilities of other individuals and state and corporate bodies? Will we now be left to do the work of ensuring that academic departments meet their new legal obligations of eliminating the attainment gap and instituting detailed cartographies of colonial wealth production and racial thought within curricula?

Hall asks, ‘what is a politics in which you are already complicit with the violence which you are trying to struggle against?’ (2018, 896). We need to further develop reparatory modules and programmes and transdisciplinary academic work that draws connections between histories of empire and racial subjugation and our abilities to cause harm to others and ourselves and how these capacities are cultivated within universities.

Postcolonial and decolonial work on race and racism can simultaneously liberate the defenders of respectability from the restrictions if not dehumanisation that respectability demands if we accept that the production and preservation of a brutal indifference towards others dehumanises the self (Césaire 2000). We need to ensure that we are not left with the ethical obligations and legal responsibilities of our colleagues and universities as we continue to work on the project of postcolonial academic reconstruction and reparation during the pandemic.

Bruce – Jones, E. (forthcoming) Kaala Paani: Law, Imagination and Colonial Indenture.
Cesaire, A. (2000) Discourse on Colonialism. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.
Davis, A. (2015). ‘Transnational Solidarities: Resisting Racism, Genocide and Settler Colonialism’, Lecture at Bosporus University, Istanbul, 9 January 2015.
Fanon, F. (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.
Hall, S. (1996). ‘The after-life of Frantz Fanon: Why Fanon? Why now? Why Black Skin, White Masks?’ in A. Read (ed.) The Fact of Blackness: Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation. London: Institute of Contemporary Arts.
Hall, S. (2018) ‘Psychoanalysis and cultural studies.’ Cultural Studies, 32 (6): 889 – 896.
Hartman, S. E. (1997). Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Said, E. (1993). Culture and Imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus.


Yasmeen Narayan is a Lecturer in Postcolonial and Psychosocial Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck College, University of London. She convenes the Culture Diaspora Ethnicity MA programme and the Race Forum at Birkbeck. Thanks to Eddie Bruce-Jones, Miriam Zukas and Discover Society.; @Aaaqilah.

Image Credit: Oualidia, Morocco, August 2019