Rombald green texture

Decolonising racialised knowledge: how can we be stewards of another future?

17th May 2022

Author: Shirley Anne Tate, author of Decolonising Sambo.

Black decolonial scholars have shown us that we need to develop a socio-diagnostics of anti-Black and People of Color (BPOC) racism.

By rejecting the amnesia/ aphasia of white racist injustice, decolonising sambo became a lesson for me on our global implication in the afterlife of enslavement and coloniality as well as our necessary responsibility to think about BPOC futurity. What we can do to steward this is of course the question.

It is not as if anti-racism is rocket science or a new idea. Anti-racist activists and academics/ intellectuals have spoken about institutional, systemic and individual racism, its link to white supremacy and its colonial/ enslavement legacy for decades. Antiracist practitioners have written books about what forms that practice and politics can take. For many decades they have provided us with a socio-diagnostics of anti-BPOC racism and continue to do so. However, anti-BPOC racism is entrenched at the level of everyday life and there is a general unwillingness to recognise that this racism is alive within contemporary mindsets outside of right wing, nationalist sentiments. It is so embedded in fact that we tend to think that anti-BPOC racism is something bigger than us and we have no part in maintaining that structure of white power.

What we need to think about to steward a more equitable future for everyone is how anti-BPOC and other racisms are carried in everyday objects, things we read, eat, places we visit, television programs, and fashion, for example. Decolonising Sambo does some of this work by developing a socio-diagnostics of this racist construction's colonial/ enslavement life, its continuing commodification, popular cultural existence and affective life, and the links to this past through the pervasive samboification of society.

I am a descendant of African people enslaved in Jamaica by the British Empire. So, for me to write a book on sambo was not something I could easily imagine, nor have a desire for. Decolonising Sambo started in Church Square in Cape Town, South Africa on a whistle stop tour of the city's sights, one wet Friday afternoon in 2017. I came across the name sambo on the granite pillars on the site of the previous colonial slave market commemorating those sold there. However, sambo was from India ('Sambo von Temebad') and Indonesia ('Sambo Nangombe von Tambojit'), rather than the Caribbean, North America, Latin America and Europe. This made me begin what I called a 'sambo ethnography' which took me to the Caribbean, the USA, Europe and Australia in both real and imagined journeys as I dug through archives and looked at representations of sambo in popular culture. My unease at anti-(BPOC) racism, conveyed in sambo, made me write this book. Notice, I write sambo with a 's' rather than a 'S' to show it is a racist construction.

As a racist construction, the research for this book was not an ethnography about Black People and People of Colour, but was a search for the 'white sambo psyche'. It was about how white European settler colonialism had constructed sambo as an object of negation and normalised it to the extent that non-BPOC just accept it as a given and, in many cases, see sambo as harmless fun- as just that 'little Black boy in the blue shorts and red shirt with the green umbrella'.

Decolonising Sambo is not about a boy but the fixed constructions and meanings of sambo as subjection, as a cross gender category of racial mixing which was transposed from one location to another across European empires. sambo was used from Australia, to Europe, India, Indonesia, the Americas and the Caribbean as a colour category for BPOC subjected and enslaved populations. This makes sambo troubling even when people profess to love it in our times. I wrote the book as a critique of this love, as a wake-up call to the samboification of society where 'post-race' times mean that anti-BPOC racist representations no longer matter and those of us who object to them are seen as 'too sensitive' and told to 'get over it'. Can we get over racism's harms, hurts, violence, pain? Should we even want to when we see the carnage it produces?

Decolonising Sambo was published in 2020, a momentous year for everyone on the planet because of Covid 19 and #BlackLivesMatter protests. What both of these ongoing events and their aftermaths show is that anti-BPOC racism matters. It matters because it creates a world in which we are judged for death or life, as valuable or not, because of the legacies of the skins we live in within coloniality and racial capitalism. These events also make us realise that we all share equal responsible for antiracist social justice transformation and we must act to steward a decolonised future.  

Find out more about Shirley's book, Decolonising Sambo.

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