50 SHADES OF BROWN: THE PROBLEM WITH THE GLOBAL SOUTH THEORY

My best friend, Tshegofatso who is  an incredible black woman, recently set off to work in India, following the end of our Architecture Undergraduate studies in Cape Town. Upon hearing that she would be traveling to India, a country linked to us by virtue of the new multi-defined “Global South”, I thought back to my time spent there in a very distant past 2011. I hope to return to India with the spatial and political lens I see through now, but reminiscing through high school-exchange-student-Khensani wouldn’t make a difference and so I reflected on my experience. However, the lens with which I occupy the world with today constantly reveals memories in different ways that I had previously overlooked. When I think of India, my memory flies back to a distinct moment in one of the malls in Indore- which might I add, are the most grandeur sedimentary compilation of consumed goods layered like a cake into a building constantly buzzing with people. Anyway, I was young and self concerned and I needed make up. We all know that black women have different complexions; and for the purpose of this article I now find myself trying to describe where my shade of brown lies along the 50 shades of brown spectrum. I don’t consider myself to be of light complexion, and when I found myself searching for a foundation that matched my skin tone, I became very aware of this. I kindly asked a shopping assistant if they were any “caramel mochas” (these names are pathetic, I’m not edible) and she said that they do not stock dark shades of brown foundation. The beauty ideal at that point in time in that particular place excluded me from a beauty product: An image of beauty that I could not fit into. There are many things I remember about India, but at this point in time, with a hyperawareness of my identity, I think back to that moment most.

Okay so what does this have to do with space? Why is this the preface to today’s article?

Well, first: I want to emphasize that this blog speaks beyond the tangible existence of form and when you come across articles such as this one, the intangible, and I would argue dominant, elements of life are discussed.

Second: As an extension of last week’s article titled “Western Academia Left No Space For Humanism” I found it appropriate to write on the emerging theory of “Global South” and furthermore what that means in a decolonial spatial world still confined within a western epistemology- now camouflaged through “accommodating” voices of “The Other”.

Third: Through Tshegofatso’s story of traveling to India in 2017, we will extend on the clashes that exist between people of various identities in this “Global South” and in doing so, interrogating the problem of the Global South as a conforming theory as a binary, constantly compared to the Global North.

 

Tshegofatso in Delhi. A Short Story.

 “After accepting a position in India as an intern at an architecture studio, through my research and curiosity, I increasingly became more aware of the possible interactions that I would face upon embarking on this journey. It was only after accepting the position, that threads of information came streaming in about the slight xenophobia towards Africans in India. The preference for lighter skin is a ‘’phenomenon” apparent amongst many people in India and not just exclusively directed to the African community residing in India. I think to myself: If there is already a preexisting conception of the ‘Ideal’, how do I as a woman originating from the Blackest of Black continents navigate putting myself in a situation of criticism and possible physical rejection. I constantly found myself in conversation with friends: many of which were aware of the racial biases. As a South African, Xenophobia has never been a foreign concept to me. I have however, never been the victim. Watching YouTube videos and constantly reading articles of assault incidents on Africans in India did not make the situation any better. Every incline in my body wanted to pull out, but I was committed to the the opportunity I was afforded with, and so I packed my bags and a good 15 hours later I found myself in New Delhi, India. 

 The notion of how one occupies foreign space has resonated strongly with me for a long time. My preconceived ideas of having to appear ‘more white’ by never having my afro exposed, maintaining a level of ‘composure’ and worst of all by trying to maintain/attain a lighter skin tone in remaining indoors; were shattered. I decided that there was no point of confining myself to these unwritten trends; I would not allow myself to fall into mental enslavement. This year was to be a professed year of self-exploration: not confinement. Surprisingly enough, race had almost never crossed my mind once I had settled here in Delhi. I suppose I can say I was comfortable in my environment. However, upon greater reflection, I realized that this comfort was a conditioning of my tolerance as a result of my upbringing- strange, but the reason I felt home with the unknown. Many people of colour in South Africa have been brought up having to adapt to multiple contexts, particularly areas with a high concentration of a specific race. I am not necessarily speaking to a certain race.

 This reflection of my conditioned mind is subconscious and nonchalant in my every day movements. This subconscious reaction affords me a means of survival in the unknown. Now, I merely walk onto the street pavement with a slight skip in my step, rocking my high braided bun, proud and unapologetic in the space I’m in. I have now reached a stage where I am confident in navigating my way through this dense and involved city regardless of my initial fears and preconceived barriers. 

 Then, being conscious of my race was put into question in a location I least expected it to happen in. Upon my extensive search for an ATM that I hoped would finally accept my card, I found myself at a mall. After getting my bag checked by security, I made my way down the escalator to get a second check of my bag, at which stage I spotted an outlandishly tall chocolate coated gentleman. It was pretty evident he was from Africa, for lack of a better assumption. For all I know he could have resided in America, ‘the land of the free’. In an instant I had become aware of my race and felt a sense of consciousness of my position within this space. There was no sense of discomfort but rather a sense of belonging/ attraction to ‘my own’. I quickly plugged the leather strap of my backpack in a rush to not lose this newfound sense of ownership. I rushed down the hallway and paid no attention to how I might’ve been viewed by the locals, but rather by this gentleman. I paced around the food court with his figure in plain sight slowing down in his direct line of sight… except nothing happened. Once he was out of sight, or rather once I abandoned the mission, it was no longer in my thought process that I was actually out of place. A similar occurrence happened when a girl of African descent motored passed me while perched in the back of a rickshaw. For my split moment I felt like a deer facing the headlights. A sense of belonging yet out off place and so, I regained my original state once she had passed. 

 Why was this the case? Space relation and occupation had become a mental game. Without the presence of the familiar I felt welcomed into the space, but at soon as it appeared, I was hyperaware of the space.”

Race and culture are difficult ones to tackle but it cannot be ignored that they exist in a marriage. However, for the sake of the length of this post (which is already long I will let you know that) we shall save that topic for another Sunday.

Knowledge from the Global North is seen to be the universal knowledge that we deem of what truth ought to be, and last week’s article elaborates more on why this is the case through power and control authoring history and theory. In a world buzzing with contested conversations centered on interrogating these misnomers, the new emergence of “The Global South” has been introduced into the discourse. With writers such as Oren Yiftachel, Vanessa Watson and Amin Kamete, we see various standpoints and critiques of power structuring knowledge even within this “allowance” and “inclusion” of voices from “the Other”.

Here we refer to “The Other” as synonymous with “The Global South”. Vanessa Watson, a Professor at The School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics at the University of Cape Town and member of the Executive Committee at the African Centre for Cities, focuses her studies particularly on geo-politics and the Global South; she cites Dados & Conell in describing the global South as to mean far more than a geographical South: “It references an entire history of colonialism, neo-imperialism, and differential economic and social change through which large inequalities in living standards, life expectancy and access to resources are maintained; and opens new possibilities in politics and social science” (Dados & Connell, 2012, p. 13). (Watson 2016) The idea of THE Global South deems it a single definition of what is NOT the Global North. This essentially conforms to the Western hegemonic structure of dominating power through knowledge and binaries. THE Global South alludes to the idea that ALL Global Cities function and theorize the same way, if not similarly. This brings into question Tshegofatso’s experience of being comfortable with the known in the unknown. With both South Africa and India being Global South countries; India is still seen as foreign. This is an experiential anecdote of how the layers of history, experience and unique elements of place distinguish the two countries from one another. Scale is important here, and perhaps the Global South lens only theorizes itself through observing mass movements and economic patterns on a geo-political hemisphere scale. Nonetheless, because we constantly return to planning for the human, on the human scale, it would be futile to accept the Global South, a homogeneous characterization of Global Southern Cities, as a progressive theory and framework for the process of developing Southern Cities.

In reflecting on Xenophobic attacks in India on Africans- one of the factors that almost prevented Tshegofatso from entering a new space- one begins to question race, culture and belonging. Again, scale is seen as highly important here. The culture of cities stem from the everyday activity, interaction and behavior of people local to that city; there after we scale up and see how particular cities work similarly on an economic and movement level. For instance Cape Town Wynberg Station could be compared to multiple train stations in Delhi by looking at how the both population groups are able to effectively negotiate space amongst one another, but the genius loci of these places differ uniquely.

The epistemological psychological creation of homogony leaves room for a dangerous retaliation towards it. Think of it as Westernization being a parent setting rules for their group of teenagers (who are in fact extremely different), “The Global South” and by giving them a set of standards to live by, they eventually retaliate out of not conforming and living by their natural standards. If the Global South City is of a specific character, and the people who live in these cities are said to function a specific way; once this misconception is exposed and we realize there is no one truth, the response ends up in conflict and violence, which we see in India with the Xenophobic attacks on African people. However, if this theory were to be defined collectively and not deductively, perhaps an appreciation for cultures in The Global South would be the norm. Some, like Conell may argue that incubated hostile tribalism would occur, “he cautions against “mosaic epistemologies” which involve “separate knowledge systems (that) sit beside each other like tiles in a mosaic, each based on a specific culture or historical experience, and each having its own claims to validity un- able to engage reflexively with other knowledge systems” (Watson 2016). However in the developing world we live in today, with international trade booming and ease of mobility, dominant hostility would be close to impossible geopolitically.

The fact is, these theories of ideals lie in constant proximity to the Global North. 50 Shades of brown: the lighter to you are, the better right? Because the theory of the Global South exists on a spectrum and not particularly a typical local scale binary, it camouflages itself as not being problematic, but still orbits around a Western epistemology.

The Global South is not definite. Knowledge has taught us to constantly deduce: a nonchalant totalitarian tendency born out of what should be a Western Standpoint but is currently a universal epistemology of “truth”.

Perhaps, we should be looking towards Global Southern Theories, and not The Global South: where various shades of brown are not acting in competition, and their value exist in their uniqueness.

Works Cited

  1. Watson, Vanessa. Shifting Approaches to Planning Theory: Global North and South . Cape Towm: Cogatatio, 2016.
  2. Mako, Tshegofatso, 2017, Short Story Delhi

One thought on “50 SHADES OF BROWN: THE PROBLEM WITH THE GLOBAL SOUTH THEORY

  1. There now seems to be a frenzied search for more and more “others” all over the world, based on somehow losing something, rather than an optimistic “what would I gain” by welcoming more diversity. Thank you for your analysis. Me,me, me all the time will condemn us all to dangerous isolation.

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