Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Winter 2018. Vol. 30 Issue 1.
W.E.B. Du Bois is widely considered to be a theorist of race. But he was also a sociologist of empire. For him, modern empire and racialization were deeply connected (Du Bois 1999; 2007). In this short essay, I want to share some initial reflections on how W.E.B Du Bois’ pioneering theories of the self, contribute to recent cultural sociological understandings of empire. I argue that his work should be major inspiration for critical theorists and scholars of the current American empire. I will do this by drawing on examples from my preliminary dissertation fieldwork in Kabul, Afghanistan. My research is an ethnographic study of U.S. empire in Afghanistan that focuses on the cultural representation of Afghans in foreign books written after 9/11. Employing participant observation and interviews with book reading groups, book sellers, translators, and book printers, I look at how Afghans as well as Americans living in Afghanistan engage with foreign representations of a country that have been deemed racialized and imperial by current literature (Ho 2010; Nayak 2006; Osman 2014, Stabile and Kumar 2005). The specific examples I draw on below are from an interview I conducted with Mahvish, an Afghan college student and part time photojournalist in Kabul.
Du Bois’ ideas of the “veil” and “ twoness” helped open my eyes to how my Afghan interlocutors discursively constructed self. One of Du Bois’ main insights was that if the self is developed through social interaction, in a racialized system, these social interactions are restricted and structured by power (Itzigsohn and Brown 2015). In the United States, this is manifest in the segregated lifeworlds of black and white Americans. Being inspired by Du Bois’ work, in Afghanistan, I observed that there is also a veil between the American military, development and policy actors, and native Afghans. In Kabul, the veil is similar to what Fanon calls “reciprocal exclusivity” – two spacialities next to each other that never come into contact with each other except through violence (Fanon 2007, 39). And while Du Bois recognized that the veil was a “thought thing, tenuous, intangible,” (1999, 241) it was also, in Kabul and elsewhere, made of concrete and barbed wire.
While sipping tea in the courtyard of a café outside the area considered “safe” by the American government, Mahvish, discussed this veil with me.
Mahvish: “…I think that people appreciate westerners who come to Afghanistan. They say, oh wow they are risking their life and being in a hole of danger like they think Afghanistan is a dragon and the people who are willing to put themselves in the mouth of a dragon, write there and work there… they appreciate that… but they don’t appreciate the people who live in Afghanistan every day without the ease foreigners have here. Like foreigners when they come to Afghanistan they have very good security… like always… they have a good place, they have better food.”
Mahvish: “Yeah compounds and all those things…”
Here Mahvish describes the separation she experiences between Afghans and “westerners.” She describes the two worlds, one where she resides, without security detail and outside the compounds and another separate reality inhabited by foreign journalists who create the images the white world sees Afghanistan through. This material veil is then translated into the images these separated foreigners create about Afghanistan and which are then consumed by audiences in the west as a “thought thing” (Du Bois 1999, 241))—an intangible, but powerful veil through which Afghans are seen by people in the west.
Twoness also inspired me to observe multiple constructions of the self by my Afghan interlocutors. Twoness for Du Bois was: “…this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (Du Bois 2007, 8).
In the context of imperial hegemony in Afghanistan, young Afghan college students I spent time with regularly discussed themselves not just from the perspective of how they saw themselves but also how they thought “western foreigners” see and judge them. For example, in the same interview, Mahvish described her family’s history living under the Taliban. She mentioned that both her parents are educated and open minded but had to follow the laws promulgated by the Taliban during their rule like restricting their daughters from going to school as “they lost many friends and relatives for no reason.” Talking about the book The Bookseller of Kabul written by a Norwegian journalist about an Afghan family the journalist lived with, Mahvish said:
Mahvish: “She (the author of the book) should have put more, a clearer picture of how things were then but she wanted to focus the story more on Shah Mohammad/Sultan Khan (the protagonist of the book) so that people would curse him (laughs). If I was not living in Afghanistan, I would have said he is such a cruel man but if you live in Afghanistan you would know how people live here and what they bear…”
Later in the conversation, she connected her family’s experience with that of Shah Mohammad where she saw herself, her family and Shah Mohammad as part of the same group struggling to live by their principles in a difficult and violent situation but being judged by outsiders who cannot see them but through the veil.
In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois describes African Americans as “a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.” (2007, 8). But, as Du Bois well understood, the “American World” is a world made by empire. However, with important exceptions like Go (2016), much of the current sociological work on Du Bois has confined the relevance of his thought to the United States. But Du Bois offers, as I have begun to see in my fieldwork, insights relevant not only to people of color living within the U.S. but also racialized colonial subjects beyond it, such as those experiencing American militarism in the Muslim world.
- Syeda Masood is a PhD Candidate at Brown University.
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