How do we navigate Eurocentrism? Reflections from teaching postcolonial urban studies

For the past four years I have been teaching a lecture on postcolonial urban theory within The Urban Question—a first-semester course in the international Master’s Program in Urban Studies. In this lecture, I try to explain the relationship between the postcolonial and its impacts on both the urban condition and the production of urban knowledge. (Meaning: the traces of Eurocentrism in how we learn about and teach urban studies today). I encourage students to reflect on examples of postcolonial conditions in their own countries—regardless if their country has an official colonial past or not. This opens a series of interesting reflections and questions. Last year, a student asked if trying to tackle Eurocentrism meant being at odds with the aims of modernity, for example, democracy. A few years ago, a student from Turkey wondered: what happens when ultra-nationalist governments hijack the emancipatory aims of postcolonialism to oppress their own populations by arguing “Western” notions, for example, LGBTQ rights, are “colonial” and therefore have no place in their society?

These important questions are at the heart of postcolonial and decolonial debates and are precisely two points that Kanishka Goonewardena and Tanja Winkler touched upon during their interventions in A Non-Occidentalist West: Learning from Theories Outside the Canon, workshop #1 of the Dislocating Urban Studies Series (which was also a PhD course in which I contributed). Pointing out that not all critique of the West that comes from the global South aims towards emancipatory goals, Kanishka wondered: What forms of critique of Europe and the West are then valid? What is the nature of critique of the West? While Kanishka was thinking about the ultra-nationalist governments in India and Sri Lanka, his point had echoes of the question the student from Turkey had posed in my class. Tanja, in turn, reflected how the concerns of the left had been hijacked by the intellectual political right but for negative purposes. For example, the post-structuralist concern that “all knowledge is important” had been twisted to dismiss science, support regressive standpoints, and promote undemocratic contexts. This reminded of the first student’s concern that postcolonialism could be wielded as a tool to attack democracy.  

While we have not been able to settle these debates in class, the discussions around them have stayed with me because of the important question that they raise: how do we navigate Eurocentrism? In Kanishka’s view, we need to have a dialectical understanding of binaries, (for example, center-periphery and north-south), in order to engage with thinkers that are genuine internationalists in the sense that they are not constrained by their geographical locations. The point is to look at the global North and global South as locations that both contain centers and peripheries. For Tanja, our epistemic tools need to be reclaimed. Adding to this, a source of guidance for me has been the work of Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2010) and his intervention A Non-Occidentalist West? Learned Ignorance and Ecology of Knowledge. Arguing that it is meaningless to carry out epistemological divisions across north/south, de Sousa Santos instead proposes engaging with thinkers that are anti-colonial and anti-capitalist, regardless if their work can be labeled as “Western.” In his view, there is much to learn from theories that, even though were produced within Western modernity, can nevertheless offer tools to fight capitalism and colonialism. At the end of the day, as Aníbal Quijano (1992) argues through his work on coloniality of power, what we are trying to dismantle is the colonial side of modernity, not necessarily modernity itself.  

I am eager to hear what questions students raise this year.

  • Quijano A (1992) Colonialidad y Modernidad/Racionalidad. Perú Indígena 13(29): 11–20. DOI: 10.1080/09502380601164353.
  • Santos B de S (2010) A Non-Occidentalist West?: Learned Ignorance and Ecology of Knowledge. Theory, Culture & Society 26(7–8): 103–125. DOI: 10.1177/0263276409348079.

Featured image: “Perpetual Ocean – Gulf Stream” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC BY 2.0