Whiteness, paternalistic solidarity, the colonial heritage, the Riace model. In this interview with NRW, the activist, artist and writer Alesa Herero doesn't spare anyone. And she also deconstructs integration models that are in fact based on exploitative dynamics.

Alesa Herero was born in Rome and she lives in Lisbon where she divides her time between art and activism. She collaborates with the Griot Theatre Company and she was a founding member of the Black Women’s Institute in Portugal. She contributed a story to the book Future. Tomorrow’s world narrated by today’s voices, edited by Igiaba Scebo and published by effequ. The story is entitled And yet, there was a smell of rain

Your story talks about returning to Rome after many years. A return that is feared, and yet desired. What does going back to Italy mean to you? 

“It means having to face contrasting emotions. It means going back home to the the land that exiled me and with which I am trying to reconcile myself. For many years, I rejected everything that had anything to do with Italy. I still consider it to be a hostile society, profoundly resistant to facing the so called Other. And this resistance is also present in those spaces that are considered to be welcoming. It is a place where it is challenging to question oneself in order to enter into a genuinely non-condescending relationship with the Other”.

What have you missed about Italy? 

“I don’t miss Italy in itself, but I miss being able to speak my language, my Roman sense of humour which often goes amiss in Portugal and, of course, after ten years away, I miss Italian cuisine”.

At an event organised a year ago in Milan as part of the Festival Goes DiverCity, you spoke about whiteness. A concept that is coming to the fore. What does whiteness mean? 

Whiteness is a system. It is an arrogant structure based on capitalism, racism, patriarchy, classism and deeply rooted colonial and paternalistic dynamics. For centuries, it has set the norm, the benchmark against which anything else is viewed as different. 

“It is mostly present in white people but of course, they are not the only ones to be affected by it. So, Fanon encourages all those that were colonised to kill the coloniser within us. It is a structure stemming from the exploitation of land and bodies, leading to the dehumanisation and objectification of that which it does not recognise as its own or as intelligible”.

Can you give us a definition of whiteness?

“Whiteness never refers to itself, but it defines and appropriates what lies outside of it. And this dynamic still continues today: starting with land and bodies, moving on to appropriating foreign cultural practices and expressions”.

Hip Hop and Rap, to give you a recent example, were different forms of expression borne out of black communities, but they were undervalued and ghettoised until they were appropriated by white people. 

“But this is also true of other musical genres, as well as of spirituality, architecture, gender fluidity and many other elements that were present in pre-colonial Africa. Failing to understand this, Europeans have destroyed them in order to then appropriate and re-define them”.

Why destroy to then appropriate and re-define? 

The tendency to destroy everything that doesn’t belong to me, that which is different from me, stems from white people’s difficulty in accepting that not everything can be rationally understood. 

“The concept of whiteness is based on reason, Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am, Ed.). African culture instead is not just based on the mind and the rationalisation of everything. It centres on the human being being able to express itself by making use of the various domains of its existence: the rational, the irrational, the spiritual, the whole of the physical body as well as its intangible aspects”.

So, is solidarity also a product of whiteness? 

“Paternalism is not a form of solidarity and neither is the white saviour complex, which still affects most white people. What is considered to be solidarity today, in fact, often hides this syndrome as well as a utilitarian justification for the acceptance, or not, of the presence of the Other specifically relating to black people”.

Can you give us some examples? 

“An example of this kind of utilitarianism is the Riace integration model. Although everyone considered it to be an virtuous model, it always made me uneasy, I wasn’t convinced. In Riace, the migrant, the African, the black man, the most undesirable, is welcome because it is useful. Useful to revitalise a place that has been abandoned. This follows on from a logic model based on the exploitation of human capital, which is at the root of capitalist societies. And the black body is the one that, historically, has been the most capitalised. This, in all its various forms, is the historical narrative that white people have applied to us. Discourses that help them make sense of what black people are, or should be, and that, all in all, are not even seen to be collectively disturbing”.

Does that also apply to the UN’s human rights charter?

“You just need to think about when that was drawn up, in 1949, when virtually the whole of Africa was still colonised and Europeans could still exploit our people and our land as they pleased. When we talk about universality, we refer mostly to white men. Even white women were excluded from this concept for very long. But at no point were non-white subjects included”.

Alesa Herero, what sentence would best describe your activism? 

“I have many in mind but there is one by Sartre that has always made me reflect: What others do to us is not important, but what we do to ourselves, based on what others have done to us, is“.

This, however, is by a European intellectual. Will we ever manage to get to a common culture, while respecting our differences? Or even a universal culture?

I don’t think that a common culture is necessary, but rather a shared sense of humanity. Universality, as we know it today, was born out of mostly white and racially divided societies. 

We should de-colonise the very concept of universality hoping in the development of post-racial societies. But I am fairly sceptical this will happen. At least not in the short term, and not until we will have killed the coloniser that lives within every one of us”.

Translated by @cos_ detoma 

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