If you followed any Somalis on Twitter during the past two weeks, you may have noticed the hashtag #CadaanStudies (which literally translates to “white studies”) floating around. The conversation began on March 25 when Safia Aidid, a Ph.D. Candidate at Harvard University, called attention to the fact that the new Somaliland Journal of African Studies (SJAS) actually had no Somalis involved in their journal at all, whether as members of the advisory board or as authors of articles that were published. This would be unheard of in many fields today; as Riya Jama put it, “Could you imagine if we spearheaded a European scholarly journal w/o a single European represented? So why is it okay now?” Sadly, this is very much the reality of Somali Studies and African Studies more generally.
The necessity of a discussion about the erasure of Somalis from the Somali Studies became even more evident when German anthropologist Markus Hoehne, also a member of the SJAS advisory board, jumped in the conversation to assert that the reason why there are few young “serious” Somali scholars is because “they seem not to value scholarship as such” and that they are unwilling to do the thankless, long work involved in such a serious endeavor. This is a patently false claim; there are many reasons why younger Somalis may not pursue academia, especially the social sciences, but I can assure you that it is not because they are incapable or unwilling to put in work. He later recanted and apologized for some of these claims in a rejoinder to Hawa Y. Mire’s essay, “#CadaanStudies, Somali Thought Leaders and the Inadequacy of White Colonial Scholarship.” In any case, these derogatory comments elicited a strong response from Somalis online and Safia Aideed published an open letter to Markus Hoehne and the Somaliland Journal of African Studies signed by Somali academics, researchers, artists, and activists from across the globe.
Cadaan is the Somali word for white, but this is not about individual white academics. Rather, this is a conversation about the relationship between power and knowledge and the disproportionate power non-Somalis have had in constructing narratives about Somalis. This is not a problem unique to Somali Studies; area studies and social sciences in most of the third world began in the colonial era.
Part of the reason colonial anthropologists, linguists, and other social scientists studied colonized people and their societies was to justify racial hierarchies and ultimately the colonial enterprise, all while claiming to have scientific objectivity. Some of these narratives produced in the colonial era continue to exist in Somali Studies and elsewhere, rarely checked. This is particularly problematic when they are built upon eurocentrism and preconceived notions of the inferiority of those being studied.
This is not to suggest that all those engaged in #CadaanStudies are intentionally putting forth false and racist narratives about Somalis. Rather, this conversation has brought to light the necessity for all those involved in the academic production of knowledge to recognize their position vis-à-vis the people they are studying and to deconstruct and historicize existing paradigms and discourses in the field of Somali Studies. Further, everyone should think about the value and uses of academic production of knowledge. Oftentimes, we see academics regurgitating the lived realities of Somalis as exceptional or through the lens of whiteness (i.e. seeing them as unique, other) and getting paid and praised for doing so.
#CadaanStudies is not just about academia — these narratives and ideas about Somalis are also translated in policy and in the media. These academics write policy papers for non-governmental organizations, speak in hearings before Congress when a crisis happens in Somalia, and are asked to “explain” Somalia on major news networks, particularly in the context of the war on terror. Their narratives carry weight in ways Somali self-narratives do not.
Where to go from here? How do we truly decolonize Somali Studies? This is really the crucial question and I can only provide some suggestions. Firstly, we need to destroy the idea that one can be an “expert” on a culture that she or he is not part of. This does not make one more objective than those who one studies, and everyone comes with their own subjectivities (e.g. white male lens, ethnocentrism). Secondly, when Somalis are telling you these discourses are unacceptable, listen to them. Lastly, we need to create spaces for Somalis in academia so that more of us can create our own narratives.
Anonymous Guest Blogger
Image from Somalia Online