Universität Bielefeld

© Universität Bielefeld

Of global role models and their ordering of humanity

By Paula Jacob

Very often, colonialism is regarded as something historical and long over; decolonisation as completed when the last European soldiers left Africa. However, this period laid out a hegemonic system of power structures that has remained until the present day. In his speech on coloniality and western modernity Walter Mignolo states as one of his closing points „We (...) are still governed by the colonial matrix of power, the hidden face of the triumphal march of Westernization and modernity, and the hidden consequences, coloniality“ (Mignolo, 2016). The public awareness of this is small however, and reflections and apologies have been insufficient. Therefore, with the help of Photo Voice as a research method, I will look at some aspects of my surroundings at the university and point out how it is influenced by those ongoing colonial structures or even reproduces them. I will especially focus on global role models and social categorization as a basic requirement for any type of discrimination.

Picture No. 1: AIESEC // Have you found your place in the sun?

The first picture shows advertisements for volunteering projects abroad. With the peaceful atmosphere, beautiful landscapes and diverse cultures, the posters create a romantic picture of the offered experience; a typical method used for adverts. The people displayed - we can only see their backs - are representing the adventurer who is having the time of their life while doing something good. This could be us if we just took the opportunity, so it promises. We just need to find our project.

This is not an analysis of the above volunteering organization. It is possible, that their projects have a great impact and overall, they might help to produce a positive picture of the countries. These thoughts are based on a structure that is wider and more powerful, though. Global role models are addressed: Who needs help and who can help? Who is successful and who is not? The act of helping appears generous and selfless but do we remember why certain problems were developed in the first place?

The problem about roles is that in addition to the obvious attribution they usually bring further assumptions about members of this group. This can happen very subtly or more obviously. The roles of helper and helped create a relationship like the one between educator and child with the same decline of power, will and esteem. They contain suggestions about who is capable and who is not; who matters more and who less; who is intelligent and who is not; etc.

„(...) based on the 'Western Idea of Man' (Wynter 2003), by ascribing rationality/humanity to Westerners and irrationality/savagery to non-Westerners“ (Desai & Sanya, 2016, p. 716).

Roles, categories and groups are pervasive in our life. They are a part of how we define ourselves and they help us to better and faster understand the things and people around us in order to react in an appropriate way. At the same time, however, they facilitate prejudice and discrimination and are the basis for any unequal treatment (Smith, Mackie, & Claypool, 2015, pp. 144-146).

Picture No. 2: Library // Who do you need to be to make it into these shelves?

The impact of role models and social categorization continues when it comes to knowledge. In this context the roles are not about who is helping and who is helped, though. Rather, I am referring to a general concept of an "us" and a "them". As mentioned above, these kinds of roles are necessary for any type of classification or prejudice and the connected ideas of involved traits. When it comes to roles that are applied to such a big part of humanity, the consequences can be especially grave and the roles become even harder to dissolve.

So why knowledge? Sciences, literature, etc. do not seem particular Western or colonial - are Mathematics and biology not true anywhere around the world? A major concept of our scientific work is that we always try to find the truth and aim for universality. Our knowledge is absolute and objective. It is exactly this idea of how knowledge works and how it is created that needs to be reflected, though, because it forgets to consider that the knowledge we choose to teach and learn has been product of a selection. Which disciplines, topics and authors make it onto the curricula? The content which is currently taught may seem to be the most important. However, it is only a representation of what type of knowledge has been defined as worthy and valuable. Those definitions were and continue to be made mainly by privileged, white males. This leads us to another attribution of the roles "us" and "them": who can produce knowledge? (Desai & Sanya, 2016, p. 715)

„'epistemic coloniality', that is, the endless production of theories that are based on European traditions. These are produced nearly always by Europeans or Euro-American men who are the only ones accepted as capable of reaching universality; they involve a particular anthropological knowledge, which is a process of knowing about Others - but a process that never fully acknowledges these Others as thinking and knowledgeproducing subjects“ (Joseph Mbembe, 2016, p. 36).

This can be traced down to colonialism, when various peoples and their epistemic concepts and achievements were suppressed and eradicated. Until today, they have not regained much space in the global market (Heinemann & do Mar Castro Varela, 2017, p. 264).


While it is utopian to try to stop ourselves from categorizing and creating roles, it is important to identify them and reflect on how they influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviour and what consequences this has for members of the group.

The two topics that were captured in this paper are referring to global role models such as Black/White, Western/Non-Western, which concern the entire humanity in it's past, present and future. They are very complex constructs and only some of its' aspects could be displayed here. More important is though, that these roles have their roots in colonialism. The hegemonic system of power that was created then and that gave most of the power to Western countries still applies today and it still attributes more value to certain groups.

Reference List

Desai, K., & Sanya, B. N. (2016). Towards decolonial praxis: reconfiguring the human and the curriculum. Gender and Education, 28(6), 710-724.

Heinemann, A. M.B., & do Mar Castro Varela, M. (2017). Contesting the imperial agenda. Respelling hopelessness. Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies, 20(3), 259-274.

Joseph Mbembe, A. (2016). Decolonizing the university: New directions. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 15(1), 29-45.

Mignolo, W. (2016). Coloniality: The darker Side of Western Modernity: Symposium: Walter Mignolo on Coloniality and Western Modernity.

Smith, E. R., Mackie, D. M., & Claypool, H. M. (2015). Social psychology (4. ed.). New York: Psychology Press.