In her Presidential Address at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2011, Dr. Kwok Pui-lan outlined a history of Religious Studies and its relationship to colonial projects, challenging the membership to apply post-colonial theory and analysis to our scholarship and teaching, think with and relate to our global colleagues, and start asking questions about what studying religion does for us, “rethink[ing], reimagin[ing] and recreat[ing] our discipline.” Responding to this call, I have been slowly working to include postcolonial discourse in each of my classes, lower division, upper division, graduate and undergraduate.
This year in my Christian Sexual Ethics class we discussed another piece by Kwok from the 2010 volume Sexuality and the Sacred, Second Edition: Sources for Theological Reflection entitled “Touching the Taboo: On the Sexuality of Jesus,” wherein Kwok asks us to consider the relationship between Jesus’ (obscured) sexuality and a racist imperial agenda. At some point in our discussion of this piece, it became important to discuss Foucault’s notion of “subjugated knowledge,” which is to say, the kinds of knowledge that are excluded from dominant discourse when our way thinking and knowing itself becomes “subject” to a dominant culture. We connected this to the idea of the colonization of the mind—that thought, literally, can become colonized too and so, altered.
In a somewhat successful and somewhat unsuccessful attempt to explain these ideas, I asked my students to put themselves in the shoes of a colonial citizen and asked them:
“After you have successfully conquered someone, what do you do to help ensure that you maintain your power?”
They came up with a variety of answers from stealing the wealth and position of the colonized people, to demonizing the indigenous, violence, granting special favors to a few, and eventually with some guiding, to the issues of controlling language and education that I had been hoping to discuss. Reflecting upon this discussion and a similar one in another class this semester, both with the students in class and on my own, I found myself somewhat conflicted about my presentation of this particular material.
I teach at a college where the student body is primarily women of color from Los Angeles, so it has not escaped me that actually, many of my students can be counted among those who have been “colonized,” while my heritage definitely makes me a member of a colonizing culture. The fact that my classrooms, like many California classrooms, are a mix of documented and undocumented immigrants, and U.S. citizens, further complicates this discussion—particularly in light of the United State’s position as “empire” within our global economy. As stated in Kwok’s presidential address:
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri use the term ‘Empire’ to describe the globalization of capitalist production and the declining sovereignty of nation-states. Empire is different from the imperialism of the previous era, when Europe controlled distant lands. Today, Empire is all-pervasive since it has no territorial center of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries (Hardt and Negri 2000: xii).
Living in the heart of the empire, I am still thinking through my particular relationship to colonial history, neocolonialism and pedagogy.
Yet, returning to the question I asked my students, what I learned despite my own best efforts, my training in critical pedagogy, my research, my confusion and my uncertainty, is what we educators already know: our students are often the best teachers within a classroom. After listing the many ways ‘we’ might secure our power within a colonized region, one student observed (and I am paraphrasing from memory):
“I find it rather macabre that we all so easily gave you answers to the question of how to colonize someone. If you were to have asked us about how to wage [Guerrilla warfare] we probably wouldn’t be able answer.”
“We” can give many answers for how to colonize someone; but for many of us, it often takes special training, years of education, reconstructive projects, task forces, books upon book of reading, listening through the loud and ever present static of dominant culture, constant vigilance, one’s own liberation, the liberation of others, etc. to learn how to think otherwise.
We are indeed in a close relationship with violence.
Yet, I am still struck by the power of this student’s statement, by the subjugated knowledge that re-presented and grounded Kwok’s challenge for me in a concrete way in the space of my/our classroom. I am grateful for their short, yet deeply felt lesson in subjugated knowledge.
 Kwok Pui-lan, “2011 Presidential Address: Empire and the Study of Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, March 2016, 84 (1), pg. 297.
 Ibid, pg. 286.
 The student gave me permission to use the question and reflect upon it within this blog.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.