Why we need to decolonise and democratise our imaginations.
> Will Bull, Co-Founder of And Beyond
In the eyes of a Capitalist society, where the quantifiable reigns supreme, imagination is often considered twee or childish — pillow fortresses and lava floors. Yet in reality, our collective imagination is one of the most powerful and transformative social forces there is. Our cultures, customs, and traditions, our laws and morality, and—irony notwithstanding—our economic systems are all figments of our collective imagination. They would all cease to exist if we stopped agreeing to believe in them.
Yet, while our imaginations play a fundamental role in shaping our reality, they are enmeshed in current notions of status quo. They do not, and could not, exist in isolation from our own racialised, binary views of the word. Even our most fanciful, other-worldly conjurings carry the baggage of reality — social “norms” written into history and culture that have been absorbed into the psyche of their imaginative creator. Claudia Rankine refers to this as the ‘racial imaginary’.
I write this from the epicentre of the British Empire, in a society that has emerged from, and continues to remain the realm of, the ‘White Male Imagination’ (WMI): a way of perceiving and interpreting the world; a pervasive frame of reference that exists as a lasting legacy of colonialism. It is the toxic imagination of a dominant few, now mainstream. Over centuries, our collective imagination has been engineered to centre Whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, able-bodied, upper and middle classes. This is the reference point from which everybody is categorised and judged. Those who do not meet this description are considered deviant or inferior, or are fetishised.
The true cost of an imagination that centres and exalts Whiteness etc. is a society that continues to marginalise everyone else. Every single facet of society is inbuilt with biases that inherently favour this imaginary ‘default’ and those most proximal, and cause untold physical and psychological harm to the ‘other’. The further from this ‘default’, the more intersections a person holds, the more compounded the oppression. The needs and dreams of the deviant ‘other’ are only ever a second consideration, if at all.
The WMI is reinforced through consistent exposure to a society built in its image; and so it continues to dominate; and so society continues to reflect it. The two are inseparably linked. Our collective imagination both shapes and is shaped by reality. We desperately need an intervention.
At the heart of this lies positionality and privilege.
Or rather, unacknowledged privilege. It provides a veneer of invisibility both to and from the system of oppression it is, by its very existence, related to. It stifles the imagination. Without a critical awareness of the prejudice and discrimination faced at the margins — or the agency and opportunity awarded for proximity to the ‘default’ — there is no need to imagine a society any different. Privilege, it would seem, is the luxury of being content with the status quo.
A large part of this problem can be attributed to our education system, which has the greatest early influence on our imaginations but has remained largely unchanged since colonialism. Educational institutions introduce and cement the beliefs, schemas, preferences, and values that form the landscape of the WMI, ensuring unchallenged acceptance of the current hegemony. The curricula remains Eurocentric, painting an incomplete picture of colonial history and omitting the voices that would cast doubt on the intellectual hierarchy necessary for the justification of oppression and exploitation. It robs the imagination of possibility, and nonsensical arguments like the Capitalist dogma of ‘There Is No Alternative’ both highlight and fuel this. With this ‘educated’ lens, inequality is so normalised that solutions often only focus on alleviating the symptoms, interventions of support, rather than looking at the underlying causes of the inequality.
With a lack of plurality ultimately comes a lack of empathy.
As the great Chinua Achebe said: “Privilege, you see, is one of the great adversaries of the imagination; it spreads a thick layer of adipose tissue over our sensitivity”. As well as shaping our reality, imagination allows us to extend our vision beyond our own lived experiences; to comprehend, feel, and appreciate the perspective of another. But with privilege acting as a cocoon, shielding from the reality of life at the margins, those considered ‘default’ struggle to relate to the lives of the marginalised, and, often, will outright deny their experience altogether — for to acknowledge it, with any level of sincerity, would first come the seemingly much harder task of admitting to themselves their own privileges.
At best, stunted empathy results in indifference to injustice; at worst, it is the cause of injustice itself. Under the delusion of the WMI, the imaginary ‘default’ live, consciously or unconsciously, with an internalised sense of superiority, with which comes an assumed right to reimagine the lives of others. “Our lives have been colonised by the White imagination… We are like pawns in the White imagination.” said Natasha Marin. When a Black person is imprisoned, murdered, or even living in Buckingham Palace, their experience is either justified or scrutinised in line with the imaginary character of Blackness that lives within the WMI. These stereotypes, imaginary threats, and double standards that live unchallenged in the WMI, haunt the lives of the ‘other’.
And, as the ‘other’, we too can end up internalising the WMI and these false narratives about ourselves.
Empathy is the ability to understand the perspective of another, assimilation is the adoption of that perspective as your own; and a special kind of trauma awaits when the adopted perspective causes you to lose empathy for yourself. While discussing the policing of communities at a workshop we ran last year, a 13 year old Black student told me that he believed he deserved to be stopped and searched more than his White friends because “Black people are naturally more prone to crime”. It is a sentence that immediately silences you, unsure of how to channel the deep sadness and anger now stirring within.
Still, this process was integral to the success of the colonial strategy — asserting control over the conquered by making them believe in their supposed inferiority, so much so that the oppression becomes self-perpetuating; a practice that evidently continues today. As Aya de Leon said: “To truly dominate someone is not only to subjugate them, but to get them to agree that the subjugation is right, true, and justified”. Frantz Fanon called this the ‘epidermalization of inferiority’. Without counter-narratives, these beliefs have an undeniable impact on one’s mental and spiritual well-being, identity, self-esteem, and subsequent life decisions.
These crises of identity, the dissonance and trauma one feels living against the pernicious standards of ‘normal’ set by the WMI, create the foundations on which capitalism is built, and which society works to reinforce. Take, for example, nearly any newsagent magazine stand: you’ll find an entire row of women being body-shamed sitting directly below another row of women being hyper-sexualised. There are fine margins of error for what is acceptable, or ‘passing’, according to the WMI, with objectification and dehumanisation waiting on either side. (And this is, of course, if your community is represented at all.) The impact of these benchmarks on the mental health of society is as obvious as the profit that industries make from upholding them.
We desperately need different ways of being and doing, yet the world is made in the image of the dreams of a few. Our society is built on fundamental principles of inequality, and the WMI ensures its continued dominance by rigging the game— creating entanglements of socio-economic barriers that repress new voices, new ideas, from ever rising high enough to be heard. Herein lies our second challenge:
Not only are our imaginations distorted by privilege, the ability to project into the future, to transcend one’s reality, is a privilege in itself.
Workshopping with students, at my own secondary school, the privilege of imagination revealed itself with impudence. Most groups, who had tasked themselves with solving issues like climate change or homelessness, had no trouble speculating new futures, whereas a group of Black students, who ‘chose’ to address gang culture, were unable to imagine a world that could be any different, that their lives could be any different. The challenges they faced were much closer to home, and they struggled to imagine even beyond the bus journey home, paralysed by the fear of running into the wrong people. They had come from neighbourhoods where knife crime and gang culture is a daily reality, and, for them, this was just how it was and how it was going to be. Fear left no room for imagination— cast aside as a silly indulgence.
The sad truth being: if your day-to-day reality does not allow you room to dream, say your mind is preoccupied with avoiding gangs on the way home from school or with how you’re going to feed the kids and pay rent this month, then the future is just something that happens to you. It remains a canvas for those that have the capacity to think about it.
As individuals, our imaginations are one of the most powerful tools we possess; they are our futures made present. The more clearly we can envision the reality we want for ourselves, the more doggedly we will chase it, and the more gracefully we will ride any setbacks. But the further you find yourself down the ladder, the harder it is to imagine yourself any further up it; the rungs become more slippery as you descend. It is an act of bravery and conviction to constantly reimagine yourself in the face of systems and structures that seem determined to hold you down, forcing you to prove your sanity, legitimacy, and worth, all the while diminishing your capacity to imagine at all.
It is important however, that efforts do not focus solely on better representation and interventions to raise aspirations — despite a strong argument for both. Not only do the few who have ‘made it’ often then find themselves in environments that are hostile and limited, it puts pressure and accountability on the individual and pays little to no emphasis on the discriminatory policies and practices that make them necessary in the first place — biases that make the “you need to work ten times harder than your white/male counterparts” speech a cliché. Downward mobility is integral to upward mobility, but when the privileged elite are able to subvert the rules, a meritocratic society exists only as a myth to keep everyone playing the game.
The goal is not simply to raise aspirations, to dream of success within the current and unjust system; it is to envisage and realise our success outside of it, beyond it; as individuals, but also, more crucially, as a collective. Our true power lies, as it has always done, within our collective imagination, and so decolonising and democratising our imaginations is an act no less essential than it is revolutionary. As Robin D.G. Kelley said: “Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down”.
Unbound and standing defiantly in opposition to the WMI and its systems of oppression is the ‘radical imagination’.
The radical imagination is a way of looking at the world that breaks free of the paradigms that have, for centuries, curtailed the spiritual evolution of humanity. It is about dismantling the default; a space for liberation, for healing and joy. As Adrienne Maree Brown describes it: “Our radical imagination is a tool for decolonization, for reclaiming our right to shape our lived reality”.
Max Haiven and Alex Khasnabish state that “the radical imagination emerges from the conflicts and tensions germane to the experience of a highly unequal world”, and “often emerges most brilliantly from those who encounter the greatest or most acute oppression and exploitation”. Simply, the less sheltered by privilege — the more oppression faced, fought, and overcome — the broader and more nuanced one’s perspective becomes, and with that, the more critical the thinking and radical the ideas. Truly, there is magic at the margins, and as Eddie Ndopu said: “centering the imagination of the marginalised is key to saving society from itself”. Yet, while imagination is so acutely tied to the issue of privilege—both its psychological and structural impacts — our greatest challenge remains: how?
And at the risk of a dissatisfying ending, rather than tying these complexities together with a wholesome, actionable conclusion, instead I finish with more questions—as I believe it’s only through collectively living the questions that we can begin to unlock the answers.
How can we democratise the art of dreaming and imagination for all of society?
How can we best create space, within and outside of existing institutions, to cultivate the collective radical imagination? What practices nurture and sustain it?
How can we measure imagination and track progress? Should we even be attempting to measure imagination?
How can we bridge communities of differing levels of privilege to foster a more collective imagination?
And, how can we successfully harness our collective imagination to make society a more just, equitable, and joyous place?
This essay is part of our ongoing work exploring the radical imagination and how we can democratise dreaming. If you have any thoughts or ideas on the above, or want to get involved, it would be great to connect.