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Spivak, politics of pronunciation, and the search for a just democracy

The controversy over Gayatri Spivak’s public rebuke of a young, Dalit scholar may seem like a storm in a teacup, but it has important social and political implications.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the noted postcolonial scholar and global public intellectual, is perhaps best known for her piece, “Can the subaltern speak?,” in which she claims that elite systems of knowledge filter out subaltern (marginalised group) voices so that even when the subaltern does speak, it’s not heard. Now, Spivak’s admonition of a young scholar for mispronouncing African-American sociologist WEB Du Bois’s name at a lecture she recently gave at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi has caused a brouhaha for allegedly silencing the very subaltern voice she claims to valorise. But it’s more complicated than that.

Spivak’s May 21 lecture on Du Bois’s “vision of democracy” was aimed at underlining the norms required for a more just democracy, one that prioritises not individual interests (“my rights”) but the rights of “other people”, especially those of the subaltern. When he was writing, Du Bois had in mind the downtrodden and racialised Blacks of the early 1900s in the United States, but Spivak’s implication was that his concerns might reasonably be extended to all marginalised people today (ie, the poor, gender and sexual minorities, Dalits, the disabled, Palestinians, etc).

Given Du Bois’s own status as a marginalised Black-American scholar of Haitian origins, Spivak’s lecture repeatedly returned to the importance of correctly pronouncing his name: Du Bois himself insisted on the English, not French, pronunciation – “dew-boys”, not “dew-bwah”.

But in the Q&A that followed Spivak’s lecture – a video of which has gone viral –