two places at once

Another extract from some writing (this time by Vron Ware and Les Back) disguised as a blog post:

Putting his finger directly on the erratic pulse of “white writing,” [Mike Hill] continues: “the presence of whiteness alas within our critical reach creates a certain inevitable awkwardness of distance. Whiteness becomes something we both claim (single out for critique) and avoid (in claiming whiteness for critique, what else can we be, if we happen to be identifiably white?).”

Hill suggests that this conflict, characterized by “the epistemological stickiness and ontological wiggling immanent in whiteness,” might be called a second wave of white critique. By this satisfyingly graphic formulation I think he is trying to represent the problem that many designated “white” writers confess to in their own work: their motivation stems partly from a recognition that their “whiteness” ties them historically into a system of race privilege from which it is hard to escape, but by providing a critique of whiteness, they begin to situate themselves outside that system. Does this mean that they are in two places at once?

— Vron Ware & Les Back, 2002. Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p.29

enlightenment and division

A number of Enlightenment thinkers, including influential German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, defined humanity without really having much of an idea how most of humanity lived or what it looked like. “A universal understanding of human origins was actually created at the time by white men in Europe who only had indirect access to information about other people in the world through the lens of colonialism,” explains Porr. So when they went out into the real world and encountered people who didn’t look like them, who lived in ways they didn’t choose to live, the first question they were forced to ask themselves was: Are they the same as us? The problem was that, because of the narrow parameters they established of what constituted a human being, setting themselves as the benchmark, other cultures were almost guaranteed not to fit. In universalizing humanity by seeing themselves as the paradigm, they had laid the foundations for dividing it.

– Angela Saini. Superior: The Return of Race Science

race and violence

There was a long read in the Guardian recently about fear of migrants in the West: theguardian.com/uk-news/2019/aug/27/immigration-panic-how-the-west-fell-for-manufactured-rage. It got me thinking about anti-black violence more generally and the systems in place for stoking and building this violence. Here’s an extract about Facebook’s role in anti-refugee/black violence:

But the greatest facilitator of race-hatred against refugees isn’t a tabloid; it’s Facebook. Researchers at the University of Warwick recently studied every anti-refugee attack – 3,335, over two years – in Germany. They found that among the strongest predictors of the attacks was whether the attackers are on Facebook. The social network aids the dissemination of rumours, such as that all refugees are welfare cheats or rapists; and, unmediated by gatekeepers or editors, the rumours spread, and ordinary people are roused to violence. Wherever Facebook usage rose to one standard deviation above normal, the researchers found, attacks on refugees increased by 50%. When there were internet outages in areas with high Facebook usage, the attacks dropped significantly.

Obviously this doesn’t directly relate to the way racism functions in contemporary dance, but how our thinking and imaginations are infiltrated by media is profoundly related to the construction of our individual and collective identities in whatever groups or “tribes” we work in and for.

a person of principle and conviction

I’ve been driving people mad recently by constantly sharing ideas from a book called Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen — a book first suggested to me by Colin Poole many years ago. There’s a lot in the book about what lies beneath all of our conversations, but these can be summarised by what the authors describe as three different conversations: 1) the ‘what happened’ conversation about interpretation: “difficult conversations are almost never about getting the facts right. They are about conflicting perceptions, interpretations, and values … They are not about what is true, they are about what is important” (p.10); 2) the ‘feeling’ conversation to do with how each of us feels about what is being discussed: “difficult conversations do not just involve feelings, they are at their very core about feelings” (p.13); and 3) the ‘identity’ conversation to do with who we are and how we see ourselves.

When I think about talking about race I think about difficult conversations — about values, feelings and identities.

Towards the end of the book the authors ask us to consider how we see others with differing opinions about things that are important to us:

Consider this assertion: The more passionate we are about the issues that matter most to us, the more likely we are to have a cartoonish view of those who see things differently. That statement may infuriate you. You may find yourself chafing against such a ridiculous generalization. But flip it around: When others think your view is self-interested or shallow, base, and maybe even evil, do you think they see you clearly? Is what they’ve heard and read an accurate portrayal of what you see and feel? No. They’ve turned you into a cartoon they can dismiss without having to confront the fact that you care as much as they do, that you are a person of principle and conviction, that you’re working hard to do what’s right in the face of the very same human limitations and frailties we all confront.
And they are too.

— Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S., 2003. Difficult Conversations, How to Discuss what Matters Most. Penguin Books, New York, pp.243-44

the action of language

Toni Morrison died last Monday. She once described the english language as “at once rich and deeply racist”. She also discussed the way language acts more than just represents in her Nobel Lecture after she won The Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993:

The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek – it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.

We in academia have a responsibility to understand the work and actions of the language we are using, and to wield it in a way that does more than represent ideas.

Update 13 August 2019:

A reader suggested that “you guys should say on your blog that one really has to read/ listen to the whole thing to really get it. It offers so much to think about.”

So, here I am suggesting that you read/listen to the whole thing.

allyship

There’s a blog post over at africascountry by Arvin Alaigh called Black Skin, white ally in which Alaigh discusses the “complicated relationship” between Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Alaigh uses this history to think through the traps and possibilities of allyship today. Here are the last four paragraphs:

What does allyship look like today? In its popular usage in left-activist circles, it primarily comprises the performative, self-congratulatory, curated, and largely commodified gestures of actors who ostensibly hope to uplift marginalized communities. With allyship comes a certain social currency, which at a given moment, may happen to be in vogue (consider the infamous ‘safety pin’ as a prototypical example of allyship in this sense)—its usage in such circles usually engenders some degree of repulsion.

Typically, those who would self-identify as allies to racial justice would push for more diverse representation on corporate boards, in lieu of any meaningful restructuring of Black political economy. They would protest the construction of a border wall with Mexico, while turning a blind eye to the unlawful detention of immigrants that has been carried out for decades. They protest the over-policing of Black communities, but don’t challenge the very premises of a carceral system that cages millions of people every day.

In his preface of Wretched, Sartre writes, “Stuffed with wealth, Europe granted humanity de jure to all its inhabitants: for us, a man means an accomplice, for we have all profited from colonial exploitation.” Proper allyship necessitates the recognition and ownership of these inconvenient realities. Then, it requires a commitment to a course of action beyond the milquetoast, and past the conciliatory: it must seek the annihilation of these structures.

For all of his shortcomings and bumbling mishaps, Sartre indisputably claimed this colonial truth, and remained genuinely committed to upending the power structures that oppressed, pillaged and plundered peoples across the Global South—his relationship with Fanon provides a fascinating case study of the contours of allyship and, furthermore, a model to salvage allyship from its present, denigrated condition.

— Alvin Alaigh

understanding and dependence

You might have noticed that we cite people of colour on this blog. This is because citation politics matter. Sara Ahmed describes citation “as a rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies“.

But I’m going to make an exception in this post because I’ve been thinking about what is at stake for white people like me in anti-racist thinking and practises. Here’s the quote:

It is difficult to get white people to understand racism when their salaries depend upon them not understanding it.

OK, so that’s not quite what Upton Sinclair wrote in 1934 but my corruption of his idea points to two things that are important: 1) racism and white supremacy are about money and power; 2) white people like me do not really want to understand racism because to understand it would feel like a terrible risk to our hegemonic status.


This is what Sinclair actually wrote in his book I, Candidate for Governor (1934):

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

naming black and white

In the opening notes of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility she talks about identity politics and how “all progress we have made in the realm of civil rights has been accomplished through identity politics”. She then uses the example of women’s suffrage to make it very clear that we need to name who has access and who does not:

Take women’s suffrage. If being a woman denies you the right to vote, you ipso facto cannot grant it to yourself. And you certainly cannot vote for your right to vote. If men control all the mechanisms that exclude women from voting as well as the mechanisms that can reverse that exclusion, women must call on men for justice. You could not have had a conversation about women’s right to vote and men’s need to grant it without naming women and men. Not naming the groups that face barriers only serves those who already have access; the assumption is that the access enjoyed by the controlling group is universal. For example, although we are taught that women were granted suffrage in 1920, we ignore the fact that it was white women who received full access or that it was white men who granted it. Not until the 1960s, through the Voting Rights Act, were all women—regardless of race—granted full access to suffrage. Naming who has access and who doesn’t guides our efforts in challenging injustice.

— Robin DiAngelo

The politics of our identities is pivotal in the anti-racist fight for justice.

well-meaning intentions

In the book chapter ‘Beware the Northern Fox: Keeping a Focus on Systematic Racism Post Trump and Brexit’, Kehinde Andrews discusses some of Malcolm X’s thinking:

[X] was also vehemently opposed to seeking white allies for Black movements. One of the reasons he was so critical of the March on Washington was because he questioned ‘who ever heard of angry revolutionists swinging their bare feet together with their oppressor in lily-pad park pools, with gospels and guitars and ‘I Have a Dream’ speeches?’. Malcolm did not distinguish between well-meaning and racist white people. He indicted whiteness as a system that all of those who benefit from it are part of, well-meaning intentions or not.

— Kehinde Andrews

I’m white. My anti-racist intentions are well-meaning. I have benefited from systemic racism throughout my life. I would appear to be the non-American version of a “northern fox”.

Full citation: Andrews, K., 2018. ‘Beware the Northern Fox: Keeping a Focus on Systematic Racism Post Trump and Brexit’, in: Johnson, A., Joseph-Salisbury, R., Kamunge, B. (Eds.), The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship In Times Of Explicit Racial Violence. Zed Books, London, Chapter 11 (e-book, no page number)

mute institutional racism

In 2008 Angela Davis presented the Vice Chancellor’s Oration on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. The speech was called Recognizing Racism in the Era of Neoliberalism (published at https://truthout.org/articles/recognizing-racism-in-the-era-of-neoliberalism), and is about the prison-industrial complex as an institution of racism. As part of her thinking she makes a case that “individual eruptions of racism” are “connected to the persistence and further entrenchment of institutional and structural racism that hides behind the curtain of neoliberalism.” Davis says that racist incidents (and she uses the example of how some golf journalists suggested that Tiger Woods was so good that his competitors would have to “lynch him in a back alley”) are loudly “treated as individual and private irregularities” whereas the “contemporary persistence of racisms within institutions and other social structures” are “mute”.

Here are some excerpts:

The path toward the complete elimination of racism is represented in the neoliberalist discourse of “color-blindness” and the assertion that equality can only be achieved when the law, as well as individual subjects, become blind to race. This approach, however, fails to apprehend the material and ideological work that race continues to do.

While laws have had the effect of privatizing racist attitudes and eliminating the explicitly racist practices of institutions, these laws are unable to apprehend the deep structural life of racism and therefore allow it to continue to thrive.

This invisible work of racism not only influences the life chances of millions of people, it helps to nourish a psychic reservoir of racism that often erupts through the utterances and actions of individuals, as in the cases previously mentioned. The frequent retort made by such individuals who are caught in the act—”I’m not a racist. I don’t even know where that came from”—can only be answered if we are able to recognize this deep structural life of racism.

— Angela Davis, 2008