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.

Sticking points: on the meanings of ‘race’

Our research for this project has in no small part consisted of encounters with sticking points and stickiness of various kinds: methodological, conceptual, political, ethical.

One of those areas in which we keep getting helpfully stuck, as a project team and in the many rich conversations we’ve been having with our research participants, is the vexed terrain of terminology. How to define ideas such as ‘race’, ‘racism’ and ‘whiteness’ across and between terminological cultures so that necessary and difficult conversations about those ideas can begin? The concepts and social formations central to our research have been defined over and again (by activists, artists and researchers) in conflicting ways that stake out positions, declare allegiances, (re)configure power relations and that make certain kinds of thought/action (im)possible.  

The definitions we’ve been thinking through are too numerous to list within this blog post. But here’s one reflection on the problems of defining ‘race’ that has been on our minds lately. Academic and poet Chris Chen includes this Addendum on Terminology in his 2013 article ‘The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality’.

ADDENDUM: ON TERMINOLOGY

“Race” has been variously described as an illusion, a social construction, a cultural identity, a biological fiction but social fact, and an evolving complex of social meanings. Throughout this article, “race” appears in quotation marks in order to avoid attributing independent causal properties to objects defined by ascriptive processes. Simply put, “race” is the consequence and not the cause of racial ascription or racialisation processes which justify historically asymmetrical power relationships through reference to phenotypical characteristics and ancestry: “Substituted for racism, race transforms the act of a subject into an attribute of the object.”5

I have also enclosed “race” in quotation marks in order to suggest three overlapping dimensions of the term: as an index of varieties of material inequality, as a bundle of ideologies and processes which create a racially stratified social order, and as an evolving history of struggle against racism and racial domination — a history which has often risked reifying “race” by revaluing imposed identities, or reifying “racelessness” by affirming liberal fictions of atomistically isolated individuality. The intertwining of racial domination with the class relation holds out the hope of systematically dismantling “race” as an indicator of unequal structural relations of power. “Race” can thus be imagined as an emancipatory category not from the point of view of its affirmation, but through its abolition.

Footnote (5): Barbara J. Fields, ‘Whiteness, racism, and identity’, International Labor and Working Class History 60 (Fall 2001), 48-56.

(emphases in the original)

To read the full essay:

Chris Chen, ‘The Limit Point of Capitalist Equality: Notes Towards an Abolitionist Antiracism’, endnotes 3 (September 2013), https://endnotes.org.uk/issues/3/en/chris-chen-the-limit-point-of-capitalist-equality

workshop

On 15 September 2019 we will host an anti-racist dance practices workshop at Siobhan Davies Studios in London from 10am to 5pm. The day is free and lunch is also provided.

The workshop will explore racism in contemporary dance, and will include activities, discussions and reflections to grapple with complex issues about the role of dance in racism, white supremacy, solidarity and justice.

Further details, including sign-up, information are at:

www.independentdance.co.uk/anti-racist-dance-practices

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)

Ruby Sales – “a spiritual crisis in white America”

Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s brilliant show Séancers (2017) summons the words of several ‘sacred texts’: the work of Black feminist thinkers, artists and activists with whom Olawale Kosoko performs a political-paranormal communion. One such text is a radio interview with theologian and social activist Ruby Sales, who speaks about whiteness in terms of spiritual crisis.

Ruby Sales, 2016:

And we’ve got a — there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning. And I don’t hear — we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology. I want a theology that speaks to Appalachia. I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them, rather than call upon them — the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European-American; that’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.

And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk, if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were.

You can listen to and a read a transcript of the full interview here.

You can follow Jaamil Olawale Kosoko’s work in performance and education here.

Sisters of Resistance, Left of Brown and Jenny Rodriguez on Whiteness, Self-Accountability and Vulnerability

In their incisive piece of writing ‘Is Decolonizing the New Black?‘ the Sisters of Resistance, Left of Brown and Jenny Rodriguez write: “Decolonising has entered consumers’ imaginations, and with it, a new kind of consumer has emerged: one that is politically astute and critical of Whiteness, but also firmly entrenched in conservative market forces that reproduce value through competitive means.”

If as project members we are to imagine ourselves at this new consumer, endevouring to critique the predominant Whiteness of contemporary dance, we need to be really mindful of our potential to be ‘firmly entrenched in conservative market forces’. How do we ensure that we wield our critique of contemporary dance’s Whiteness without perpetuating the market forces that (re)produce the powers that drive the industry?

The piece warns us of the appropriative and cooptive pitfalls of such projects, by providing clear guidance on the ethics of what needs prioritising in our enquires:

Engaging with Whiteness with a sense of responsibility and self-accountability while acknowledging that for centuries people of colour have been denied their role in producing and shaping intellectual ideas and knowledge, even about themselves. […]

Re-narrating institutional histories so that narratives of racism and imperialism are not forgotten and are instead used in ongoing work that looks to reform universities, in ways that significantly make them antiracist, anti-imperialist spaces. […]

Developing, applying and regularly reviewing organizing principles as a way of translating anti-racist and decolonizing ethics into applied and measurable methodologies.  […]

Working against intersectional racist structures so young people of colour can step into positions of power.  […]

Organising within their own institutions to challenge racist practices and processes, including stepping back and giving up privileges, earned or unearned, as well as not continuing to hurt, violate or reduce the participation of people of colour in institutional spaces and processes  […]

Making oneself vulnerable in the act of political struggle with White capitalist patriarchy. Decolonising ethics involve a consistent de-centering of the self as well as encountering Whiteness in structures, arrangements and relationships, where personal desire, intentions and underlying assumptions should be brought under sustained scrutiny.  […]

Embracing solidarity as a radical act of self-effacement, where the Other determines the strength and quality of a relation […]

What an enormous responsibility we have taken on! The question that remains for me key to ask constantly of ourselves is : how vulnerable are we willing to make ourselves in this act of political struggle for the field?

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