The Problem with “Innocent” Ignorance: Racism, Whiteness & the Working Class

One of the more interesting debates that has come out of Trump winning the US presidency has been about the role of the white working class in perpetuating racism. Although the white working class did not constitute the majority of white votes Trump received, they have been scapegoated by some as being the reason for why Trump won. This scapegoating, I believe, is wrong, particularly since in this particular case most of Trump’s support came from the white middle class. A class that has increasingly been confronted with the neoliberal reality of the “American Dream” and who have lost more and more as they have become deeply embroiled in a system of debt, credit, and precariousness. However, this class can’t only be analysed in pure class terms, since it is precisely the white middle class that voted for Trump in large numbers. Part of the story is also a backlash to Obama – the first Black president – as well as to the increasing focus on racism in public debates following the excruciatingly high rates at which Black men and women are being killed and imprisoned. As Christina Sharpe has argued in her new book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being” the Atlantic slave trade is a living, breathing part of the United States; it is not the past nor a historical legacy; it is what has formed the US today; Black people are not left out of the system; Black exclusion is the system.

Despite all of this, I have seen a lot of people engage in the discourse of humanising the white working class American who voted for Trump (even if they are not in the majority). We have heard of many stories from white working class America, especially the Rust Belt: men and women who have been forgotten by their politicians, who suffer great economic difficulty, and who the system has failed. They voted for Trump because they wanted change; it is that simple. They did not vote for Trump because they are racist, or sexist, or want a white America. It was a protest vote, as simple as that.

Now obviously this is a very problematic reality. As some have pointed out, it shows the power the white working class still as due to its whiteness: the power to not care about issues of race; to still vote someone who will institute racist policies simply because he aligned with their views on other issues. In other words, Trump’s racism was not a deal-breaker for these voters because his racist policies – a matter of life and death for millions of Americans – did not affect them directly.

Obviously there is sympathy to be had with the white working class. The US is a settler colony founded on capitalism. It has always been brutal to anyone outside of a small elite who amass massive profits off of the exploitation of the rest. For many different reasons, the US ruling class has been able to create an ideology strong enough to maintain its hegemony for centuries: this ideology includes ideas about the American Dream, about working hard till you make it, about material wealth being the result of pure hard work, and so on. We all know it since it’s been exported everywhere. Coming to terms with the reality that this ideology is precisely that – an ideology – has been shattering for working classes across the West, who found this out a long time ago. In fact it’s been the middle classes that have been extremely slow to catch on. And so that is where sympathy lies: with the exploitation of workers by capital.

Now when you ask these people who engage in the discourse of understanding white workers as angry at the system, as opposed to racist, how the connection between the system and racism hasn’t yet been made, they often turn to the age-old response: white ignorance, or, more aptly I would say, white innocence. These voters voted for Trump for economic reasons, and so they cannot be called racist, even if Trump himself is racist and has a racist platform. They voted in their economic interests. But those interests hurt other people. Well, maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they are ignorant. I’ve heard this from people speaking about white working and middle class support for the far right in Europe as well: people are seeing their lives changing, everything is being taken away from them, and so they vote for parties who talk about change. They may be ignorant and so they blame immigrants, but what they *really* mean is that they want economic security.

However, where I think this discourse needs to go is to ask what role this ignorance, or white innocence, plays in perpetuating US imperialism inside and outside of the US, and what role this ignorance, or innocence, has played in allowing Europe to expand its empires everywhere. If, until now, the white working and middle classes have not realized the connections between capitalism and racism, then it is not a matter of innocent ignorance – it is a matter of willful ignorance. European and US capital remains unscathed; the blame has so easily fallen on people of colour and immigrants that they have not even had to justify themselves. When I found out that members of my Dutch family voted for right-wing extremist Geert Wilders, I found myself shocked. Even though they knew us? Even though we had grown up together? Why? Because they could see economic cuts being made around them; they could see that they would not live the life their parents had lived. Things were being taken away from them. Yes, I agree. But by who? Who is cutting the European welfare state? Not the people you think. But how can we excuse this type of innocent ignorance? How can we make excuses for it when we know the very real consequences it has?

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Panther Party developed an entire program that showed how US capitalism is racialized – the two cannot be separated. Before them, Black scholars and activists had made this same connection. The slave trade is emblematic of this coming together of capital and race; it could not have happened without the development of both of these systems. The spread of capital needed racism; the spread of racism needed capitalism. And so the Black Panthers realized something that still rings true: liberation meant that both had to go. The Black Panthers have been criticized for not reaching out to the white working class at the time, and for instead organizing along racial lines. Not only is this historically inaccurate, but it puts the blame on the Panthers for another instance of white innocence/ignorance. Now obviously the US state and ruling class played a big role in brutally crushing the US working class, the unions, the Left, as well as any collaborations between the white working class and the non-white working class. They knew that once that alliance was made, there would be a real threat to US capitalism, and no one has shown this better than Howard Zinn in “A People’s History of the United States.”

The point of this post is not to say that white people should be more aware, or to suggest that it is all about race and not about capitalism. In fact the Black Panthers clearly articulated the dangers of the rising Black middle class and how they had been co-opted by the US ruling class. This is something we see across the postcolonial world as well, and something Fanon talked about: the native class that imitates the Western elites. This class gets its power precisely from its class position: it is the class that opens up markets for transnational capital after colonial rule could no longer play that role. The point instead is to point at where the fissures between race and capital lie, and to show that we cannot understand the decision by the white working and middle classes today to vote based on their own economic interests as separate from a long history of them ignoring how their interests depend on the exploitation of others.

It is this white silence, and the history of this white silence, that is important not to excuse. Yes, the white working class and the white middle class are suffering, in both the US and Europe. Yes, neoliberalism has affected them greatly, and yes, they will not live the lives they thought they would. But that does not detract from the fact that in the hierarchy of these countries, they are still  – by virtue of their race – above many others. What Fanon has called the zone of being. Their innocent misunderstanding of how this zone is dependent on the zone of non-being has historically caused immense suffering and destruction. Their ignorance of how their position is dependent on the exploitation of others has allowed European and US imperialism to spread without much resistance. They are concerned with their lives, as we are all taught to be, like good individualistic subjects. They work to make a living, and they vote based on their economic interests. The point is that, not everyone has that privilege.

Historically there have been instances of massive solidarity with non-white struggles on the part of the white working class. Unions have often looked at racism and sexism and how they interact with class. There are enough historical precedents for us not to accept the excuse of white innocence today, and for us not to engage in the discourse of understanding the white working class as acting on economic motivations alone because they still do not see – or do not want to see – the ways in which these are tied to racism and imperialism. My Dutch family member who voted for Wilders is someone I can empathise with from an economic point of view; but her actions have broader consequences. She is able to ignore the effects of her actions and her views, just as I’m sure Dutch people – working class or not – decades ago were able to do when the Netherlands brutally colonised other countries. But the question is: who has the privilege of being ignorant? And who pays the price?

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* The idea of white innocence comes from Gloria Wekker’s book on the Netherlands, in which she explores a central paradox of Dutch culture: the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia.

The reproduction of racialized systems of social control

Over the past few days I’ve been reading two sets of texts and I couldn’t help but notice the striking similarity between them. The first text is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and the second set of texts are articles on human rights and democracy as the new standards of measuring how civilized countries are.

In her book Alexander argues that the prison industrial complex is basically a transformed version of the Jim Crow system. Her main point is that following the civil rights movement and the collapse of Jim Crow, white supremacy had to find a new way to maintain racial inequality. This was done through two related processes: the War on Drugs and the expansion of the prison system. In other words, white supremacy persisted in a different form, and is perhaps even more dangerous because it is not overt anymore. No one is speaking about race the way they did during Jim Crow; but the systemic effects are the same.

An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were (1).

Around the same time, I began reading articles on the shift in global politics in the 40s and 50s where a “new international society” was created. This meant that what constituted civilized or barbaric countries was no longer explicitly stated along racial or cultural lines, but instead was made dependent on new markers, such as human rights and democracy. So just at the moment when it seemed like the international system was opening up and that any country could be an equal member, and just when decolonization was happening and states were no longer using the language of civilized vs. barbaric, an entire new system of subjugation was being introduced. This new system still ranked countries and still reproduced a civilizational hierarchy, but instead relied on different standards: human rights, liberalism, democracy, gender equality. So just as Michelle Alexander points out in the US post-Jim Crow, a new way of speaking about civilization was emerging, but the systemic effects are exactly the same.

As Buzan (2014, 588) notes:

Because the doctrine of human rights sets benchmarks against which all can be assessed, it naturally generates a performance hierarchy among states. That tendency is endlessly reproduced as the standards of human rights themselves evolve. So as the human rights issue becomes more influential within international society, it probably cannot avoid resurrecting something like the ‘standard of civilisation’.

Development and aid are naturally part of this new system. “The colonial obligation of the metropolitan powers to bring the natives up to a European ‘standard of civilisation’ morphed into an obligation on the part of the rich world to assist in the development of the ‘third world’ or ‘less developed countries’.”

The key point in both set of texts is that nobody is talking about race anymore (except those who oppose these new systems). As Michelle Alexander says, “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind” (1). This can be extended to the ways in which the development industry or human rights discourse do not explicitly speak of race, and yet the norms they employ clearly refer to a civilizational hierarchy which, following John Hobson, is clearly a racialized one. Another similarity between these two cases is the formative place of anti-blackness within both systems. In the US, it is anti-blackness that underlies slavery, Jim Crow, and now the prison industrial complex, just as globally, the racist system underpinning notions of development, democracy and human rights is intricately tied to anti-blackness as well as other forms of racism such as Orientalism.

What this shows is why we should be apprehensive when certain trends, concepts of systems are presented as “over” or “dead.” As an ideology that has structured the world for centuries, it is unlikely that white supremacy or Eurocentrism will disappear without attempting to morph or transform itself. As Alexander shows, in the US it has successfully continued the same system in place during slavery and Jim Crow, except it has relies on implicit and covert racialized language and narratives. For example, the idea that a Black man can be president of the US is used as a rhetorical tool that deflects attention away from the fact that most Black men can’t become president of the US. And, as Alexander says, white supremacy doesn’t mean that there can’t be exceptions to the rule. Similarly, the new international regime of neoliberal capitalism relies on new markers of civilization that relegate countries of the Global South to the category “underdeveloped.” And it would be a mistake to not see this as related to white supremacy and race.

All of this is not to say that we should not be nuanced in the way we speak about white supremacy, and it is also not to say that other groups do not have agency or power. But often when we are called on to be “nuanced” it is a call to stop complaining about hegemonic systems and instead accept that we are somehow all equally responsible for what is happening. We can be nuanced about white supremacy in terms of pointing out its variations, the ways in which it differs according to context, and the ways in which it can be fought. But this nuance should not include accepting that white supremacy is no longer hegemonic, or accepting that groups oppressed by white supremacy hold some kind of responsibility for what has happened to them. While it is true that there is agency everywhere, this agency is not equal, because people are not equal, and it would be naive to pretend otherwise.

 As Alexander writes, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” However as long as the narrative continues to be one of separation and elimination – i.e. racism as something that is in the past and no longer exists – as opposed to continuity and reproduction, it will become increasingly difficult to fight against white supremacy in all of its formations. Moreover, as long as we continue to speak of racism as something some people do (often accidentally), we continue to mask the systemic and institutionalized nature of racism. White supremacy is a system of racialized social control that continues to structure the globe today just as it has for the past few centuries.

Reactionary feminism and the need to be “modern”

‘Modernity’ is one of those words that is often thrown around and rarely defined. What is modernity? More importantly, who decides what is modern and what is not? While the answers to those questions are complex, a point that we can all agree on is that claims of being modern are often made using women, and more particularly, the bodies and values of women. This has especially been the case in relation to women of colour, women who belong to communities and nations that are taken for granted as un-modern. Discussions over women from these communities often revolve around their lack of emancipation, freedom, or worth—all traits associated with modernity. These kinds of discussions therefore frame some women as modern and others as “un-modern” or yet-to-become-modern.

Unfortunately, this need to appear modern or represent oneself (and therefore one’s entire nation) as modern has been internalized by many within these communities that have been designated as un-modern. I can’t help but be reminded of a comment by Nadia Fadil who pointed out how men in Egypt in the 1920s and 30s would show how modern and enlightened they were by proclaiming that women should have more rights. If the question is how compatible Egyptians are with modernity, the answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and “culture”) treat women. Within this context, the act of unveiling, for example, becomes a marker of progressiveness: men who encourage their wives to unveil are seen as closer to European norms and values and therefore closer to a thing called modernity.

This kind of response can only be termed reactionary: it is an attempt to include oneself (and one’s community or nation) within the folds of a project (in this case modernity) through representing specific aspects of one’s identity in specific ways. In this instance, women are being represented in a very specific way: as in need of becoming modern. Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices. These practices have already been set by “modernity” and are not open to debate. What is additionally problematic is that much of Western feminism has also adopted these practices as signifiers of women’s liberation.

This, in turn, has led to much of the rhetoric coming from civil society and feminist organizations within Egypt become reactionary. The narratives tend to focus on proving either that Egyptian women are lagging behind women in other parts of the world and thus need to be modernized (through development organizations or ‘cultural’ changes), or that Egyptian women are “modern.” What are never questioned are the categories that are used in deciding what is modern. More importantly, why the need to assert oneself (and by logical extension one’s entire culture) as “modern” when modern clearly means a prescribed set of characteristics that have historical roots outside of Egypt?

Within development these processes are especially clear. Lila abu Lughod’s critique of the Arab Human Development Report delineates just how certain “targets” are set for Arab women which reproduce certain ideas of progress and modernity.* Specifically, the use of the “human rights” discourse privileges individuality and autonomy above other modes of social organization. Setting aside the fact that reports such as these play into the common narrative of the backwardness of Arab women as compared to women in the West, there are numerous problems with reports such as these. One of the main problems is that the reason given for so many of the problems facing women in the Arab world is a mix between “Arab” and “Islamic” culture. Rather than economic exploitation, autocracy or unequal positioning within the global political economic system, the vague term “culture” becomes the go-to explanation. As abu Lughod writes, “this contributes strongly to civilizational discourse by attributing a significant role to Arab and Islamic culture in its diagnosis of gender inequality.” The focus on culture ignores other systemic problems and creates “Others” that are traditional (as opposed to modern).

The near-obsession with education is another clear marker of modernity, and is infused deeply within development discourse. Education for girls is seen as the main barrier to their emancipation. Not only does this assume that standardized education is the only form of knowledge that is worthy, it is also a classist narrative employed by elites who see it as their duty to save the ignorant masses. One sentence on Bedouin girls read: “they are unable to read or write and thus express themselves—and have never heard of their human rights. This erodes their very human status.” Employment is another major focus of the report, implying that women’s employment (after their education) is the main path to emancipation. This not only ignores the fact that integration within the capitalist world economy is not automatically a positive thing, but also ignores the multiplicities of power and privileges involved in the employment market. As abu Lughod points out, employment is not by its nature liberating. It must be of a certain quality to provide economic independence.

The focus on individuality is another concession to the project of modernity and its liberal underpinnings. Women are advised to “live their own lives” and reject interference from outside. One could ask whether individualism is the highest moral state, and how this excludes other forms of social organization. Feminist work has shown that individualized women are not automatically better off than women that are more tied to their families and communities. Moreover, these families and communities are not always seen as a “burden” for Egyptian women—rather this is an assumption made on the part of Western development practitioners, feminists, and others.

This report is a clear example of the reactionary way in which women’s “rights” are approached by many in civil society in the Middle East. The implicit undertone is one of liberalism, which poses specific narratives as central to becoming modern, among these education, employment and individuality. Thus civil society aims to show how Egyptian women either fit or don’t fit into these narratives—they are either modern or un-modern depending on these already-prescribed measurements. Rather than organic attempts to understand processes that are happening on the ground on their own terms, these narratives are imposed and in turn construct realities that were not there before. This kind of epistemic violence is rarely spoken of. As long as much of feminist work continues to be reactionary in a misguided attempt to be “modern” or on-the-way-to-“modernity,” it will be difficult to break away from the assumptions underpinning the project of modernity and question why we need to be modern anyway.

* Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Dialects of women’s empowerment: The international circuitry of the Arab Human Development Report 2005.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 41.01 (2009): 83-103.

Women, the Arab Revolutions, and Dabashi

A few days ago I began reading Hamid Dabashi’s new book: The Arab Spring: The End of Postcolonialism. Dabashi essentially proposes a new paradigm of understanding geopolitics today, namely that the colonial/postcolonial ideologies have run their course, and that the Arab Uprisings were a new way of understanding the world. In the last part of the book, he speaks a bit about gender and the uprisings.

He begins by reminding us of the image of Arab women before the uprisings: passive, docile, incarcerated inside a repressive religion, denied a public presence: “they were invariably portrayed in cages, desperately peering out through the bars – and this by women’s studies scholars and publishers and the publishers of fake memoirs of Arab princes and honour killings alike” (p. 183). He goes on to say:

Even when they were coming out in their millions in Iran to participate in public rallies, there were still some among the Arab, Iranian and North American ‘left’ who ridiculed their dresses, sunglasses or scarves – not having an inkling that their sisters were about to join them from one end of the Arab and Muslim world to the other (p. 183).

Now consider the pictures of these women defying the odds, domestic and foreign, defying tyranny, homegrown and imposed; look at them closely. Half of them would be denied the dignity of choosing their own clothes from one end of Europe to the other – particularly those who choose the veil in France, Germany or the Netherlands, upsetting the racist sensibilities of European mass murderers like Anders Breivik. These women would be denied full citizenship in Europe and yet they are at the forefront of a world-historic succession of revolutions in the Arab and Muslim world. That alone should tell us where the world is today (p. 183).

At the time of the Egyptian revolution, I was in the process of doing my second MA, and instantly thought of doing it on “women and the revolution” (how naive I was). Following the revolution in the media made it seem as though gender was THE defining issue. Channel after channel, article after article asked “where are the women?” This question continuously confused me, since the pictures, videos, live-streams and tweets repeatedly and clearly showed that there were women everywhere: from the front lines to the make-shift hospitals; from the activists to the organizers. This did not seem like a gendered revolution in the sense of men being in public while the women stayed at home (it’s amazing how durable this orientalist clichés are).

I went to Cairo for several months to do my fieldwork and, of course, every single protester I interviewed had no idea why I was asking questions about gender. “Of course women were part of the revolution” was pretty much the answer I got every single time. When I would ask if they were surprised that women participated, I would again get strange looks. “Why would that be surprising?” was the standard response. This was a wake-up call for me, as I realized the extent to which I had internalized western media representations of the Arab uprisings. To the people I know in Cairo, it was not at all shocking to see women there – they had expected that. It was more shocking for them to see different social classes. Yet this wasn’t the picture I got living in Holland and watching the revolutions unfold on multiple media platforms.

Dabashi continues:

These women did not appear out of nowhere. That ‘the war on terror,’ predicated on a whole history of Orietalism, had manufactured a docile image of Arab and Muslim women, waiting to be ‘liberated’ by the US army, the way they were liberated in Afghanistan and Iraq, was not their problem. This was the treachery of a propaganda machine fed by native informers and career oppurtunists. Arabs and Muslims were now risking their lives for their collective liberties in a manner that the world (awash with Islamophobic and Orientalist nonsense) was unprepared to witness (p. 185).

My question is the following: since this is not the first time that Arab and Muslim women have participated in social movements, why did Dabashi expect the Arab uprisings to change the Orientalist and Islamophobic images of Arab and Muslim women all over the globe? He almost seems to be suggesting that the uprisings changed these views of Arab and Muslim women; but did they?

Dabashi does later on clarify that Arab and Muslim women did not suddenly become active during the uprisings:

We should not disregard the reality that successive generations of women’s rights pioneers, social historians, imaginative theorists, community organizers, public educators, political activists, revolutionary leaders, poets, filmmakers and artists have paved the way for their daughters in Tahrir and Azadi Square. Generation after generation – in both colonial and postcolonial eras- women have entered the public space and changed it; in so doing assigned gender roles have been consistently challenged.

This is an extremely important (and refreshing) point. Arab and Muslim women didn’t suddenly come out of nowhere, just as the revolutions didn’t suddenly come out of nowhere. Both were the result of accumulating and built-up discourses and actions within Arab societies that eventually allowed for the high level of participation that was seen on the part of women.

Linking the role of women in these uprisings to previous activism and feminist organizing in Egypt is very important, and provides essential context to understand the situation of women in Egypt. It seems that more work like this needs to be done, from both a feminist perspective as well as a political, economic and sociological perspective. While women did participate extensively in the uprisings, it is clear that feminist activism has now taken a back-seat in Egypt. This seems to be a process that happens repeatedly in post-revolutionary nations: women participate and are then side-lined when they begin to articulate their own demands during the process of state-building. How to move past this? What kind of solutions are there to these issues? Do we keep delaying the ‘feminist project’ until the new government is solidified? My answer would be NO. The feminist project should not be de-linked from the phase of rebuilding the nation and institutions after a revolutionary process. The two must go together, otherwise women will, yet again, be told to go home after the post-revolutionary euphoria dies down.

The Female Circumcision Cake

I’ve been traveling so I haven’t managed to sit down and write this post until now. On the way to Istanbul I saw a picture on my FB timeline of what looked like a black woman cake. I opened it and found this image:

At first I thought it was some kind of big joke. I mean how can a scene like this happen in 2012? Then I read the caption: Swedish minister at anti-female circumcision event, feeding cake of black woman who was just metaphorically circumcised to the head of the artist.

What?

The more I read & thought about it, the more crazy it seemed that this sh*t still happens today. The Swedish MINISTER OF CULTURE!

But then, how surprising is it, really? Living in the Netherlands has proven to me how racist discourses are still VERY strong, latent as they may be. Discourses such as the “white man’s burden” or “black culture oppressing Africans” or “we need to save them from themselves” are so prevalent that it isn’t actually *that* surprising to see an event like this happening in a country like Sweden.

And then defenders of the event & “art installation” bring up the fact that the artist is black, as though that makes everything okay.

The only good thing to come out of this disaster is the amount of brilliant, inspiring critiques from both Africans & Europeans (some at least). Just as with the Kony 2012 disaster, the outcry has been big. Since so many amazing critiques have already been written, I will just quote a few here, with whom I completely & utterly agree:

The event was launched with Swedish minister Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth cutting the first piece of cake from a dark, ruby red velvet filling with black icing, which we understand was created by the Afro-Swedish artist Makode Aj Linde, whose head forms that of the black woman,  and is seen with a blackened face screaming with pain each time a guest cuts a slice from the cake.

Rather disturbingly for many African women, the minister is pictured laughing as she cuts off the genital area (clitoris)from the metaphorical cake, as the  artist Makode screams distastefully.  The gaze of the predominantly white Swedish crowd is on Lijeroth who  is positioned  at the crotch end,  as they look on at their visibly ebullient culture minister with seemingly  nervous laughter as she becomes a part of the performance – a re-enactment of FGM  on a cake made in the image of a disembodied African woman.

The work is definitely not empowering or transformative for women who are victims of FGM  in any shape or form, and the racial overtones of this project re-inscribe the exploitation and dehumanisation of black African women, which clearly cannot be denied.

One does not need to be subjected to the epistemic violence  underpinning the grotesque reconstruction of FGM,  in the form of a black woman having her clitoris cut off to the sound of  a laughing crowd with a fixed gaze,  drinks in hand, to raise awareness of this very serious issue.

 Not one Black woman, not one Black person in the room, except the artist and his cake.

As such We/African Women/African-Americans and many women of the African Diaspora the world over view this as an assault on our foremothers, sisters and our selves who have worked tirelesslly in different historical and cultural contexts to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular  and stereotypes of black women as  sluts, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our own sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent.

We view it as a racialised slur and an attempt at erasure of all that we have struggled for historically in order to genuinely empower African women the world over.

No one, including the artist seems to have consulted Black African women at the forefront of the movement to end the practice of female genital cutting, often with little resources and in direct and dangerous conflict with their own communities.

What makes the cake episode so deeply offensive is the appropriation, by both artist and his audience, of African women’s bodies and experiences, while completely excluding real African women from the discourse. It is a pornography of violence.

You can read the rest of this stunning critique here.

On a lighter note:

DAKAR. Africans say they have little hope that Europe will ever become civilized, after a week in which Spain’s King Carlos went on an elephant-killing spree and the Swedish Culture Minister was entertained by a racially offensive cake. “You can take the European out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the European,” sighed one resident of Kinshasa.

Read the rest here.

Needless to say, this is yet another shameful event in Europe that shows how integral & definitive their colonial “past” continues to be in defining their present.

Colonial discourse

Amazing quote!

“Colonial discourse is greatly implicated in ideas of the centrality of Europe, and thus in assumptions that have become characteristic of modernity: assumptions about history, language, literature and ‘technology’. Colonial discourse is thus a system of statements that can be made about colonies and colonial peoples, about colonizing powers and about the relationship between these two. It is the system of knowledge and beliefs about the world within which acts of colonization take place. Although it is generated within the society and cultures of the colonizers, it becomes that discourse within which the colonized may also come to see themselves. At the very least, it creates a deep conflict in the consciousness of the colonized because of its clash with other knowledges (and kinds of knowledge) about the world. Rules of inclusion and exclusion operate on the assumption of the superiority of the colonizer’s culture, history, language, art, political structures, social conventions, and the assertion of the need for the colonized to be ‘raised up’ through colonial contact. In particular, colonial discourse hinges on notions of race that begin to emerge at the very advent of European imperialism. Through such distinctions it comes to represent the colonized, whatever the nature of their social structures and cultural histories, as ‘primitive’ and the colonizers as ‘civilized’.

Colonial discourse tends to exclude, of course, statements about the exploitation of the resources of the colonized, the political status accruing to colonizing powers, the importance to domestic politics of the development of an empire, all of which may be compelling reasons for maintaining colonial ties. Rather it conceals these benefits in statements about the inferiority of the colonized, the primitive nature of other races, the barbaric depravity of colonized societies, and therefore the duty of the imperial power to reproduce itself in the colonial society, and to advance the civilization of the colony through trade,administration,cultural and moral improvement.

Via Lost in Space.

Frantz Fanon & Revolution

I haven’t updated this blog for a while because I was in Cairo, where for some odd reason I can’t access wordpress.com. I’m back in Holland now, and will be updating the blog with everything I’ve been thinking for the past few weeks 😀

Here is a post I wrote a few weeks ago:

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I just read an interesting article about Frantz Fanon’s relevance to today’s revolutions happening across the Middle East and North Africa. Fanon was heavily involved in the Algerian struggle for independence, in which more than 1 million Algerians lost their lives because of the French.

In his epic work “The Wretched of the Earth” Fanon warned of the corruption of regimes that would follow independence in Africa and the Middle East, under the mantles of “nationalism,” “Pan-Africanism” and “Pan-Arabism.” Most examples I can think of in Africa and the ME did fall into this trap – the first leader following independence had tremendous authority, because he was the first independent leader (of course they were never independent, we now know).

Fanon also spoke about the role western powers would play in propping up corrupt regimes and cultivating clientelistic relationships with local proxies. By so doing they would prevent the growth of genuine democracy. As the author of the article notes:

He was right again. It is no coincidence that, with the exception of Gaddafi (who is also the only dictator against whom the west has intervened thus far), the regimes that have been the target of protests in recent months have invariably been close allies of western powers, principally America.

Finally, Fanon wrote about the role the people can play in overcoming their oppression. Rather than seeing people as lacking agency or any power, he wrote that they have the capacity to fight.

The more the people understand, the more vigilant they become, the more they realize in fact that everything depends on them and that their salvation lies in their solidarity.

This was something he saw in Algeria:

The Algerian people, that starved…mass of men and women…have resisted the tanks and the planes, the napalm and the psychological warfare, but above al, the corruption and the brainwashing, the traitors and the ‘national’ armies.

Brown skin, white masks

I just began reading Hamid Dabashi’s book Brown Skin, White Masks, which is a fascinating analysis of the role of native informers in the imperial project of the US and Europe.

The best way to extend Fanon’s revolutionary legacy into the contingencies of our own time is to remain awake to the way the ideological machinery of beleaguered capital keeps reinventing itself.

Today, in the age of multi-culturalism, capital needs newer forms of domination, facilitated by homeless, soulless native informers who have taken over the work that the racist Orientalists once performed.

What we are witnessing today is simply a more advanced stage of colonialism, reflecting a more advanced condition of capitalism in its globalized stage, with newer forms of domination in need of a renewed ideological language. It is thus absolutely imperative that we do not counter-fetishize any particular colour-coded mode of ideological domination – black or brown, Jew or Muslim – as a target of moral assassination.

Capital, in the end, is colour-blind and gender-neutral. It wants to produce cheaply and sell massively to the widest possible market, and it could not care less who buys, who sells, who profits, and who suffers the consequences of this treacherous cycle. The service that the native informers provide to the imperialist project is just another disposable commodity in that cycle, like a roll of toilet paper – use it, discard it, and leave.

Brilliant!