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?

__________

* 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.

Black Gold

 

I went to see an interesting movie today called Black Gold, about the production of coffee in Ethiopia and how it relates to global trade and cooperatives. What struck me the most is how coffee is the second most traded commodity worldwide, and yet Ethiopia, a major producer of coffee, is one of the poorest countries in the world. And this appears to be a trend: the more naturally rich a country is, the poorer they are in terms of GDP. Congo is another example of this.

There are around 2 billion cups of coffee drunk each day, and yet the price of coffee has fallen drastically in the past few decades. This is because corporations have taken over the market and so basically coffee farmers are forced to accept the “market price” for their coffee, which is almost nothing. Many can’t even survive anymore, despite the fact that more coffee is being drunk and coffee is such a major commodity.

Then there was a part of the movie about the World Trade Organizations, probably up there with the IMF and World Bank when it comes to useless organizations that are killing millions of people. They discussed how the IMF and World Bank has forced African governments to STOP subsidies to their farmers, while the EU and US continues to massively subsidize their own farmers. But since all the negotiations at the WTO happen behind closed doors among the powerful countries, Africa is usually left out and continues to lose more and more economic and political clout by the year. One woman described the WTO as a “power-based association.”

The movie also stated that Africa’s trade has now fallen to 1% of global trade. How the hell is that even possible when so much of Africa’s resources are being shipped to other countries? From diamonds to cobalt to coffee, it is virtually impossible that the trade amounts to 1%. Does that mean that most of what leaves Africa is stolen, not traded?

On the whole, the movie was yet another description of the current capitalist neo-colonial system we are living in. It did make me realize, though, that one solution is the cooperative. I have been following someone on Twitter (@thebrinos) who tweets a lot about cooperatives and their benefits, and this movie also tried to portray them as extremely useful as they cut out the middle-men who take a lot of money for their “services.” Could cooperatives be one way out of this mess, since it doesn’t look like capitalism will crumble anytime soon?

Occupy the World

I was having a conversation with my best friend yesterday about the Occupy protests that have been spreading across the globe, and we talked about how scary it must be for those in power that these protests have gone global. For generations now, humans have been divided (often purposely) by sometimes artificial constructs like race, religion, gender, nationality, ideology, sexual orientation. For generations we have learned to see each other through prisms of identity that don’t say much about a person but are easy and neat. Categories have become the currency of identity and communication, and it is enough for us to know which boxes people fit into for us to judge them and decide whether we want to know more or not.

The last decade has seen an intensification of identity politics, with many countries across the globe becoming more nationalistic and more fanatic. The “Other” is an even stronger enemy today than it was decades ago, and this has divided us even more. Through all of this, it is easy to forget that there is more that unites than divides us, and that most of what divides us has been socially constructed for political ends.

So what is happening now across the globe must be absolutely terrifying for those controlling a system that thrives on divisions. October 15 saw Occupy events all over the world, from Tokyo to New York; Amsterdam to Seoul; Rome to Boston; Madrid to Costa Rica. Millions of people across the globe came together to protest the same issues: capitalism, a global political system that is destroying people, livelihoods, cultures, human relations, just so that the rich 1% can continue to accumulate wealth while everybody else falls deeper and deeper into debt, starvation, hopelessness.

Did the 1% ever expect this movement to come? Did they even think that people could unite, above all divisions, against a brutal economic/political/social system that is literally killing people as we speak?

Did they expect people to KNOW what was happening, to be AWARE of what the system was doing to them? Did they not realize that people were just exhausted from fighting for daily survival, tired from working working working, and so did not have the time or energy to rise up?

But this time they were pushed too far and it happened.

Starting with the revolutions in the Arab world and now with the Occupy movement, people are showing that they KNEW, they were AWARE, and now they are fighting back. The patriarchal, neo-colonial, capitalist system needs to come down. We shouldn’t be afraid of what comes after it – is chaos such a bad thing? We shouldn’t convince ourselves that capitalism and dictatorship are better because they are the enemy we know best. Humans are infinitely creative and capable, and we have seen that first with the revolutions in the Arab world and North Africa, and now with the Occupy protests. The world is changing, and it’s scary. But it’s also very, very exciting.

Let’s not forget…

We often get only one side of the story. When we hear about sexual slavery or trafficking, we hear about the “third world” countries these women and men come from, the brutal conditions they lived in, and the corruption, poverty and lack of social institutions that basically force them into a life of slavery. What we don’t hear about are the people who make up the market: the (usually) rich, First World men, who consume these slaves and who constitute the market that makes sexual slavery and trafficking possible. To end sexual slavery, shouldn’t we also target the people who consume it and therefore make it possible?

It’s the same thing with drugs. We keep hearing about the drug problems, cartels, gangs etc in Latin America. But who is consuming most of these drugs? Yes, Americans. Would this many drug cartels exist if the market for drugs wasn’t so big? So instead of only focusing on the origin of drugs or sex slaves, maybe people should try and EDUCATE the people consuming these “commodities.”

I recently finished reading one of the most amazing books ever, called “Encountering Development: The Making & Unmaking of the Third World’ by Arturo Escobar. He gave a poignant example at the end of the book:

Under the title “The Lesson that Rio Forgets,” the cover of the Economist shows an undifferentiated mass of dark people, the “teaming masses” of the Third World. The “lesson” is population: the expanding masses of the Third World have to be curbed if sustainable development is to be achieved.

The fact that the populations of the industrialized world consume a strikingly higher percentage of world resources than their Third World counterparts does not enter into the Economist’s equation. 

By a curious optical twist, the consumption of people of the North is rendered invisible, whereas the dark hordes of the South are consigned to a new round of gluttonous vision.

I have never thought about it this way. While countries like Egypt are constantly being told to “control their populations” because the world is suffering, people in tiny developed countries continue to consume MUCH MORE. How is that logical?

The problem is we are usually told ONE side of the story, where the Third World is somehow blamed for everything. And even more disappointing is how many First World and Third World people fall for this ridiculous narrative.

How different are states?

I just read an interesting article in the Guardian about the global protests. It quoted Gopal as saying:

Gopal says she was struck by the diffuseness and lack of direction in the recent British riots, contrasting it with protests in the Arab world, where “a focus and self-awareness that comes from those countries’ recent history of anti-colonial struggle has been transmitted from one generation to the next”.

This is a very interesting idea I hadn’t thought of before. Of course there is no doubt that Arabs are facing dictatorships that are willing to kill thousands to stay in power, whereas in the west people are facing democracies willing to kill thousands (often non-westerners) to stay in power. So there is a limit to what the British state can do, as opposed to Syria for example. But still – the protests have many commonalities, among them anti-capitalism and an end to police brutality and abuse.

Two common motifs run through this year’s rebellions. First has been the collapse in authority of traditional institutions; from Mubarak’s cult of personality to the seemingly incessant scandals engulfing Britain’s arbiters of political, financial and cultural control – bankers, MPs, and the Murdoch media empire. The crumpling is contagious, fuelling rebellions in the most of places.

In England, Cameron is has used social media (BBM, Twitter) to track down those “responsible” for the riots, as well as images from the thousands of hidden cameras around the country. The police are now going door to door in many of the poor estates arresting young Brits. More than 2000 are already in police custody and who knows what this number will be by the end of it. Many in the Arab world are laughing at the hypocrisy, and rightly so. Yesterday, I read this article on al-Jazeerawith the following headline:

California transit provider interrupted wireless mobile service to hamper protesters angry over police shooting.

Again, the hypocrisy is laughable. The “civilized” west that “would never block internet or use rubber bullets” has now done both in the span of one week. It reveals that states are not as different from one another as we think. When threatened, they will use any amount of violence necessary.  Arab states were more at risk because they knew they were illegitimate, whereas western states, hiding behind a veneer of democracy, knew they could get away with more.  But not anymore. The global economic crisis means that no government is safe, because the system behind them is crumbling. Whether its a democrat or a republican; a right-winger or a left-winger; an Islamist or a secularist – the system behind all of them, the neo-colonial, patriarchal, capitalist system – is still in place, and is currently being brought down by millions of amazing, brave youth around the world.

Back to Gopal’s quote: are the uprisings in the Arab world more focused because they are more aware of how corrupt the system is? And is this awareness due to their recent experiences with colonialism and anti-colonialism? Having grown up in Zambia, and then lived in Egypt, I became very aware of how the global system is screwing over countries in the South. And then having lived in the Netherlands, I became very aware of how most Dutch people are ignorant of this fact.

In Europe, citizens are taught (brainwashed) to accept authority, whether it be the media or the state. Most Dutch people I speak to trust the news and trust the government, especially on major issues, and especially on foreign-related issues (including immigrants).  This makes it very difficult for me to imagine a Dutch revolution, when the time comes (and it will – more and more cuts are being made, and the EU and Euro are falling apart).  I think people in England were at a different point than those in the Netherlands, because the social inequality was much higher.  Still, did the rioters/looters have a common aim, or set of aims? Did they know how to articulate the anger they were feeling? Or were they unsure of who to blame? Yes, there is police brutality: but who controls the police? The state. Yes, there are no jobs and rising prices; but who controls the economy? The state. And who controls the state? The capitalist system.

While I think the quote is interesting, I wouldn’t say this is the only reason. Many Egyptians are aware of neocolonialism, but many aren’t: otherwise how would neocolonialism work? Similarly, many people in England are aware that they need to target the state and capitalism, and in fact I would argue that they did by looting. More than 2 billion pounds in damage – in a way they are speaking to capitalism in the only language it understands: profits and losses.

Sexual Harassment

Originally I had planned to write my Masters thesis on the issue of sexual harassment (SH), so I started doing research on the topic. Most of the work on it has come from the US, where sexual harassment first became a major issue in the workplace. One major explanation for SH was that it was a way for men to let women know: “you don’t belong in the public sphere, so we are going to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible.”  In this case the public sphere referred especially to the workplace, which until today is mainly the preserve of men.

I wondered whether this explanation made sense in the Egyptian context. SH has reached unprecedented levels in Egypt and has become a major social problem.  Many explanations have been given, mainly by the media, including economic problems keeping youth on the street, a conservatism couched in religiosity has been spreading, and a general degradation in morals due to strict dictatorship. None of them really seem to explain why SH is so widespread.

The public sphere argument made the most sense to me: men just didn’t want women to feel comfortable when they were out in the public sphere. They want women to feel out of place so that men can continue to feel that the street belongs to them. I feel this every single day when I leave my house to get into my car. Cars drive by honking, men who are standing around turn and look. All of it makes me want to step back inside and never leave the house again. And it definitely has a cumulative effect.

A few days ago, I interviewed Alaa al-Aswany, who is a famous Egyptian author (Yacoubian Building) and political commentator. We touched on the issue of SH and his explanation was that men did it because they felt humiliated by the state and society, and so felt the need to make someone else feel humiliated. This explanation makes the most sense to me for a few reasons. One is that men here don’t seem to harass because they think they will get a girl’s attention; they do it in a way that is just harmful, disrespectful, and demeaning. I’ve never felt that a guy harassing me is flirting or wants to talk to me – he just wants to make me feel bad about myself. Another reason is that Egypt is not a sex-deprived society, and so it cannot be the case that men are harassing for that reason. Also, Egyptians have been continually humiliated for decades, and this has hit the youth especially hard, so it makes sense that many people just want to make sure they aren’t in it alone; that they won’t be humiliated alone.

It is also possible that there isn’t *one* explanation for SH in Egypt. I definitely reject the argument made by some westerners that it is just “how Egyptians are.” Aside from being racist, essentialist and neo-Orientalist, it is also historically inaccurate since SH in Egypt is a new phenomenon. Until now, the two explanations above are the only convincing ones, and the only ones that could help explain why SH is so widespread. During the revolution, it is a fact that for 18 days, not a single case of SH was reported in Tahrir Square. What does this mean? Of course moments of euphoria, national consciousness, and bonding lead to positive behaviors, but then this would have lasted past the revolution. Instead, right after Mubarak stepped down, the SH resumed. My thoughts would be that this happened because the system hadn’t changed, and people continued to feel undignified in their everyday lives. Only when the entire system changes, will social issues like these disappear.