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.

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The emergence of the “Muslim woman question” in Egypt

Qasim Amin's book
Qasim Amin’s book

I just went to a talk by Nadia Fadil about “Islamic feminism and decolonialism” which was absolutely fascinating! What I really like about her work is that she traces the history of feminism in the Middle East in order to show its clear links to European modernity, the Enlightenment, and colonial processes. These links informed the way feminism was discussed and debated in countries like Egypt, and continues to influence the way we talk about gender today.

She argues that in the Middle East, the “women’s question” did not emerge due to the desire of women to be included as “equal citizens” (this is how it emerged in Europe); rather, it emerged as a project by Egyptian men to be included in modernity and as a way for them to assert themselves as political and modern subjects.

She speaks about Qasim Amin in particular, who many see as one of the pioneers of feminism in Egypt. She argues that his interest in the “women’s question” and feminism is because he saw it as a way for him to be seen as modern, enlightened, and on an equal footing with Europeans. In other words, he instrumentalized women in order to represent himself as modern and enlightened.

Asserting women’s rights becomes a way for Amin to assert himself as a full modern human subject.

Therefore it is clear that the The “woman’s question” in the Middle East emerges as a derivative of the Muslim question. The question is: how compatible are Egyptians with western liberal modernity? The answer is to be found in how Egyptian men (and culture) treat women. Therefore for Amin to be seen as compatible with western liberal modernity, he has to see and treat women in a certain way (as do all Egyptians).

Amin choosing to focus on the “woman’s question” had less to do with position of women (and how to advance it), and more with the extent to which Egyptians can enter history and be seen as modern political subjects (i.e. through certain views of women). The civilizational hierarchy was thus defined through gender. Egyptians need to adopt a certain language to be seen as equal. Egyptian men needed to speak in this language (especially about women) in order to be considered as equal political subjects, to be given political agency and to be granted the right to speak.

This whole discussion reminded me of how gender was invoked during the Egyptian revolution, with questions of “where are the women?” and whether the revolution could be considered “successful” if women’s rights hadn’t been achieved (rights being defined in a very specific way). This discourse serves once again to implicate gender into any questions of modernity and progress: Egyptians can only be seen as modern political subjects if they have certain gender practices.

Ted X Rotterdam

So last week I attended Ted X Rotterdam, an event meant for the “top students in the Netherlands.” There were over 1,200 top students there, and I am mentioning this because it will make this story even more shocking.

I’ve always loved TED because it is more critical and less mainstream than other media. The lectures are often inspiring, thought-provoking and original. So I had high hopes for the locally organized TED event in Rotterdam.

Basically, after 10+ hours of lectures and performances, I was left disgusted, angry, and repulsed by the narratives I was hearing. Other than the musical performances, it was an absolute disgrace. Almost every lecture had an undertone of white European superiority. The non-European/Western world was only brought up as “the third world” – rarely a specific country – and only as a helpless, victim that the superior west had to help, out of its infinite kindness.

So what has changed since colonialism? This is EXACTLY what the colonial mindset was. Superior-inferior; first world-third world.

And what was discussed when the third world came up? Famine. War. Disease. AIDS.

Bad bad bad.

Not a single positive thing. Even after revolutions, social movements, and major shifts across the so-called “third world” this year. Even though the third world comprises the majority of the world’s population. Even though the “third world” is beautiful, complex, diverse, lovable, traumatized, and millions of other things.

So why do we only see it as a victim? As a picture of a starving child? We don’t even need to know where the child is from – we just know it is African because that is all the media shows us.

We don’t need to understand HOW the “third world” became “under-developed.” How the west did most of this, and continues to do most of this. No. We just need to know this is how it is and that we should donate a few euros and forget about it.

Dutch people probably left the event feeling superior, safe; all their stereotypes confirmed. Nothing about what they can do POLITICALLY to help. Nothing about how the Netherlands is responsible for many of the problems in these countries. Nothing dangerous; nothing critical.

Its disgusting. It made me want to be back in the “third world” because there is no denial; no sense of cultural superiority that I have seen in too many Dutch people. Read a history book, and then tell me you are proud of what your country has done and CONTINUES to do.

I looked around the hall at people applauding yet another lecture about death in the third world and how Dutch people need to donate more money, and I thought: wow. I don’t care how hard life is in countries less well-off economically. I would rather live there and not be brainwashed, than live here and think that this is how the world is.

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.

West & Multiculturalism

I just wanted to share one of the best articles I’ve read recently, called “On the West’s Moral Panic Over Multiculturalism” by Gary Younge.

For certain groups the price for belonging and conditions for banishment have shifted dramatically in Western nations, particularly but by no means exclusively in Europe, in recent years. Citizenship is no longer enough. The clothes you wear, the language you speak, the way you worship, have all become grounds for dismissal or inclusion. These terms are not applied equally to all—they are not intended to be. The intention of this series of edicts (popular, political and judicial) is not to erase all differences but to act as a filter for certain people who are considered dangerously different.

To achieve this, certain groups and behaviors must first be pathologized so that they might then be more easily particularized.

Still cannot believe the racist speech in which Chirac said this:

Jacques Chirac, 1991: “How do you want a French worker who works with his wife, who earn together about 15,000 francs and who sees next to his council house a piled-up family with a father, three or four spouses and twenty children earning 50,000 francs via benefits naturally without working…If you add to that the noise and the smell, well, the French worker, he goes crazy.”

Even as the Catholic Church is embroiled in a global crisis over child sexual abuse and the Church of England is splintered in a row over gay priests, Islam and Muslims face particularly vehement demands to denounce homophobia.

The combined effect of these flawed distinctions and sweeping demonization is to unleash a series of moral panics.

And what I think his most important point was:

At a time of diminishing national sovereignty, particularly in Europe, such campaigns help the national imagination cohere around a fixed identity even as the ability of the nation-state to actually govern itself wanes. It is a curious and paradoxical fact that as national boundaries in Europe have started to fade, the electoral appeal of nationalism has increased; fascism, and its fellow travelers, is once again a mainstream ideology in Europe, regularly polling between 5 and 15 per cent in most countries.

I have yet to meet a Dutch liberal who has not done this:

Many who consider themselves on the left have given liberal cover to these assaults on religious and racial minorities, ostensibly acting in defense of democracy, Enlightenment values and equal rights—particularly relating to sexual orientation and gender.

And this:

The first is an elision between Western values and liberal values that ignores the fact that liberal values are not fully entrenched in the West and that other regions of the world also have liberal traditions.

And this:

The second is a desire to understand Western “values” in abstraction from Western practice.

And now, to multiculturalism:

Unable to come up with a single, coherent new term that both encapsulates the atmosphere of fear, threat, panic, disorientation, confusion, contradiction and paradoxes and unites both far right and liberals, the opponents of this diverse, hybrid reality resurrected an old foe—“multiculturalism.

The beauty of multiculturalism, for its opponents, is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean so long as you don’t like it.

Finally,

The nation-state is in crisis; neoliberal is in crisis; multiculturalism is simply in situ.

I would add that Europe is also in crisis.

Some thoughts

I’ve been in Cairo for a week and a bit now, and until today wordpress wouldn’t let me write a new blog post :S Looks like it’ll finally work today!

A few things I’ve been thinking about lately…

I wonder how affected designer brands and the luxury sector in general are doing during this recession. Walking through malls in Cairo makes it look like they are doing just fine. Is this because the rich haven’t really been affected by the crisis, and in fact have probably continued to make more and more money? Following the revolution in Egypt, where many shops got vandalized, Starbucks re-opened weeks afterwards. I wonder whether small, family-owned businesses were able to do the same, whether they could afford it? Feels like the sad reality is that our current economic system is killing the poor; making the middle class struggle to just survive, and continues to make the rich richer.

Finding out more about US presidential candidates made me realize how fast the American empire is crumbling.  The economic crisis was the beginning; the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were another sign; but the sheer stupidity, racism, bigotry and homophobia found in the election campaigns are just ridiculous, and show why the US was never going to be an empire or superpower for long.  While large parts of the world are becoming more aware of neo-colonialism and societal problems, it seems like many Americans are becoming more and more racist, Islamophobic, and petty. Focusing on things like birth certificates and the building of mosques says a lot about current discourses in America.

Then again, Europe isn’t much better. On my plane ride from Amsterdam to Cairo there was a Dutch guy coming to “help Egyptians choose who to vote for.” In classic Orientalist style he was very worried about the “tension” between Muslims and Christians, and the “threat” of the Muslim Brotherhood. I was dying to ask him why he was even going to Egypt.  I would say Dutch people are in desperate need of help when it comes to “choosing who to vote for” – Wilders? Really?

Why does extreme poverty exist?

Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, was recently taken to court for hate speech against Muslims. Today he was acquitted. Wilders is head of the PVV, the Dutch Freedom Party, which is currently the third most popular party in the Netherlands. Wilders is famous for his controversial statements about Islam, such as:

“Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology, the ideology of a retarded culture. I have a problem with Islamic tradition, culture, ideology. Not with Muslim people.”

“Why are we afraid to say that muslims should adapt because our norms and values are of a higher, better, nicer and more humane level of civilisation? Not integration, assimilation! And if the headscarves will protest on the Malieveld, let them come. I’ll have them for breakfast.”

“If it ever may come to racial riots, which I really don’t want, then this doesn’t necessarily have to have a negative result.”

Just to remind you that this guy’s party is the 3rd most popular party in the Netherlands.

The Muslim Woman

Lila abu-Lughod is one of my favourite anthropologists and scholars of Islam. She wrote an amazing article called “The Muslim Woman.” Here are some excerpts:

An administration – George W. Bush’s – then used the oppression of these Muslim women as part of the moral justification for the military invasion of Afghanistan. These images of veiled and oppressed women have been used to drum up support for intervention. Besides the untold horrors, dislocations, and violence these US interventions have brought to the lives of Muslim women in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would argue that the use of these images has also been bad for us, in the countries of the West where they circulate, because of the deadening effect they have on our capacity to appreciate the complexity and diversity of Muslim women’s lives – as human beings.

Another interesting point she makes is that these women often represent their countries:

in many of the images from the media, the veiled women stand in for the countries the articles are about. None of these articles in the New York Times Magazine, for example, was about Muslim women, or even Jordanian or Egyptian women. It would be as if magazines and newspapers in Syria or Malaysia were to put bikini clad women or Madonna on every cover of a magazine that featured an article about the United States or a European country.

It is common knowledge that the ultimate sign of the oppression of Afghani women under the Taliban-and-the- terrorists is that they were forced to wear the burqa. Liberals sometimes confess their surprise that even though Afghanistan has been liberated from the Taliban, women do not seem to be throwing off their burqas. Someone like me, who has worked in Muslim regions, asks why this is so surprising. Did we expect that once “free” from the Taliban they would go “back” to belly shirts and blue jeans, or dust off their Chanel suits?

This is similar to the surprise of European liberals when they realized that there are some Muslim women who want to wear the burqa. This surprise was not enough though: they assumed that it was husbands/fathers/Arab/Muslim communities socializing these “wants” into Muslim women. After all, who would ever choose to wear a burqa?

If we think that American women, even the non-religious, live in a world of choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind ourselves of the expression, “the tyranny of fashion”.

This is a controversial point, since many in the west believe they live in some kind of “free” society in which no one is pressured to do anything. Unfortunately, we all live under global capitalism, and it is screwing us all. Very few women in the world are not pressured to be a certain way, whether it is to wear a burqa or to get surgery for the “perfect” vagina.

An Islamist to America: “You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools, calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers, visitors, and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women […] You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism, and freedom, and other deceptive names that you attribute to it.”

The danger of pity, and the western need to save Muslim women:

If one constructs some women as being in need of pity or saving, one  implies that one not only wants to save them from something but wants to save them for something – a different kind of world and set of arrangements. What violences might be entailed in this transformation? And what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them for? Projects to save other women, of whatever kind, depend on and reinforce Westerners’ sense of superiority. They also smack of a form of patronizing arrogance that, as an anthropologist who is sensitive to other ways of living, makes me feel uncomfortable.

Maybe we should consider being respectful of other routes towards social change. Is it impossible to ask whether there can be a liberation that is Islamic? This idea is being explored by many women, like those in Iran, who call themselves Islamic feminists. And beyond this, is liberation or freedom even a goal for which all women or people strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language? Might other desires be more meaningful for different groups of people? Such as living in close families? Such as living in a godly way? Such as living without war or violence?

Finally,

Choices for all of us are fashioned by discourses, social locations, geopolitical configurations, and unequal power into historically and locally specific ranges. Those for whom religious values are important certainly don’t see them as constraining – they see them as ideals for which to strive.

We may want justice for women but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or choose, different futures from what we envision as best? And that the choices they see before them are in fact a product of some situations we have helped foist on them? My conclusion is that if we do care about the situations of women different from white middle class Western women, we would do well to leave behind veils and vocations of saving others and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place.

She proposes what western women (and men) can do:

It seems to me that if we are concerned about women, including Muslim women, maybe we can work at home to make US and European policies more humane.

Amen!