A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I took our semi-regular road trip to visit an acupuncturist whose office is, as the young people say, in the cut–and worth the drive. Because all road trips need a good podcast, I scrolled through the recent episodes of our favorite shows. The Moth? This American Life? Nah, not today. I wasn’t really in the mood for Ira Glass or coffee-shop story-telling. Racism was, as it usually is, heavy on my mind. We were living through the white supremacist uproar surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protest against systemic racism and police violence targeting communities of color. And instead of attending to the unfolding disaster in Puerto Rico, the president was being the racist asshat that he is. In the midst of this bullshit, I naturally thought of Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton’s hilarious, thought-provoking and all around brilliant podcast Another Round. I found a recent episode featuring Senator Cory Booker, linked the Bluetooth and happily reclined my passenger seat.
The interview was certainly engrossing. Heben and Tracy peppered their back and forth with the relevant pop culture references, incisive questions and unmistakable shade that keep fans like me coming back for more. But as I listened to Booker, I alternated between curiosity, side-eye, sympathy and revulsion. The Senator is a masterful politician and accomplished manipulator, for sure. Despite my knowledge of his shady record, various corruption scandals and contentious relationship with progressives, I was nonetheless interested in hearing how Booker would interact with Heben and Tracey and what, if anything, he might say about racism.
Politicians are never more dangerous and toxic than when they mix just enough truth with their lies to sound authentic. Even with all of my critique and side-eye, Booker’s emotion-laden talk about his “hope for America” brought tears to my eyes. But even as I teared up, I realized the horror of what Booker had done. Weaving together what seemed to be compelling stories of black pain, Booker was able to emotionally manipulate me (and others) as he weaponized black suffering to portray himself as “woke”.
What unfolded over the course of the episode was a brilliantly jarring tight-rope performance. With aplomb, passion and humor, Senator Booker was able to both acknowledge what he called the “horrible system” upon which the US is based–and also minimize its crimes. Walking that white supremacist tight-rope, he granted just enough acknowledgement of the United States’ ongoing history of racial and class oppression to sound socially conscious to gullible ears while, in the same breath, insisting the US is still a “great country” despite the crimes it perpetuates against its own citizens. Not to mention — and indeed, Booker did not mention — the crimes perpetuated by the US against millions of human beings abroad.
After expressing his grave concern for mass incarceration, Booker unironically (!!!!) quoted Bill Clinton:
There’s nothing bad about America that can’t be solved by what’s good about America.
I get it. Cory Booker is a politician and politicians lie. They especially lie in ways that flatter themselves and keep them in office. But the lie at the heart of Booker’s formulation is that a fundamentally broken and oppressive system can always be redeemed, no matter how many centuries of crimes against humanity it commits. The fact that Booker borrowed a quote from one of the architects of mass incarceration–a policy which helps maintain white supremacy–after claiming to care about systemic racism tells you all you have to know about the convoluted lengths to which some politicians will go to distort social reality, cater to powerful white elites and simultaneously line their pockets.
And this is why that buttery falsetto came to mind: Never too much, never too much, never too much . . .
No matter how horrific the systemic crimes..
No matter how many millions slaughtered, discriminated, left without water..
No matter how many innocent people incarcerated by the state..
No matter how many colored and colonized people abandoned..
No matter how many children killed by police..
No matter how many miscarriages of justice..
No matter how many under-resourced schools..
No matter how many generations of environmental racism..
No matter how many capitalist-produced humanitarian crises..
The suffering is never, never too much.
In effect, the function of a politician like Cory Booker is to swoop in, invoke Bill Clinton, and reassure the citizenry that we are a “great country”. The “original sin” is damnable, but never quite damning enough to curtail the possibility of absolution. The body count can never be too high, the death toll never too devastating. The evils of the “horrible system” can be washed away, again and again, with the redemptive baptism of Cory Booker’s Wall-Street-and-Big-Pharma-funded discourse.
The sad reality is that our politics are dominated by two contemptible forces: those who completely deny that the US commits any crimes at all and those who admit some of the crimes but perpetually excuse and minimize them with the language of “forgiveness”, “hope” and “love of country”. Both of these forces are two sides of the same coin: the propaganda needed to justify and prolong US exceptionalism and dominance.
I’m sorry to say that for these forces, there is no bottom. There is only a bottomless pit into which marginalized people can be shoveled, shuttered and shrugged off. Whole populations can be slaughtered, left to die or slowly disintegrate, without resources, without power, without fresh water, without adequate schools, deprived of basic dignity and human rights . . . and the patriotic propaganda continues, unperturbed.
No atrocity left behind.
All the moral and structural wrongs can be “solved” and “fixed” by what’s “good about us”. It’s the neoliberal mantra. The death march song.
There is something very telling and horrific about the political discourse coming even from those brave souls who, following the lead of Colin Kaepernick, decide to take a knee. You will notice how in almost every case, citizens feel compelled to justify their protest in patriotic terms. This is, of course, the compulsory performance of patriotic devotion (“No disrespect to the flag!” “I love this great country!”).
This past week I’ve been trying to understand the political construction of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work in relation to neoliberalism and state violence. Coates is in the news as he makes the rounds to launch his new book We Were Eight Years In Power, a retrospective on the Obama era and the rise of Trump. While I congratulate the widely acclaimed author on the publication of his latest tome, I cannot personally recommend his fundamentally flawed and largely superficial thinking “about race”, for reasons I have outlined elsewhere.
For now, I want to focus on what’s been keeping me up at night for the last several years: the complicity of the Democratic Party (and Obama’s coterie of willfully ignorant fans) in the maintenance of multiple forms of state violence. Because Coates writes so much about Obama–and because of his positioning as one of the most widely read black social critics at the apex of the corporate media and publishing worlds–any consideration of Obama’s presidency must take into account the portrait produced in Coates’ writing. His romantic portrayals of the first black president (and his descriptions of race and politics) play an influential role in shaping (and setting the boundaries of) the convoluted and largely useless national conversation “about race” . In trying to understand Coates’ structural position and appeal to powerful white liberals, it’s become increasingly clear to me that his views (at least, the views he has publicly expressed) are obviously related to the political agenda of at least one of his employers, namely The Atlantic.
It should come as no surprise that Goldberg is a big fan of Barack Obama and has played a leading role in producing a relatively rosy portrait of the 44th president. Goldberg and some of his colleagues at The Atlantic promote what they view as a “liberal” vision of “democracy” that somehow happily coexists with settler colonialism, massive state violence, white supremacy, systemic racism, poverty, hypercapitalist exploitation and the indiscriminate killing of innocent people, including women and children, who stand in the way of the ruling elites’ determination to acquire absolute hegemony and strategically secure material resources no matter the cost. Of course, even publications that whitewash war crimes, like The Atlantic, have to at least gesture toward a functioning moral compass. And so we see articles like this one covering Obama’s drone strikes (and the lies he’s told about them) alongside popular puff pieces written by the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In fact, such “gotta see both sides” coverage functions to bolster The Atlantic’s false appearance of objectivity and fair-mindedness.
I first came to France twelve years ago during my junior year abroad. I was the first person in my family to get a passport and I could barely contain my excitement. In the winter of 2003, two years before the riots that followed the untimely deaths of 15 year old Zyed Benna and 17 year old Bouna Traore, I landed in Paris bright-eyed and bushy tailed, armed with a very shaky grasp of French and a naive fascination with this beautiful country.
As an African-American, I was vaguely aware that France did not deal with issues of race the way we do in the United States. And when I happened to forget, French white people were keen to remind me. In one of the sociology classes I took at a university in the south of France, I hesitantly raised my hand to ask a question. The white French professor had been lecturing on youth and delinquency. I asked, in my broken French, if the dynamics he described had any relation to racial or ethnic belonging. “We don’t have that kind of problem here,” he said, adding: “This isn’t the United States.” Embarrassed and flustered, I nodded and continued taking notes. After class, one of the only other black students pulled me aside: “We do have those kinds of problems here. Hang out with me and I’ll tell you about it.”
My new friend was from Cameroon and had moved to France along with her sister and brother several years prior. Over the course of the semester, her family basically adopted me, inviting me to dinners, showing me the area and telling me about their lives. I learned that despite the fact that each of them had white French partners and white close friends, they nonetheless experienced racism. But, as I learned in that sociology class that day, many French people denied that racism was actually a problem in their supposedly colorblind society.
Inside of the classroom, my goal is to create a safe space for my students to learn about and explore the uncomfortable and challenging topics of inequality, race and racism. Outside of the classroom, my goal is mostly to maintain my sanity through practices of self-care and spirituality, nurture my creative expression, drink good wine and engage in compassionate action in my relationships and communities.
While my role as an educator and researcher involves teaching and writing on race and social theory, in my civilian life as a writer and regular gal, I have no obligation whatsoever to engage people on issues of race. To the contrary, I have the right to set my own rules of engagement, establish my boundaries and clarify what is and is not acceptable for me. This is especially so given that “talking about race” (and more specifically, anti-blackness and white supremacy) is not merely some sport or hobby for most people of color. It’s a painful topic that speaks to relations of power that all too often result in unarmed black men, women and children being killed by “officers of the peace”, the everyday reality of racial bias and discrimination and the fact that blacks only have access to a tiny fraction of the wealth possessed by our white neighbors, friends and co-workers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
This morning, I woke up in Paris to the terrible news that yet another unarmed black man, Walter Scott, had been shot to death by a white police officer in the United States. While the killing happened over the weekend, it took several days for the story to traverse the Atlantic and reach my consciousness here in France, where I am currently completing a book on French racism and the legacies of slavery.
As I watched the traumatic video of officer Michael Slager shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott — a father and Coast Guard veteran — two questions immediately came to mind:
What kind of a person shoots an unarmed human being in the back, then handcuffs them as they lay dying?
Even more to the point:
What kind of society allows black people to be routinely violated and killed by the state?
It’s sort of beneath my dignity to have to say that I love and have loved quite a few white people, but let’s just put it out there:
Yes, some of my very best friends are white folks.
I’ve spent a great deal of time in predominately white suburbs of predominately white nations, predominately white schools and predominately white organic grocery stores.
By virtue of my minority status and choices, my life involves a lot of working, talking and loving across different types of racial lines. I’m a East-coast raised, Southern-born, multi-generational, multi-racial black woman of U.S. slave ancestry. Unsubstantiated, but persistent, rumor has it that there’s Irish on both sides of my family tree. My family (biological and chosen) includes a diverse array of beautiful people: loved ones from a variety of diasporas, a Haitian godmother, Jews whose families immigrated from Europe.
I have a lot to learn and much room for growth, but I live a relatively cosmopolitan life. I like the fact that my hapa girlfriend grew up between California and Tokyo, spent years in Africa and speaks French with a Senegalese accent. I’ve visited a dozen countries and spent a significant portion of my twenties living in Paris. In my personal life, I have made it my business to consciously learn and explore what interracial, anti-racist love looks like. My spirituality is deeply influenced by Eastern traditions and philosophies, including Buddhism and Hinduism (Advaita-Vedanta). As an anti-racist educator and a panentheisticnon-dualist, I know that who we are, on an existential level, has absolutely nothing to do with the social fiction of race.
And yet, I’m also intimately familiar with the social reality of our collective fictions. While I teach my students that our ideas about race are socially constructed, I also equip them to recognize and understand the very real consequences of past and present racism.
What I know for sure is that much of what people say about matters of race and love in public contributes to white supremacy.
This morning, I came across a newly published article in the New York Times on the history of lynching in the U.S. south. Curiously, I noted that the author racialized the lynching victims – they were repeatedly referred to as black – but the race of those who did the lynching was left unmarked. In the article, blacks were lynched by “a group of men”, a “mob”, or simply by no one at all (using the passive voice). Not once in this article about a horrific chapter of the racial past was it ever explicitly acknowledged that whites did the lynching. Even more disturbing to me, when the author characterized lynching as “racial terror”, he used quotation marks. As if the phrase was in question.
Reading this piece of journalism, early in the morning before I’d even had my coffee, felt like a slap in the face. I wondered about the depth of denial required to not only write, but approve, an entire article about racial lynching—during Black History Month, no less!—that implicitly masks the role of white people in the bloody affair. But this pattern of denial was as unsurprising as it was upsetting. Not only is the erasure of whiteness and white responsibility a general feature of white supremacy, it is also one of my main findings about the representation of racial history on the other side of the Atlantic, in France. This latter topic is the subject of Resurrecting Slavery, the book I’m currently completing during my leave.
The lynching article illustrates similar patterns of asymmetric racialization and white erasure at work in the way slavery and colonialism are depicted in French society today. In official representations, I found that the enslaved were very often racialized as black – yes in “colorblind” France – but whites were rarely acknowledged. But this is far from the entire story. Outside of official speeches and texts that promoted white erasure, whiteness was at times recognized and deconstructed in commemorative events on the ground, especially in arenas where people of color had the opportunity to engage each other and openly discuss the history and legacies of slavery. These spaces of discussion and contention among ordinary people are important sites of knowledge production where minorities and anti-racist whites can produce alternative understandings of race, challenging the post-racialism and denial of the French state.
In Resurrecting Slavery, I argue that it’s a mistake—in France and elsewhere—to think that “breaking the silence” about racism or racial history is itself anti-racist. Racial history is all too often represented in ways that perpetuate the invisibility of white people’s role in (re)producing racism. This is particularly the case when authors, politicians, commemorative officials or academics join in masking, denying or justifying white people’s agency and responsibility for racism in the past and/or present. Take, for example, the 2001 “Taubira Law” that made France the first (and to this day, the only) country in the world to recognize slavery as a “crime against humanity”. On its face, this legislative development might seem like a significant step in the fight against racism. After all, no other Western nation has explicitly enshrined in law any recognition for the criminality of transatlantic slavery—a practice that was routinely legitimated and justified with racist ideology by European practitioners throughout its history. Yet, a closer look at the text of the law reveals certain peculiarities. The three main articles of the legislation read as follows:
The French Republic recognizes that the transatlantic negro slave trade as well as the trade in the Indian ocean on the one hand, and slavery on the other, perpetrated from the 15th century in the Americas and in the Caribbean, in the Indian Ocean and Europe against African, American-Indian, Malagasy and Indian populations constitutes a crime against humanity.
The academic curriculum and programs of research in history and the human sciences will accord to the negro trade and slavery the consequential place they deserve. Cooperation which permits and places in articulation written archives available in Europe with oral sources and archeological knowledge accumulated in Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and in all other territories having known slavery will be encouraged and promoted.
A request for recognition of the transatlantic negro trade as well as the trade in the Indian ocean and slavery as a crime against humanity will be introduced before the European Council, international organizations and the United Nations. This request will equally target the selection of a common date on an international scale for commemorating abolition of the negro trade and slavery, without preference for the commemorative dates of each overseas department.
The text of the law makes it clear that the French state now acknowledges that transatlantic slavery was criminal and calls for educational and commemorative efforts to resurrect this aspect of the past. But, as other scholars have pointed out, the legislation decries a crime without a culprit. The wording also singles out specific groups that were targeted and exploited: African, American-Indian, Malagasy and Indian populations. Further, the law implicitly reifies a racial category—in this case, blackness— with four references to the “negro trade” (traite negrière). But how are those who carried out enslavement characterized? The first article declares that slavery was “perpetrated”, yet no perpetrator (individual or collective) is mentioned. More to the point: not only are the perpetrators of slavery not named, they are not racialized. The slavery past is represented in terms that resurrect certain aspects of race, but only the race of the victims.
Many sociologists have argued that race is socially constructed. Resurrecting Slavery draws attention to an aspect of racial construction that is rarely addressed by social scientists: the way our understandings of race are intertwined with ideas about time. Colorblind discourse (which is hegemonic in France) not only denies the existence of racial groups (especially whites) generally, it also asserts a specific temporal representation of race. As critical race theorists have shown, colorblindness is, first and foremost, an attempt to erase race from representations of society and often entails a denial of various aspects of race in the past and present. At times, people are able to challenge this erasure by constructing what I call racial temporality—making connections between racial categories, relations and processes across time. Such temporal labor is, I argue, both a key component of racial cognition and an important tool of anti-racism.
For the uninitiated, I’ve assembled a non-exhaustive list of things that co-exist with [socially defined] whites’ collective political, social and/or economic dominance in countries with histories of white supremacy, anti-blackness and racialized terror against people socially defined as non-white:
1. The fact that many whites are wonderful and kind people.
2. The fact that some white people do nice things for some people of color.
17. The fact that whiteness, specifically, and race generally are social constructs and therefore neither primordial nor essential.
18. The Emancipation Proclamation.
19. Affirmative Action.
20. Black millionaires and billionaires.
21. Beer summits.
22. White House meetings with Ferguson protesters.
23. Cameras on cops.
25. Eric Holder.
It should really go without saying, but none of the aforementioned is capable of negating white supremacy.. in the same way that the existence of really awesome heterosexual people does not negate the social and historical reality of heterosexism, in the same way that Ellen’s individual success does not negate the on-going realities of homophobia, in the same way that the existence of women CEOs does not negate the social reality of unequal pay, in the same way the existence of generous, compassionate and kind-hearted men does not negate the social and historical reality of patriarchy, in the same way that the existence of loving and compassionate cis people does not negate the social and historical reality of cis-sexism and transphobia, in the same way that the existence of inter-ethnic friendships and relationships does not wash away the legacies of ethnocentrism and privilege on the part of the dominant group(s), in the same way that the “philanthropy” of the 1% does not erase the horrid realities of capitalist exploitation..
To be a person of color, to be black, to be queer, to be a woman: is to know what it means to not be defended.
We know what it means to not be defended, to have no other choice than to marshal our own defense in the midst of continual defenselessness.
I’m tired of people not defending us. I’m tired of looking to people for defense.
I’m tired of longing for defense that has not come, that is not coming, that, should it ever come, is already late.
I’m tired of being made to feel grateful to those who belatedly defend us, if and when they defend us at all.
And I’m tired of seeing people belatedly defend us, after the fact, after the bodies have been piled sky high — after they have already eaten my ancestors’ rotting corpses — and expect to be congratulated, thanked, made to feel good.
I’m tired of being disappointed.
* * *
The main thing I know about intersectionality is that I am tired of living at the intersections of so much bullshit.
Women, people of color, queers and blacks must continually launch our own defense and defend ourselves for defending ourselves. We must not only defend against offenses – we must also explain both the offense and the defense.
These are fundamentally indecent things to have to do.
Anti-oppression work is an enterprise that is, by definition, beneath us. For it requires the saying and doing of things that shouldn’t have to be said or done.
It is very upsetting to be asked to explain why the on-going, everyday, routine suffocation of black and brown and queer and female (and..) life makes me sad and angry. It is beneath me to do this explanatory work, but I do it anyway. In part, I do it because I have chosen this line of work — but all people who experience oppression are required, in some way, to perform the critical exegesis of our pain. The demeaning shuffle and jive of our suffering.
It is beneath us to have to say that black and brown people deserve the breath in our lungs, the blood in our veins, the tongue and teeth in our mouths, the spaces we occupy. It is beneath us to say that our dead should be mourned. It is beneath us to say that colored knowledge is extraordinarily valuable and perpetually undervalued. It is beneath us to say that white supremacy exists, that the suffering it engenders is an immoral horror that should keep you up at night. It is beneath us to say that patriarchy and homophobia are moral wrongs. It is beneath us to assert the centrality of women’s work and women’s worth. It is beneath us to say that we are a wounded culture, a wounded society precisely because power renders the wounds of the less powerful invisible, unknowable and, then, when knowable, knowable only as the normal state of affairs, the way things should be, knowable not as a wrong, but rather as the evidence of the wounded’s unfortunate and indisputable inferiority.
It is beneath us to know that when people of color and blacks and women and queers do the work of defending ourselves, we will be appreciated less, embraced less, recognized less, paid less than whites and men who ‘enjoin’ the struggle. Even worse, we will undoubtedly be attacked, policed, shunned, shamed and punished.