Dear white and other racially privileged friends who experience fits of indignation when I post anti-racist critiques on my facebook page:
You see I’m often conflicted on how to best respond to your feelings. I recognize that they are legitimate and come from a well-intentioned place, but I respectfully and vehemently disagree with you. I could send you articles, data, statistics, artists, and much more about these issues – but no matter what I often get the feeling that you won’t understand what I’m saying because we’re speaking different languages. What I mean to say is that the discussions we might have about power systems like white supremacy are structured by the very logics of those systems. How can we expect to challenge systems of oppression when the ideas and language we have access to originate in those systems? How do we understand the destructive realities of racism when our bodies are primed to deny its existence?
As the terms of debate are currently structured I don’t think we’re going to go anywhere. The only way we can progress forward is if we backtrack a bit: if we forget what we read about in that one article in the New York Times, if we forget what watched on CNN, forget what we learned in our International Relations class, forget all of it. What I have to say to you isn’t new information – it’s been around for a long time. We just weren’t provided with the framework, the history, the tenacity to understand it. In order to become better anti-racists we can’t just expect to learn more about racism and issues facing people of color across the world. Before we do this, we must unlearn. In entering these discussions the question should not be about proving how much we know, but rather how much we do not know. Our pursuit of knowledge should not be about learning, but rather unlearning. The project should not be about becoming anti-racists at first, but rather un-becoming racists. This is an arduous, emotional, and at times painful process and violates the ways we thought ‘learning’ worked. This is not the sort of sanitized education that we learn in our universities – those degrees that teach us about the world without truly implicating us in its violence, without making us uncomfortable. Learning to become an anti-racist means unlearning the idea that we exist outside of the things that we learn – means relearning that we not only inherit the legacy of violence, but enact it every day with our silence.
Unlearning what we have been told
What’s always struck me in conversations about identity politics (and racial justice in particular) is how people tend to cite common knowledge in order to justify their claims. Such data is easily dismissed in other political discourse by progressives (imagine someone saying they didn’t believe in global warming because they went outside today and it was cold), yet the domain of identity politics is generally seen as a topic that everyone can equally weigh in on. The common knowledge around these issues brought up in conversation is largely misleading or flat out incorrect. The common knowledge and/or logics that people rely on is the very same knowledge and/or logics that systems of power instill in us to maintain power. We should already be skeptical of the ‘commonality’ of this knowledge in a world where racial violence, colonialism, imperialism and racial genocide are also all too common.
In order to meaningfully engage in conversations about racial justice we must therefore (un)learn common knowledge/tropes like these:
1. The It Gets Better Trope:“While I’m sad to hear that queer people of color feel isolated from the contemporary gay (white) movement, eventually their issues will be addressed…that’s just how social movements work…it takes time.”
Not true. Did you know that there is more racial segregation in the American school system than there was in the late 1960s? Did you know that there is a significant body of Critical Race Studies that debunks the valorization of the Civil Rights Movement and reveals the ways in which the CRM failed to realize racial and economic justice for the majority of people of color in the United States?
This meta-narrative of ‘social movements’ actually function as a tactic of oppression. We are told that ‘social movements’ were realized in the 60s and 70s and now women, gay people, and racial minorities have ‘rights.’ What these narratives don’t express is often more telling than what they do. What these narratives don’t tell you is there is still significant discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, etc. (just take a look at the demographics of our elected representatives). What these narratives don’t tell you is that largely only people with class privilege have benefitted from these ‘movements.’ What these narratives also do is construct a ‘social movement’ as an event somehow always relegated to the past and as an event that somehow exists outside of bodies themselves. Such narratives excuse us from thinking about how we are contemporary vehicles for the prejudices we have inherited and since cultivated.
2. The Rights Based Discourse Trope: “People of color enjoy so many rights in the United States! We extended the right to vote to everyone and passed non-discrimination legislation to make sure that no one can legally discriminate!”
We have to unlearn the idea that state recognition/rights is an adequate marker of social progress. This relationship is actually more fraught and complicated than we’d like to think. Most of the time, especially when it comes to anti-discrimination legislation, only people with class privilege benefit from these laws and their implementation. Also, legal recognition or incorporation in the legal/state apparatus can actually cause a spike in violence/discrimination. Take for example the recent AP Poll that demonstrates how 51% of Americans express explicitly racist attitudes against blacks – anti-black attitudes have actually increased over the past four years even though we’ve had a black president. As activist scholars like Dean Spade have noted, the realization of legal equality matters much less than the actually campaigns and movements for those laws. Just because you change a law doesn’t mean that you’re going to change anyone’s mind. Conversations can be some of the most radical tactics of our activism. Racism isn’t magically –over—because the law says it is. Even though there are technically non-discrimination policies in place in 2011 685,724 people were stopped by the NYC police – 84% of them were Black even though black people only comprise about 23% of the NYC population.
Despite what you might think, activism is not only about the courts, about demonstrations, about the law. The political is not only about your voting for President Obama and feeling like a citizen (for a day). Activism is about you and me in this conversation. Activism is about how you think, when you are silent, what you read, what economies you support, where you choose to live, what you dress up as for Halloween. In framing the State as the only actor in our conception of ‘social change,’ we displace our own culpability, our own incrimination in systems of oppression.
3. The Government’s Responsibility Trope:“Justice for Trayvon Martin! Send Zimmerman to jail!”
When 17 year old African American Trayvon Martin was shot in February 2012 many people of color passionately argued that Zimmerman should be sent to jail immediately. Justice became conflated with ‘prison sentence.’ This is symptomatic of our citizenry’s unyielding belief on the benevolence of the State and the criminal justice system as a remedy for all our grievances. The irony of this situation is that, in their call for justice, people of color activists further entrenched a system (the increasingly privatized prison industrial complex) that disproportionately targets and oppress our communities.
We must unlearn the benevolence of the State and imagine alternative modes of community-based justice. The majority of working class people of color live in constant fear of police brutality and state violence and surveillance. Every criminal law (criminalization of abortion, criminalization of drugs, etc.) has a disproportionate effect on people of color who are already seen as criminal by a logic of white supremacy. The State is one of the most pernicious sites of violence for women (police commit sexual assault against women who report rape), violence for people of color (racial profiling and the construction of the prison industrial complex which has put 1/15 adults in prison and this stripped a large percentage of people of color of their voting rights – a strategy that Angela Davis calls a new form of contemporary slavery), and violence for queer people (rape and ridicule of sex workers, trans people, and other gender offenders).
We have to unlearn our conception of the State as some monolithic entity: the ‘State’ is composed by thousands of different individuals like ourselves – individuals who share their own prejudices and yet are expected to implement policies and make moves that run contrary to their predispositions and beliefs (so many of them just don’t).
Unlearning what we see
Along with citing common knowledge rather than taking the time to research our positions on racial justice, we must unlearn our eagerness to cite what we see as legitimate evidence. We must avoid the: “It can’t be, because I haven’t seen this!” or “I saw this and therefore it is” move. A reliance on the register of visibility may be already antithetical to a project of racial justice.
The thing about poverty and inequality is that those in power always find a way to relegate it to the domain of the invisible. Did you know that in the US – apparently the most wealthy nation in the world – almost half of our population is living in poverty or near poverty? People around the world – including Americans themselves – don’t see this because the field of representation is always already political. The images that media, that popular culture, that our ‘diverse’ universities create are engineered in such a way that they often obfuscate the lived reality of inequality.
In (un)becoming racists we have to acknowledge the ways in which invisibility has always worked as a strategy of white supremacy and colonial domination. We can see this when we read the discourse generated by colonial empires as they talked about the savages in their colonies (the person of color is always hyper-visible, while whiteness is never marked), read the pseudoscience constructed to justify colonialism and genocide, read the way that ‘ethnicity’ was constructed as a category to incorporate Europeans into the ‘constructed’ racial category of whiteness and therefore continually exclude black/brown bodies. We become familiar with the ways that whiteness has always maintained its power through its invisibility. Even though whiteness created racial difference, it excused itself from ever being named as a race.
Another way that white supremacy maintains its invisibility and therefore power is with its reliance on results/static oriented thinking versus process/mobile orienting thinking. Racism is seen as something that inhabits particular bodies. We hear of ‘racists’ as a type of people that we can easily identify. This is not the case. Racism can be better be conceptualized as a series of actions – actions that we can discern from a cursory survey of the field of representation. Both white and people of color can do white supremacist things and participate in structures of white supremacy. In recognizing racism as an active process we can see how ‘seeing’ only captures a glimpse of it and is never able to obtain the full process.
(Un)becoming racists means that we have to learn to see what has been rendered invisible.
Here are some examples of how representation often arises in these conversations:
“I’m a White Person and I’m not Racist!”
This is a tactic used by white people who conceptualize racism as only an interpersonal or interactional phenomenon that involves the expression of explicit prejudice to a person of color. The argument goes that because a white person (thinks) they treat people of color with respect and don’t call them mean names, they are therefore not racist. Because a white person sees themselves as somehow ‘different’ than the category of a ‘racist,’ therefore they are not racist. People use this argument may cite ‘extreme’ examples of racism (like the KKK) to distance themselves from it.
However, this argument incorrectly perceives what racism is. Yes racism is interpersonal, but it is also structural. White supremacy is an institution, is a particular logic, an ideology. White supremacy is a particular logic of domination that has a long history that involved (and continues to justify and render invisible) the exploitation of labor of people of color around the world, the forced enslavement and trafficking of people of color, the genocide and forced displacement of people of color, the destruction of indigenous traditions of people of color, the extinction of native languages, the pollution and exploitation of the land owned by people of color, the rape and sexual conquest of people of color, the spread of infectious diseases of people of color, the torture and mutilation of people of color, among other heinous crimes. The very system of law, of governance, of propriety, of development, of modernity, of time, of reason, etc. is a result of these violent histories. Yet, because white supremacy maintains its power in its invisibility, we do not see these systems as racialized. Because we associate these atrocities with the past, with our ancestors, we do not feel implicated. Because we do not see ourselves participating in this corruption, we pretend that we are not.
White supremacy by its nature is invisible – it is something ALL OF US (including people of color) are socialized into. If you don’t believe me take an Implicit Association Test: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/demo/ and confront your own internalized racism(s). What we have to unlearn is that our bodies are unproblematic sites of knowledge. The ‘enemy’ is not something outside of us, rather it is part of us – what Ashis Nady calls “the intimate enemy.” The lens with which we view the world is already textured by white supremacy.
All of us are complicit in white supremacy, but white people may be even more unaware of this because, unlike people of color, they do not have to develop a self-conception of being a racialized being until they are in situations where their whiteness becomes hyper-visible (visiting a country in the Global South, getting called out in a Facebook discussion). Thus, when you hear a critique directed to “white people” it is because white people are significantly less likely than people of color to take the time to understand themselves as having a race and participating in structures of white supremacy. It is because, therefore, white people are significantly less likely to interrogate their racial privilege and acknowledge the ways in which their ‘success’ does not arise solely because of their merit, but also because of their historical and contemporary racial privilege.
“But my person of color friend said…”
This occurs when well-intentioned white people may recognize that they have a different relationship to visibility because they have not been racialized. So, they cite the knowledge of their person of color friend to justify their ideas. This is symptomatic of a tactic called ‘tokenization’ – which was central to the project of colonization. Native informants were used to justify exploitation of the colonies. “Because this Indian thinks it’s okay – we’re going to go ahead and do it!” One person of color cannot represent all of the opinions/thoughts/perspectives of a diverse peoples.
Also, because people of color have grown up in a white supremacist world that has told – and continues to tell them – that they are insignificant, are less than, are worthy of incarceration, death, genocide, cultural extinction. It makes sense that many of people color have internalized racism and aspire so deeply for validation from white bodies, whether they recognize it as such or not. In advancing this argument what you are, in fact, doing is appropriating a body of color for your white supremacist agenda.
“But I’m a person of color and I don’t think this is racist!”
People of color can also be complicit with white supremacy and prejudiced on the basis of race (let’s talk about Condoleeze Rice and her decisions which have resulted in the torture and execution of countless innocent brown bodies, let’s talk about people of color who roll their eyes when their community members talk about the racial oppression they have received from white people). As I’ve tried to explain, white supremacy is an institution that is perpetuated by all bodies, including bodies of color. Bodies of color can totally say things and make decisions that contribute to white supremacy. As a brown person I am totally complicit with white supremacy and say/do/think racist things far too much.
As people of color attempting to ‘make it’ in a world dominated by a logic of white supremacy we are often not provided with the language, spaces, or methods to identify and communicate our experiences with racism. Every part of the system encourages us to remain silent and go along with the agenda. In this system we are encouraged to call out people of color who are vocal about their oppression as ‘obnoxious’ or ‘extremists’ in the same way we are taught to view black bodies as ‘criminal’ and brown bodies as ‘terrorists.’ It’s the same tactic white people use to distance themselves from the KKK. In distancing ourselves from the ‘obnoxious’ we become more reasonable, moderate, rationale, and down with the (white supremacist) system. Thus it makes perfect sense that people of color – once they have access to privilege – want to hold onto it desperately and not revoke it.
However in order to be anti-racists (not just people of color, there is a difference) we must question the legitimacy of the standards of our success, we must question the parameters our tongues, our bodies, our politics, our thoughts have to assimilate into to become successful, we must question what types of people are unable to experience the privilege we have. We must draw attention to the ways in which has been and continues to be a site of extreme material and economic oppression of people of color across the world (look at the distribution of wealth across the globe thanks to centuries of (settler) colonialism, slavery, genocide, and empire).
Rather than blithely accepting the status quo, we must use our comparative privileges to create a space for justice for all people of color – including the poor, the immigrant, the incarcerated, the homeless, the colonized, the undocumented, the non-English speaking, the non-Christian, etc.
We must (un)learn validation from a white supremacist system. We must unlearn the drive to universalize our privileged experiences and unlearn the assumption that all people of color should be quiet. Instead of distancing ourselves from conversations of racism, we should use this thing, our ‘race’ to build solidarity with communities who do experience incredible disadvantages and violence on account of their race.
I began this letter establishing that the conversations we have around race are actually structured by the very logics of white supremacy itself. This is evident in the way that we are asked to speak about race in a ‘civil,’ ‘objective,’ ‘reasonable,’ and ‘appropriate’ manner that is ‘not offensive to white people.’ The conversations we have about race are seen to exist in a vacuum – divorced from any history. We continually re-invent the wheel when we asked to re-prove the importance of racial analysis. We must unlearn the ways we have been taught to speak about race because those ways are necessarily racist!
Every time I post anything challenging white-supremacy people get upset about the “anger” and the “radicalism” of the piece – “could you have picked something more reasonable, they ask?”
We have to (un)learn what we think of as radical. Radicalism a matter of perspective. The fact that 1% of Americans have devised tactics to control the majority of wealth in the world is pretty radical. The fact that people can still deny the importance of affirmative action or other programs to address centuries of institutionalized racism is pretty radical. The fact that students at universities across the world don’t learn about white supremacy, its history, and its current implications is pretty radical!
What we must recognize is that the very keys to liberation are constructed as ‘radical’ by the system to dismiss their legitimacy. How do you expect to end racism unless we think in ways that make you uncomfortable? Can you explain to me why there is still so much inequality in the world when people have been thinking reasonably for a long time? What we must recognize is no one has come up with the answers to solving social justice issues like white supremacy because of the mandate of this political pragmatism, the mandate of this reasonability, this demonization of imagining and thinking outside of the box.
We must unlearn our cursory dismissal of critiques and arguments that come across as too ‘radical,’ too ‘outlandish,’ too ‘unreasonable’ and recognize the ways in which white supremacy creates distinctions between what is ‘useful’ and what is ‘excessive’ as a tactic of its surveillance and control.
Affect and the Personal
Folks also may take offence to the “rage” of the anti-racist text. They may feel ‘isolated’ by this and ask for a less overwrought critique.
Such a response, once again, is a tactic of white supremacy. It’s the discourse around 9/11: “How could ‘they’ do this to us – how could they be so extreme?” (discourse which ignores histories of violent exploitation and imperialism directed at the Middle East by the US and called ‘foreign policy’) It’s a way in which affect/rage/un-rationality is always ascribed to the body of color without recognizing the real history behind this feeling.
Do you honestly think anti-racists go around just wanting so desperately to yell at everyone and get in fights? As someone who has been in my fair share of these I can tell you it’s pretty exhausting and isn’t that fun. We are turned to rage as a last effort. We have tried your methods of respectability; we have tried to express our concerns with racism and imperialism in your appropriate channels and forums. We have been ignored.
Our expressions of rage come from a frustration with a system of white supremacy that continually renders our voices and critiques invisible. Our expressions of rage come from a desire to penetrate through your noise-cancelling headphones (called privilege). Our rage has a history (and so does your disbelief).
Furthermore, what makes you think that feeling ‘isolated’ by this text is a ‘bad’ thing? In dialoguing about race we have to invite our full bodies – in all of their visceral honesty – into the conversation. We cannot endorse a paradigm of rational thought that sees our intellect as somehow ‘outside’ of us. What makes you think that challenging systems of oppression like white supremacy will be easy? What makes you think that coming to see yourself as a white person is going to be comfortable? If it was easy it would have happened a long-ass time ago. It should be an extremely isolating, difficult, and emotional journey to cultivate anti-racism.
What is more important is less that you are feeling isolated, but rather, what you choose to do with that affect. You could follow the route of most privileged people and distance yourself from that emotion and rest-assured in your white bourgie sensibility and surround yourself with people who think and act like you do and validate your integrity. Or, you could use this as a radical opportunity to unlearn yourself and unlearn your privilege. You could use this as an opportunity to reflect on how the majority of people of color exist in a state where they feel perpetually isolated by you. You could use this as an opportunity to reflect on your racialization as a white or privileged race person.
This learning, this cultivation of your anti-racist racial privilege, is not something that you can just develop in reading the articles you read on Facebook. It is something that you have to (un)learn in all realms of your life: it is a way of living and thinking that has to become infectious: the way you refuse to go to certain parties and endorse racist and/or colonial stereotypes, the way that you refuse to keep silent about the jokes made about custodial/janitorial staff, the way you can’t feel comfortable in a club with all people who look like you, the way you must even invite this critique into the bedroom and question the racist construction of your deepest and most personal desires.
Unlearning Knowledge Itself
The way we are taught to think about ‘knowledge’ is that it is something that we own, something that we control, something that we cultivate (not the other way around). In our Western education systems the accumulation of knowledge is dictated by a logic of capitalism and therefore functions with models of competition and scarcity. Knowledge becomes something that we horde, we amass, something that we must continually prove and subsequently use to justify our social position and distinguish ourselves from other people if successfully proven. Knowledge stratifies us – it divides the ‘intelligent’ from the ‘unlearned, the ‘A’ from the ‘B+.’ And we buy into this understanding of knowledge so much to the point that we pay tens of thousands of dollars for it a year and accrue significant debt and sleepless nights.
What if the way we have been taught to learn and express our knowledge is antithetical to a project of social justice? What if we don’t know how to learn how to eliminate racism and other systems of oppression because we have been taught to create empires and not movements with our knowledge?
Could it be – perhaps – that the knowledge we are taught is an insecure knowledge, is a knowledge that relies on continual validation, continual dismissal of critique, continual putting down of others? That insecure knowledge, that college degree, makes us perpetually terrified of critique – we the college students who get pissed when we get B’s on our papers, we the learned class who so deeply believes that we’ve got things figured out.
Our relationship to knowledge makes racial justice impossible because as with any project of liberation, we must liberate ourselves from dominant ways of knowing that the system – the same system that has incarcerated more African-Americans in our prisons than were enslaved in 1850 – has taught us.
In order to dialogue meaningfully for justice we have to unlearn this knowledge. We have to unlearn the logic of ‘criminal’ ‘justice’ as a means to make our nation more ‘safe.’ We have to unlearn that tinge of fear when we see a black man walking on the street at night. We have to unlearn the overwhelming beauty of whiteness that we see marketed to us on television screens.
The way we have been taught to ‘know’ is in a way that requires us to continually prove to the world that we know exactly what we’re talking about – that we have well-reasoned arguments for every belief we might have. Within this system of knowledge we get punished for admitting our ignorance – we don’t get the degree, we don’t get the job, we don’t get the credibility. We get punished for not knowing the ‘answers’ for not having the ‘finished product.’
We have to develop a relationship with knowledge that makes us eager, and not intimidated or offended by critique. We have to approach knowledge with humility and not dominance. We have to stop viewing knowledge as something that we can access as individuals, and instead think of it as something that we can only discern as collectives.
Ultimately, we have to perceive knowledge as something that is beyond our control, something that is continually unknowable and inaccessible. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that we didn’t know something, it should be an expectation, especially when it comes to issues of justice. We cannot make demands that these topics render themselves in intelligible forms that we can consume (when you ask me to prove that white supremacy exists). In making this demand we assume that the key to knowledge is about knowing facts, having results. What gets lost here is the process. We should think of anti-racism as a continual process of collective unlearning – a seemingly insurmountable project that requires us fundamentally to forget what we thought we knew, and commit ourselves to (un)learning anew.