Discrimination based on skin color, also known as colorism or shadism, is a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color.
To the many white people in African countries using us to make a name for themselves while overshadowing the work of those few who genuinely care and have a clue about what they’re doing, please get over yourselves, and find less insulting ways to feel good about yourselves
Mindy Budgor, who took a crash course to become the first female Maasai warrior. Glamour.com
A young white, middle-class woman from California learned on a trip to Kenya that Maasai women were not allowed to become warriors. Apparently, she learned this from a Maasai chief. The woman, Mindy Budgor, was shocked at hearing of such an oppressive culture and decided to become the first woman Maasai warrior in order to save Maasai women from their own culture. Budgor, having apparently succeeded at her mission – let us not dwell on the intricacies of how a white woman can become Maasai or the fact that Budgor took a crash course in becoming a warrior, completing in 15 days an exercise that usually takes years – returned to the United States and published a book titled Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Maasai Warrior.
Considering the number of white people who venture into African countries, particularly Kenya, in order to save the natives and in process themselves, Budgor’s story could easily have escaped the notice of the general public. Fortunately, this one didn’t. On the one hand there was the Western media who never seem to tire of these stories of white women thriving in harsh “tribal” conditions, then there was the backlash from African bloggers who have had enough of white people using Africa, African people and African cultures as their playground.
Ignoring Maasai voices
It is hardly a secret that there is no shortage of cultural appropriation when it comes to the Maasai people. Yet Budgor’s labelling of herself as the first female Maasai warrior marks a new, low, and could not have come at a better time, right on the heels of the massive online discussion about how feminism excludes women of colour. The white woman’s burden sees white women using their feminism to liberate their less fortunate “sisters” all over the world, regardless of whether the latter actually need liberating or not, from FEMEN encouraging Muslim women to dump their hijabs in favour of toplessness, completely disregarding the opinions of Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, to Budgor, who seems to have totally ignored Maasai women in her quest to bring feminism to them.
Several Maasai women have remarked on the foolishness of Budgors’s actions. One comment from a Maasai woman over at Africa Is A Country reads: “I am a Maasai woman (from Kenya) and we have seen these (white) women come and go. We have Maasai women members of parliament, doctors, lawyers, professors, civil servants, teachers, nurses, business owners etc., but of course, we don’t exist in the eyes of fools like this Mindy woman whose sole purpose always appears to be to fetishise Maasai men (our sons, brothers, fathers and husbands) in one way or another. How many books are going to be written by white women about how they came and fell in love with a Maasai man, gave up everything for him, helped poor ignorant Maasai women, taught Maasai men how to behave etc, etc. We are sooooo fed up!”Another Maasai woman was disgusted by the white saviour aspect of Budgor’s mission, the cultural insensitivity, and the insult to Maasai women and Maasai culture in general. In addition, the fact that Budgor is making money off this insult puts her in a space not too far from that occupied by the white colonialists and slave traders who similarly just came to Africa to take and enrich themselves. To end her dissection of Budgor’s actions, the second Maasai lady reveals an insight with the question: “why is it so easy for us to sell ourselves like this…if this woman was not a mzungu [white woman] she would never have had this experience let alone write about it. Are we still enslaved in our minds or what?”
It appears the majority of us Africans are indeed still enslaved in our minds. Literally every time I have expressed some discomfort at white women wearing traditional clothes from Nigerian cultures and attempting to dance cultural dances, I have been told to hush and be happy that white people are showing any interest at all in my culture. As if our cultures cannot be whole without a stamp of approval from white people. The reason Africans are still be looking to white people for validation and valuation of their cultures can only be due to the shackles of mental colonialism.
What would have happened if a woman from another African country had attempted to do what Budgor did? Would she have gone far in the process of becoming a warrior? Would any chief have paid her some attention? The truth of the matter is that we Africans tend to give more space to and legitimise white voices than we do our own; we are still seeking to please the white man, prompting Julius N. Timgum of the African Economist to ask“what is it about the white man that breaks us down to the point of submission? Do we have to continue stooping so low by selling our heritage at so cheap a price?” It is hard to know how far a Maasai woman, or an African woman from another country, would have gone in becoming a warrior if she’d tried, and I have no idea how many, if any, African women actually want to become Maasai warriors, but it is necessary to question why Budgor was allowed to go as far as she did. It is important to recognise and confront the way we Africans respond to white privilege.
The White Man’s Woman’s Burden
There is a long history of white people trying to liberate Africa and Africans; this was one of the excuses Europeans used to justify colonialism. Till today we still see versions of the white man’s burden, though not limited to just white men as white women and Westerners of colour fall into this trap, too. We encounter such people who believe it is their duty to help the poor, confused and oppressed/oppressive African “tribal” people. The more sinister truth is that these privileged people are only using their wish to help as an excuse, and are in reality selfishly looking for ways to enrich themselves at the expense of whomever they claim to be helping. This is not unique to Africa; there is a long list of white women being “initiated” into Asian, African and indigenous American cultures. Contrary to some African bloggers who seem to believe that Budgor would not have been able to get away with this brazen appropriation if she had tried it with Native American cultures, white women have appropriated Native American cultures for centuries. The white Australian woman Fiona Graham who travelled to Japan to become a geisha also followed a crash course, taking a year to complete what traditionally takes years to master. Her tale of cultural appropriation ended when the other geisha chased her away from the sisterhood due to her lack of respect for elders, among other things. The eventual rejection is notably similar to Mindy’s, who was lunged at with a spear by her “fellow” Maasai warriors who felt that she did not belong in their circle.
White women who appropriate benefit from it, they get published and interviewed. People buy their books and some of these women become the go-to Western authority on whichever foreign culture they plundered. I have met quite a few white British people who seem to believe they can change the world by travelling to Kenya to play with children, and maybe having sex with the natives, before returning to their comfortable lives in England. Last year I was (un)fortunate enough to attend an event that I thought was a fundraising for people who were displaced by the post-election violence in Kenya. It was quite a fancy event, held at a beautiful hotel in the English countryside. As the dinner progressed I found myself horror-stricken as it slowly became clear that the fundraiser was actually to sponsor a young, middle class white man to go to Kenya for vague reasons involving work with children. Money was being raised, not for the displaced people but for a white man to go on a “saviour” trip.
To the many white people in African countries using us to make a name for themselves while overshadowing the work of those few who genuinely care and have a clue about what they’re doing, please get over yourselves, and find less insulting ways to feel good about yourselves.
M Neelika Jayawardane is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego.
Whenever “Africa” is in the headline of mainstream US and European media sources, especially those that are highly regarded, I wince. I know the storyline is going to suffused by disappointment and resignation about Africa failing, once again.
While the rest of the world and its modern inhabitants are technologising and digitising, happily going about wearing jeans and T-shirts, there goes Africa, backwards into some apocalyptic, scarred past, wearing embarrassing tribal garb.
Sometimes, these media outlets allow Africa to come to the present, but of course, in dubious ways: embedded in the flow of “Islamic” terror-narratives: Nigeria and Boko Haram, Libya and its violent insurgents, Somalia and its troublesome “Islamic fundamentalists” raiding Kenyan universities.
It’s as though the editorial board is shaking its collective head with an exasperated sigh, and showing us, with a lavish, full-colour photograph, exactly why they are frustrated with the entire continent.
Sometimes, though, I’m just confused. For instance, the influential New York Times recently published an article titled “Who Is Telling Africa’s Stories“, covering efforts to develop photojournalism in various African countries.
The writer, Whitney Richardson, a photo editor for the paper, provided some contradicting points: Happy news about the growing number of talented photographers coming out of photography training institutes and collectives based in countries with divergent histories and presents – Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa – but also that these photographers do not produce work that is “professional” enough for agencies to hire them.
Richardson offered some insight into continuing problems that locally based photographers face getting international news agencies’ attention. What emerges as a solution is the need for young photographers to get international exposure, where, according to acclaimed photographer Akintunde Akinleye, they may also “learn the ethical standards of the industry”. The takeaway: unless international news agencies based in North America and Europe such as the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse pick your work, you are a nobody.
Yet, it is these very agencies that contribute to problematic views that simplify Africa into a repetitive trope. Africa remains a monolithic space of violence and poverty uncomplicated by global politics and military action, because the images and narratives chosen by powerful news agencies and newspapers continue to speak to foundational myths that Europe (and white ex-colonists and plantation owners in America) manufactured about Africa, in order to better ease their conquest and exploitation of a regionally, politically and socially complex, dynamic continental shelf.
If the construction of the African as child-like, or not quite human, who has little agency or intellect, aided the colonial project, today, the narrative continues to aid the construction of the European self as civilised, maintaining the African and Africa as the location of savagery, helplessness, and devastation. It also creates Europe as a desirable location that those who have no agency and have done little to better themselves attempt to infiltrate – much to Europe’s chagrin.
Aida Muluneh, Ethiopian-born artist, documentary photographer, and the founder of Desta for Africa (DFA) – a creative consultancy that curates exhibitions and pursues cultural projects with local and international institutions – emphasises: “Photography continues to play a key role in how we are seen, not just as Africans, but as black people from every corner of the world. Stereotypes and prejudice are incited by images, and if it’s used, yet again, to undermine those of us who are truly doing the difficult work, then we need to have some uncomfortable conversations.“
And when it comes to payment, there are further “uncomfortable” discrepancies that international agencies never reveal: “When we do get assignments, they want to pay us less because we are from the country; but for a foreign photographer, they will not blink to pay an arm and a leg,” adds Muluneh.
In Richardson’s piece, the prevailing view is that even though top photo agencies are looking for local photographers to “offset costs”, the Africans do not compare to western photographers.
Alice Gabriner, Time magazine’s international photo editor, expressed disappointment with African photographers (note, again, an entire continent’s photographers are lumped together), because they lack “completed bodies of work”.
But photography training institutions – producing photographers with “complete” bodies of work that have received international acclaim and awards – have mushroomed in the past 10 years. Muluneh’s own focus is on developing internal networks: to be “independent and to create our own platforms … and institutions … to be self-sustainable and to be able to compete in the international market.”
Despite the existence of photographers and journalists from African localities, they are not the go-to people that agencies based in the geopolitical West seek out. The New York Times’ reporters-in-Africa, Nicholas Kristoff and Jeffrey Gettleman, or R W Johnson, the London Review of Book’s go-to fave on South Africa, spin a good Africa story, seemingly with little self-critique, and with little thought to consequences.
The ideologies behind the image narratives and stories in English language news sources are presented matter-of-factly, with little resistance from alternative media in the US and Europe; although they often contain deeply problematic perspectives of significant issues, they are trotted out on a regular basis, whenever there is a “crisis” involving Africa.
Conscious and unconscious tropes
If we ask a photojournalist or a photo editor how old narratives constructed in order to aid slavery, exploitation, and colonisation, as well as current efforts to extract resources, continue to inflect themselves into how we conceive of Africa and Africans today, in current photo spreads, we’d draw blank stares, or be the recipient of hostile, defensive responses.
That lack of critique is partly owing to the fact that photo narratives reference prevailing problematic, and often racist, views; even those with expensive educations that taught them to be critical, those who hold influential photo-editing positions at the world’s most powerful news companies, still subscribe to these views, consciously or unconsciously.
For instance, only months before publishing “Who is Telling Africa’s Stories,” The New York Times published a photo essay with the troubling headline “Stepping Over the Dead on a Migrant Boat” by Rick Gladstone and Aris Messinis. The story focused on African migrants who had crossed the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe, but ended up dying in a capsizing boat.
The photo essay appears, at first, to highlight the migrants’ plight. However, the way in which they are portrayed, along with the provocative headline, made their desperate attempts to reach safety appear callous and inhuman (because what civilised person would step over the dead?).
The survivors who scrambled to get to safety are depicted as broken humans, at best, or those with unformed psyches that permit acts of barbarity that the Western “we” would never consider.
Photo-narratives such as “Stepping Over the Dead” bring up many familiar, and troubling, tropes common to the prevailing narratives about Africa. They teach a new generation of readers to view the African as an “other” to be pitied or feared.
These arresting images – constructed mostly by flown-in photojournalists, with the help of their photo editors – grab our attention; the best draw the fundamentals of their aesthetic from European masters, referencing visual cliches that Western-educated audiences can identify and latch on to. They continue and reinforce colonial mythologies, fashioning the “us” of the geopolitical West as “civilised”, defining and distinguishing the enlightened European self from the dark, savage Africa.
When the same newspaper prints a story about the struggle that African photographers face getting their work published, with little critique of their own involvement in presenting an insistently racist vision of Africa and Africans that simply masquerades as compassion, it’s easy to end up with a little schizophrenia.
How can African photographers hope to get work or recognition without reproducing expected stereotypes? Can they do so without the accompaniment of writing that exposes European or US governments’ interference and military presence – as in the case of Somalia, Mali, CAR, Djibouti, and Chad – or destabilisation efforts and military campaigns – as in the case of Libya?
Instead of leading the story with the dearth of Africa-based agencies, and offering the need to get recognition in North America and Europe – itself a problematic solution, available mostly to those who are already from middle and upper-class families who are well-connected enough to navigate visa and immigration regimes, not to mention galleries and art world sharks – why not offer better solutions?
Photographs have traditionally been regarded as “evidence”, or even as providers of indisputable “truth”. And there is little doubt that the present generation reads the world almost exclusively through images. In this age, where images play a significant role in how we read the world, photographs that accompany news stories have even more influence.
But the practice of reading, in which we currently engage, is undergirded by consumer practices; it is carried out with little critical ability, and with little historical understanding about how and why readers’ image repertories, and their thought processes are influenced by material cultures – including photography – that aided violent, imperial histories.
But because photography is seen as a “truth-telling” medium that reveals without bias, audiences and photographers themselves are unaware of how the narratives they help create continue to be inflected with the same stories that enabled Europe’s construction of the African as a savage or helpless, the “other” needing the disciplinary forces of Western civilisation to tame and aid their unruly bodies and psyches into modernity.
When Muluneh was recently interviewed by a local radio station, she was asked how she was able to photograph “the good” things about Ethiopia, “as well as the bad”. Muluneh explained to her interviewer that the “bad is the easiest thing to document”. Perhaps that’s something The New York Times’ photographers need to hear in a critical skills workshop.
M Neelika Jayawardaneis an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York-Oswego, and an Honorary Research Associate at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa (CISA), University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa). She was a senior editor and contributor to the online magazine, Africa is a Country, from 2010 to 2106. Her writing is featured in Transitions, Contemporary And, Art South Africa, Contemporary Practices: Visual Art from the Middle East, and Research in African Literatures. She writes about and collaborates with visual artists.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
On the penultimate episode of this season’s “RuPaul’sDrag Race,” the last four contestants gathered backstage, waiting to find out who would be eliminated from the competition to be named “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” As they sat in the “untuck” lounge, they made lighthearted small talk, trading compliments and good-natured shade.
The conversation turned, suddenly, to activism. Chi Chi DeVayne, a sweet Louisiana queen with a thick, country-fried accent, praised Bob the Drag Queen, a gifted, tenderhearted New York comedian, on her work in support of marriage equality.
“I wish that I had the guts to stand up for gay rights,” she said wistfully (the contestants often use male and female pronouns interchangeably).
Bob smiled and replied, “Go do it, you can start anytime.”
Ms. DeVayne, dazzling in full makeup and a fuchsia ball gown, shook her head firmly. “You can’t do it in Shreveport,” she replied. “They’ll blow your head off.”
That exchange reflected the cultural significance of “Drag Race,” for this particular moment in time.
Queer and gay culture has been so widely co-opted and incorporated into mainstream popular culture that it can feel commonplace, embraced by default. On the surface, that feels like a positive thing — queer narratives, like those featured in “Carol,” “The Danish Girl,” “Modern Family” and “Transparent” go a long way toward humanizing difference. We may live in troubled times, but this visibility suggests people are finding their way.
Yet, pop culture has barely started grappling with more complex and ugly contemporary narratives, ones that make clear that universal acceptance is still a fantasy — like North Carolina’s law limiting bathroom access to transgender people. This is what makes “Drag Race,” which airs its Season 8 finale on Monday night, so valuable.
Bob and Ms. DeVayne are both 30, but they may as well be from parallel universes. They, like the show, remind viewers that these discrepancies, these gaping chasms exist. We live in a time of extreme dualities.
In a recent interview with E. Alex Jung of New York magazine, RuPaul laid out the subversive function of his show.
“They talk so much about acceptance now today and it’s like, yes, but trust me — I’m old,” he said, ”It’s superficial.”
“Things haven’t changed that much. You see it in politics right now,” he added. “And you know, people will have you think, ‘Oh, we’re fashion. We’re gay. That’s my gay over there!’ It’s like, no. We’re still a very, very, very primitive culture.”
Now, more than ever, we need axes of realness to anchor and make sense of this strange world we live in. “Drag Race” has always been a show that knows how to balances scripted moments and genuine interactions — by turning the shadiness and catty drama underlining the plot of almost every major reality show into a good-natured theatrical performance, in which contestants earn points for the ability to mock one another.
Drag lives to be weird, to mock conformity, and pokes hole in the artifice of normativity, exposing the notion of fixed identity and gender as an inherently flawed premise. “Drag Race,” which in every episode asks competitors to construct new identities and costumes, lives to point out that our meat suits can be altered, that anyone can paint and sew a new persona, that all appearances are illusions anyway.
Last season, the show almost deflated that premise. Season 7 was dominated by two contestants, Violet Chachki and Pearl, who both shimmered on the surface, but didn’t seem to have much depth below, at least, none that they were willing to reveal. Phenomenally talented, and already Instagram famous before their first appearance on the show, they were willowy and fair-skinned, exceptionally gifted at pulling off classically “fishy” looks, which in drag slang means feminine to the point of passing. They won competition after competition, and praise from the judges.
“Drag Race” no longer seemed to exist to expose the performance of hyperfemininity, it seemed to cultivate it. The preference for heteronormative standards of beauty was tremendously disappointing.
But this season rebounded from that. One of the earliest and most severe eliminations was a pageant queen. And two of the season’s stronger contestants had male drag names. Weirdness reigned, through strong performances by Acid Betty, with her psychedelic palette, and the transformations of Thorgy Thor, a hippie with dreads and round glasses who invented a new character during every challenge.
Kim Chi, one of the show’s first breakout Asian-American contestants, constructed some of the most sophisticated looks to grace RuPaul’s stage, a combination of flora and fauna and dessert pastry. Charming and chubby, with a lisp, his most revealing moment came when he tearfully revealed that he has hidden his exquisite talents at makeup and costume design from his own mother, for fear she will be repulsed by his love of drag. In another, he confessed that he was a virgin.
Moments like that, both shocking and sad, affirmed the importance of “Drag Race,” the rare space on television that relishes honesty and exploration, that doesn’t subscribe to the notion that all is well now that we live in a post-marriage-equality world. At its best, drag exposes the charade of modern life, the idea that there are set rules to follow, and even if there are, that you can win by following them. Personality, growth, the ability to evolve and, really, to survive, were the traits that the judges prioritized this season.
But, you wonder, how can the show itself grow and evolve from here? At this point in its life cycle, RuPaul’s universe has expanded so much that a generation has been weaned on the show and its spinoffs, like “RuPaul Drag U.” “Drag Race” is its own feedback loop, its own perpetual motion machine. It’s as mainstream as a show about drag can get.
At the same time, “Drag Race” flourishes in cultlike purgatory. Even the show’s network, Logo TV, aimed at the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender audience, is squirreled away, available only to cable subscribers. Without streaming services like iTunes and Amazon Prime, “Drag Race” might not have the fandom and staying power that it currently does.
That won’t matter much on Monday night, when the finale is aired. It’s not yet clear who will win. In the second-to-last episode, after the group trooped back out to hear the verdict, RuPaul informed Ms. DeVayne that she would not advance to the final round and win the $100,000 or the title. She seemed unsurprised, and smiled. “You have taught me how to be a better person,” she said, about loving who she is and where she is from. “And $100,000 can’t buy that.”
At that, Ms. DeVayne snapped her fingers so clear and loud it almost sounded like a bell, before sashaying away.
‘Private and secret’ memo in the South African diplomatic archives reveals an astonishing proposal that India made in 1949.
On October 24, 1949, South Africa’s representative at the UN, G.P. Jooste, sent a ‘private and secret’ memorandum to his headquarters in Pretoria. The opening paragraph of the memo read:
“I have to inform you that shortly after my minute of September 23rd, Sir Benegal [Narising Rau] saw us and explained that his government had authorised this [meeting], at his own request, to discuss the matter with us on a non-committal informal basis. He therefore suggested exploratory conversations.”
My eyes lit up as I scanned through this document at the National Archives in Pretoria. Until then, most books on India-South Africa relations (there aren’t too many) that detail these early years of independence had given me, page after page, a story of massive confrontation – almost mythical in proportion – between India and South Africa in the late-1940s at the UN. So quite naturally, an informal dinner meeting between two top UN diplomats of countries that were at each other’s throats excited me. But as I read on, the excitement turned into bewilderment for Rau had proposed a casteist solution to a racist problem, alerting me to an issue that has been almost singularly stripped from any narratives of Indian foreign policy – caste.
One of the reasons B.R. Ambedkar had cited in his resignation from Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet in October 1951 was his exclusion from decision making on foreign policy. In the first couple of decades of India’s independence, the Indian foreign service (IFS) was the most elite of all civil services (which, as a joke went, suffered from Menon-gitis). But beyond the (Brahmin) men (in the first 10 years of recruitment into the IFS, only three out of 62 selections were women), how did casteist ideas filter into foreign policy discourse? In general, what role do caste dynamics play in the formulation of foreign policy? We have never known, because foreign policy as a matter of ‘national interest’ is deemed above domestic squabbles, such as caste. Yet, the fact is, diplomacy is carried out by diplomats, and their social milieu influences not only their views about what constitutes ‘national interest’, but also who constitutes the ‘nation’. No study has ever been done on this, but perhaps this document will prove a valuable entry point.
Let us return to our tale then.
A proposal for caste-based segregation
Less than three years earlier, from October to December 1946, the Indian delegation to the UN, led by Vijayalakshmi Pandit, had carried out a diplomatic David vs Goliath with perhaps the most respected statesman of the world then – Jan Smuts. The man who had “inserted human rights” into the preamble of the UN Charter left New York with “the honour, the power and the glory, all vanished,” wrote a sympathetic biographer, due to an “avalanche of condemnation” heaped on him by the Indian delegation on the question of human rights. Most prominent of these was Pandit herself, who called Smuts out for his hypocrisy on the treatment of Indians in South Africa.
On December 8, soon after an impassioned speech from Pandit, who, with a tear rolling down her eye, had appealed to “the conscience of the World Assembly,” India secured a two-thirds majority on its resolution against South Africa. India’s diplomatic assault had left Smuts to rue: “I am suspected of being a hypocrite because I can be quoted on both sides”. By sheer force of conviction, India had placed the issue of racism on the UN agenda.
By late-1949, through a continued strategy of shaming South Africa at the UN, India had been able to secure a preliminary roundtable for talks with Pretoria. Perhaps to create a positive environment for talks, in September 1949 Rau deliberately used a milder tone in his opening statement on South Africa’s treatment of Indians, and let his counterpart, Jooste, know that his statement “may be regarded as a compromise”. A former Indian civil servant who also played a key role in drafting India’s constitution, Rau was India’s permanent representative to the UN. Known as ‘the saint of the United Nations’, he along with Nasrollah Entezam of Iran and Lester Pearson of Canada, formed the ‘Three Wise Men’ group at the UN in those early years. Under Rau, the Indian delegation was once described by Alastair Cooke as “messengers of peace casting sweetness and light around” in TheTimes.
Rau sought Jooste out for an informal dinner meeting, at the behest of the Indian government, and Jooste was told by Pretoria “to be most careful literally to say more or less what is proposed”.
In the meeting, Jooste, accompanied by his deputy J. Jordaan, kept to his brief, detailing South Africa’s position on the issue. Rau, however, let his tongue fly. Showing a rather “unexpected measure of frankness,” Rau began with confessing, Jooste noted, that ‘the feverish attempts in his country to destroy all caste inequalities were resulting in what in actual practice amounted to discrimination against the erstwhile ruling castes such as the Brahmins, to which he belongs’. Interestingly, this confession came just over a month before the pro-caste equality draft of the Indian constitution was introduced in the constituent assembly. In introducing the draft constitution, ironically, Ambedkar went on to specially credit Rau for his sterling work in preparing the draft.
Going further, Rau stated that “Indians who went to South Africa did not belong to the best type and that, as in Burma, they may have exploited the local population and given India a bad name”. He added that the way the South African government treated them “might be fully justified and that in fact India would not mind discrimination against our local Indian community if only it was not based on racial lines”.
In his earlier discussions with Canadian authorities, Rau stated, he had proposed that Canada should allow “a small group of select nationals, say 20, to migrate to Canada where after a period of time they would be granted full rights of citizenship”. (Indian diplomats had indeed made such a suggestion to the Canadians, but the figure was 200) Based on this precedent, Rau enquired whether a similar proposal of citizenship to “a small number, say 10, of the cultured and best type of Indians” could work for South Africa “as a token to the world that the racial equality of Indians was recognised” by that country.
The Jooste Memorandum
It is clear from the contextual reference to Rau’s lament about “discrimination against erstwhile ruling castes like Brahmins” that his euphemistic reference to Indians of the “best type” was really a proxy for the upper castes.
Effectively, what Rau had proposed was that if a small number of upper caste Indians were admitted as equal citizens in South Africa, this would in principle mean that there was no racial discrimination against Indians and give South Africa a way out in rechristening racism as a form of minority protection. Rau’s argument was based on the premise that upper caste Indians constituted the Indian nation in its best form, and thus only they were its true representatives. Lower caste Indians were, in short, not Indian enough, and hence how they were treated did not matter.
Rau assured Jooste that as soon as South Africa did anything to “remove discrimination based on racial considerations,” India would end its opposition to the country. He further added that India was acting as a “bulwark … against Communism in the East” and had taken a leadership position, and hence, “could not accept the position of being the inferior race,” and the South African application of the racial criteria was “playing into the hands of the communists who, today, were representing themselves as the liberators of the oppressed and the champions of freedom and liberty”.
The reaction from Pretoria to this memo was cautious. They refused to entertain the idea of making caste-based, and not race-based, distinctions. Ironically, year after year, it was apartheid South Africa that highlighted, at the UN, India’s hypocrisy on racial issues by deeming casteism as a form of racism.
Casteism in foreign policy
So, how does a historian of India’s foreign policy read this particular memo written by Jooste?
One standard requirement would be to find out what Rau had to say about this conversation in his missives to Nehru or the Ministry of External Affairs. Such a letter doesn’t exist in Rau’s papers at the Nehru Memorial Museum Library, neither can one find anything in the National Archives. Short of conclusive proof, we are forced to ask the next best question: how much does one trust the authenticity of another person’s account? If it is a ‘private and secret’ memo of an external affairs department that is crucial in formulating foreign policy, there is a strong case for believing that this conversation actually happened in this form.
Or perhaps Rau was bluffing the South Africans to get a desired deal. We would never know for sure, although such a proposal of entry of just 10 Indians would almost certainly not work, given the strong struggle South African Indians were then waging within that country. Rau, though, had either misquoted or purposely brought down the numbers in the Canadian case from 200 to 20, possibly to make it more acceptable to South Africans.
The ‘small number’ argument had, in fact, also been used by Gandhi in his struggles in South Africa where he had asked for six Indians to be allowed to enter the Transvaal district, as an in principle acceptance of Indians as racially equals to Europeans. But Rau’s emphasis on ‘select nationals’ chosen from the ‘best type’ clearly referred to allowing only upper caste Indians, in order to sideline the racial argument. Although India’s argument on racial discrimination at the UN was only limited to discrimination faced by Indians – not Africans – in South Arica until 1952, it was broadly justified by arguing that including Africans would step on South Africa’s sovereignty and thus strategically weaken India’s anti-racial struggle. But Rau’s suggestions, clearly, don’t help in using that explanation either, since he believed that racial discrimination in general could continue as long as it didn’t ‘look’ racial towards Indians.
This, of course, gives credence to the argument that India’s anti-racism has always had limited sympathy with Africans, and thus is often hypocritical. But Rau’s diplomacy reveals something more: that Indian diplomacy has also, in ways subtler than stark, used casteist framings. And accordingly, while caste has, justifiably, been scaled up as an issue of national importance, recently its remnants need to be exposed even in the most sacred of our institutions. Foreign policy is certainly one.
Vineet Thakur is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Johannesburg.
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The 1966 film The Battle of Algiers is commemorating the 50th anniversary of its release, opening in more theaters across the country. As the Movement for Black Lives continues to disrupt and challenge the status quo, it also worth noting that 2016 is the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Black Panther Party. This edited excerpt from Sohail Daulatzai’s new book on the legacy of the film reveal only part of the influence The Battle of Algiers had on the Black radical imagination. The excerpt is followed by William Klein’s 1971 documentary on former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria.
Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the largest antiwar protest in history took place throughout the world. But to no avail. President Bush dismissed the protestors as “a focus group,” unleashing the bombing campaign that was known as “Shock and Awe.” Soon after the invasion, in late 2003, the Pentagon invited the military brass to a screening of The Battle of Algiers, and the teaser read: ”How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”
Well before the Pentagon screening, both U.S. Army intelligence operatives and the F.B.I. also screened the film in 1970 to try to silence domestic and global threats to U.S. power. The film was used as a training tool by the U.S. military as part of “Operation Phoenix,” and its larger strategy for the “pacification of Vietnam,” while the FBI screened it at the height of its vicious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which included the destabilization of leftist groups in the United States through the use of targeted assassination, disinformation campaigns, false arrests and the imprisonment of Black Panther Party members, in particular.
While security states were screening the film throughout the world, The Battle of Algiers was also embraced by a range of different leftist groups including the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army and the Tamil Tigers. In the United States, it was a favorite among the Weather Underground, Arab students organizing in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and later in the 1990s as Chicano activists in Los Angeles mobilized around the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico. In the 1960s and ’70s, the film was required viewing for the Black Panther Party, whose liberationist politics were linked to the anticolonial Third Worldism of Vietnam, Palestine, Cuba, and elsewhere.
This embrace of the film by the Panthers was part of a longer history of Black radical solidarity with internationalist struggles in general, and Algeria in particular. As Stokely Carmichael said, “Black Power means that we see ourselves as part of the Third World; that we see our struggle as closely related to liberation struggle around the world.” And he was far from the exception. Black Panther Party member Kathleen Cleaver said, “From its inception, the Black Panther Party saw the condition of Blacks in an international context, recognizing that the same racist imperialism that people in Africa, Asia, Latin America were fighting against was victimizing Blacks in the United States.”
Writers and activists from Hoyt Fuller to Martin Luther King had expressed admiration and solidarity with the Algerian struggle, viewing Black struggles in the U.S. in the context of anti-colonial rebellion taking place worldwide. James Baldwin also commented on Algeria and France’s brutal colonial war. He made many trips to Paris, and he often made reference to the violent mistreatment of Algerians in Paris, including the infamous Papon Massacre in October 1961 in Paris. Baldwin would write, “Algeria was French only insofar as French power had decreed it to be French. It existed on the European map only insofar as European power had placed it there. It is power, not justice, which keeps rearranging the map, and the Algerians were not fighting the French for justice but for the power to determine their own destinies.”
Malcolm X would also weigh in when discussing policing of Black people in Harlem, “Algeria was a police state. Any occupied territory is a police state, and that is what Harlem is. Harlem is a police state, the police in Harlem, their presence is like occupation forces, like an occupying army. … The same conditions that prevailed in Algeria that forced the people, the noble people of Algeria, to resort to terrorist-type tactics that were necessary to get the monkey off their backs, those same conditions prevail today in America in every Negro community.”
Theaters of War
The Battle of Algiers would screen at the New York Film Festival in September 1967, just after massive riots in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit had rocked the country. As the winds of Black Power began to gust, fanning the flames of urban unrest, Newsweek magazine reported, “Many young Negroes cheered or laughed knowingly at each terrorist attack on the French, as if The Battle of Algiers were a textbook and prophecy of urban guerrilla warfare to come.” Three years later, at a screening of the film at the Thalia on the Upper West Side, the New York Times reported that there was “laughter and applause when bombs planted by Algerian women destroyed restaurants frequented by the French,” and “at one point a cry of ‘the United States is next’ rang through the small movie house.”
The film would also be screened in 1969 at Amiri Baraka’s Spirit House in Newark, New Jersey, which was the unofficial mecca of the Black Arts Movement. Formed the day after the assassination of Malcolm X, and hoping to extend the legacy of his revolutionary spirit, Amiri Baraka and others saw the Black Arts Movement as a vehicle in which poetry, literature, theater, music, and film were central to Black liberation. The Battle of Algiers was part of a series of films and performances that also included the 1964 film The Dutchman (based on Baraka’s play) and the 1968 documentary on the Spirit House called The New-Ark, a triple feature of radical films that reflected the global sensibilities of the era.
Emory Douglas, who was minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, and whose graphic artwork was the basis of the official newspaper The Black Panther, traveled to Algeria in 1969 and was there when Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver emerged in Algiers for the first annual Pan-African Cultural Festival. In my conversation with Douglas, he said that, at the time, The Battle of Algiers was the most influential film in his life, helping to shape his artistic and political vision “because it did what I was trying to do with the Panthers—create a culture of resistance through art.” Not surprisingly, the Panthers would use Algiers as the site to open the first International Section of the Black Panther Party due to their admiration of Frantz Fanon and the Algerian struggle of which he was a part, while in 1970, Francee Covington would write an essay titled “Are the Revolutionary Techniques Employed in The Battle of Algiers Applicable in Harlem?” in the seminal anthology The Black Woman.
The film would also emerge as part of a much covered and controversial 1971 trial in New York City of what was known as the Panther 21, one of whom was Afeni Shakur, mother of hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur, with whom she was pregnant at the time. Charged—and acquitted—of conspiring to explode bombs at department stores, police stations, and other locations throughout the city, the Panthers had reportedly drawn their inspiration for this plot from the film. During the trial, the prosecutor, in an attempt to sway the jury toward a conviction, showed the film to the jurors. Twice during the courtroom screening, when the French offered an Algerian rebel a fair trial, several Panthers laughed at what could only be assumed was the deep irony and parallel nature of their respective predicaments. For some of the jurors, the responses were equally striking. For juror Joe Rainato, this would be his fourth viewing. Another juror, Ben Giles, said the showing “saved me $3.50 because I was going to see it after the trial anyway,” and juror Ed Kennebeck, who was now seeing the film for a third time, said, “The film did more to help me see things from the defense point of view than the D.A. suspected.”
Many Black activists saw in Ali La Pointe a mirror of Malcolm X—both were street hustler who were radicalized in prison and went on to become revolutionary heroes. Lerone Bennett, who was a vocal critic of Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for what he saw as the film’s troubling and confusing political impulses, said “some will say: ‘you are criticizing the man (Van Peebles) for not filming The Battle of Algiers. How could he film The Battle of Algiers when there had been no battle of Algiers in America?” But that is precisely the point. There has been a Battle of Watts in America, and a Battle of Newark, and a Battle of Detroit. A Malcolm lived in Harlem, a King in Atlanta, and Angela Davis is in a California prison. And it is impossible to make a revolutionary black film in America without taking these realities into consideration.”
This brief alternative history to the film is vital if we are to grasp any lessons from it for today. The screening of the film at the Pentagon in 2003 and the racial logic of the “War on Terror” have sought to control the memory of The Battle of Algiers and, at the same time, have negated the central questions and concerns that decolonization, Black Power and the Third World Project sought to address: structural global inequality, racial capitalism resulting in wealth and resource exploitation of the non-white world; the policing and containment of Black life, continued military interventions into and destabilization of the Third World; and deeply entrenched asymmetries in diplomatic, political, and economic power between the West and the Global South. It is these structural violences that now sit at the heart of the “War on Terror,” and it is their systematic silencing of which The Battle of Algiers continues to be a haunting reminder.
Sohail Daulatzai is the author of four books including Fifty Years of “The Battle of Algiers”: Past as Prologue and Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop. More of his work can be found at openedveins.com. Follow him @SohailDaulatzai.
micah white – the end of protest a new playbook for revolution
1. The most important thing we learned from the constructive failure of Occupy Wall Street is that social movements are born when two things happen. One, when there is a new tactic that arises that unlocks the people’s collective hope and imagination. And two, when a new kind of mood spreads throughout society. For example, during the Arab Spring, a Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire, triggering a mood of fearlessness that spread all over the world. People were no longer afraid of the authorities or of losing their jobs and rushed into the streets to protest. And at the same time, with Occupy Wall Street, we gave the people a new tactic which was the combination of the acampadas with the Tahrir Uprising: let’s go into the financial districts and set up consensus-based assemblies. The combination of these two ingredients is the formula for social movement creation.
2. There is a detrimental narrative that activists like to repeat which is that everything is a success. We like to tell each other that Occupy wasn’t defeated, it just splintered into a thousand shards of light. And you know, that is a positive story, but it is not actually the truth. And false positivity won’t get us closer to an effective revolutionary strategy. The truth is that Occupy set out to achieve very specific goal: to end the power of money over our democracies. And we failed. So I call Occupy Wall Street a constructive failure because in failing it revealed the limitations of contemporary activism. The movement was not a total failure, it did achieve some things and it did have some positive outcomes. But it was a constructive failure because it showed us that our methods of protesting and our theories of activism are false.
3. Occupy Wall Street gave birth to a new generation of activists. It made activism cool again; it made protesting cool again. And I think a lot of those people, and the ethos of Occupy, filtered into Black Lives Matter. But at the same time—and I totally support Black Lives Matter—if I could give a gentle criticism of the movement, I think that Black Lives Matter learned the wrong lesson from the constructive failure of Occupy Wall Street. The truth is that Occupy Wall Street did not fail because we weren’t disruptive enough. Occupy didn’t fail because we didn’t block enough streets during rush hour. Occupy failed because contemporary protest is based on false assumptions. The number one false assumption is that if you can get millions of people into the streets and be disruptive and have a unified message then our elected representatives will have to listen to us. Occupy Wall Street completely demolished that assumption. We had occupations in 82 countries, we had millions of people in the streets and Obama did not even mention the movement until we were evicted from Zuccotti. So we learned that our elected representatives do not have to listen to street protests: they are not required by the Constitution, they are not required by any sort of law. In fact, they can ignore us because protesting has become part of the daily work of the state. Protests happen and they manage protests and protests are irrelevant to the daily decisions that are being made. The continued reliance on disruptive protest tactics, like blocking traffic, demonstrates that Black Lives Matter learned the wrong lesson from the constructive failure of Occupy Wall Street.
4. Black Lives Matter actually represents a regression from the planetary perspective of Occupy Wall Street. I think what Occupy achieved is that we created a social movement that linked up with all the global struggles simultaneously: the people in Spain’s indignados movement, the people in the Arab Spring, we were all fighting the same struggle. And that was the most beautiful thing about Occupy Wall Street. We were part of a global social movement. And I see Black Lives Matter as a kind of a regression back to national social movements and a return to national concerns and American-centric politics. We need to keep imagining global social movements because that really is the future of protest.
5. Here is something most people don’t consider: why was one of the greatest social movements in recent American history created by a Canadian magazine? Why didn’t the call for Occupy Wall Street emerge from an American activist organization? And the answer is that American activism is fatally risk adverse. Too risk adverse to call for something like Occupy Wall Street. It is important to remember that people died during Occupy. A person died in Oakland, another person died in Vancouver and there were other deaths of participants in our movement. And that is a really intense truth and responsibility. Occupy Wall Street was one of the most grassroots movements that America has ever had precisely because it was started in Canada: we relied on local activists in New York City and beyond. Kalle Lasn, the founder of Adbusters, and I did not go to Zuccotti and try to direct things. Occupy’s origin within a Canadian magazine actually amplifies its grassrootedness.
6. Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street are the manifestation of a collective awakening. Social movements are moments when people suddenly wake up and something that has been happening all the time—like police shooting black people—suddenly becomes something that is no longer tolerated. Or, with the example of Occupy, the fact that corporations were giving unlimited campaign donations to elections suddenly became intolerable. So these movements are manifestations of collective awakenings, collective epiphanies. And we’re going to continue to see these collective awakenings. But the challenge now is how will these social movements become more effective. How will these movements use protest in ways that are even more effective?
7. Black Lives Matter did not fully internalize why Occupy Wall Street failed. The next social movement that truly understands why Occupy failed will be more powerful than both Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
8. One of the things that Occupy Wall Street was unable to do was develop the processes of complex decision making. If you look at the original poster for Occupy Wall Street, you’ll see that it says at the top: “What is our one demand?” Well the movement was never able to figure out its one demand because our general assemblies were not able to agree on a one demand. But at the same time, I think you must distinguish between revolutionary aims and reformist aims. A revolutionary aim for Black Lives Matter would be to become the force that appoints the police, to become the force that controls the police. Whereas a reformist aim would be something like putting body-cameras on the police. We need to dream even bigger than reform. One of the problems of contemporary activism is that we’re dreaming at a low level. Black Lives Matter can achieve something even greater that body-cameras. It can achieve something like being the President or maybe even being the President of multiple countries. A social movement is going to arise that will win elections in multiple countries in order to carry out its agenda globally.
9. We have prototypes of this World Party in Europe. We have the 5 Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain. The difference between what they’re doing and what we’re going to see next is that we’re going to have global social movements that spread across borders—like we saw with Occupy Wall Street—but that these movements will win elections in multiple countries. Protest will be used not to influence elected representatives, but to win elections. One way to imagine how this could happen is to place all of the elections of the world in chronological order. Then you’d build a social movement that didn’t happen simultaneously around the world but happened, instead, sequentially around the world, leaping from election to election.
10. Black Lives Matter, or the movement that comes next, needs to figure out how to be both a social movement and a political party. We need to become the ones in power rather than protesting the ones in power.
11. There are some things about Black Lives Matter that are more advanced than Occupy Wall Street. And one aspect that is more advanced is that for Occupy the tactic was synonymous with the movement. So once the tactic of occupy stopped working then Occupy Wall Street was defeated. Whereas with Black Lives Matter, it is smarter not to have your movement be synonymous with a specific tactic. Instead, the movement is synonymous with its message.
12. There have been large scale protests and revolutions every generation. And we have records of revolutions going back to ancient Egypt where there is a papyrus that talks about the king being overthrown by the poor people. Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter are all episodes in a multi-thousand year uprising that has been going on since the beginning of inegalitarian society. And during Occupy, we were very consciously channeling the spirit of the Arab Spring. And I think that Black Lives Matter very consciously channeled the spirit of Occupy Wall Street. And there will be another movement that will channel the spirit of Black Lives Matter into its movement. This is how we pass along the torch of revolution. It is a beautiful thing.
13. The intensity of the protests are increasing and the frequency of the protests are increasing too. But I want to push back and say: I don’t know if the effectiveness of the protests is increasing. And that is one of the core messages of my book, THE END OF PROTEST. The frequency and intensity might be increasing but is the effectiveness? And that is something that, as activists, we really need to be careful about. There have always been protests and there will always be protests. It is easy to settle for just protesting but we also need to be concerned with whether these protests are working to achieve revolutionary social transformation. At the same time, the only way to overcome a broken paradigm of protest is to replace it with a new paradigm of protest—critique is not enough to spark a revolution. And that is the task I’ve set for myself with THE END OF PROTEST: I’ve tried to go beyond critique to develop a new unified theory of revolution, and a method of tactical innovation, that will be the foundation for the next planetary revolution.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has written ‘an intimate confession of the fears of a black American father.’ Photograph: The Washington Post
In the US, where it has topped the New York Times bestseller list over the summer, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me has been hailed as the unmissable document of the current #ICan’tBreathe state of race relations. (The New York Times said it was “essential, like water or air.”) Coates, 39, a staff writer at the Atlantic magazine, conceived of his book as a letter to his teenage son Samori, just as 50 years ago, James Baldwin, the great poet-prophet of the civil rights movement, wrote his seminal work, The Fire Next Time, as a missive to his young nephew.
Coates’s book is a profound and angry address to a nation that refuses to prosecute police officers who kill innocent black men and women; that pursues a policy of mass incarceration hugely weighted towards its black population; and that routinely seems to think nothing of it. It is also an intimate confession of the fears of a black American father, fears that whatever positive values he gives his son, however hard he encourages him to work in school and do the right thing, out on the streets his body, the colour of his skin, will make him vulnerable to state-sanctioned attack. Coates has heard Samori weeping in his bedroom after watching the night-time news. The book is a response to the sense of powerlessness, and fear, that evokes in him.
“I write to you in your 15th year,” Coates explains by way of introduction. “I am writing to you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes; because you know now that Renisha McBride was shot for seeking help, that John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child they were oath-bound to protect. And you know now, if you did not know before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding… Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. All of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.”
It is Coates’s contention in the book that despite civil rights, despite the symbolism of Obama, violence towards, and subjugation of, black men and women remains ingrained in American culture from slavery. The denial of that fact is part of the “Dream” by which, in a phrase borrowed from Baldwin, those “who believe themselves to be white” maintain power and righteousness. The book is extraordinary both for the depth of its feeling and the unusual power of its writing – Coates is an atheist, but inhabits the cadences of the great religious orators as well as the voices of his literary heroes, Baldwin and Richard Wright, and mixes in some of the verbal inventiveness of hip-hop with which he grew up. Toni Morrison, who knows something about the language of provocation and wisdom, suggests that “its examination of the hazards and hopes of the black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.”
I met Coates a couple of weeks ago in a cafe in Paris, where he has decided to live for a year with his wife and son. It is his son’s first day at his new school and Coates is a little preoccupied by the fact that he will be the only English-speaker in his new class. One of the conclusions of his book, its pessimism about the circumscribed nature of black American life, is that escape is one option. He remembers nearly a decade ago his wife wondering aloud if they should consider a move to Paris. She subsequently took a trip and came back full of hopes and stories and with a stack of photographs of the French capital’s enormous doorways, with which she had become fascinated. Coates, who at the time had never had a passport himself, examined these pictures in their cramped Harlem apartment. “It had never occurred to me that such giant doors could exist, could be so common in one part of the world and totally absent in another…” The doors looked a lot like a symbolic way out. Some years later, while writing his book, Coates made a trip himself, and was entranced above all by the freedom, the absence of fear (“because my eyes were made in Baltimore, because my eyes were blindfolded by fear”) that he felt as an “alien American” in Paris. The family came over for a summer, and now they have moved here.
I wonder first, if that original liberating feeling persists? “It does,” he says. “I fell in love with it here and I still feel that. I like the distance. It’s helpful for me. It is interesting for me to be here and to be seen just as an American, primarily that. I talk and that’s my identity. It is a very different mask to back at home.”
Author James Baldwin, author of the influential 1963 book The Fire Next Time. Photograph: Associated Press
It took James Baldwin, another exile in Paris, that same distance to reveal a truer understanding of his native country. Coates only did the final edits of his own book in Paris, but was that context part of the appeal too?
“It was, and it is helpful,” he says. “The lines around race are much, much harsher at home. I am not saying they don’t have issues around racism here or in London or wherever, but racism in America is very, very sexualised.
“I haven’t fully worked that out but I think the way people actually came to be in America, through sexual violence, really has affected how black folks are seen. It is not the same as an immigrant population, as someone who just happens to be from somewhere else. Especially down south. There was no United States before slavery. I am sure somebody can make some sort of argument about modern French identity and slavery and north Africa, but there simply is no American history before black people.”
I guess one other aspect of his chosen exile is that it removes him somewhat from the attention his book has afforded him. That attention has gone right up to the White House, where Coates has been invited a couple of times to put his views to the president. He has taken Obama to task for not being more vocal on race issues; the last time they met the president took him to one side to deliver a simple message: “Don’t despair.” He tries not to; instead he trusts in his writing to make a difference. He has a vivid blog about the issues he sets out in his book, and continues to write for the Atlantic – this week a long story about American prison policy has, he hopes, “kicked up some more dust” – but he has no wish to be a talking head. He wrote the book, he says, because he felt he had no option not to, the news of last year being so bad.
“I am a little surprised to be honest by the scale of the reaction to it,” he says. “My editor said he had never seen anything like it. I can’t explain it. Expecting a reaction is almost contrary to the idea of writing over a long period of time. I don’t know. I was like a doctor trying to deliver a baby – you can’t imagine that kid at 18. I just wanted to deliver the baby successfully.”
It is, I say, a different kind of voice to most of his journalism, that richness of language; it almost demands to be spoken out loud. Was that the plan? “I didn’t start off as a journalist, I started off as a poet,” he says. “My ambition was to practise poetry. Then I found journalism but that other voice never fled from me. See, everybody makes the James Baldwin comparison, and they think it is a political comparison. They say you are saying the kinds of things he was saying. But it’s not that. Or at least that is not the thing about Baldwin that inspired me. It’s more Baldwin understood that if you are going to say something important about the world it is best if you try to say it beautifully. I don’t mean like picking flowers or writing on fancy stationery. I mean how you say it actually makes it a more meaningful piece of writing. I am going to push that further. It makes it a truer piece of writing. What you are saying is: ‘Can I make somebody feel this in a deeper way?’ That was what I was obsessed with.”
Did that voice come easily? “Hell no. I wrote at least three complete drafts.” Was he adding poetry or taking it away? “It was stripping away. The early drafts were more flowery. The effort was to say more with less.”
The fact was, though, that he felt he had no choice but to do it. One impulse was a proper response to the protests in Ferguson, Missouri and New York and elsewhere – that and the fact he returned to reading The Fire Next Time, on its 50th anniversary, and found it spoke differently to him, more urgently perhaps than it had done before. “It’s easy to forget Baldwin was a journalist,” he says. “I mean he is interviewing [Nation of Islam leader] Elijah Mohammad and others in that book. It is not him sitting on his ass in Paris saying this is how I see the world.”
I point out that Baldwin was 39, like him, when he wrote it. Coates Googles to check; he thought Baldwin was younger. And I suggest that both books feel like mid-life books, not only in the sense of personal crisis, but also in that they are expressions not of the anger and hope of youth, but of the realism and anxiety of pushing 40.
Coates was motivated to write about race by recent events such as the killing by police of Eric Garner, which sparked protests in New York (above). Photograph: Yana Paskova/Getty Images
“That’s about right,” he says. “I mean I read Baldwin when I was at Howard [the predominantly black university in Washington DC that counts many civil rights heroes and intellectuals among its alumni]. But it has taken until now to really get it. At the time, people were very excited about that crop of black intellectuals, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates. They were wonderful thinkers but no one would claim they were beautiful writers. I read Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Sonia Sanchez. I would think about that shit for days. Those phrases stayed with me in my head you know, like Sanchez: ‘Do not speak to me of martyrdom/of men who die to be remembered/on some parish day./I don’t believe in dying/ though I too shall die/and violets like castanets/will echo me.’
“I mean: wow. It was so beautifully said. It took me a while to realise she was talking about Malcolm X. They shot him. There is immense grieving in that. And that seemed very relevant.”
University seemed to have offered Coates a way out of the quite brutalised life he had known as a child in Baltimore, where, as he recalled in his first book, a memoir called The Beautiful Struggle, a large part of his mental space was occupied by how to get safely to and from school in neighbourhoods where murderous gang violence had become the norm. As it was, he realised that escape was not so simple: a friend and peer of his at university, Prince Jones, a straight-A student, hoping to be a doctor, was shot in the back and killed by a plainclothes policeman in a case of “mistaken identity” in 2000. The officer was not prosecuted and kept his job. The sanctioned murder of Jones haunted Coates’s understanding of American life, and resurfaced with the spate of police killings in recent years. Some of the most moving passages in his book involve him going to see Dr Mabel Jones, his friend’s mother, whose loss and anger remain raw. It took all of that for him to get James Baldwin, nearing 40, and to fear for his own son’s life as he had once feared for his own, and to write.
“It’s like that phrase of Baldwin’s I use in the book,” he says: “‘Those who believe themselves to be white’: because once I got it, once I understood what he was saying, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I ever heard. What it does is introduce the idea of human agency into race. This shit isn’t natural, and it’s not accidental. There was a decision that was made here. And I realised beautiful writing could make you feel a certain way and you could carry those feelings in you for a long, long time. I really, really wanted to do that.”
What does Coates’s son make of the book that is addressed to him? “He likes it. It was not like it was a finished book and I handed it to him. He read it. He read a draft even before I turned it into a letter. And I asked him about doing that and he said sure. I would not have done it without his saying yes. I can’t yet see what he will make of it or do with it. He’s too young. I will know in 10 years.”
One of the reasons Coates thinks a lot about fathers and sons is that his own father, Paul Coates, tried to school him in similar ways. The substance of The Beautiful Struggle – a kind of hip-hop Portrait of the Artist, denser in its poetry than the new book – is the story of their relationship. Paul Coates was a Vietnam veteran and member of the Black Panther party, a follower of Malcolm X, a self-taught historian of black struggle in America and an obsessive collector of books that told the story of that history. When Coates himself was a boy, his father started a printing press and cottage publishing industry in their house to disseminate some of these stories in Baltimore and beyond. Paul Coates had six other children, practised free love, but unusually among his schoolfriends, Coates recalls, his father was ever-present in his childhood, encouraging him to read, encouraging him to write, and occasionally delivering brutal beatings when he strayed, justifying himself to Coates’s mother by asking: “Would you rather I did it or the cops?”
Coates with his son, Samori, in the summer of 2001. Photograph: Ta-Nehisi Coates
“My dad always associated information with liberation,” Coates says. “He was very much in that Malcolm X tradition. I mean the story of Malcolm’s life was almost mythical. This guy goes into prison and he liberates himself through knowledge, finds a profound understanding of himself and his situation. That was an immensely powerful idea for men like my father. It was his version of the story of Jesus. He talked about it the way people talk about the crucifixion. You may not be able to change the course of government, but you can achieve some peace. And books were the path to that. I grew up in a house where books were everywhere. The authors my dad liked, the authors he likes, were all, like him, self-taught. He is talking about retiring at the moment but I think he might do it till the day he dies.”
His dad must be proud of Coates’s achievements? “Yes, he is very proud. And I am extremely pleased to have made him proud.”
You have become what he hoped you would become? “I don’t think he had any idea this was possible. I think he would have told you Ta-Nehisi is a smart kid he could get somewhere. But this is certainly beyond my imagination, and his.”
I wonder how much Coates felt himself in the tradition of that Black Panther movement that his father helped to organise, which advocated armed struggle as one means to achieve fuller liberation? “Violence was definitely part of it,” he says. “And that was powerful for me as a child, as I say in the book. Guns were romantic, right. But they were also part of the language that I recognise my country speaks. That is how we talk in America. The memoir was an attempt to take everything I was as a child, everything I had seen by the age of 19 or 20 and mash it together and try to find some kind of creative voice out of that.”
His experience of Baltimore at that time, he says, was very similar to that portrayed by David Simon in The Wire, a city falling apart because of the arrival of crack cocaine and abandonment of whole neighbourhoods by civic authorities. One way out was music: Coates’s first aspiration was to be a rap artist.
“Hip-hop was really the first literature I studied,” he says. “I tried to do it. But I wasn’t very good. It is extremely hard, it is not just a question of coming up with words that rhyme. When I first read Shakespeare, I fell in love with Macbeth. There was a particular scene where Macbeth is talking to the murderers, trying to get them to kill Banquo and they agree. ‘I am one, my liege, whom the vile blows and buffets of the world have so incensed that I am reckless what I do to spite the world.’ That sounded to me just like a rapper would describe his life. I’m just so beat down I don’t give a fuck. Bring it on. That is the core message of hip-hop right there. That realisation said to me there is something human in this, that desperation that is expressed there can’t be bounded by time, or place, or society, or race. It is a deeply human feeling.”
Coates with his father Paul. “Dad had been a captain in the Black Panther Party”. Photograph: Ta-Nehisi Coates
The act of articulating that feeling is, in a sense, the only hope that he offers Samori in his letter to him. The necessity is to understand the nature of the struggle, the way the land lies, and to be able to express it. Did he himself feel better for doing so? “Was it cathartic? I don’t know. I felt better that it was said. I didn’t want to walk around with it.”
In person Coates is warm and relaxed, full of intellectual energy, but his book is short on solace or solutions or much in the way of optimism. It preaches a gospel of brutal truths about race, and stresses the importance of acknowledging them as an aspiration in itself. Despite the fact of a black American president, despite the media focus on the protest against police killings, he sees no prospect of much change, at least not until America acknowledges the facts of its history. It is, I suggest, an argument above all against the requirement to be hopeful.
“Yes,” he says. “But I’m a writer. I have no responsibility to be hopeful. This is literature. I don’t need to be arguing that in five years we are going to turn a profit. I don’t need to look for redemption.”
But in America in particular, doesn’t that need for redemption, for optimism, run deep? “Yes and I think that it is deeply injurious to us all. If all your movies and all your stories have to end with the good guy winning on some fundamental level, your culture is not being honest about the world. My job is to look out and see what I see and to be just as honest as I can.”
O.J. Simpson gave Richard M. Nixon, then the president-elect, an autographed ball in 1968 with other college football stars.CreditAssociated Press
I was born in the shadow of the 21st century, so I never knew O. J. Simpson as an athlete or as an actor. I wasn’t quite a year old on Jan. 1, 1989, the day Simpson beat his wife, Nicole Brown-Simpson, so badly that she fled their house screaming, “He’s going to kill me!” I was only 6 on June 17, 1994, when the N.B.A. finals broadcast cut away to a shot of Simpson’s white Ford Bronco creeping down a California highway, escorted by a line of black-and-whites, as if in a funeral procession. That was four days after Brown-Simpson, 35, and her friend Ronald Goldman, 25, were found dead in pools of blood, nearly decapitated. Some of my earliest memories are of that white Bronco, and of the “Trial of the Century” that followed, and of my parents’ happiness when Simpson was acquitted.
I understand now that I was watching Simpson’s fall. As recently as a few months ago, though, I still couldn’t contextualize Simpson, the things he had accomplished or the lofty position he occupied in America — in whiteAmerica. I approached older friends, people who had grown up watching Simpson move from a Hall of Fame N.F.L. career to mainstream megastardom, and asked them who his modern equivalent would be.
But there aren’t any. Few American athletes have been as widely beloved as Simpson was. Even today, his popularity seems inconceivable. “O. J.: Made in America,” the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary directed by Ezra Edelman that is airing this week, busies itself with the making of the man at the myth’s center and with the country that helped him become a monster. It’s the best thing ESPN has ever produced. And it answers my question: Simpson’s story is that of a black man who came of age during the civil rights era and spent his entire adult life trying to “transcend race” — to claim that strange accolade bestowed on blacks spanning from Pelé to Prince to Nelson Mandela to Muhammad Ali. Which is to say, it’s the story of a halfback trying, and failing, to outrun his own blackness.
This country was built on the backs of black slaves whose lives and labor were stolen by their white masters. That theft created a caste system in which both groups of people could occupy the same spaces yet have completely different experiences: a white America and a black America. This was true in 1619, in 1865 and in 1947, when Simpson was born; it holds true today.
Yet there are a few blacks — the most singular and spectacular among us — who have unique and priceless gifts to offer. Racial transcendence happens when white America takes these gifts for itself, in exchange for acceptance within white culture. It is the mechanism through which whites acknowledge the humanity of black superhumans and which allows these few to move, supposedly, beyond blackness, their talents granting them safe passage through white spaces, mouths and memories. Every black person, successful or not, has to overcome a steep handicap; the idea of racial transcendence is anchored in the fallacy that the handicap is blackness itself, rather than a society that terrorizes and undermines blacks at every turn.
Racial transcendence is a lie, but it’s one that Simpson believed in deeply. In the first installment of “O. J.: Made in America,” a sociologist and activist named Dr. Harry Edwards describes his efforts to recruit Simpson into a collective of black athletes working for civil rights in the late 1960s — people like Muhammad Ali, Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Jim Brown and the Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists in a black-power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
Simpson refused. After just one season at the University of Southern California, it was obvious that he was a priceless talent. It wasn’t just that he was stronger and faster than everyone else was; Simpson ran almost daintily, tiptoeing through seams visible only to him, leaving defenders diving at air. He had emerged from nowhere, fully formed, already one of the best college running backs of all time and already more famous than most of the athletes in Edwards’s collective.
“His response,” Edwards remembers in the documentary, “was, ‘I’m not black, I’m O. J.’ ” In 1968, the same year Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Simpson believed he could escape race in America.
For as long as there have been Negroes in the country, there have been “exceptional Negroes.” When Joe Louis was boxing in the 1930s and 1940s, his talent and humility allowed him to be thought of, his son claimed, “as an American, not as a black. By winning, he became white America’s first black hero.” The sportswriter Jimmy Cannon called Louis “a credit to his race — the human race.” This is the same fraudulent race-blindness that remains widespread today, found in people who claim that they “don’t see color” or that “All Lives Matter”; it’s a nasty bit of gaslighting — the denial of racism through the denial of race itself. At its best, Edelman’s documentary reveals what made Simpson unique: not simply that he tried to outrun his blackness, but the herculean efforts he made to do so. Simpson, with his team of friends and hangers-on, erected a self-contained, race-free universe, one he inhabited for much of his adult life.
At no point is this more obvious than when the documentary recounts the shooting of his famous 1978 Hertz commercial. To advertise the rental-car giant’s speed of service, the company’s chief executive, Frank Olson, enlisted Simpson to run through Newark International Airport. That simple conceit required that an entire false reality be built to support it. No other black people could be included in the shot. Fred Levinson, who directed the scene, instead added white bystanders, who cheered on Simpson as he sprinted through the empty hallways, telegraphing that he was safe, and therefore that they were, too.
Hertz’s universe was like Simpson’s, held together with lies, ever on the verge of collapse. Levinson was able to look at a man with hickory skin, full lips, a wide nose and a nappy Afro, and say this: “He’s African, but he’s a good-looking man. He almost has white features.” Olson continues: “For us, O. J. was colorless. None of the people that we associated with looked at him as a black man.”
One of the most alarming anecdotes in the documentary comes from Robert Lipsyte, a former sportswriter for The New York Times. “He was telling me a story about being at a teammate’s wedding with his wife and sitting at a table of mostly, as he said it, mostly Negroes,” Lipsyte recounts. “And he overheard a white woman sitting at the next table saying, ‘Look, there’s O. J. sitting with all those niggers.’ And I remember in my naïveté saying, ‘That must have been terrible for you.’ And he said, ‘No, it was great. Don’t you understand? She knew that I wasn’t black. She saw me as O. J.’ ”
In a time of black revolution, Simpson was a counterrevolutionary; as blacks embraced black power and self-love, Simpson surrounded himself with white people. There were plenty of great black football players around his time, but Simpson was special: Not only did he play better than most, he also used his wit and charm in the service of making white people feel safe. In a period of nationwide change and unrest, he was “one of the good ones.”
He played the role happily, and it brought him a level of fame as unprecedented as his eventual fall. “O. J.: Made in America” makes it very plain that Simpson almost certainly committed the murders and that he almost certainly was going to be acquitted from the beginning. The Los Angeles Police Department’s collection of evidence from the crime scene was botched, as was the prosecution itself. The trial was held just two years after Rodney King’s beating by L.A.P.D. officers, their acquittals and the ensuing riots. The two cases further divided the city along racial lines, laying bare the way that blacks and whites could occupy the same space yet live in separate worlds. When Simpson left the courthouse a free man, blacks across the country rejoiced, his white friends and fawners abandoned him and the universe around him crumbled.
Simpson seems to have understood many things about how so-called racial transcendence works. He understood how black talent could be co-opted for white gain and how, by denying his blackness, he could exercise a perverse control over his image. He understood that racial transcendence is less about who you are and more about who you aren’t. In this country, racially transcendent blacks are used as exemplars, direct foils to creeping black counterculture. Some blacks are complicit in the caper; Simpson was the perfect portrait of an anti-angry black athlete. When Richard Pryor was lacing his sets with the word “nigger,” Bill Cosby was beginning to peddle respectability politics; he remained transcendent until the world was reminded of allegations that he had spent his career drugging and raping women. When Allen Iverson was popularizing cornrows, baggy shorts and tattoos in the N.B.A., Tiger Woods was the respectable black athlete on the golf circuit. Even now, the N.B.A.’s most valuable player, Steph Curry — who transforms from a trash-talking showman during the game to a humble, God-fearing introvert minutes after — is the subject of all manner of racial projection and notes on skin tone. A white friend of mine once called him the league’s first Great White Hope since Larry Bird.
What Simpson may not have recognized, though, is that the United States’ history is a story of theft, and theft doesn’t require cooperation. Talents you don’t trade can be stolen through your silence, through your absence or after your death. And once you’ve been marked as having “transcended race,” the success you’ve earned in spite of white racism can be twisted into an example of white magnanimity. Muhammad Ali was a menace, a black fighter who engaged in psychological warfare with his opponents, changed his name after joining a black-supremacist sect and gave up the best years of his career in exile rather than killing for a country he decried as racist — yet after his death, the sportscaster Chris Myers could tweet that “When you saw #Ali, you didn’t see color, you didn’t see religion.” Martin Luther King Jr., harassed by the F.B.I. and ultimately assassinated, is now deployed as a symbol of a nation that has achieved colorblindness. Whitney Houston, a black woman who made black music after finding her voice in a black church, was congratulated on transcending race after her death. You can imagine the Barack Obama obituaries to come.
I grew up in a different America from the one in which Simpson did, but one thing still unites our two worlds: The highest compliment America will pay black people today is to say they escaped their blackness, which is to say they escaped themselves. As long as Simpson’s shortcomings were kept to cheating in golf against wealthy, white businessmen, and his physical abuse of Brown-Simpson was kept behind closed doors, he could pretend that he wasn’t black — just O. J. But when he stood trial for murder, he did so as a black man. Racial transcendence is, above all, probationary.
Correction: June 18, 2016
An earlier version of this article misquoted a former New York Times sportswriter, Robert Lipsyte, a subject in ESPN’s documentary on O. J. Simpson. When recounting what had caused him to ask O. J. Simpson if an interaction at a colleague’s wedding was terrible for him, Lipsyte said, “And I remember in my naïveté, (not ‘in my light of day’) saying, ‘That must have been terrible for you.’”
Most Indians think racism exists only in the West and see themselves as victims. It’s time they examined their own attitudes towards people from the country’s North-East
The mysterious death of Loitam Richard in Bangalore, the murder of Ramchanphy Hongray in New Delhi, the suicide by Dana Sangma and other such incidents serve as reminders of the insecure conditions under which people, particularly the young, from the north-east of India have to live with in the metros of this country. What these deaths have in common is that the three individuals were all from a certain part of the country, had a “particular” physical appearance, and were seen as outsiders in the places they died. These incidents have been read as a symptom of the pervasive racial discrimination that people from the region face in metropolitan India.
An institutionalised form
Quite expectedly, such an assertion about the existence of racism in India will not be taken seriously; the response will be to either remain silent and refuse to acknowledge this form of racism or, fiercely, to reject it. Ironically, most Indians see racism as a phenomenon that exists in other countries, particularly in the West, and without fail, see themselves as victims. They do not see themselves harbouring (potentially) racist attitudes and behaviour towards others whom they see as inferior.
But time and again, various groups of people, particularly from the north-east have experienced forms of racial discrimination and highlighted the practice of racism in India. In fact, institutionalised racism has been as much on the rise as cases of everyday racism in society.
In a case of racial profiling, the University of Hyderabad chose to launch its 2011 “initiative” to curb drinking and drug use on campus by working with students from the north-east. In 2007, the Delhi Police decided to solve the problems of security faced by the north-easterners in Delhi, particularly women, by coming up with a booklet entitled Security Tips for North East Students asking north-eastern women not to wear “revealing dresses” and gave kitchen tips on preparing bamboo shoot, akhuni, and “other smelly dishes” without “creating ruckus in neighbourhood.”
Very recently, in the run-up to the BRICS summit in New Delhi, the Delhi Police’s motto of “citizens first” was on full display, when they arrested or put under preventive detention the non-citizens — the Tibetan refugees. But the real problem for the security personnel cropped up when they had to identity Tibetans on the streets of Delhi. This problem for the state forces was compounded by the fact that Delhi now has a substantial migrant population from the north-east whose physical features could be quite similar to those of Tibetans. So, the forces went about raiding random places in Delhi, questioning and detaining people from the region. North-eastern individuals travelling in vehicles, public transport, others at their workplaces, and so on all became suspects.
Many were asked to produce their passports or other documents to prove that, indeed, they were Indian citizens and not refugee Tibetans. In some cases, “authentic” Indians had to intervene in order to endorse and become guarantors of the authenticity of the nationality of these north-easterners. The situation became farcical and caught the attention of the judiciary reportedly after two lawyers from the region were interrogated and harassed. The Delhi High Court directed the Delhi police not to harass people from the north-east and Ladakh. How much easier it would have been for the Delhi Police, if only citizenship and physiognomy matched perfectly.
But should one expect otherwise from these state and public institutions, given the fact that racism is rampant at the level of societal everyday experiences? For north-easterners who look in a particular manner, everyday living in Indian cities can be a gruelling experience. Be it the mundane overcharging of fares by autoricksaw- wallahs, shopkeepers and landlords, the verbal abuse on the streets and the snide remarks of colleagues, friends, teachers, or the more extreme experiences of physical and sexual assaults. It is often a never-ending nightmare, a chronicle of repetitive experience.
One also wonders if racial attitudes, if not outright racism, influence many more aspects of life than one imagines. For instance, whether there is any racial profiling of employment opportunities, given the concentration of jobs for north-easterners mostly in the hospitality sector, young women in beauty salons, restaurants and as shop assistants.
Visible and unseen
Of course, racism is difficult to prove — whether in the death of Richard or in the case of harassment of a woman from the north-east. And it should not surprise us if racism cannot be clearly established in either of these cases because that’s how racism works — both the visible, explicit manifestations as well as the insidious, unseen machinations. Quite often, one can’t even recount exactly what was wrong about the way in which a co-passenger behaved, difficult to articulate a sneer, a tone of voice that threatened or taunted, the cultural connotations that can infuriate.
How does one prove that when an autorickshaw driver asks a north-easterner on the streets of Delhi if he or she is going to Majnu ka Tila, a Tibetan refugee colony, that the former is reproducing a common practice of racial profiling? This remark could be doubly interpreted if made to a woman from the region — both racial and gendered. How do I prove racism when a young co-passenger on the Delhi Metro plays “Chinese” sounding music on his mobile, telling his friend that he is providing, “background music,” sneering and laughing in my direction? And what one cannot retell in the language of evidence, becomes difficult to prove. Racism is most often felt, perceived, like an invisible wound, difficult to articulate or recall in the language of the law or evidence. In that sense, everyday forms of racism are more experiential rather than an objectively identifiable situation.
Of course, every once in a while, there will be an incident of extreme, outrageous violence that is transparently racial in nature and we will rally around and voice our anger but it is these insidious, everyday forms of racial discrimination that bruise the body and the mind, build up anger and frustration. Fighting these everyday humiliations exhausts our attempts at expression.
If one is serious about fighting racial discrimination, this is where rules must change — by proving to us that in Richard’s death there was no element of racism. Given the pervasiveness of racism in everyday life, why should we listen when we are told that those who fought with him over a TV remote were immune to it?
To recognise that racism exists in this country and that many unintended actions might emanate from racism can be a good place to start fighting the problem. To be oblivious of these issues or to deny its existence is to be complicit in the discriminatory regime. Also, the reason for fighting against racism is not because it is practised against “our” own citizens but because it is wrong regardless of whether the victims of racism are citizens of the country or not. One way to be critical of racism is to recognise and make visible the presence of racism rather than merely resorting to legalistic means to curb this discrimination.
(Yengkhom Jilangamba is a Visiting Associate Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.)
Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, the first black president of Howard University
Dave Weigel is one of my favorite reporters, but I think this piece on Jason Richwine, intelligence research, and “race” deserves a closer look:
Academics aren’t so concerned with the politics. But they know all too well the risks that come with research connecting IQ and race. At the start of his dissertation, Richwine thanked his three advisers — George Borjas, Christopher Jenks, and Richard Zeckhauser — for being so helpful and so bold. Borjas “helped me navigate the minefield of early graduate school,” he wrote. “Richard Zeckhauser, never someone to shy away from controversial ideas, immediately embraced my work. …”
Anyone who works in Washington and wants to explore the dark arts of race and IQ research is in the right place. The city’s a bit like a college campus, where investigating “taboo” topics is rewarded, especially on the right. A liberal squeals “racism,” and they hear the political-correctness cops (most often, the Southern Poverty Law Center) reporting a thought crime.
It is almost as though the “dark arts of race and IQ” were an untapped field of potential knowledge, not one of the most discredited fields of study in modern history. We should first be clear that there is nothing mysterious or forbidden about purporting to study race and intelligence. Indeed, despite an inability to define “race” or “intelligence,” such studies are one of the dominant intellectual strains in Western history. We forget this because its convient to believe that history begins with the Watts riots. But it’s important to remember the particular tradition that Charles Murray and Jason Richwine are working in. A brief reminder seems in order.
Here is antebellum “race realist” Josiah Clark Nott writing in 1854 to justify slavery:
That Negroes imported into, or born in, the United States become more intelligent and better developed in their physique generally than their native compatriots of Africa, every one admits; but such intelligence is easily explained by their ceaseless contact with the whites, from whom they derive much instruction; and such physical improvement may also be readily accounted for by the increased comforts with which they are supplied. In Africa, owing to their natural improvidence, the Negroes are, more frequently than not, a half-starved, and therefore half-developed race; but when they are regularly and adequately fed, they become healthier, better developed, and more humanized. Wild horses, cattle, asses, and other brutes, are greatly improved in like manner by domestication : but neither climate nor food can transmute an ass into a horse, or a buffalo into an ox.
These new immigrants were no longer exclusively members of the Nordic race as were the earlier ones who came of their own impulse to improve their social conditions. The transportation lines advertised America as a land flowing with milk and honey and the European governments took the opportunity to unload upon careless, wealthy and hospitable America the sweepings of their jails and asylums. The result was that the new immigration, while it still included many strong elements from the north of Europe, contained a large and increasing number of the weak, the broken and the mentally crippled of all races drawn from the lowest stratum of the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans, together with hordes of the wretched, submerged populations of the Polish Ghettos.
Our jails, insane asylums and almshouses are filled with this human flotsam and the whole tone of American life, social, moral and political has been lowered and vulgarized by them. With a pathetic and fatuous belief in the efficacy of American institutions and environment to reverse or obliterate immemorial hereditary tendencies, these newcomers were welcomed and given a share in our land and prosperity….
The result of unlimited immigration is showing plainly in the rapid decline in the birth rate of native Americans because the poorer classes of Colonial stock, where they still exist, will not bring children into the world to compete in the labor market with the Slovak, the Italian, the Syrian and the Jew. The native American is too proud to mix socially with them and is gradually withdrawing from the scene, abandoning to these aliens the land which he conquered and developed.
The man of the old stock is being crowded out of many country districts by these foreigners just as he is to-day being literally driven off the streets of New York City by the swarms of Polish Jews. These immigrants adopt the language of the native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals and while he is being elbowed out of his own home the American looks calmly abroad and urges on others the suicidal ethics which are exterminating his own race.
In Massachusetts the birth-rate of foreign-born women is two and one-half times as high as the birth-rate among the native-bom; in New Hampshire two times; in Rhode Island one and one-half times, the most prolific of the alien stocks being Poles, Polish and Russian Jews, South Italians, and French-Canadians. What this may mean after a few generations is indicated by a calculation made by the biologist Davenport, who stated that, at present rates of reproduction, 1,000 Harvard graduates of to-day would have only fifty descendants two centuries hence, whereas 1,000 Rumanians today in Boston, at their present rate of breeding, would have 100,000 descendants in the same space of time.
To return to the more general aspect of the problem, it is clear that both in Europe and America the quality of the population is deteriorating, the more intelligent and talented strains being relatively or absolutely on the decline. Now this can mean nothing lees than a deadly menace both to civilization and the race.
In the United States it has been the same story. Our country, originally settled almost exclusively by Nordics, was toward the close of the nineteenth century invaded by hordes of immigrant Alpines and Mediterraneans, not to mention Asiatic elements like Levantines and Jews. As a result, the Nordic native American has been crowded out with amazing rapidity by these swarming, prolific aliens, and after two short generations he has in many of our urban areas become almost extinct.
The racial displacements induced by a changed economic or social environment are, indeed, almost incalculable. Contrary to the popular belief, nothing is more unstable than the ethnic make-up of a people. Above all, there is no more absurd fallacy than the shibboleth of the “melting-pot.” As a matter of fact, the melting-pot may mix but does not melt. Each race-type, formed ages ago, and “set” by millenniums of isolation and inbreeding, is a stubbornly persistent entity. Each type possesses a special set of characters: not merely the physical characters visible to the naked eye, but moral, intellectual, and spiritual characters as well. All these characters are transmitted substantially unchanged from generation to generation.
To be sure, where members of the same race-stock intermarry (as English and Swedish Nordics, or French and British Mediterraneans), there seems to be genuine amalgamation. In most other cases, however, the result is not a blend but a mechanical mixture. Where the parent stocks are very diverse, as in matings between whites, negroes, and Amerindians, the offspring is a mongrel — a walking chaos, so consumed by his jarring heredities that he is quite worthless. We have already viewed the mongrel and his works in Latin America.
Here is Karl Pearson in 1925 looking at Jewish immigration into Britain:
What is definitely clear, however, is that our alien Jewish boys do not form from the standpoint of intelligence a group markedly superior to the natives. But that is the sole condition under which we are prepared to admit that immigration should be allowed. Taken on the average, and regarding both sexes, this alien Jewish population is somewhat inferior physically and mentally to the native population. It is not so markedly inferior as some of those who wish to stop all immigration are inclined to assert. But we have to face the facts; we know and admit that some of the children of these alien Jews from the academic standpoint have done brilliantly, whether they have the staying powers of the native race is another question*. No breeder of cattle, however, would purchase an entire herd because he anticipated finding one or two fine specimens included in it; still less would he do it, if his byres and pastures were already full.
Far from being relegated to some musty corner of intellectual life, the Stoddard tradition, the tradition in which Jason Richwine stands, proved to be an influential force in world history. The Stoddard tradition gave us forced sterilization, “euthanasia” programs, miscegenation bans, and, ultimately, the Holocaust.
One might oppose the Stoddard tradition strictly on its tendency to birth suffering, misery, and catastrophe. But one can oppose it for simpler reasons — its practitioners have a nasty habit of being wrong. Harvard still stands. The Jews of Poland seem to understand American ideas quite well. And it was not the darker races who threatened civilization, but the cannibal Nordics rampaging under the Nazi flag. History has been deeply unkind to Jason Richwine’s spiritual ancestors. It’s comforting to think that the academics who show no interest in the “dark arts” do so out of fear of the leftist cabal. More likely, they do so to avoid being associated with a specious field of study whose primary contributions to the world include justifying slavery and inspiring genocide.
Which is not to say these authors should not be read. Pearson is especially instructive. In 1925, he claimed the Jews immigrating to Britain threatened to become a “parasitic race.” Under similar thinking, Jews were subsequently subjected to college quotas throughout America. Today, the descendants of Pearson tell us that Jews are the intellectual cream of the genetic crop.
This is what Barbara and Karen Fields mean when they talk about “racecraft.” Power must justify itself. When it is proven wrong, it simply recalibrates. Conditions and actions are explained away as the inalterable work of genetics. Yesterday’s yellow peril becomes today’s model minority. In the 1930s Jews dominated basketball because of their “Oriental background” and “flashy trickiness.” Today blacks dominate it through their animal strength and agility.
You see this shifting in Weigel’s own article, where we are told that Richwine is looking into “race.” But Hispanics are considered an ethnic group, not a race. That is because we have trouble explaining why Matt Yglesias, Sophia Vegara, Carmelo Anthony, Rosario Dawson, and Charlie Rangel can be said to comprise a separate “race.” One should also have trouble explaining why Walter White, Whoopi Goldberg, Djimon Hounsou, Jay Smooth, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, and I are all the same “race.”
These people do share something in common — their geographic ancestry makes them potential targets of white racism. If there is any fact we are warned away from, this is it. Richwine’s theories originate from a long tradition of white racism, the tradition of Grant, Stoddard, and Pearson. But to say this is to indict an insupportable portion of our own history and traditions. It is to remind us that the differences between us were constructed by men who sought power, and are maintained just the same.
Don’t worry, black people! This is how we treat everyone who is not a savarna Indian male.
Masonda Ketanda Olivier’s brutal murder, 15 minutes before his birthday, has been all over the news. But Olivier’s death is only one in a string of attacks on black people in India. On May 29, six more black people hailing from Uganda, South Africa, and Nigeria were attacked in Mehrauli in three different incidents. The alleged motivation for these attacks is that the victims committed the crime of playing loud music and drinking publicly, privileges that are apparently only reserved for rich South Delhi boys in SUVs with “Jatt Pride” and “Gujjar4Eva” stickers.
Earlier this year, a mob in Bengaluru brutally attacked and stripped a Tanzanian woman because she happened to be driving down a road where a Sudanese man had run down a local half an hour prior. Different gender, different nationality, no relation to the accident, but I guess when you’re a mob looking for someone to lynch, being black is crime enough.
Anti-blackness has always been a problem in India, but in typical desi fashion, it’s something we’d rather sweep under the carpet. After the Bengaluru attack, one DailyO columnist claimed it wasn’t racist because, basically, we’re not white so we can’t be racist. The Minister of State for Culture and Tourism Mahesh Sharma dismissed Olivier’s murder by saying “even Africa is not safe”, a statement so blasé that it makes me wonder if he’s actually human. And when envoys to India from 42 African nations protested the racist violence by boycotting Africa Day, Sushma Swaraj responded by saying that the government is launching a sensitisation programme to reiterate that such “incidents embarrass the country.” That’s right. Racist violence isn’t the problem here; it’s the fact that such headlines might besmirch the government’s India Shining 2.0 narrative. Meanwhile, in a time-honoured tradition, Delhi residents lay the blame squarely at the victims’ feet because they disregard “local culture”, something Indians neverdo when they’re abroad or even visiting other parts of the country.
Anti-blackness is so pervasive in our society that even Gandhi in his early years was a proponent, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” Much of this relates to a historical identification with European – and later American – elites, as Indians dealt with the experience of colonisation by pretending that at least they’re higher up the ladder than blacks. For Indians who continue to aspire to be counted alongside the largely white elites of the first world, internalising the racist attitudes of that elite is only natural. Combine this with our indigenous form of “colourism”, inspired by the caste system and the association of fair skin with Brahmins and other upper-caste elites, and you’ve got a country that treats darkness like a disease, at best. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and eventually, violence.
Much of the blame for this lies with Indian pop culture and media, which have consistently reinforced such toxic ideas in the Indian mainstream. Enough has been written about fairness cream ads and the colourism they promote, but I feel compelled to mention Pond’s 2009 epic in five parts “White Beauty”, which features an artificially “darkened” Priyanka Chopra’s struggle to win back her ex-beau Saif Ali Khan from a much fairer Neha Dhupia. Then there’s the series of ads for Parle’s LMN drinks, which feature black men in loincloths in the desert trying their best to get a sip of water, a perfect example of egregious racism that didn’t generate a tenth of the outrage the recent Coldplay video did. But these would all be outdone by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s print ad for a jewellery brand that featured her decked up as a white colonial aristocrat under a red parasol held up by an emaciated black child. Racism, colonial aspirations and an endorsement of child-slavery, all rolled up into one particularly offensive package. Well done, Ash.
It is perfectly acceptable to use Snoop Dogg to lend authenticity to Bollywood rap songs and shamelessly rip off black music for decades, even as we use black stereotypes for slapstick punch lines.
To be fair to our advertising industry, they’ve been late-comers to the racism game. Bollywood, as ever, has been the pioneer. Whether it’s the routine use of darker-skinned – and more recently, black – actors as nameless thugs, the ignorant stereotyping of Africans as primitive tribals, or the persistent use of “blackface”, our film industry pulls no punches. I’m not sure how the racist American minstrel tradition of blackface made its way to Bollywood, but you can see it in songs like Mr India’s “Hawa Hawai”, and the incredibly offensive video for Vishwatma’s “Saat Samundar Paar”.
More recently, there’s the National Award-winning Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to *gasp* a black man! (Co-incidentally, Priyanka would go on to star in Quantico and complain about the racism she faced in the US. Of course.) And no discussion of racism in Indian cinema will be complete without this horrendous over-the-top scene from 2000’s Hadh Kar Di Aapne, which is more racist than a KKK rally. I can’t explain this one, you’ll just have to watch and then fight the urge to hunt down and kill everyone involved with this scene.
This knee-jerk racism hasn’t, of course, stopped us from appropriating black culture when convenient. It is perfectly acceptable to use Snoop Dogg to lend authenticity to Bollywood rap songs and shamelessly rip off black music for decades, even as we use black stereotypes for slapstick punch lines. Even in articles deploring such racism, our media uses the grossly inaccurate coinage “African nationals”, reducing a racially and culturally diverse continent to one skin colour. And before you pat yourself on the back for being more enlightened than that, let me point out that your supposedly liberal social circle isn’t much better.
My Facebook feed is full of people making fun of contemporary African American Vernacular English (AAVE) slang like “bae” or “on fleek”, even as they happily use words like “cool” and “hip” – which also come from black American culture, but have been sanitised by decades of white usage. Then there’s the electronica producer I know from Delhi, who regularly used to bring hashish back to Bombay to sell to his fellow students. He was trying to defend the 2014 raids on Khirki Extension’s black residents by AAP’s Somnath Bharti, who accused them of running a drugs and prosecution racket. This supposedly “culturally literate” producer told me that the raids were warranted, because whenever he and his friends called for coke at their parties – usually playing techno, a style of music with origins that are decidedly black and political – it was always a black dealer who turned up. Bravo, my friend! I couldn’t dream up a better example of Indian racism and hypocrisy if I tried.
The reason I’m going on about this is that accepting our racism problem is the only way we will begin to think about solving it. Our unwillingness to acknowledge this racism (one of my cousins explained his attitude by resorting to that oldest of racist apologetics – genes) means that this violence is only likely to grow worse. But, as this online webcomic points out, there is a bright side. As India grows increasingly intolerant, our treatment of black people increasingly aligns with the way we treat other India’s disenfranchised minorities. Don’t worry, black people in India! We’re only treating you as we treat the rest of us. At least those that aren’t privileged savarna males.
Bhanu Kappal: Bhanuj Kappal writes about music, culture, and anti-nationals. After doing a bunch of odd jobs in the culture industry, he’s now decided to be a freelance journalist, and live at the mercy of newspapers’ accounts departments. Will write for food.
Glenn Beck excels at expressing adventurous thoughts in memorable language, but he outdid himself when, one morning last summer, he offered a diagnosis of President Obama. He said, “This President, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture. I don’t know what it is.” (The context was one of the summer’s most entertaining reality shows—the one starring the black Harvard professor and the white police officer who arrested him.) In September, Beck sat for an interview with Katie Couric, and she asked him a deceptively simple question, which had been posed by a Twitter user named adrianinflorida: “what did u mean white culture?” Whatever adventurous thoughts this query inspired, Beck did not seem eager to share them. “Um, I, I don’t know,” he said. Finally, after two minutes of temporizing, he arrived at a nonresponsive response that was both honest and sensible: “What is the white culture? I don’t know how to answer that that’s not a trap, you know what I mean?”
Often, the most appropriate answer to that question is a joke, or a series of jokes. In 2008, a canny young white Canadian named Christian Lander started a blog called “Stuff White People Like,” which soon became a best-selling book bearing the same title; it listed a hundred and fifty of white people’s favorite things, from recycling to the Red Sox. (This magazine made the list, too, at No. 114.) Lander’s tone is faux-anthropological but wide-eyed: “Bike shops are almost entirely staffed and patronized by white people!”; “After learning that a white person is pregnant, it is a good idea to provide a list of recipes for placenta.” His “white people” are wealthy, urban, youngish, and thoroughly blue—they “hate” Republicans, and although Obama hadn’t yet won the Democratic nomination, he placed eighth on the list. (Coffee was No. 1.)
Which means that Lander isn’t really talking about white people, or, at any rate, not most of them. In fact, he sometimes defines “white people” in opposition to “the wrong kind of white people,” because his true target is a small subset of white people, a white cultural élite. Most white people don’t “hate” Republicans—they have voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1968. A few months ago, a different and more demographically precise portrait of white culture arrived, bearing a fulsome blurb (“Revelatory!”) from Lander himself. The author is a black journalist named Rich Benjamin, and his book, “Searching for Whitopia” (Hyperion; $24.99), chronicles the years he spent in overwhelmingly white enclaves across America, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to Forsyth County, Georgia. The people he meets tend to be politically conservative, and although they talk readily about the urban blight they left behind, they talk much less readily about race. Many in Idaho seem to agree with Helen Chenoweth-Hage, the late congresswoman, who responded to a question about the region’s lack of diversity by means of an ingenious euphemism. “The warm-climate community just hasn’t found the colder climate that attractive,” she said. Benjamin hears many disavowals of racism, and he has to drive an hour north of Coeur d’Alene, to a tiny Christian Identity church, in a town called Sandpoint, just to find someone willing to say, “I’m glad I’m white.” Even that statement, delivered from the pulpit, is swiftly followed by a disclaimer: “The Indian, the Mexican, and the black can be proud of what they are, too.”
Benjamin did most of his research toward the end of the Bush era, and perhaps he now wishes he had waited a few years. Obama’s election was a transformative moment for blacks in America, but it has also proved to be a transformative moment for whites. As a whole, white people voted for Senator McCain, and, with the growth of the anti-Obama backlash, especially in the form of Tea Party protests, the whiteness of the Obama opposition has become a political issue. Keith Olbermann, of MSNBC, called the Tea Party movement “a white people’s party,” and asked, in reference to the various marches and rallies, “Where are the black faces?” (The most adroit response came in the form of a YouTube video highlighting the all-white lineup pictured on the MSNBC Web site.) When Jon Stewart introduced a “Daily Show” segment on the Conservative Political Action Conference, he got a laugh from his studio audience by calling it a “festival of whites.” (Stewart’s show ranked thirty-fifth on Lander’s list.)
The organizers of the Tea Party rallies have made a point of inviting African-American conservatives to address the crowds. But there’s no denying that the Tea Party protesters tend to be white. Should we pretend to be surprised? Judging from exit polls, black voters made up about 1.1 per cent of the McCain electorate, which is lower than the historical average, but not by much. (In 1984, when President Reagan was reëlected in a landslide, black voters accounted for only about 1.5 per cent of his total.) American politics has been segregated for decades; the election of a black President only made that segregation more obvious.
But what of it? Why is it that, from Christian Lander to Jon Stewart, a diagnosis of whiteness is often delivered, and received, as a kind of accusation? The answer is that the diagnosis is often accompanied by an implicit or explicit charge of racism. It’s become customary to suppose that a measure of discrimination is built into whiteness itself, a racial category that has often functioned as a purely negative designation: to be white in America is to be not nonwhite, which is why it was possible, in 1961, for a white woman from Kansas living in Hawaii to give birth to a black baby. In a marvellously splenetic essay, “On Being White . . . And Other Lies,” James Baldwin argued that America had, really, “no white community”—only a motley alliance of European immigrants and their descendants, who made a “moral choice” (even if they didn’t realize it) to join a synthetic racial élite. And, in the nineteen-nineties, a cohort of scholars took up Baldwin’s charge, popularizing a field of research that came to be known as whiteness studies. In 1994, the white labor historian David R. Roediger published an incendiary volume, “Towards the Abolition of Whiteness.” Paying special attention to unions and strikes, he traced the unsteady growth of American whiteness, a category that eventually included many previous identities that had once been considered marginal: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish. “It is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false; it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false,” he wrote. “Whiteness describes, from Little Big Horn to Simi Valley, not a culture but precisely the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back.” In his view, fighting racism wasn’t enough; white people who wanted to oppose oppression would have to do battle with whiteness itself. Nearly two decades later, amid a rancorous debate over our first black President, the idea of abolishing whiteness seems no less tantalizing—and no less remote.
In a wide-ranging new book titled “The History of White People” (Norton; $27.95), Nell Irvin Painter, a black historian of America, starts at the beginning, or near it. Her narrative opens in ancient Greece, with Hippocrates, who published his ethnography of the known world around 400 B.C. In assaying the tribes of Europe, he praised the “ferocity” of the mountain-dwellers, but he was less impressed by tribes who live where there is “a larger proportion of hot than of cold winds”—the warm-climate community, a few millennia ahead of schedule. “They are rather of a dark than of a light complexion,” he wrote, adding that “courage and laborious enterprise are not naturally in them.” In time, “ancients” like Hippocrates were seen as archetypes of racial purity and excellence. Painter quotes the eighteenth-century Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater, who delivered a plaintive verdict: “The Grecian race then was more beautiful than we are; they were better than us—and the present generation is vilely degraded!”
Like many of his contemporaries, Lavater was a devout craniologist, and it was through craniology that whiteness was given scientific validation. In 1793, a German anthropologist named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach received a skull from a colleague which he considered particularly pleasing; it had belonged to a woman from Georgia, in the Caucasus region, and Blumenbach declared that it was typical of the “Caucasian” race, a super-category that came to include most of the peoples of Europe. As Painter explains, Blumenbach was making an argument from beauty, and his belief in Caucasian beauty had a notable pedigree: decades earlier, Kant had noted that “Circassian and Georgian maidens have always been considered extremely pretty by all Europeans who travel through their lands”; the fact that these “maidens” were enslaved by the Ottomans was part of the appeal. The Caucasian race begins with an evocation of bondage, and the skull of a young Georgian woman helped seal the connection between whiteness and weakness. It is a delicate race, always on the verge of being overrun or adulterated, dethroned or debunked. The supposed perfection of whiteness makes it vulnerable: every flaw and quirk, every tangled bloodline and degraded specimen, is seen as an existential threat, poised to undermine the whole project.
In eighteenth-century America, whiteness came to connote the opposite of slavery. Whiteness in America was primarily Anglo-Saxon—Thomas Jefferson argued for American independence by adducing the example of “our Saxon ancestors”—but not exclusively so, and the presence of immigrants from elsewhere in Europe eventually nudged American race theorists toward a more miscellaneous idea of whiteness. In 1856, Ralph Waldo Emerson published “English Traits,” which includes a strange and suggestive chapter called “Race.” In it, he portrays the essence of whiteness as an elusive spirit. For a time, Norway had it, and Painter notes Emerson’s “affection” for the bloodthirsty old Norse sagas: “A pair of kings, after dinner, will divert themselves by thrusting each his sword through the other’s body, as did Yngve and Alf.” But even these brutes were, in their own way, as delicate as Circassian waifs. Somehow, the glorious moment passed—a few too many “piratical expeditions,” he suspects—and “the power of the race migrated and left Norway permanently exhausted.” Around the same time, in his journal, Emerson was experimenting with a more ambitious theory. “The Atlantic is a sieve through which only or chiefly the liberal adventurous sensitive America-loving part of each city, clan, family, are brought,” he wrote. “It is the light complexion, the blue eyes of Europe that come: the black eyes, the black drop, the Europe of Europe is left.” This is a powerful notion: America as a magical siphon, extracting whiteness from Europe.
Emerson is a high point in “The History of White People.” As the theorists and theories pile up, Painter starts to seem, like nineteenth-century Norway, a bit exhausted. She isn’t helped by the format she has chosen, which divides a long and circuitous story into a textbook-like series of three-page biographical sketches, and she often sounds bored by the now obscure race men she profiles: William Z. Ripley’s 1899 magnum opus, “The Races of Europe,” is “nonsense” that “could not survive a careful reading”; early twentieth-century Anglo-Saxonist theories are “blather.” One needn’t disagree with her judgments to wonder about her strategy: the tone and the format conspire to make these architects of whiteness hard to distinguish, and harder still to care about.
An odd thing about “The History of White People” is that there’s not more history in it: Painter underplays the social and political developments that were far more influential than the grand theories of whiteness. She mentions America’s one-drop rule only in passing. (The rule held—and, for the most part, still holds—that any person of mixed black and white ancestry is black, no matter the mixture.) And readers will have to search the footnotes to learn about the 1790 Naturalization Act, which made citizenship possible for any “free white person” of “good character” who had lived in America for at least two years. Long before it had any sort of coherent cultural or historical identity, whiteness in America was a broad, loosely defined political category, which is precisely why so many scholars knocked themselves out trying to fill in the details.
Painter aims for the conceptual heart of the race, but Roediger, the eminent abolitionist of whiteness, has always been more interested in its margins and boundaries. In 2008, just in time for the dawning Obama age, he compressed his decades of scholarship into a pithy little book, “How Race Survived U.S. History,” which has just been published in paperback (Verso; $19.95). He is alert to the shifting legal status of whiteness, and he underscores the 1691 Virginia law that banned “negroes, mulattos, and Indians” from “intermarrying with English, or other white women.” (Again, one of the defining qualities of whiteness is that it needs protection.) He also tells the story of Charles W. Janson, a British businessman who came to America in 1793 and, sometime during his thirteen-year visit, offended a white domestic worker by asking to speak with her master. “I have no master,” she said, adding, “I’d have you to know, man, that I am no sarvant; none but negers are sarvants.” Janson was shocked by “the arrogance of domestics in this land of republican liberty and equality”—shocked, that is, by a country where even the maids had something to be proud of, and someone to be prouder than.
The end of the Civil War was a perilous moment for whiteness. Roediger writes that, in America, “scientific racism”—the sort of grand theorizing that Painter chronicles—emerged “in the context of the pro-slavery argument and as a response to abolitionism.” Whiteness survived emancipation by becoming more muscular and more self-referential: where once whiteness offered a specific legal benefit—it meant that you were unenslavable, a non-“sarvant”—now whiteness had to be its own reward. Roediger writes that some poor white laborers in the South started wearing brimless wool hats, to distinguish themselves from ex-slaves, who customarily wore straw hats. (According to one contested etymology, the sunburn such laborers suffered gave rise to the term “redneck,” which conflates race and class.) And he tracks the insurgent whiteness of the Ku Klux Klan, founded after the end of the war and revived in 1915, the year of D. W. Griffith’s blockbuster “The Birth of a Nation,” which portrayed Klansmen as heroic defenders of white virtue. (The pivotal scene involves a white woman on a cliff, who tells her black pursuer, “Stay away or I’ll jump!” He doesn’t; she does.) “The Birth of a Nation” included intertitles with brief history lessons from President Woodrow Wilson, and Roediger quotes the most famous card, which marks the transition from war to Reconstruction: “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
That astonishing sentence comes from Wilson’s “History of the American People,” but it’s not really a sentence at all: the ellipsis marks the removal of nearly seven hundred words. In Wilson’s original, the apologia for the Klan is meant to echo the eighteenth-century argument for American independence:
The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers: governments whose incredible debts were incurred that thieves might be enriched, whose increasing loans and taxes went to no public use but into the pockets of party managers and corrupt contractors.
The film depicts a clash between whites and blacks (one of the main villains is an ambitious mulatto politician), but, in this passage, “ignorant negroes” are a secondary concern, a mere symptom of a greater problem. In Wilson’s telling, Klan violence serves to defend white rights against “adventurers” from the North—that is, against other white people.
In the twentieth century, the struggle to define and defend whiteness was often presented this way, as an intra-racial struggle—white people against “the wrong kind of white people.” The race theorist Lothrop Stoddard warned against “racial impoverishment,” and enumerated the “alien stocks” that were taking over Rhode Island: “Poles, Polish and Russian Jews, South Italians, and French-Canadians.” Because of the legal tradition begun by the 1790 Naturalization Act, courts were often asked to judge the whiteness of immigrants from all over the world— Afghans and Armenians, Persians and Portuguese—and judges appealed to common sense, or to the anthropological entity known as the Caucasian race. But who counts as Caucasian? Madison Grant, in “The Passing of the Great Race,” a supremely pessimistic work of race theory first published in 1916, admitted defeat: “The term ‘Caucasian race’ has ceased to have any meaning, except where it is used, in the United States, to contrast white populations with Negroes or Indians or in the Old World with Mongols.” Grant was right that the putatively scientific term “Caucasian” was becoming interchangeable with its colloquial counterpart, “white”; both referred to a category that was growing simultaneously more inclusive (of Europeans) and more exclusive (of “Negroes” and “Mongols” and others).
But the borders of whiteness were never quite defined, let alone sealed. In an immigration report from 1911, a government commission declared that an “Arabian” was by definition Caucasian, a judgment that some of today’s politicians might want to appeal. The boundaries of whiteness have often reflected the imperatives of U.S. foreign policy. And there remains something particularly fraught about the whiteness of Italian-Americans, which has been contested for centuries. Roediger notes that “ ‘Guineas,’ an old marker for African Americans originally signaling their origins on the West African slaving coast, came to be applied widely and pejoratively to Italian Americans.” Now, of course, “guinea” has given way to “guido,” an anti-Italian-American slur that has been co-opted by its targets. The instructive MTV reality show “Jersey Shore” followed a group of self-described “guidos” and “guidettes” living in a beach house in New Jersey. In this tribe, the bond between skin color and identity had been decisively severed (with help from a nearby tanning salon), and it was discovered that not all the stars were of pure Italian heritage. One of them, known as Jwoww, posted a clarification on her Twitter page: “I’ve said a billion times I’m a spanish/irish!! Its a life style not an ethnicity or race the term ‘guidette’!!”
In current debates about whiteness, no identity is more destabilizing than “Hispanic.” The 2010 census explains that “Hispanic origins are not races,” and yet in America the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” indicate a population that is often viewed as a racial minority. (When Anglos in America think of the Latino “race,” they are often thinking of the identity known in much of Central and South America as mestizo, which refers to mixed-race descendants of Europeans and various indigenous groups.) In “Searching for Whitopia,” Rich Benjamin is surprised to find himself drawn into conversations with white residents about illegal immigration, especially from Mexico. “For the first time in my life, I am treated like an innocent bystander to the ‘scourge’ of race and poverty,” he writes. “Latinos now take the heat.”
In 1963, when George Wallace was inaugurated as the governor of Alabama, he told the crowd that he was standing in the “heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland,” and he issued his famous rallying cry: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But when Wallace campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he stated his case more circumspectly, saying, “This civil-rights bill will wind up putting a homeowner in jail, because he doesn’t sell his home to someone that some bureaucrat thinks he ought to sell it to.” Wallace professed to be defending the common “homeowner,” presumably white, against the faceless “bureaucrat,” also presumably white. It was possible for Wallace to portray himself as a defender of the white race without mentioning race at all.
This was not a new strategy. Throughout history, the power of whiteness has often been linked to its invisibility: white supremacy lurked in seemingly race-neutral language, unmentioned and therefore incontestable. (Think of the Constitution, which tacitly condoned slavery—“importation” of “persons”—without mentioning race.) The success of the civil-rights movement had the paradoxical effect of strengthening this pernicious tradition by making white pride taboo; white politicians had to rely on increasingly subtle forms of coded speech. Roediger is impressed and disturbed by President Reagan’s appeal to working-class white voters, which stemmed, he says, from a “sure command of divisive code words such as ‘state’s rights,’ ‘welfare moms,’ ‘quotas,’ and ‘reverse racism.’ “
The problem with a fixation on “code words” is that you can start to see them everywhere. At one point, Roediger analyzes the politics of America in the nineteen-seventies through the prism of “such racial ‘code words’ as crime, busing, welfare, and taxes.” Taxes! Is there any hotly debated political topic that couldn’t be considered, in some context, a code word? (Glenn Beck recently argued that “social justice” and “economic justice” are “Marxist code words”; it would be hard to prove that they aren’t or never have been.) And is there any way for a white politician to criticize a black President in front of a disproportionately white audience and be certain that he or she isn’t, however inadvertently, appealing to a sense of racial solidarity?
These are the questions that liberals have been asking of the Tea Party movement, a decentralized libertarian-influenced conservative movement that has cast its opposition to President Obama as an opposition to runaway government spending, runaway public debt, runaway taxation. (The movement’s unofficial motto turns “tea” into an acronym: Taxed Enough Already.) There have been race-related controversies. A white activist in Houston was photographed holding a sign that said, “Congress = Slave Owner. Taxpayer = Niggar”; he was swiftly disavowed by the Houston Tea Party Society (even though, strictly, he was calling himself a “niggar”). At the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, the former congressman Tom Tancredo voiced his regret that “we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country,” which reminded some commentators of the schemes that disenfranchised black voters during Reconstruction. (Tancredo declined to apologize, saying that he wanted only to combat “civic ignorance.”) And two African-American congressmen say that they heard someone shout a racial slur during the recent Capitol Hill rally against the health-care bill.
More often, though, the Tea Party movement has been relatively disciplined in its focus on spending and taxing. Conceivably, arguments about health-care reform have been advanced in bad faith, in the hope of stoking white racial resentment. But the other possibility is more unsettling: maybe health-care reform is merely one more topic on which Americans’ opinions correlate, however loosely, with race. Certainly it’s hard to assess the protests without also assessing the politics. Those aggrieved (mainly) white folks look a lot different if you think they’re speaking out against fiscal malpractice.
Because explicit formulations of white-identity politics are taboo, we have no non-pejorative way to talk about the disproportionate whiteness of the Tea Parties. (We don’t even have a good way to measure it. Keith Olbermann included “Hispanics” on the list of people he didn’t see represented in Tea Party crowds, but, really, how could he tell?) Supporters of the Tea Parties can’t decide whether they should refuse this identity, by highlighting black speakers and attendees, or defend it, by suggesting, as Beck did, that anti-white racism is a serious worry. In fact, Beck’s slippery concern with racism—outrage over false charges of anti-black racism, combined with outrage over anti-white racism—seems central to a certain kind of white-identity politics. This professedly anti-racist argument is about as close as anyone comes to articulating a mainstream political agenda that is explicitly pro-white.
In the Warner Bros. movie “The Blind Side,” Quinton Aaron plays Michael Oher, a black football prodigy who is adopted by Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white materfamilias, played by Sandra Bullock. Early on, Michael explains why his new surroundings feel so strange. “I look, and I see white everywhere,” he says. “White walls, white floors, and lots of white people.” They—the white people—are the film’s true subject; Michael remains a sweet but silent cipher. (The real Michael Oher is now a lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, and before the movie’s release he told the Baltimore Sun that he was “not in a hurry to see it.”) The Tuohys’ whiteness is expressed as a series of red-state signifiers: they are Republican and Christian and they live in Tennessee; Leigh Anne’s husband is played by the country star Tim McGraw. There is even a reference to anti-white racism: when the cute young son, known as S.J., complains that a “Chinese” kid was picked, instead of him, to play the Indian chief in the school play, he wonders whether “multicultural bias” might have been at work.
At times, the movie seems to be building toward the familiar moment when the whites atone for the past by confronting their unexamined racism, but that moment never arrives. Instead, a climactic scene has Leigh Anne facing off against a black thug from Michael’s old neighborhood. He insults her with a racial slur (the “s” word—“snowflake”), and threatens her family; she responds by threatening him right back. “You so much as cross into downtown, you will be sorry,” she says, adding that she knows the district attorney and belongs to the National Rifle Association. This kind of threat, a Southern white woman telling a black man to stay in his own neighborhood, has a long and dismal history, but Bullock delivers it with verve, and without a trace of self-consciousness. (No doubt the scene helped her win her Academy Award.) Leigh Anne is refreshing, because there’s no trace of anxiety in her white identity—for her, it’s neither something to live down nor something to live up to.
Is white identity shifting? Painter thinks so. She argues that “being white these days is not what it used to be,” partly because a number of nonwhites have joined the cultural and (more important) economic élite. But she concludes pessimistically, reminding readers that “poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness.” It might be more accurate to say that “poverty in a dark skin” is one of the opposites of whiteness, because, as Roediger’s book demonstrates, the white-identity project has often been conceived in populist terms, as a defense of scruffy local values against the wealthy alien élite. This form of white-identity politics, far from being undermined by the election of President Obama, was strengthened by it. Apparently, a black President born to a white mother can represent the opposite of whiteness, too.
A tension between élitism and anti-élitism is central to white identity, and always has been. The old race theorists couldn’t decide whether the spirit of whiteness was best reflected in the noble refinement of royalty or in the rude vitality of laborers and soldiers. Often, white identity has reflected both traditions at once, as with Emerson’s beloved Scandinavian kings, who conducted themselves like drunken brigands. The “white people” in Lander’s book are rich snobs who view themselves as rebels, resisting the culture of corporate greed in vague solidarity with the world’s poor. The “whitopians” in Benjamin’s book consider themselves “folksy” salt-of-the-earth types, no matter how much money they have accumulated. And “The Blind Side” is a perfect distillation of white identity as anti-élitist élitism: Leigh Anne’s husband owns nearly a hundred fast-food franchises; he’s white-collar, in a blue-collar kind of way.
Roediger and Painter are right to remind us that whiteness was built over centuries on a foundation of deceit and confusion and disguised political imperatives. But neither seems fully to grasp the ways in which this artificial category has, over the years, come haltingly to life. Yes, whiteness is a social construct, and not (as race scientists used to think) a biological essence—but then so, too, is every collective identity. It’s getting easier to talk about “white culture,” maybe even white politics, without knee-jerk sarcasm or, for that matter, knee-jerk sympathy. And it’s getting easier to imagine an American whiteness that is less exceptional, less dominant, less imperial, and more conspicuous, an ethnicity more like the others. In the Obama era—the Tea Party era—whiteness is easier to see than ever before, which means it’s less readily taken for granted. If invisibility is power, then whiteness is a little less powerful than it used to be.
Demographers predict that, sometime before the middle of this century, non-Hispanic white people will cease to be a majority in America. This doesn’t mean that there will be a white “minority”—whites will continue to be the country’s most populous racial group for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t mean that white is the new black—the two races have never been symmetrical, and never will be. And it doesn’t mean that whiteness is innocent of history—you can’t tell the story of whiteness (or, for that matter, blackness) without talking about racism. But, if the old race theory was brutally reductive, there is something reductive, too, about the idea that whiteness, for all its paradoxes, isn’t real. The history of human culture is the history of forgeries that become genuine, categories that people make and cannot simply unmake. So we should probably stop thinking of whiteness as an error, and start thinking of it, instead, as a work in progress. Historians have sometimes framed the treacherous history of whiteness as the slow death of an idea. Perhaps it’s time we start viewing it, instead, as the slow birth of a people.