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On Race and Racism

so, the usual definition of racism (power + prejudice) seems to only work in the Western Europe, Canada and the US since race functions differently in other places among other things. so, are we satisfied with using a definition of racism that is tied to one region? should we make something more universalizable? abandon racism altogether?

I wrote the above on tumblr a week or so ago, and it was initially just me wondering out loud about racism. I’ve been thinking a lot about it, since I read Vijay Prashad’s Everybody Was Kung-fu Fighting. It seemed to me at the time that a number of discussions on race were using race-relations in the United States as a universal experience throughout the world; meaning that White Supremacy functioned in the United States the same way it functioned in the rest of the world. And to a certain extent, that may be true. European colonialism affected most of the world and instilled racial domination everywhere it colonized. It propped up its economic dominance with a ideology of white supremacy. However, Europe itself was not homogenous and the racial categories, forms of repression, etc. were not uniform. Because of this, local/indigenous concepts of race and ethnicity are not going to be universal. Race-relations in other countries are not going to be the same as in the United States. That’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist in other countries but that thinking about race is a much more complicated exercise than just taking what was written in the United States about the United States and applying it to whichever country you’re analyzing.

That is why I wondered whether we are satisfied with the current thinking of racism in the United States. Is it enough for us to have a localized theory of racism? Should we explore ways of universalizing the concept of race and racism? Should we move away from racism as a category of analysis completely (since it’s possible that it can’t be universalized at all)?

I want to start off by saying that the last option is not something I promote. I think that the analysis of racism is important. I also think that removing it as a frame of analysis does a great injustice and erases the horrors that have been done under White Supremacist ideologies. Racism as an ideological component guides how certain groups in the United States relate to the means of production. Because black and brown bodies in the United States suffer under White Supremacy, they are often kept from jobs and forced into the black market of labor. Additionally, black and brown bodies are policed at a higher rate, forcing them into prisons with forced labor. To ignore these problems would create a shallow analysis that erased centuries of pain.

However, the opposite problem, of universalizing racism in the United States (where a good many of the analyses of racism that I know of have come from) creates a shallow analysis as well. It also erases the lived experience of those in other countries. Although many ethnic groups such as Armenians, Persians, Greeks, etc. have been assimilated into the ‘white’ racial categorization in the United States, that has not been the case everywhere. So applying the label of white to these various groups outside of the United States ignores and erases the colonialism and violence that Europe committed upon these groups.

And the questions remain, can and should we create a concept of racism that is universal; a concept of racism that can be applied to the entire world rather than speak specifically to the status of race in the United States? I don’t think that it is too necessary to do that. I think that a number of areas are contributing their own work to the experience of colonialism and imperialism that racism as a universal concept is not too needed. However, workings around all of these concepts need to be grounded in an actual analysis of the material conditions that created them.

But it would seem that this entire post was for nothing; that I’m accepting of the current conception of racism in the United States. But that’s not true. I am extremely worried about the internalization of Western concepts of race into the discourse on race and racism. By that I mean that our homogenization of racial and ethnic categories seems to always fall under the Western conception of race (Latin@, Black Asian, White) and never seem to be able to consider conceptions of race that are not as rigidly defined or dangerously internalized. By internalizing these ideas, we always look at a concept of race that is separated and distant, with all the groups antagonistically relating to each other. By building these walls we avoid/prevent creating collaborations that would be helpful in eliminating oppression. And I’m not saying ‘we all bleed red’ because I do think that acknowledging race and racism and understanding how ideology puts some races in different relations to each other is a necessary part of building these collaborations, but I do think that imbuing skin color specifically with the properties that Western ideas of race say they have is a dangerous internalization.

Cultural Appropriation or Cultural Mixing?

Cultural appropriation has been used as a method of subjugating people for a long time. Imperial powers come in and take, degrade and belittle the cultural artifacts of those they’re invading. This is undeniable. However, not all ‘takings’ should be considered appropriation.

First, we most understand that culture is not homogenous. It exists in the localities that produce it. The hip hop culture in Newark is not going to be the same as the hip hop culture in Los Angeles. They can’t be because the participants in each city cannot interact with each other. Though participants from both areas can use the internet to communicate and share ideas, I’m not convinced that the internet’s power transcends the actual ability to participate, collaborate and perform in the same space. Because culture is not homogenous, the ability for those outside of a locality to speak authoritatively on a similar culture (or a culture going under the same name) is diminished.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that culture cannot be reduced to skin color. In the United States, the dominant ideology incorporates white supremacy into itself. This means that people who are not assimilated into the white structure will have similar burdens and experiences, but it does not mean that all Blacks, all Latin@s, or all Asians will have the same cultural experiences as those within the same identity group. Especially looking at the construction of the Asian American identities, while many in the group enjoy higher class advantages, others in the group (Vietnamese and Hmong) have higher levels of poverty and incarceration rates (rivaling black and latin@ rates).  Because of this and because culture isn’t homogenous, we are forced to realize that skin color cannot be a determinate of what culture one ‘belongs’ to (or conversely, which culture belongs to which race).

Culture is not homogenous and it cannot be reduced simply to skin color. It is not static either. Cultures change over time and when different cultures are put into the same space, it’s inevitable that they will mix. What all of this means is that the origins of cultures cannot be easily reduced to a certain place or time and that many instances of appropriation are indeed just the mixture and growth of culture.

Multiculturalism, while fighting for the inclusion of people of color, unfortunately creates barriers between different races. There are Asians, Blacks, Latin@s and Native Americans, but they all exist separately and have their own histories. Vijay Prashad’s insistence on polyculturalism rectifies that problem. It insists on a shared history and a shared experience of people throughout time. It posits that cultural authenticity does not exist and that the point of origin for culture is never certain.

Liberalism of the skin, which we generically know as multiculturalism, refuses to accept that biology is destiny, but it smuggles in culture to do much the same thing. Culture becomes the means for social and historical difference, how we differentiate ourselves, and adopt the habits of the past to create and delimit social groups. The familiar dichotomy between nature-nurture becomes the basis for distinction between the white supremacists and the liberals. Culture, unlike biology, should allow us to seek liberation from cruel and uncomfortable practices. But instead, culture wraps us in its suffocating embrace. If we follow liberalism of the skin, then we find our- selves heir to all the dilemmas of multiculturalism: Are cultures discrete and bounded? Do cultures have a history or are they static? Who defines the boundaries of culture or allows for change? Do cultures leak into each other? Can a person from one culture critique another culture? These are the questions that plague both social science and our everyday interactions. Those who subscribe to the liberalism of the skin want to be thought well of, to be good, and therefore, many are circumspect when it comes to the culture of another. The best intentions (of respect and tolerance) can often be annoying to those whose cultures are not in dominance: we feel that we are often zoological specimens.
To respect the fetish of culture assumes that one wants to enshrine it in the museum of humankind rather than find within it the potential for liberation or for change. We’d have to accept homophobia and sexism, class cruelty and racism, all in the service of being respectful to someone’s perverse definition of a culture. For comfortable liberals a critique of multicul- turalism is close to heresy, but for those of us who have to tussle both with the cruelty of white supremacy and with the melancholic torments of mi- noritarianism, the critique comes with ease. The orthodoxy of below bears less power than that from above, but it is unbearable nonetheless. We have already begun to grow our own patchwork, defiant skins.
These defiant skins come under the sign of the polycultural, a provisional concept grounded in antiracism rather than in diversity. Polyculturalism, unlike multiculturalism, assumes that people live coherent lives that are made up of a host of lineages—the task of the historian is not to carve out the lineages but to make sense of how people live culturally dynamic lives. Polyculturalism is a ferocious engagement with the political world of culture, a painful embrace of the skin and all its contradictions.

What does polyculturalism mean for us then? It gives us another method of looking at certain instances of ‘cultural appropriation.’ In Everybody Was Kung-fu Fighting, Prashad recalls the mixing of cultures (Black and Indian) in Jamaica that resulted in the Rastafarian religion/culture. It mixes aspects of Hindu/Sikh mysticism with Jamaican religious culture to form a completely new culture. How can people then limit the participation of those in the religion/culture to just those with black skin? If an Asian child grows up in a neighborhood that primarily uses AAVE, how can someone from another locality tell that child that they are appropriating AAVE because their physical features. And in the struggle to protect culture, why is it necessary to create these arbitrary barriers to participation that limit productive collaboration and interaction?

In an article for ColorLines Magazine in 1999, historian and cultural critic Robin Kelley dismissed the idea of the purity of our bloodlines, finding the world of cultural purity and authenticity equally unpleasant too. Kelley argued that ‘‘so-called ‘mixed-race’ children are not the only ones with a claim to multiple heritages. All of us, and I mean ALL of us, are the inheritors of European, African, Native American, and even Asian pasts, even if we can’t exactly trace our bloodlines to all of these continents.’’120 Rejecting the posture of a ‘‘racism with a distance,’’ Kelley argued that our various cultures ‘‘have never been easily identifiable, secure in their boundaries, or clear to all people who live in or outside our skin. We were multi-ethnic and polycultural from the get-go.’’ The theory of the polycultural does not mean that we reinvent humanism without ethnicity, but that we acknowledge that our notion of cultural community should not be built inside the high walls of parochialism and ethno-nationalism. The framework of polyculturalism uncouples the notions of origins and authenticity from that of culture. Culture is a process (that may sometimes be seen as an object) with no identifiable origin. Therefore, no cultural actor can, in good faith, claim proprietary interest in what is claimed to be his or her authentic culture.

My Discontent with the New Atheist Movement

For the past decade, the new atheist movement has been gaining steam with noted anti-theists Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris selling wildly popular books explaining the pitfalls of religion. However, recently, a number of articles have come out criticizing those leaders for racism. I’d like to step into the ring to give my own two cents on the various problems with the new atheist movement.

My first problem with the movement is that it is in no way progressive. The movement puts forth the idea that they are trying to free people from the suffering that religion brings. They say that religion is the cause of suffering in Iran and Afghanistan and other societal ills. While some of this is true, it ignores the real causes that brought fundamentalist religious movements to power. Looking at Afghanistan, the need to depose communist leaders and get rid of USSR-influence on the country, the United States funded fundamentalist religious groups and turned them into armed militias. This led to a twenty yearlong civil war in which those fundamentalist militias, the Taliban and al queada took over large swaths of the country. This is the ultimate cause of the violent repression in Afghanistan. This is the ultimate cause of the September 11 hijackings. Religion didn’t fly into those buildings, decades of geopolitical conflict did.

And what is the new atheist response to this? I’m not too sure. Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens all support the ‘war on terror.’ They all support it if not because of the political situation, then because it will bring secular democracy to the heathen Muslim nations. Not only does the New Atheist movement fail to understand the actual political situation that has put dangerous groups into power, they stand on the side of the same American imperialism that is the source of these conflicts. The New Atheist movement parrots the same secular humanist rhetoric spouted by American neoliberals as justification of its regime destabilizations and warmongering. At best, the New Atheist movement reinforces the discourse around imperialist notions on ‘liberation’ and at worst it provides justifications for invasions and torture.

It’s not as if the New Atheist movement can’t make any other allies. They could just as easily reach out to the more progressive segments of religions. There are real struggles being waged within liberation theology in Latin America and in the Middle East. But the New Atheist movement does not see these struggles because they essentialize religion into a bloc of pure evil. It doesn’t matter that the church is the weapon of liberation for many people. It only matters that the people believe in god. And that shallow analysis is what dooms the movement from embracing anti-capitalist and truly liberational struggles and what leads them to side with a force that has killed and continues to kill millions.