I write this blog post mainly for myself and to check my own privilege when I participate in emancipatory politics, and for other non-Black people of colour like myself. A few months ago, maybe more, I watched ’12 years of a slave’ which inspired a poem called ‘Dear White people’. It was a poem to declare to White people that the violence that they may see in various films about slavery ignores how slavery still exists in the form of White normativity and White privilege. White people may distance themselves from what happened in the past when they watch films on slavery, but what they don’t show them that they still participate in a White supremacist system every day.
They participate in White supremacy because White-centrism is still an ongoing thing. White normativity is the notion that White thought and White culture is the neutral point at which the everyday life is understood and practiced, and at which White people benefit from, even if these cultural contributions may have originally come from elsewhere – people of colour. Moreover, White privilege is the notion that White people have historically benefited and still benefit from the effects of colonialism and slavery, White knowledge/philosophy is the only form of knowledge that is considered legitimate, only White people’s suffering is considered legitimate (see the Missing White Woman Syndrome) and non-White thought is only considered legitimate when a White person acts as the medium or appropriates it. Take the dance form [performance of] twerking for example, it took a White woman – Miley Cyrus for White people to appropriate and accept the dance form, while it was widely performed in clubs in the Caribbean Islands and Black women were criticised for it. And on top of all of this White people live longer and healthier lives, have better access to healthcare, have higher incomes, have better career opportunities, are always represented in mainstream films and music, and have better opportunities in life.
The legacy of slavery and violence against the history of people of colour has meant that the very sense of existence of people of colour is shadowed by what happened to our ancestors, and this limits us from living our true selves in the public. White people however have a largely positive history because White people have controlled historical analysis and presentation, and have used knowledge from other groups to use as their own. European thought in the ‘Enlightenment’ period for example which contained modern ideas of democracy and equality borrowed their thought from philosophers of colour without citing their work. Thus European philosophers were considered the pioneers for philosophy that in fact came from non-Europeans.
Moreover in popular culture is the construction of people of colour is almost always negative, it means that we have to over compensate in order to change our behaviours for the White gaze (and thus not live a true life).
I used the experience of what I saw in ’12 Years of A Slave’, in particular the pain suffered by the characters to showcase post-modern racism, i.e. how racism and White supremacy still exists even when colonialism and slavery does not formally exist. And how the legacy of such practises still brand our everyday experiences. For example take a look at the levels of stop and searches by police of British-Black men and British-Asian men in the UK and African-American men (and Hispanics, although less so in comparison to African-American men) in the USA. The understanding of the ‘foreign other’ hark back to the days of slavery when Black men by white supremacist patriarchy were considered inherently criminal – and still are.
What I failed to realise at this point was that I was appropriating the Black struggle- a struggle only experienced by Black people and not by me. I was also peddling anti-blackness which I will explain how below.
I am a person of colour however I am Brown and therefore there were certain privileges given to Brown people under colonial White supremacy, while these were denied to Black people. I was therefore appropriating Black struggle when using the ‘our’ in the poem in order to highlight my own experiences of post-modern racism as though they were the exact same struggles experienced by Black people – both currently and under slavery.
Moreover as we know White supremacists used slavery to expand their capitalist endeavours (Black slavery was useful for White supremacist for its own good). Furthermore, within White supremacist ideology it was Black people and not Brown people that were historically, socially, political and economically worse off. Let us not forget that the higher you were within the White supremacist racial hierarchy the more preferable treatment you got- though still under White supremacy of course. Black people were classified at the bottom and so suffered the most. That is not to say that other people of colour’s suffering did not matter, it is just that they benefited from anti-Blackness even when facing discrimination themselves.
It is a little crude to grade oppression and I don’t intend to do that, however Black people suffered the most because anti-Blackness was the foundation of all eras of slavery. I make this point because Black slavery was not only used by White supremacists. Prior to White (Christian inspired) slavery. The ‘Arab’ or Muslims slave trade mainly targeted women and it is estimated that 10 million Africans were taken to India, China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia via the Swahili coast. Early Islamic states in what is present day Sudan contained a large population of enslaved people, similarly northern and central states of Africa had majority populations of enslaved people. The Sokoto Caliphate became the most powerful state in West Africa until it was defeated by the British Empire in 1903. Likewise southern parts of Iraq contained large number of enslaved Black people. Therefore it wasn’t only Christian ideology that inspired the mass violation of a mass group of peoples, it was Islamic imperialism also.
The difference in European colonialism of Brown people compared to that of Black slavery was that Black people were considered property, while the Indians were considered only colonially inferior. For example Indians (people from modern day Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh) were brought to Uganda and Kenya on employment contracts to build the Ugandan and the Kenyan Railways in the late 1800s. This was of course capitalist exploitation, but it was capitalist exploitation through wage labour. Brown people in this case were entering into a contract for a wage, while slavery was obviously coerced labour and unpaid. Indians also migrated with the help of the fact that the British Empire allowed easier migration between British colonies. Zambia, South Africa, Lesotho, and current parts of Zimbabwe were a few of the many African nations where Indians were able to migrate to for employment. It was the same in the Caribbean Islands. Asians thus gained economic dominance within those states which is why after independence many of the Islands and states of Africa had a high anti-Asian sentiment. History of colonialism thus shows that Brown benefited from anti-Blackness.
By drawing on my experiences of racism through appropriating the Black struggle, I was in effect peddling a form of anti-Blackness because it was:
a) Dehumanising the experiences of those people who were subject to slavery because they were Black.
b) Dehumanising the experiences of Black people at present who are subject to anti-Blackness -which can solely be experienced by a Black person.
c) Using anti-Blackness as a generic example of racism as though it is an experience for all people of colour when in fact it isn’t.
d) I was thus overwriting and erasing the legitimate suffering of Black people.
e) Appropriation of Black struggle is derailment of Black suffering
f) Erasure is anti-Blackness
g) Derailment is anti-Blackness
h) Appropriation is anti-Blackness
Whether I ‘meant’ to promote anti-Blackness in my work intentionally is not important because of course I did not mean to, however anti-Blackness is institutional – it formed the foundation of the collective historical development of Black, White and Brown people (as well as other people of colour), as a result one can participate in anti-Blackness and not ‘mean to’. The importance lies in admitting one’s own mistake, learning from it, and trying to move forward with these ideas in mind when participating in emancipatory politics.
In the words of Andrea Smith, the legacy of anti-Blackness is that even Black struggle becomes the property of social justice struggle.
How I have benefited from anti-Blackness:
1) The British Raj was considered (within White supremacy) the most civilised, and so Indians (Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis) benefited in the form of better treatment through employment contracts, some control over governance and slightly better treatment.
2) Indians still owned a sense of their own existence even under the restrictions of being colonised, while Black slaves did not.
3) Anti-Blackness forms the foundation of colourism/shadism in South Asia and yet the appropriation of Black culture is widely practised. I have benefited as a light (ish) skinned Brown person from Black people’s contribution to culture.
4) I have benefited from Black liberation thought and ideas that was borrowed by Indians to form the basis of anti-British liberation movements.
5) I have personally benefited from Black thought. PERIOD. All I have ever known about emancipatory politics have come from Black academics – Angela Davis, Bell Hooks, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy to name a few. All I ever have known about feminism has come from Black people. Black feminist thought saved me.
6) Black power movements in the UK saved the lives of Brown people. PERIOD. If it wasn’t for the determination of Black people and the ideas of Black power, ‘P***-bashing’ would still be a thing. See: ‘Kala Tara’ (which means Black star) a magazine created by the second generation Asian Youth Movement which clearly borrowed its ideas from the thoughts of the Black power movement.
7) If it wasn’t for the Black and Asian youth movements of the 70s, our lives would be unbearable.
And so I end with a note to myself is: Appropriation is part of the problem, not the solution when attempting to bring down anti-blackness and fighting White supremacy.
http://www.gradientlair.com/post/70446091386/andrea-smith-on-anti-blackness (Essay by @thetrudz)
http://www.gradientlair.com/tagged/poc-and-anti-blackness (Essay by @thetrudz)
Murray Last. (1967) ‘The Sokoto Caliphate’ in: Middleton, J, (ed.) Encyclopaedia of Sub-Saharan Africa (pages 118 – 119) Simon & Schuster: New York
Yash P Ghai (1970) Portrait of a minority; Asians in East Africa. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Clarke, Colin G., Ceri Peach, and Steven Vertovec (1990) eds. South Asians overseas: migration and ethnicity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
With thanks to:
A lovely man named Denzel (whom I cannot find on twitter) who pointed this out to me and who inspired this post, thank you for your patience.
James, for proofreading and ironing out my mistakes, you can follow his twitter account here
@BaelessSkip and IG account here @jamesoflosangeles
Black friends and followers on twitter, thank you for enlightening me and teaching me about everything I need to know about liberation politics.