Shades of Black
6 MAY 2021
Excerpt from Nathalie Etoke’s Shades of Black, translated by Gila Walker, Seagull Books, 2021; first book in the series Quilombola! edited by Léonora Miano. https://www.seagullbooks.org/shades-of-black/
Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of his Former Self, Kerry James Marshall, 1980; Image credit: Wikiart
ot race but social conditions are responsible for the linguistic disparities between citizens of the same country. An education that promotes levelling from the bottom in the name of egalitarianism will have disastrous consequences for marginalized populations. It leads to a racist antiracism: a way of essentializing and accommodating deficiencies wrongly attributed to groups whose ultimate desire is to learn.
The current antiracist ideology is anchored in an insurmountable paradox: the desire to fix racism reinforces the assignment of identities. good whites punish the bad. In the wake of the revolt that shook America after George Floyd’s death, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk about Black People by Robin DiAngelo had an unprecedented success. (1) This book provides antiracism with its new credo. The media are all talking about it and white people buy it or recommend it without having read a word. The author has been everywhere on television. Without any notion of the destiny that awaited it, I had included this book on the reading list for a course entitled “Introduction to race and ethnicity” that I taught in the summer of 2020. To see White Fragility elevated to the rank of an antiracist Bible or else lambasted for its anti-white (2) or anti- Black racism (3) left me perplexed.
A former university professor, Robin DiAngelo is now famous for her work in the diversity industry. Before becoming a sought- after public speaker known for her costly services, she directed business workshops on implicit biases and racism. DiAngelo affirms beyond the shadow of a doubt that all white people are racist. Consequently, they must dedicate their existence to expiating a sin that is consubstantial with their identity. DiAngelo is an apologist for contrition. The argumentation gets lost in the messianic exaltation of the self-mortified white body. The author describes, nevertheless, certain coping mechanisms of self-defense and conscious or unconscious protection that make whites uneasy about the question of racism.
The bitter criticism levelled against DiAngelo reveals the shortcomings of an approach that focuses on behavioral problems and on creating a welcoming workplace. The antiracist awakening is above all else didactic and prescriptive. It resembles a mandatory emotional-torture session. The historical context serves as a mere backdrop. The participants must confess their racism while suffering ad hominem attacks. The irony of this situation is that absolution is impossible. Is the goal to combat racism or to train individuals so that the business can blithely function with a clean conscience?
Whether they are republican, democrat, or from the moderate left, the majority of DiAngelo’s detractors get shrill because she calls them irredeemable racists. In her antiracist breviary, even when whites fight the good fight, all is lost from the start. As a result, whites must constantly strain to become the best possible allies. DiAngelo and her disciples do not recognize the inherent asymmetry in relations of solidarity with the oppressed. Contrary to appearances, these relations do not create equality. They produce an inverse power dynamic. to be a good ally means submitting to the dictates of the oppressed person. Subjugated by external injunctions, this identity is fundamentally defective. By definition, the ally is always susceptible to correction, discipline, or loss of ally status. These alienating labels should be rejected and make way for a vocabulary establishing the humanity of all.
Following the George Floyd Affair, the debate on free speech and against “cancel culture” has returned with a vengeance. Formerly confined to the ideological furor of students and certain leftist professors on American campuses, these practices—denunciation, humiliation, boycott, and power to silence certain figures of the political world, the intelligentsia, or the entertainment industry—are now making their mark outside of universities. The hunt for personae non gratae has been causing havoc in newsrooms. Having refused to submit to the doxa of the moment, certain journalists of the New York Times resigned. Fearful of getting burnt at the stake of group think, some professors and students avoid expressing dissident opinions publicly. Confronted by the crowd of the woke, it is better to keep a low profile. (4) Conscious of the ravages of the woke imperative, more than 150 intellectuals signed “A letter on Justice and Open debate” addressing the dangers of censorship and of ideological intimidation from the zealots of social and racial justice. (5) In arguing for de-escalation, they provoked an uproar. A group of journalists and academics vigorously denounced the editorial that appeared in Harper’s Magazine. They reproached the publication for having privileged the opinion of established writers of whom the majority were white, male, and cisgender. Their letter referred neither to the question of power nor to the editorial practices that reduce marginalized populations to silence. (6)
Within the community of Black American activists, the war of the sexes was declared: “#SayHerName.” different factions laid into each other on twitter and Facebook. Black feminists were troubled by the lack of interest given to female victims of police violence. (7) Why should Breonna Taylor not receive as much attention as George Floyd? It is a question of statistics, the opposing side replied. The police killed more Black men than women. The slogans “All Black lives Matter” and “Black trans lives Matter” appeared on social networks in order to include members of the LGBTQI community. The prevailing discourse did not take into account the double victimization of transgender individuals at the hands of Black men and of policemen. A macabre competition was held among populations marginalized because of their race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. A hierarchy of victimization encouraged violent and obscene debates. Which group would captivate the white gaze? Who would take home the trophy of supreme victim?
The creation of an equitable world will never happen at the cost of liberty and respect for the humanity of all. We must distinguish between justice and vengeance, between struggle for equality and will to power. Understand and accept that the earth is our inheritance.
Black and Part Black Birds in America, Kerry James Marshall; Image credit: Smithsonianmag.com
Invisibility of some; hypervisibility of others. The truth nonetheless is elsewhere. Until proven otherwise, the media’s overexposure of violence inflicted on Black men does not improve the existence of those who remain alive. It reveals the precariousness of an existence constantly subject to the power of death. (8) TV screens, t-shirts, murals, and social networks immortalize victims. Only death accords to these individuals the right to be remembered in the social imaginary. Before their lives ended on the asphalt, who were they? Was anyone interested in their dreams, in their states of mind? Haloed with post-mortem fame as heroes and martyrs, the deceased symbolize the oppression of people of African descent in imperialist democracies.
Rather than get entangled in competitive victimhood, better reflect coldly on the problem posed by a necrophile system of recognition grounded in an insatiable “appetite for the death of black men.” (9) Neoliberal activism keeps up an incestuous relation- ship with necropolitics. (10) What is the significance of the state’s ritualized violence against Blacks in the social, economic, and cultural ecosystem of America? It is always Black bodies that the media toss out as fodder to public opinion. The suffering of Blacks in the United States is a singular spectacle and it has been going on for more than 400 years. The nation watches a tragedy of its own authorship. Where slaves had a market value in a plantation economy, their descendants inherit a devalued citizenship.
At the end of the spring of 2020, George Floyd’s death interrupted the morbid litany that recited on a daily basis the number of deaths due to Covid-19. While at the start of the pandemic the tragedy’s color was white, after a few weeks it became Black. Stupefied, America announced the death rate of a population whose precariousness nonetheless explained its extreme vulnerability to the virus. Floyd’s autopsy revealed that, in addition to being positive for a number of illegal substances, he had contracted Covid-19. The public execution of this man and the sickness’s devastating effect on the heart of the Black American community revealed nothing that we did not already know. (11)
In light of the racial, social, and health climate, what society will emerge from the current upheavals? What must we do now?
Let us not repeat the pattern of totalitarian thought of which we have been the victims. The creation of an equitable world will never happen at the cost of liberty and respect for the humanity of all. We must distinguish between justice and vengeance, between struggle for equality and will to power. Understand and accept that the earth is our inheritance. We must share and protect it. It is incumbent upon us to create a language capable of communicating human experience without reproducing, in the name of inclusion, mechanisms of alienation and exclusion.
Capitalism incessantly worsens racial and social inequalities. Standing on a mountain of dead bodies, democratic imperialist law and order are wavering. Unhappiness for some can no longer mean happiness for others.
What does the future hold? The best, or the worst.
Is the goal to combat racism or to train individuals so that the business can blithely function with a clean conscience?
1. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk about Black People 127 (with a foreword by Michael eric Dyson) (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018).
2. Matt Taibbi, “On ‘White Fragility’: A Few Thoughts on America’s Smash-Hit #1 guide to egghead racism,” Reporting by Matt Taibbi, June 29, 2020. Available on: https://bit.ly/2r0kSmt (last accessed on September 7, 2020).
3. John McWhorter, “The dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility: The Popular Book Aims to Combat racism but talks down to Black People,” Atlantic, July 15, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3bBigQU (last accessed on September 7, 2020).
4. According to Samuel Veissière and Anne-Sophie Chazaud: “The term ‘woke’ is first used unironically by militants of the new left who claim to be ‘awake’ to the power mechanisms of the cultural institutions that they perceive as ‘colonial,’ especially as far as genders and the statuses of ethnic and sexual minorities are concerned. [. . .] The culture of social-justice warriors traces its origin to American departments of social sciences where postmodernism has dominated for almost twenty years. The first ‘French’ connection with this phenomenon is as ironic as it is perverse. Postmodernism, at the origin of the Woke movement and especially associated with the works of Foucault, deleuze, and Derrida, is termed ‘French theory’ in America. In its current ambitions, this philosophical current that ques- tions the hegemonic dimensions of received ideas is strongly marked by an Anglo- Saxon Calvinist puritanism that seeks to safeguard ‘purity’ and sees victims and villains everywhere” (“Etes-vous contaminé par l’épidémie de ‘woke’ [ça n’est pas parce que vous ne savez pas ce que c’est que vous n’êtes pas concerné]?” Atlantico, October 6, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/3lZHIyf; last accessed on September 7, 2020.)
5. Harper’s Magazine, “A letter on Justice and Open debate,” July 7, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2dztcXF (last accessed on September 7, 2020).
6. The Objective, “A More Specific letter on Justice and Open debate,” July 10, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2gdkWvn (last accessed on September 7, 2020).
7. Brittney Cooper, “Why Are Black Women and girls Still an Afterthought in Our Outrage over Police Violence,” Time, June 4, 2020; available at: https://bit.ly/3jXggkt (last accessed on September 7, 2020). Kimberlé Crenshaw, “The Urgency of Intersectionality,” TEDWomen 2016, October 2016; available at: https://bit.ly/3bxhezf (last accessed on September 7, 2020). kimberley Foster, “Why I Will not March for eric garner”, For Harriet, July 22, 2014; available at: https://bit.ly/3bxaiCh (last accessed on September 7, 2020).
8. J.-A. Mbembé, “Necropolitics” (Libby Meintjes trans.), Public Culture 15(1) (Winter 2003): 11–40; here, p. 12.
9. Tommy J. Curry, “Why does America Have an Appetite for the death of Black Men?” PBS News Hour, August 10, 2017. Available at: https://to.pbs.org/- 3i6qWuJ (last accessed on September 7, 2020).
10. Mbembé asks: “But under what practical conditions is the right to kill, to allow to live, or to expose to death exercised? Who is the subject of this right?” (“necropolitics,” p. 12)
11. In Chicago, for example, Black Americans represent 30 percent of the city’s inhabitants but 68 percent of the death rate. They are dying from the Coronavirus six times more than whites. See Cecilia Reyes, Nausheen Husain, Christy Gutowski, Stacy St. Clair, and Gregory Pratt, “Chicago’s Coronavirus disparity: Black Chicagoans Are dying at nearly Six times the rate White residents, data Show,” Chicago Tribune, April 7, 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/358a0r4 (last accessed on September 7, 2020).