By Chloë Rasier
These progressive ideas aspire to ‘cancel’ a complicated past and replace it. However, the stumbling efforts suggest that even those who believe in dismantling white supremacy do not (yet) know how to do so.
In the 2020 US Presidential election campaign, racial topics, and especially a discourse about the necessity of dismantling systemic racism, were omnipresent in the Democratic candidates’ speeches. In his article ‘Cancel Culture is not a movement’, Benjamin Wallace-Wells (2021) points out how nearly all the candidates spoke of “Black and brown communities” and often adopted a strikingly activist language. Wanting to dismantle white supremacy “quickly”, the article presents two cases in which politicians dealt with this question. One approach, explored by the Minneapolis city-council in a response to the police killing of George Floyd, consisted of allowing racial justice advocates a more direct role in defining public policy. The goal was to “end policing as we know it”, with well-grounded criticisms of the old system but only a vague sense of what would replace it, and the initiative eventually losing steam when it encountered “public opposition”. The other case is situated in San Francisco where forty-four schools were to be renamed in order to “dismantle symbols of racism and white supremacy culture”. In pursuit of dramatic change, the committee responsible to review these symbolic targets made basic errors and a month after the plan had been announced, it was shelved indefinitely (Wallace-Wells, 2021).
These progressive ideas aspire to ‘cancel’ or “wash away a complicated past and replace it with one that is beyond rebuke.” However, the stumbling efforts suggest that even those who most sincerely believe in dismantling white supremacy do not (yet) know how to do so. This uncertainty characterizes much of progressivism right now (Wallace-Wells, 2021). The end might be clear, but what are the means? It takes knowing the vast map of systemic racism to situate, define, recognize, use and criticize the many ways to construct a better alternative.
The Map: From Difference to Ideology
Systemic racism is not a one-dimensional map, not a linear path from cause to effect that allows us to deal with it as one common project
Systemic racism is not a one-dimensional map, not a linear path from cause to effect that allows us to deal with it as one common project with certainty of outcome and without risk. Easy explanations for racism have proven to be wrong or at least fraught. We know today that the concept of human races has no biological grounds. Yet these ideas persist and continue to be part of the map of what racism looks like, going against our own Western logic which deems ‘hard sciences’ such as biology more important than any other to bring us knowledge and truth. The straightforward, seemingly logical assumption that racism grows from a perception of human difference, does not help us any further either. The fact of race does not give rise to the practice of racism. This assumption would suggest that humans have an innate and natural system of prejudices linked to a shared classification, and that difference in itself can be the spark for, and motor of, centuries of social injustices, violence and discrimination.
In reality, “racists happily move from one form of racism to another, caring little about logical contradictions, inconsistencies, and discrepancies in their arguments.” (Hage, 2017)
Of course difference - whether it be phenotypical, biological, cultural, or a combination of these and more - is an integral part of racism, but focusing on these classifications is a slippery slope and racism in reality doesn’t obey any of its rules. In his book ‘Is racism an environmental threat?’, Ghassan Hage warns us about this focus to explain the practice of racism, referring to what Pierre Bourdieu critically identifies as a form of scholastic thought. ‘Scholastic’ meaning “a mode of thinking that detaches racism from its practical/usage context and conceives it as an academic exercise aimed at some kind of pure knowledge, a desire to classify for classification’s sake.” (Hage, 2017). Hage presents us with a list of vague and continuously fluctuating classifications used through time and space of the Muslim Other inspiring Islamophobia, demonstrating how racist modes of classification are fluid and how racism exhibits a far greater malleability than academic anti-racism. In reality, “racists happily move from one form of racism to another, caring little about logical contradictions, inconsistencies, and discrepancies in their arguments.” (Hage, 2017)
all capitalism is and has always been racial
In his lecture on ‘Race and the Making of the Global Capitalist Order’, historian Robin Kelley (2017) sheds another light on the complexity of considering systemic racism. He describes how the problem at hand is not a matter of a ‘good’ system turned bad. It is not a matter of repairing what we have, but a need for a much more radical reckoning with the fact that what makes our current world turn, is a system that was built on these injustices. He refers to how Cedric Robinson conceptualized “racial capitalism”; not as merely a type of capitalism, rather: all capitalism is and has always been racial (Youtube, 2019). Robinson traces the origins of the global capitalist order five centuries back to how “capitalism emerged within the feudal order and flowered in the cultural soil of a Western civilization already thoroughly infused with racialism.” (Kelley, 2017). The first proletarians in this system were European racial subjects (Irish, Jews, Roma, Gypsies, Slavs, etc.) and victims of dispossession (enclosure), colonialism and slavery within Europe. “Capitalism and racism, in other words, [...] evolved from [this order] to produce a modern world system of racial capitalism dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide.” (Kelley, 2017).
This mode of existence struggles to “create a world where the most salient quality of everything that comes into existence is that it “exists for” something.”
Capitalism’s vast influence, in turn, structures more than the public realm. Ghassan Hage considers how the ecological crisis and structural racism have a shared root in the dominant way in which we inhabit the world. With colonialism, he writes, the capitalist dynamic of exploitation of people and resources (both systems sharing forms of othering, domination and governmentality) gained worldwide influence. These past five centuries, humans have come to inhabit the earth in a mode of existence that he conceptualizes as ‘generalized domestication’; a utilitarian view on the world that goes beyond instrumental reason and operates as a mode of being, “a mode of relating that, in the process of relating, creates the very world it is relating to”. This mode of existence struggles to “create a world where the most salient quality of everything that comes into existence is that it “exists for” something.” Existing in this world, ‘existential viability’, eventually depends on one’s own viability as a domesticator. This, in turn, leads to experiencing what is perceived as uncontainable, unintegrable, ungovernable (nature, Muslims faithful to the laws of God before those of the nation, etc.) not merely as a technical problem but as an existential threat (Hage, 2017).
If race lives on today, “it can do so only because we continue to create and re-create it in our social life, continue to verify it, and thus continue to need a social vocabulary that will allow us to make sense, not of what our ancestors did then, but of what we ourselves choose to do now.” (Fields, 2016)
Systemic racism in the US is a current-day enmeshment of this history, these attitudes and ideas that continuously create new realities - upon which newer realities are constructed. In her essay ‘Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United Sates of America’ (taken from the book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life), historian Barbara J. Fields (2016) refers to race as an ideology, something that is constantly reinvented and re-ritualized. The concept of race, she writes, came into being at a specific time for specific reasons (referring to racial capitalism, oppression through slavery and the subsequent construction of white supremacy and the inferior other), which then took on a life of its own and became an external motor to history. Fields problematizes today’s vocabulary of ‘difference’ or ‘diversity’ brushing over words such as slavery, injustice, oppression and exploitation, and diverting attention from the anything-but-neutral history these words denote. She problematizes the use of the concept of race by instances such as the Supreme Court or even those advocating for affirmative action, as this continuously “enhances the authority and prestige of race” and pleas for the more radical goal of abolition. If race lives on today, she writes, “it can do so only because we continue to create and re-create it in our social life, continue to verify it, and thus continue to need a social vocabulary that will allow us to make sense, not of what our ancestors did then, but of what we ourselves choose to do now.” (Fields, 2016).
the creation of this gap required the cooperation of every aspect of society and bridging it will require the same.
The idea that, having moved on from slavery, today’s fight against racism in the US should be about broader matters of ‘diversity’ and ‘class-based actions’ also doesn’t do justice to how the system actually evolved. In his renowned article ‘The Case for Reparations’, Ta-Nehisi Coates (2014) demonstrates how the US is still on the same continuum of compounding moral debts since slavery. He retraces today’s inequalities between Black and white America as a succession of “two hundred fifty years of slavery, ninety years of Jim Crow, sixty years of separate but equal and thirty-five years of racist housing policy” (Coates, 2014). Coates’ article shows how progress rests on shaky foundations and fault lines are everywhere. "Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of [the US’] shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap." (Coates, 2014). With white wealth built on slave labor and subsequent discriminatory laws that "reached their apex in the mid-20th century, when the federal government [emphasis added]—through housing policies—engineered this gap, which remains with us to this day." (Coates, 2014). Coates’ plea for reparations for these injustices goes beyond the financial aspect, as he is well aware that the creation of this gap required the cooperation of every aspect of society and that bridging it will require the same. When interviewed, Coates (2014) invokes the importance of the collective imagination and how the mere act of talking about reparations for African Americans would make America into a different country. How this requires a move away from individual (white) guilt and more radical ideas that help us imagine solutions not in the current world, but to move towards a world that we want to create. This also requires coming to terms with the state’s wrongdoings. To create a new kind of patriotism, like the memory a mother has of a child, the love a brother has for a sister; knowing that the other is not perfect but still “being willing to jump in front of a truck for them”, enabling us to have a constructive conversation on how to move forward. (Youtube, 2014).
The Means: Canceling is not Repairing
Considering how what we refer to as systemic racism is a large map that spans centuries, permeates deep into our collective consciousness and attitudes and is constantly re-ritualized and re-created, it is not surprising that much of progressivism right now is characterized by uncertainty. It also suggests, as Benjamin Wallace-Wells’ article title does, that ‘cancel culture’ might not be a good strategy for a movement. Wanting to move quickly, the well-meant efforts of the Minneapolis city-council or the San Francisco school committee, merely brush the surface of something that runs wide and deep.
In today’s anti-racist discourse, one regularly comes across rankings of oppression; from black to brown to white, a creation of hierarchies that affects solidarities and nurtures competition between ethnic minority groups on the one hand, and deems white people unable to be ‘real’ comrades on the oher (Aouragh, 2019).
Today’s focus on identity politics can be subjected to a similar critique. While individual experiences are important to recognize, and can teach us about the many intersectional ways in which racism functions as a discriminatory practice, a focus on these can also stand in the way of what the anti-racism struggle actually needs to address. Asad Haider (2018) warns us about identity politics’ potential to divide the left as it “reduces politics to who you are as an individual and gaining recognition as an individual [...] diverting attention from the collective struggle against an oppressive social structure”. As a result, he writes, “identity politics paradoxically ends up reinforcing the very norms it set out to criticize.” (Kumar, 2018) Identities, in Haider’s view, being unstable and multifarious, cannot serve as a foundation for the struggle against racism. He suggests overcoming this fragmentation in the spirit of the Combahee River Collective: by asserting political autonomy and also being in coalitions. By creating new ways of relating to each other through mass movements; political activity; concrete, practical projects in coalition with others, which in itself is a process in which racism is undermined (Kumar, 2018). Dutch anthropologist Myriam Aouragh (2019) too argues for a ‘radical kinship’ and a need to move away from ‘competing oppressions’. Indeed, in today’s anti-racist discourse, one regularly comes across rankings of oppression; an “incremental logic from black to brown to white”, a creation of hierarchies that affects solidarities and nurtures competition between ethnic minority groups on the one hand, and deems white people unable to be ‘real’ comrades on the oher (Aouragh, 2019). “When political responsibility becomes invested in personal accountability or subjective characteristics outside of genuine coalition work”, Aouragh notes, “the space for transformative change narrows down.” Radical anti-racist kinship needs coalitions amongst strong comrades, not submissive allies.
While the skill of seeing and questioning your privilege is essential, it risks becoming an end in itself, an anti-racism with the aim of being a morally good individual instead of a collective political fight.
For white people, this means approaching anti-racism as more than an individual moral issue (something for example Robin Di Angelo's bestseller ‘White Fragility’ tends to emphasize). While the skill of seeing and questioning your privilege is essential, it risks becoming an end in itself, an anti-racism with the aim of being a morally good individual instead of a collective political fight.
It seems clear that we can’t simply cancel our way out of this and that solutions to systemic racism won’t be “quick”. Knowing the vastness of the map means knowing that change will eventually need to be more radical, and that the means to get there will always be partial, insufficient and subject to critique. It is just that which the destructive tendency of ‘cancel culture’ does not allow; doubt, criticism, space for more than the superficial, for growth, for the messy process that the creation of new radical kinships and a new imaginary is. After all, as Fields points out, resistance to oppression is not about one perfect moment in time but “a continuous historical outcome of struggles that have come before [...] emerging from centuries of day-today contest, overt and covert, armed and unarmed, peaceable and forcible, over where the limits lay.” (Fields, 2016) Or, to cite Beat poet Diane Di Prima: “no one way works, it will take all of us shoving at the thing from all sides to bring it down” (Di Prima, 1971).
Coates, T. (2014, June). The Case for Reparations. Retrieved May 01, 2021, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/
Di Prima, D. (1971). Revolutionary Letters - Diane Di Prima (Poetry). Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://libsocalliance.boards.net/thread/75/revolutionary-letters-diane-prima-poetry
Fields, B. J. (2016, July 8). Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United states of America.
Retrieved April 8, 2021, from https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2763-slavery-race-and-ideology-in-the-united-states-of-america
Hage, G. (2017). Is racism an environmental threat? (Debating Race). Cambridge, UK: Polity
Kelley, R. (2017, January 12). What did cedric Robinson mean by Racial capitalism? Retrieved April 15, 2021, from http://bostonreview.net/race/robin-d-g-kelley-what-did-cedric-robinson-mean-racial-capitalism
Kumar, R. (2018, May 27). How identity politics has divided the left: An interview With Asad Haider. Retrieved May 01, 2021, from https://theintercept.com/2018/05/27/identity-politics-book-asad-haider/
Wallace-Wells, B. (2021, March 11). Cancel culture is not a movement. Retrieved April 8,
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2017 [Video file] Retrieved May 15, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32ZwK2Zlw1U
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[Video file]. Retrieved April 27, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eB1S9-GsBW8