By Prakash Kona
I have been consistently opposed to identity based politics; the movement Black Lives Matter (BLM) is no exception to the rule. The golden rule is that the politics of resistance must produce an alternative argument to mainstream thinking, not a replication of the latter. Unfortunately that is what BLM is doing in embracing race as a category of emancipation, which it is not.
Baldwin says: “Color is not a human or a personal reality; it is a political reality.” Color is not an existential fact as the BLM makes it look like when it talks of “black communities” and “every black person.” Such isolated beings never existed in my view. These communities and these individuals are a part of other communities and people who are engaged with them on a daily basis. There is no point served in essentializing blacks as if they were psychologically and socially autonomous; and that their cultural or other involvements with the prevailing order were purely economic and nothing else.
There are two ways of looking at class, race, gender or caste; either we use these categories with the intention of doing away with them or we hold on to these terms in order to retain them. In other words, they could become the basis for changing things from the way they are to what they ought to be, or a way of preserving the status quo.
As of now the BLM is ensuring that the status quo remains intact and is not opposing it in the way it should be opposed, which is by opening as many channels as possible for a more nuanced way of looking at blackness in relation to what passes for whiteness.
For the sake of argument, if out of ten “white” people, four are opposed to your argument and three are indifferent to what you say, there are still three remaining with whom you enter into a dialogue. Two or even one is enough to make a difference. (I am using the word “white” without endorsing or believing that there is any such category except in a “political” sense. It doesn’t exist in my view for the same reason there is nobody like a “black” person, but a person who also happens to be black.) That’s the whole point in fighting discrimination by engaging with your opponent: you enter the rank and file of the system and bring about lasting change. Resistance movements have to be much more conscious of what they say and do because they aim to create a new way of living which is democratic and one that has no place for racism, classism and misogyny.
The bottom line is that you cannot directly or indirectly aim to replace one kind of hegemony with another. I am opposed to American imperialism; it doesn’t mean I give my support to Chinese or any other imperialism. In the end imperialism must go because it is an evil in itself. If I am opposed to Zionism it doesn’t mean I am in favor of reactionary versions of Arab nationalism based on the politics of exclusion; two wrongs don’t make a right. A future Palestinian state must have place for Jews in it; and Israeli citizens should have the freedom to travel anywhere in the Arab world without their rights being violated in any way. For exactly the same reasons, if I am opposed to white supremacy it doesn’t mean at any point in time I want it to ever be replaced with the supremacy of colored people. If that is the end in view, there is no point in having a movement for change in the first place.
Resistance politics is built on the promise of justice and willingness to accommodate diversity. We are talking of a world without supremacy of any kind. If two hundred years of British rule of India ended without any rancor or hatred on either side it is largely owing to Gandhian politics which provided no space to that kind of animosity. Moral nationalism where people aim to become better human beings is any day preferable to political nationalism which is self-centered and opposed to difference.
I am not saying what is being done to individual blacks by the law enforcement agency in the United States is right. It is wrong. Period. Black people do matter. People matter, irrespective of the color of their skin. How we oppose a racist order is as important as understanding a race-based structure and to a large extent the theoretical basis of American nationalism has been race and not citizenship. When America was founded as a nation, slave-ownership was legitimate and protected by the state as a right.
However, thanks to American imperialism and the history of colonialism we continue to live in a racist world. The entire aesthetic built around light complexion is one of the cruelest and most dangerous manifestations of modern-day mental slavery. Millions of colored men and women are drugged into believing that being light-skinned is being beautiful. People are attractive for a million different reasons that can never be reduced to skin tone. Black skin matters because it is beautiful in itself.
There is no reason on earth to exchange one’s color for anything lighter without escaping the psychological consequences, the worst of them being self-hate and a soul-killing inferiority. It is like a person who chooses to lock himself in a prison cell and throw the key away from the window. Such people who consciously decide to give away their freedom cannot be saved. There is no hope for these voluntary slaves and just now there is a multi-billion dollar fashion industry catering to these mental prisoners who believe that being dark is being less than desirable.
Fanon has a telling phrase which is also the title of his book describing these prisoners by choice: black skins, white masks. The desperate longing for the white mask without which the colored person cannot speak to him or herself or to their own people who will not hear them in the absence of the white mask, effectively describes the state of mind of the mental colonialism of millions. We observe this phenomenon in prominent writers from the third world: that lack of a real voice which shows in the work. Instead of speaking to the reader, the writing is speaking to the publisher. It is as if a doppelganger is doing the writing for which rewards come in the form of prizes depending on how close the writing is to a pattern prescribed by the culture industry. This kind of writing which is about surrendering your voice and making a Faustian deal with power, neither interprets nor changes the world. It is purely descriptive and says nothing that goes into collective memory. Isn’t this another way of perpetuating racial inferiority in the “post” colonized subject, without having to physically colonize them?
One revealing and relevant passage that speaks of the bodies of people from the colonies is from Mahatma Gandhi’s book Satyagraha in South Africa, which talks about the beauty of the Zulus in aesthetic terms:
“Among the Negroes, the tallest and the most handsome are the Zulus. I have deliberately used the epithet “handsome” in connection with Negroes. A fair complexion, and a pointed nose represent our ideal of beauty. If we discard this superstition for a moment, we feel that the Creator did not spare Himself in fashioning the Zulu to perfection. Men and women are both tall and broad-chested in proportion to their height. Their muscles are strong and well set. The calves of the legs and the arms are muscular and always well rounded. You will rarely find a man or woman walking with a stoop or with a hump back. The lips are certainly large and thick, but as they are in perfect symmetry with the entire physique, I for one would not say that they are unshapely. The eyes are round and bright. The nose is flat and large, such as becomes a large face, and the curled hair on the head sets off to advantage the Zulu’s skin which is black and shining like ebony If we ask a Zulu to which of the various races inhabiting South Africa he will award the palm for beauty, he will unhesitatingly decide in favour of his own people, and in this I would not see any want of judgement on his part. The physique of the Zulu is powerfully built and finely shaped by nature without any such effort as is made by Sandow and others in Europe in order to develop the muscles. It is a law of nature that the skin of races living near the equator should be black. And if we believe that there must be beauty in everything fashioned by nature, we would not only steer clear of all narrow and one-sided conceptions of beauty, but we in India would be free from the improper sense of shame and dislike which we feel for our own complexion if it is anything but fair.” (Satyagraha in South Africa)
To view “fair complexion” and a “pointed nose” as beautiful is nothing but a superstition that continues to this day. The other observation Gandhi makes at the end is significant because in India we continue to be ashamed of “our own complexion if it is anything but fair.”
Indian women have predominantly been the unfortunate victims of superstition and shame associated with dark skin more than the men because as a nation we still don’t believe “that there must be beauty in everything fashioned by nature.” This is where we need to have a counter-argument to the racism which most of us have internalized without knowing that it is both scientifically wrong and ethically unacceptable. #Dark Skin is Meaningful is what we need in countries like India to counter the ignorance and self-loathing that comes as a result of a colonial obsession with lightness.
My point is that racism is now a global thing. The movement BLM, if it really is serious about “imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness” has to do it in ways that are more inclusive and not become exclusionary. It has to effectively make an argument for beauty being something natural and having nothing to do with skin color or the features of one’s face. More importantly it has to come out of its essentialism and treat “race” as a political category and not a physical one.
Blacks are as human and as capable of the same excesses as whites; there is no reason to believe that merely because one is colored one is also morally in the right. Anti-blackness must effectively be a way of also challenging anti-whiteness. Unless the rights of people white or black is made the center of a counter-argument to the established one, BLM is going to slide into a conventional movement, trapped in its own rhetoric. This is exactly what the American nationalists want; a movement that will not unite people across differences.
One needs to understand that American nationalism is subtler than Turkish or Indian nationalism which is usually crude and obvious. Apart from the Chinese, American nationalism poses a danger to humanity. Yes, it is racist too and forms the basis of white supremacy. It is deeply rooted in American culture and its aims are sinister which is to keep the blacks and the whites forever at each other’s throats. There’s an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt already being sold online. American nationalism is synonymous with the pursuit of wealth; it is a version of capitalism that believes in making profits at the expense of people. BLM unfortunately is something that the status quo might be comfortable with because it needs these movements where people never get a chance to democratically interact with each other in order to change the world.
In his autobiographical book Here I Stand, the legendary black actor and civil rights campaigner, Paul Robeson speaks of how he learnt to value the oneness of humankind.
“It was in Britain—among the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish people of that land—that I learned that the essential character of a nation is determined not by the upper classes, but by the common people, and that the common people of all nations are truly brothers in the great family of mankind. If in Britain there were those who lived by plundering the colonial peoples, there were also the many millions who earned their bread by honest toil. And even as I grew to feel more Negro in spirit, or African as I put it then, I also came to feel a sense of oneness with the white working people whom I came to know and love. This belief in the oneness of humankind, about which I have often spoken in concerts and elsewhere, has existed within me side by side with my deep attachment to the cause of my own race. Some people have seen a contradiction in this duality: white people who have seen me as a “citizen of the world,” singing the songs of many lands in the languages of those peoples, have wondered sometimes how I could be so partisan for the colored people; and Negroes, on the other hand, have wondered .why I have often expressed a warm affection for peoples who seem remote and foreign to them. I do not think, however, that my sentiments are contradictory; and in England I learned that there truly is a kinship among us all, a basis for mutual respect and brotherly love.”
Not all Americans are nationalists. Not all whites are anti-black. Not all blacks are genuinely committed to an egalitarian world though I am sure that a good number of them are. Not all women are committed to justice for the same reason that not all men are patriarchal. We need to believe in difference as a way of arriving at togetherness.
My empathy for color comes not simply from being a colored person from a third world country but because it can be a pathway for ending the role of color in human relationships. Any other way of looking at color is to fall into the nationalist paradigm propagated by the American establishment. As Robeson is at pains to point out, common people are the same everywhere and we’ve something to learn from all beings irrespective of whether one is black or white. That should be the guiding spirit of BLM which can begin its goal of social transformation by changing its label to #Black and other lives equally matter.