Most things are more complicated than they seem at first glance – most people know that. Analyse und Kritik has published an article last month by Jule Karakayali, Vassilis S. Tsianos, Serhat Karakayali and Aida Ibrahim, named “Decolorise it!” This text has somehow become an internet sensation to many, and is posted and re-posted as if it had reinvented the wheel. I have mostly heard people refer to said article who found themselves confronted with some kind of racism reproach, in a multitude of instances. Even worse, most people who posted this article were white activists who have an anti-racist self-conception (and would object to being called white), occasionally with the – ironic – implicit or explicit note/justification that this text wasn’t even written by “white” german people, but by german people with a “I don’t want to say either migration background or PoC but somehow, well, not white, no, I can’t say that either – waaaah…” (thus rendering the article’s ‘”germanness” = priority’-argument moot).
This article is a nice example as to how little tweaks to allegedly neutrally presented theories can make people throw out “the baby with the bath water” through oversimplifying and generalizing statements and conclusions; in this case about Critical Race Theory and Critical Whiteness Studies (CWS) (although the AK article forgets to add the “Critical” to the Whiteness Studies – certainly a mere coincidence, I am sure…). Unfortunately, this text rejuvenates many justifications for (being able to ignore) individual privileges through white supremacy that CWS tried to mark. Although I personally think there are valid points made regarding concrete anti-racist practice and co-operations, the mere fact that so many people who have to stand up to being called “racists” by PoC (yes, I am sticking to that term) now cover their faces with this article seems to clarify that the immediate dissolution of the (non-essential, even though some people love to forget that) “categories” this article is aiming at would result in (maybe mostly unintended?) disadvantages for anti-racist activism under present conditions. The article’s conclusion and numerous examples and references are – on their own or through their curious interpretation – symptomatic for the issues CWS (and Critical Race Theory) criticize: the degradation of socio-cultural elements and systematic experiences of racism to a mere secondary contradiction, and cherry picking (Black) authors’ half sentences for the article’s own benefit.
The AK text is very elaborate and touches on many points, so I’ll point out a few examples to illustrate my evaluation but will not cover the whole text.
1. CWS are not the result of the (national) Civil Rights Movement (nor have they picked up speed only with Toni Morrison), that is an oversimplified claim. CWS were, essentially, developed at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly by W.E.B. DuBois (“The Souls of Black Folk,” and “Black Reconstruction” – a book whose content the “Decolorise it!”‘ interpretation bends like there’s no tomorrow…); even earlier on, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells analyzed the link between “whiteness/white supremacy” and domination (cf. the rather polemic and most certainly the AK authors’ worst nightmare - Tamara K. Nopper’s article here). The Civil Rights Movement was successful in achieving a more pronounced reception of this theory production. CWS has a longer tradition, then, and its conceptions and theories are just as multidimensional as feminist ones. The aforementioned pioneers’ writings and lives are the best examples, by the way, that CWS are not about generalizing every single white person with no regard to their position and activities.
2. CWS, at least in the USian conception, were never meant as an alternative to Black Studies or anti-racist activism, despite the text’s claims. They were proposed and institutionalized as complementary and as an additional theoretical framework. The article rightly mentions that CWS’s linchpin was to no longer understand racism as the sole problem and inherent “difference” of PoC (who, in contrast to what the authors write, always included more people than only “Black theorists and activists” and is a much more open concept than the article suggests, cf. bell hooks, for example), but to define racism as a relationship, as something “in relation,” to yank parts of this relation from their unmarkedness, and not merely convey racism as something people are inflicted with, without ever mentioning why that is. Almost simultaneously to the stronger reception of CWS – and more often than not driven by the same differentiation intent -, the idea of “intersectionality” entered the stage (Crenshaw 1989) which the AK article neglects, but which is vital to CWS. As the article states, racism really is about “everybody’s” involvement, “mediated by institutions, spaces and discourses;” however, and this is what the article neglects yet again, this idea was never one-dimensional, but always interdependent with the multiple dimensions of said institutions, spaces and discourses that condense and complicate “white” and “PoC” positionings.
3. The article suggests that CWS are running around in circles with no real epiphanies and are damaging to the cause of anti-racism. I think what leads to running around in circles in anti-racist activism are the consequences induced by the belief that racism is something that mostly concerns “other people,” against whose views and actions one rallies, and that a simple non-labeling and refusal to name “races” created by racism will somehow make them disappear. CWS indeed aim at an extension of racism definitions: naming the fact that racist structures and ways of thinking lead to the privileging of white people. It is often mentioned at this point that this is “incapacitating,” as said privileging is structural (yes, also through institutions and discourses). But, in fact, it is mostly about the question what individual people make of structural privileging, and how white privileges depend and interact with other privileges or discriminations. Even though racism is a structure white people “profit” from, this doesn’t mean that this is unequivocally, unabatedly the case for everyone, but that this privilege is at times combined, at times crossing, at times broken by and with others. The often-praised vanishing point of anti-racism does indeed remain to abolish the socio-cultural imaginary product “race,” and the AK article gives some valuable thought on the fact that this seems to be forgotten all too often in times of identity politics that, I would agree, at times read like neo-biologizations. Nevertheless, as long as we find ourselves part of a situation in which institutions and discourses and tropes are built on racism, and in which being “white” is inextricably linked to possessing certain privileges, the allegedly color-blind hushing up and personally declared deconstruction is not only insincere, but often prevents merely talking about and the attack on said imaginary product when people point to their belief that they individually have overcome racism. This is how you torpedo a discussion about ways on how to reach a better situation by pretending to already be there – if that isn’t running around in circles, what is? And if that isn’t making the exact same mistake of rendering people mute, as the AK article rightly criticizes about certain CWS practices, what is?
4. As their example of CWS’ alleged ridiculousness (and danger), the AK text quotes an activist who allegedly wrote that she is tired of differentiating between “good” and “bad” white people. Again, this singular quote serves to oversimplify a whole series of concepts; which is ironic, since most of them have expressly been developed to differentiate. This includes that one is able to criticize the false idea that racism (often euphemized as xenophobia) is mostly a right-wing extremist problem, can be reduced to the NSU or NPD or the Tea Party, and was not a rampant social problem. This is simply about the fact that people who vote for Germany’s Green Party or the US Democrats and who might love awesome “exotic” folklore when visiting international street festivals (and have that famous “Black friend” who doesn’t mind anything at all, ever – a docile kinda fella, right?) aren’t automatically anti-racists. Obviously, generalizing about everyone, about every single white person, is just as false in my opinion – but the idea that you’re not racist because you’re not a card-carrying member of the NPD and/or have personally decided to not be racist borders on absurdity. Yet, this is something many left-wing activists are convinced of (…just as many of them just know that they’re not sexist or anti-Semitic either…), and every evidence (or mere provocative question) to the contrary is labeled as PoC-“fanaticism”:
ja, ich finde immer noch, dass ICH keine Rassistin bin, sorry liebe Noah Sow (Deutschland Schwarz weiß, S. 6 instagr.am/p/QZMQAfOxUL/—
Katrin Roenicke (@dieKadda) October 05, 2012
(Katrin Rönicke, a feminist blogger and former member of “Mädchenmannschaft,” writes: “yes, i still think I am not a racist; sorry dear Noah Sow” and uploads a picture of a page from Noah Sow’s book “Germany in Black and White,” claiming even though she “took something” from it, this is where the book was getting “fanatic”.)
5. The problem is: this text works with the same mode of oversimplification and set of generalizations it (rightly so at times, e.g. when I read reports about the “No Border” camp) criticizes about CWS As A Whole, and comes to sweeping conclusions by misrepresenting its quoted Black History/Anti-Racism authorities, brushing over decades worth of historical and sociological debates (that did not come to a single conclusion, naturally…), and now serving as the punchline and/or excuse of every person confronted with profiting from certain privileges and not wanting to face up to that fact.
And this text is difficult to counter exactly because it works with so many generalizations and oversimplifications while still being “scholarly,” and the article makes assertions on alleged conclusive facts that have been debated for decades and continue to be controversial. Yet, none of the people who enthusiastically link to this article are even bothered by the fact that people like W.E.B. DuBois or the Black Panther Party are suddenly champions of “interracial” activism and wouldn’t dare speak of “PoC” and “white” people – if you’re even vaguely familiar with DuBois work, you will realize that his views were constantly evolving (and have been called “Black separatist” at some point even…), and I would love to hear a Black Panther activist’s or Black Nationalist’s opinion on this one… (one could mention here that we might hear a lot of Anti-Semitism and sexism in his_her reponse no less!). Stating that “racism is a product of slavery” ignores almost seventy years of the historiographical “origins” debate with various stances on this issue, and it ignores scholarship on “proto”-racism (cf. articles in the special issue of The William and Mary Quarterly, January 1997, for example). The AK-text also relies on Theodore W. Allen, whose work the authors are referring to has been criticized and disputed for relying heavily on literature rather than primary sources – and yet, people ignore some of these shaky foundations and overreaching statements in this article and praise it as their new anti-racist biblical revelation.
Things are more complicated than they seem. This goes for CWS and its practice, as well as for the assertions in the “Decolorise it!” article. Oversimplifications and sweeping generalizations won’t help either artificial “side” here, and I would appreciate if some people came to realize that.
[As always, please feel free to comment in german, too :)!]
[Update 2]: There are a couple of things in the comment section that are facepalm-inducing to read, but are examples as to how the AK article is received, and what that does to questions of reflecting white privilege and/or anti-racist activism in a german context, and show where we stand when people allege that anti-racism is held back by CWS… FYI: people can stop calling me a racist and XYZ-supremacist already – you won’t get published, my dears.
[Update 3]: Mea maxima culpa, I have only now realized that Alex Weheliye, a scholar who has worked extensively on DuBois, also left a comment in momorulez’ thread and gives his views on and analysis of the AK article. Read it, right now. Personally, I am not sure about the “will to power” aspect, but I very much appreciate that Alex is also pointing out the fallacies of making Allen/Ignatiev or Steinfeld the champions of Critical Race Theory and/or CWS, of bending DuBois’ work, and of ignoring the history of both PoC and CWS conceptions. Thank you!
[Update 4]: Katrin Rönicke’s “drive by” was evidently not an accident – she has now based her whole “Freitag” column on telling Noah Sow (and other PoC) what (educational) anti-racism really should look like, and why Black anti-racist activists like Noah Sow Are Doing Anti-Racism Wrong. I have nothing to say to that exhausting old trope, besides what I have already written in this post and the comment section… Oh, wait, there’s one thing: fuck you, Katrin Rönicke. You have neither any knowledge on nor any understanding of racism (or feminism), and are showing it in excruciating detail. This is what simple-minded CWS bashing does to anti-racist activism in germany – thanks a lot.
[Update 6]: Analyse und Kritik has published a critique of the “Decolorise it!” article by Artur Dugalski, Carolina Lara and Malik Hamsa here (in german).