Tag Archives: #Whiteness

What About Latoya? – On the Spectacle of “the Other” in Nicole Arbour’s “Dear Black People”

The commodification of Otherness has been so successful because it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture. – bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” (1992)

Stereotypes, however innacurate, are one form of representation. Like fictions, they are created to serve as substitutions, standing in for what is real. They are there not to tell it like it is but to invite and encourage pretense. They are a fantasy, a projection onto the Other that makes them less threatening. Stereotypes abound when there is distance. They are an invention, a pretense that one knows when the steps that would make true knowing possible cannot be taken or are not allowed. – bell hooks, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination” (1992)

I was on facebook recently and received a notification from a group of which I am a part called White People Conference [WPC] – Got Privilege? An online forum for people of all social locations to discuss issues of race, gender, and sexuality, WPC constellates around a critical interrogation of white supremacy at it shows up in instances of racialized violence—whether physical (via police brutality, for instance) or “symbolic” (via racist slurs, as an example)—in various contexts. It is also meant to be a space in which to offer viable avenues for white solidarity with the cause for racial justice.

The notification I received came from a woman of color who posted a video blog from white comedian “vlogger” Nicole Arbour with the following preface: “Who the heck is this, and WHAT is (are) her problem(s)?,” followed by the hashtag: “#whitegirlflexsherwhiteprivilege”.

Entitled “Dear Black People,” the six minute video is a tongue-and-cheek response to the nonwhite indictment of cultural appropriation on the part of white people who borrow or steal elements of food, music, style, taste, and vernacular from nonwhite cultures without assuming the burden of what it means to be an object of racialized oppression in a social system predicated on white racial domination. A social system in which cultural practices on the part of people of color have functioned as creative responses to exploitation and social dislocation in an historical context still living down the legacies of (chattel) slavery and segregation.

Arbour’s video engages racially charged humor as a means by which to deescalate crossracial conflict centered around claims of cultural theft launched against whites who borrow blindly and specifically from, in terms of this video, black cultural practices for the purposes of their own self-making. As a deconstructive move, the piece works to question the logic of such an indictment by way of Arbour’s acknowledgement that, yes, white people do appropriate from black culture, but not always blindly (that is, without understanding the history of black cultural practice), inviting “black people” by way of rather empty examples (i.e. black women sporting blonde hair weaves; black patronage of Starbucks; and black consumption of pickles, attributed spuriously to Polish people) to consider the possibility that appropriation is multi-directional—that is, appropriation goes both ways and is therefore something of which we are all guilty (or in which we are “innocently” implicated).

To illustrate the “conscientiousness” of her own appropriation of black culture as cool (i.e. “Your shit is just cooler!”) and literal consumption of it as spice (thinking here of her enjoyment of jerk chicken, as long as it’s not too spicy because of her “delicate” white girl palette, as a case-in-point), she situates her epistolary rebuttal to charges of cultural stealing in terms of a willingness to recognize that, though (chattel) slavery has ended, its residues linger in the form of wage slavery and the American prison system—each of which disproportionately affect the black population in America and which Arbour sees as “disgusting.”

Using her black friend Latoya as an “insurance policy” to further legitimate her thesis, stated in the form of a question—“Why can’t we all just enjoy whatever the fuck we want from every culture?”—Arbour engages in a form of blackface minstrelsy (embodied literally insofar as she dons a tight red design tee mottled with the cartooned visage of tilt-crowned rapper Biggy Smalls) that reduces her friend-turned-object Latoya to an absent presence in the play of her virtual performance of a blackened white identity.

In this, Arbour deploys what Toni Morrison calls an American Africanism (see Playing in the Dark, New York: Vintage, 1993) by which Arbour, as a white cultural producer, uses a one-dimensional black character as one would a stage prop by which to work out the ambivalences of her own problematic whiteness. She relies on the stereotypical image of an angry black female (the caricature-archetype Sapphire), played by Latoya, standing in as metonym for all black women, to construct a space in which she can contextualize, albeit precariously, her white performance of a blackness lampooned by her uncritical glorification of long nails and her impersonations of the guttural inflections of ghetto talk attributed to black people in the white imagination.

In this way, she participates in a fetishization of blackness that circulates within a transnational marketplace in which black bodies are bought, sold, and consumed as stereotyped representatives of a homogenized black culture, a cultural Other, from which we (i.e. white people) all can just take “whatever the fuck we want.” Arbour does this even as she attempts to establish intimacy with her black associates by picking apart stereotypes that associate blackness, namely black males, with criminality and the monstrous phallus, imitating a stuck-up and rigid white girl threatened by the sexualized and raced other.

Yet despite her feeble efforts to dismantle such stereotypes she reproduces them by telling black folks to keep the stereotype of the large black phallus, reinscribing a black male phallocentricism that black intellectuals such as bell hooks (see “Reconstructing Black Masculinity,” Black Looks: Race and Representation, Boston: South End Press, 1992) and James Baldwin (see No Name in the Street, New York: Vintage, 1972) problematize as symptomatic of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Arbour reasserts white fascination with the black penis that comes to represent a specific kind of black manhood–one that is deeply misogynist, sexist, and homophobic–operative in both the white and black imaginaries and which is symptomatic of what Andrea Smith would call heteropatricarchy.

In her essay, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance,” black American cultural critic bell hooks gets at the problematic logic of such intimacy, pinpointing its inherent racism:  “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other” (see Black Looks: Race and Representation, 23). In the case of Arbour, she engages, whether consciously or unconsciously, in an act of ‘imperialist nostalgia’ by which she romanticizes the pre-modern primitivism that blacks represent in the white racial imagination while calling out nonwhites, unjustifiably so and perhaps jokingly (it is difficult to tell how jokingly by way of her inflection and facial expressions), for the seeming hypocrisy, if not “reverse racism,” at play in their injunctions that whites stop appropriating.41J5G72iPqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Arbour enacts this kind of nostalgia, a variation on the Marxist notion of “false consciousness” (which is to say historical amnesia), by way of implying that she is not racist, particularly in light of the fact that, as she says, “I was not there!”, in reference to the “fucked up” historical fact of (chattel) slavery. Granted, she was not “there”, yet such a stance, often espoused by whites defensive of their privilege as whites when it is called into question, discounts the fact that, regardless of whether or not they were “there” when (chattel) slavery existed, their whiteness still implicates them in a history of oppression that manifests in the contemporary moment as the supremacy which affords them the privilege to “[assuage] the guilt of the past” (hooks, 25). It is the privilege to claim: “I wasn’t ‘there’ in the context of past oppression so I am not responsible for your present oppression.”

Meanwhile, claims of reverse racism made by whites such as Arbour against nonwhites, even if made in jest, evade the actuality of institutional racism and its disenabling effects on and in the lived experiences of people of color in today’s world. That structural inequality and systematic oppression along lines of race—to say nothing of gender and sexuality—still exist renders null and void the notion of reverse racism by nonwhites against whites. Blacks, unlike whites, are not in a position of racial dominance. Thus reverse racism on the part of blacks, in particular, and people of color, more broadly, does not exist so long as white supremacy is a reality. And it is.

Even when whites at the level of the personal, or the individual, make no clear move to dominate, oppression still functions through acts of “symbolic violence” by way of “microagressions” that occur along a spectrum of desire and fear. Arbour’s vlog could well be considered one such aggression through the politics of desire in which she engages for the purposes of exonerating white people of responsibility to a heightened awareness around the problems of appropriation.

As hooks notes, “The desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other,” which is implied in Arbour’s vlog piece, even when there is no “apparent will to dominate […] takes the form of a defiant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection” (25). Hooks adds, “Most importantly, it establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deflected by an emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other” (25).

Certainly, Arbour expresses no explicit will to dominate, nor do I believe that such is her conscious intent. Indeed, “Dear Black People” functions as a gesture toward deconstructing that will to dominate insofar as it pokes fun, self-consciously so, at white people who complain about being underrepresented in public celebrations of multiculturalism (as per her ironic jab at a non-specified Caribbean Festival that has no “white girl float”) or at the white hypocrisy evidenced in the simultaneous call for the (white) right to bear arms and for the imprisonment of black men (to say nothing of women) on the basis of non-violent drug crimes. This is a commendable gesture toward crossracial understanding, but it really flattens the complexity of systemic racism while associating black folks (black men, in particular) with drug consumption. It meanwhile attributes social pathology in the black community with the bastardization of the black family: “When kids don’t have a dad, they’re going to act up!”).

In this way, Arbour identifies the seeming unruliness of troubled (black) children with the absence of (black) fathers who have been jailed by an unjust system of mass incarceration that targets black folks. In this can be heard the haunting echoes of the Moynihan Report. While it is laudable that Arbour makes historical linkages between the past and the present in terms of slavery and the slaveability of black folks (thinking here of Andrea Smith’s piece about heteropatriarchy), the connections she makes are tenuous at best. For instance, what are other socioeconomic factors that contribute to the oppression of black folks in this country? In what ways does she, Arbour, play a part in this oppression by dint of her own desire to appropriate? If slavery still exists, what part does or will she play in imagining an alternative whiteness for herself and others who recognize that black folks are victimized systemically?

Arbour’s social and racial analysis is ultimately thin, cloaked in humor that, despite its irony, reinscribes a notion of blackness as part of a larger commodity culture to be consumed by whites. The thinness of her racial analysis is perhaps best exemplified in her invocation of Bill Nye the Science Guy to argue that we are all part of one race–asserting a tired notion of race as biological fact that contemporary theorists of race have worked ad nauseum to upend, favoring instead a definition of race as a social construct, a category of identity, tied up in a system of white social domination. By espousing a universal theory of race and, in this humanity, one that universalizes experiences that are actually not shared between whites and nonwhites given the reality of racism, Arbour gives herself license to borrow without keeping in mind the fact that, just because we can recognize ourselves as part of one human family does not mean we can ignore the fact that our global society is structured according to a racial hierarchy–a divorced human family, as it were–that blind appropriation perpetuates in its unwillingness to explore or acknowledge that white and nonwhites are raced (and gendered and sexed) differently.

That this stratification remains an historical fact should check her, or anybody’s, assumption that sameness is present where difference exists. That such difference is an actuality demands a conscientiousness, a race consciousness, that Arbour fails to take on in her willfully color- and power-evasive desire for the Other. This is not to say that appropriation cannot function as a means by which to bridge current divides. It perhaps can do so, but only insofar as it is contextualized by a deeper and more incisive identification with and involvement in the larger historical struggle of the Other, whose cultural practices one is adopting, against white supremacist capitalist patriarchy–lest appropriation morph into a kind of blackface (or yellow, or red, or brown face for that matter).

Though she may acknowledge this struggle, Arbour relinquishes her responsibility for and accountability to the anti-racist whiteness she gestures toward in this video by essentially telling black folks how to behave. This is particularly evident, for instance, in her charge that blacks drop the “N-word” (i.e. “nigga”) from their music so as to make it easier for whites to enjoy what blacks produce without the attendant guilt or paralysis that may come with repeating, or being tempted to repeat, what amounts to an epithet when lip-synched by a white mouth. It elides through humor the possibility that the “N-word” may in fact serve a liberatory purpose, a means by which to re-appropriate or reclaim the linguistic signifier of subhuman status from which it derives and thus counter and resist the “symbolic violence” of that inflammatory term.

In the above instance we witness a self-absolution of responsibility to an honest interrogation of her own whiteness and the ways in which that whiteness is predicated upon the “innocent” consumption of black cultural production/products that seeks nothing more than to maintain its perceived innocence against the threat of black accusation, of being called out for racism.

In the end, what we are left with is not simply an unspoken longing to become the Other but, taking what hooks says above further and keeping Morrison’s trope of American Africanism in mind, a display of desire to “make the Other over in one’s image.” Were it otherwise, Arbour would neither be speaking over and against or for a monolithic and essentialized “black people”–signified by the lone and silenced black stand-in/representative Latoya–regarding the issue of cultural appropriation.

That said, Arbour’s act of “speaking for” is nowhere better evidenced in the video than in her dynamic with the essentially voiceless Latoya, whose visage haunts the vlog like the fleeting spectre of blackness Morrison locates in the white literary productions of authors such as Willa Cather, Edgar Allen Poe, and Ernest Hemingway. Unquestionably, Arbour links herself with the struggle of black folks for racial justice, yet the issue of racial inequality is overridden by her claim to understand experiences of structural inequality as a woman. In this sense, gender erases race in an equation that leaves a white woman—blind to the privilege which permits her to disregard the ways in which she is oppressed differently from her nonwhite Other by dint of her class status as white subject—as the sole spokesperson for a struggle that she both “gets” and does not “get”.
At the same time,  Arbour fails to recognize the ways in which racial and gender oppression intersect within the larger confines of white supremacy, or white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. She thus misses a moment to act in solidarity with blacks against a bigger systemic force that oppresses all of us, though differently, and in this acknowledge that whites too are situated as subjects in the struggle insofar as white supremacy is an assault on the dignity of the human person in general–not just nonwhites.

Speaking out of both sides of her mouth, as the saying goes, Arbour admits toward the end of the video to not fully understanding the “struggle” and asks for her nonwhite compatriots to explain it to her–thus absolving herself of responsibility to researching systemic racism, interrogating her whiteness and calling into question the privilige which allows her the lazy option of foregoing research into the “struggle” on her own (without taxing the already tapped reserves of people of color who are deemed fully answerable to white people for explaining racism).

Out of the proverbial other side of her mouth she then proceeds to “whitesplain” to black people one small part of their “struggle”—that is, the racially skewed aspects of the American prison system—preceded by her proclamation that what she “sees” happening to the black population is “disgusting” (without explaining her sympathetic, if not empathetic, identification with black blight).

This statement of recognition bookends the video’s opening sequence in which she plays on white desire for and fear of blacks by parodying white girls’ fascination with gangsta rapper Notorious B.I.G. before beginning her salutation, “Dear Black People…” followed by the a clip of her, hands-up, shouting “Don’t shoot!” Fooling her audience into thinking that she is on some racist rant, she adds in subsequent clip, “…is what too many of you have to say to the fucked up po-lice!” She adds, “Oh, you thought I was going somewhere else with that. That’s kinda racist of you.” It is then that she introduces her friend Latoya, tokenized as testimony that Arbour is not racist and deployed as a back-up or legitimating factor (read “insurance policy”) in Arbour’s contestation that we need to get beyond the narrow identity politics involved in debates around cultural appropriation.

Similar to what hooks says of white filmmaker Sara Bernhard whose Without You I’m Nothing associates blackness with the struggle for liberation, understood as an effort to end racial domination and free up political space for the right to black self-determination, Arbour “places herself in a relationship of comparison and competition with black women [represented by Latoya], seemingly exposing white female envy of black women [evidenced in her glorification of long nails stereotypically linked with black women as well as in her staging of Latoya as prop], and their desire to ‘be’ imitation black women; yet she also pokes fun at black females” (38).

Though Arbour may be working to establish a context, through comedy, by which to “make light” of the “awkward situation” that is race talk for the purposes of constructing some modicum of crossracial solidarity beyond the policing of racial borders evident in the identity politics of race, she in the end appropriates blackness without acknowledging the debt she owes to what she perceives as black cultural practices in food, music, style, taste and vernacular—taking up space to mock white people (“white girls” in particular) as refracted through her understanding of the stereotypes into which blacks cast her white womanhood (or “girlhood” rather), that leaves no room for black women (such as Latoya) to do it themselves. The video concludes without a trace of blackness, used and left behind as a vanishing Africanist presence by which to situate and defend Arbour’s blackfaced whiteness without any inkling of how, riffing on hooks, “the Other leaves her” (39).

While I can appreciate the notion that cultural appropriation is multi-directional and often times seemingly natural to the fabric of our exchanges with each other within and between cultures, particularly due to the fact of intercultural flow in a global marketplace where ethno-racial boundaries are so easily transgressed, I question the stability of Arbour’s argument that we should be able to “enjoy whatever the fuck we want”—even as she attempts to lay some groundwork for candid talk across the color line at the level of cultural production (in this case, comedy). Lastly, I question her capacity to speak for all white people (the video is subtitled: “What we’ve all wanted to say to black people…”). As a white person, I cannot in clear conscience say that she speaks for me.

What is lacking from Arbour’s largely social, versus political, analysis is the space to explore in a more self-reflexive way her own relationship to the stereotypes with which she engages to speak about and for black culture/people and, in so doing, “shift her positionality” (as with the character of Traci in John Waters’ Hairspray, which hooks upholds as a cultural product in line with the agenda of black liberation), in order to invite a more sustained “engagement in a revolutionary ethos that dares to challenge and disrupt the [white] status quo” (37). There is no such sustained engagement in Arbour’s satirical response to the issue of appropriation; the finer nuances of racial analysis fall by the wayside for the sake of one-liners that preclude the possibility for deepening the dialogue about race with a critical cognizance of how power operates racially through the flows of the cultural marketplace–precisely where we find Nicole Arbour’s video. Ultimately, it seems unclear as to what Arbour is trying to accomplish.

As with what hooks says of Bernhard’s film, Arbour’s “Dear Black People” “walks a critical tightrope” insofar as it “mocks white appropriation of black culture, white desire for black […] even as [the video] works as a spectacle largely because of the clever ways Bernhard ‘uses’ black culture and standard racial stereotypes” (39). In this way, again riffing on hooks, it does not really go against the grain. It hints at a critical politics of appreciation for black culture and even identification with the black struggle for liberation, yet it falls short of going any further to disrupt white supremacy and de-colonize the white mind (diseased by white imperialism) at the site of desire (the black body) precisely because of the ways in which it flattens cultural difference, white-washing the debate around cultural appropriation through its defense of an uncritical and in so many ways power- and color-blind multiculturalism which preys as a matter of white enjoyment on the flesh of the fictive black Other.

Beyond the #BernieSoBlack Standstill: A Self-Implicating Proposal for Crossracial Solidarity in Social Reform

A Problem

I am a White radical who has been very vocal in his support for Vermont Senator and 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, an Independent who is running on the Democratic ticket. I am also a White ally who has been engaged in the fight for racial justice in this country through my involvement in mobilization efforts on the ground to the point of police arrest as part of the #KettleAtRoss, in church-sponsored marches, and in my academic life as a doctoral student doing work around critical whiteness and hip-hop. In fact, it is in large part because of my dedication to decolonizing whiteness that I, a White radical ally, have found myself so enthusiastic about Sanders’ compelling campaign with its revolutionary socialist rhetoric and its thrust toward the redistribution of wealth, which carries implications for deconstructing hierarchies that are classed, gendered, raced, and sexed.

However, in light of my ideological commitments to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I cannot ignore the protests that disrupted the Netroots Nation 2015 event (#NN15) in Phoenix, AZ on July 18 and caused a stir of White “progressive” backlash at the Black protesters for their supposedly misinformed attempts to be heard by a prospective co-conspirator in the Black freedom struggle.

In light of the call to White accountability that a movement in which I wholeheartedly believe has offered not just Sanders, but White progressives, in general, I cannot help but reassess my own, until recently, blind enthusiasm for the presidential candidate—a zeal lacking in the critical self-reflexivity necessary for White allies such as myself to be effective in the move toward freedom from bondage to White supremacy that affects us all.

Upon the kind of critical self-reflection on my investments in Sanders for which the cries of agitators at Netroots Nation called White progressives, and if I’m to be sincere with myself, this fervor for Sanders has been informed by a kind of unconscious racism on my part called White paternalism, an attitude that takes responsibility for and thus displaces the needs of the Black lives which I so often, through social media and in my own activism and academic work, proclaim matter.

That’s a rough confession to make inasmuch as it challenges me to question my perceived innocence as one who professes himself—in the spirit of Alicia Garza’s admonition to White allies of the #BlackLivesMatter movement—to be a “co-conspirator” in the fight to abolish the structural inequalities that perpetuate in and through acts of discrimination and violence against my brothers and sisters of color in America and around the world.

Alicia Garza and members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement for racial justice. Photograph: Kristin Little Photography
Alicia Garza and members of the #BlackLivesMatter movement for racial justice. Photograph: Kristin Little Photography

But I need to offer this inventory as a check on the pride, arrogance, self-delusion, and self-centeredness which would have me believe that I, a White male, know what is best for Black people. “Step back, brother,” I tell myself, and “slow your roll”—words a Black priest-friend of mine from Baltimore told me when I critiqued his own deeply personal engagement in race matters in the course of an online exchange in May of this year.

The supremacy of Whiteness and the privilege that secures its hegemonic stranglehold at the level of individual and institution is insidious. It has snuck up on me and I’ve let myself be seduced by it in my own unquestioned adherence to a campaign that, if I’m again to be honest with myself, has not been as vocal as it could be about the fact of White supremacy and its intersections with the unjust economic conditions that Sanders rightly laments. In his seeming lack of racial analysis regarding income inequality in America, meanwhile, and his unwillingness to field the questions of protestors at the #NN15 gathering concerned with his commitment to ending Black blight, Sanders reproduces the paternalism and racial privilege to which all White progressives are subject in believing they have a monopoly on the “best practices” of social protest and/or reform.

In the defensiveness I’ve felt around Sanders and the gusto I’ve mustered on behalf of his campaign, I’ve been avoiding a conscious acknowledgment of paternalism as it functions in the subtleties of my past reproach for the line of critique that claims his racial analysis is lacking.

Previous to the interruption at the #NN15 event, I have used social media, primarily facebook, to highlight the ways in which Sanders has indeed been part of the struggle for racial justice in this country, as evidenced by his involvement in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), his voting record, his own vocal excoriation of police brutality and mass incarceration, and his awareness of the disproportionately disenfranchising effects that income inequality has on people of color in this country. I also capitalized on the news concerning rapper Killer Mike’s endorsement of the presidential candidate—in no small part, whether or not I was aware of it at the time, because of the MC’s Blackness, exploiting it as testimony of Sanders’ appeal to the Black vote (as if Killer Mike is the sole representative of African American cultures) to advance a political agenda. #smh

Lastly, I recall the racially insular comfort of a conversation I had with a White friend of mine during a hike through a regional park in the hills of North Berkeley a few weeks back in which I admitted in so many words, “I think Sanders is it. I am just worried about the Black vote. I hope it does not go to Hillary.” Perhaps this admission might seem innocuous at first glance or upon hearing it in passing; but when scrutinized under the light of the critical Whiteness I espouse in my own work as scholar-activist, it reveals an ironic anxiety about the self-activity of the collective Black political body–diverse and variegated as it is in and of itself–that indeed knows what it means to take part in the political process! #smh

Admitting all this throws me into an imperative crisis of identity and identification as the defects and contradictions of my own character come roaring up at me in the mirror like monsters returned from the repression of my racial closet—the door of which was opened yesterday upon reading on my pastor Michael McBride‘s facebook wall an article detailing the incontestable uproar of Black activists at #NN15 and subsequently witnessing Sanders’ glib dismissal of their demands for recognition in an evasive reiteration of his populist economic vision—wholly lacking in the necessary humility and poise of deep listening that I believe was being asked of someone championing such political commitments as his platform proffers.

The criticisms from Black activists are incontestable precisely because the fragility of Black dignity and life in this moment and throughout the history of the modern world deems it so. My professed adherence to the Christian Gospel of Love deems it so. The pangs of a conscience I feel, which are informed by the Christian Gospel, deem it so. I say this not out of the insecurity of White guilt, which would be counterproductive to the cause, but out of the security of a self-responsible ethic of empathy.

If I am to be serious about the sincerity of my engagement with the cause for racial justice, then, it is necessary that I undergo a continual inventory on racism as it manifests in my consciousness and character if only to create a space of vulnerability and open-heartedness within myself to receive the moral indictments of my Black brothers and sisters whose rage refuses White silence (i.e. consent) and demands accountability from those touting “revolution” as a slogan for a movement not altogether unrelated to the aims of #BlackLivesMatter.

A Dilemma

Because of the messiness of splitting I feel within myself and which I am witnessing in the current battle in which White and Black progressives seem pitted against one another, I’ve had a hard time conceiving a viable picture of “where to go from here” in terms of the move forward regarding issues and stances that both Sanders and those in the #BlackLivesMatter camp hold dear and true in their hearts—issues and stances that I, myself, hold dear and true in my heart.

I am disappointed in myself. I am disappointed in Sanders. I am disappointed that he failed to receive the invitation, even if challenging, to just listen in Arizona. It saddens me that he seems to have under-utilized his privilege—which he could very well leverage given the clout he has garnered in a convincing grassroots political movement that overlaps with the goals of the global #Occupy—to talk more incisively, more intersectionally, more prophetically about systemic racism as well as the concerns voiced by those whom he chose instead to hush in Phoenix. I am equally as disheartened by the White “progressive” backlash in his defense.

At the same time, I remain wary of a wholesale rejection of his campaign. 

This is not to reinscribe the implicitly paternalistic proselytizing I believe was operative in my past endorsements of his platform, nor to claim a monopoly on the “best practices” of social reform, but to hold true to my own convictions that Sanders has a lot, if not the most, to offer the movement(s) for racial justice in this country of any major party candidate running for the job thus far–largely because of the work he’s done to combat the disinheriting monolith of monopoly capitalism that hurts racial minorities the most. By the same token, I believe said movement(s) have much to offer his “revolution” as a deservedly celebrated creative foil and corrective to his progressivism, in particular, and that of White liberals, in general (myself included), inasmuch as it reminds us all that the issue of racism must be treated as a problem in and of itself–without reducing the issue of social inequality to race alone–and that the self-activity of Black organizers must be taken seriously (see Dara Lind in Vox, “#BernieSoBlack: Why Progressives are Fighting about Bernie Sanders and Race,” July 20, 2015; see also this article in The Nation).

Neither the movement for economic justice nor the movement for racial justice is mutually exclusive of the other and I fear that what could function as an invitation toward unification across difference in the present social media uproar regarding Sanders and Black lives is instead turning into a kind of ideological race war: anti-progressive Black radicals versus anti-radical White progressives. In a word, it seems people on both sides of the divide in this specific conflict are castigating each other into corners of categorical disposal, resorting to an “all or nothing,” “us versus them,” and “black versus white” mentality that is flattening the complexity of a potentially fruitful moment for “real talk” rather than cynical stone-throwing from each corner.

A Proposal 

That being the case, as far as I can tell, I wonder what the possibilities are for a unified crossracial progressive movement rooted in more nuanced class- and race-based policy reform that brings together the predominantly White base at the foundation of Bernie’s platform and the predominantly Black base undergirding the various movements committed to ending institutional racism and racialized violence in this country. What could happen if there was a joint effort that combined the best insights of each movement for the purposes of overhauling our current political-economic infrastructure without drowning out the clarion call to recognize that #BlackLivesMatter and that racial injustice and economic injustice are intertwined?

Though he has not ignored the issue of racialized oppression in America, Sanders’ predominately class-based critique of the present economic situation fails to name the ill of White supremacy at the root of the present order of things in which economic inequality is merely one symptom of that global disease. By the same token, it’s important that the issue of economic injustice and class-based reform not be altogether disregarded either.

If anything, Sanders’ bid for president presents us with an opportune moment to at least consider the need for a co-conspiratorial grassroots movement sharpened by the precision of a race-class cultural critique that looks at the ways in which class is organized along racial lines and vice versa; that recognizes that income inequality and racial inequality work in tandem and must be addressed as two sides of one corroded coin of monopoly capitalism, the global processes of which function to erect what intellectual-activist Andrea Smith calls “the three pillars of heteropatriarchy” that constitute White supremacy: Slavery/Capitalism, Genocide/Colonialism, and Orientalism/War.

I am not proposing anything new—see Cornel West’s Race Matters (1994), for example—yet this moment, in which class- and race-based measures for change seem to be at odds with one another in the split imaginaries of progressives isolated from one another across what is amounting to a racial divide of mutual alienation, incites us with a pivotal urgency to put theoretical intersectionality into practical action in a joint effort for policies that address classism and racism, bedfellows that they are, as well as the ties of each of these -isms to various other forms of prejudice (heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.).

imgresYou cannot adequately address one issue without the other in this line of logic, which accounts for how Whiteness, specifically, and class formation go hand-in-hand. I find labor historian David R. Roediger‘s insights useful here as he argues convincingly that class-based reform is as much a precondition for attacking racism as attacking racism is for class-based reform. We must all wake up to the fact that the income gap is deeply racialized and that racialized violence is deeply classed–to say nothing of the gender and sexual dynamism at play, here. I believe Sanders recognizes this, but needs to be more explicit about this. Not just by attacking racism, but by calling out this country’s “possessive investment in Whiteness” (George Lipsitz 2006) itself for its collusion with the global processes of capitalism in creating a racial hierarchy that is also classed, gendered, and sexed. imgres

That said, I think Sanders is on point in so many ways, but needs to fine-tune his approach to meet the race-based demands of those at the center of the #BlackLivesMatter movement so that the largely White progressive movement he represents might divest itself from a “possessive investment in Whiteness” (Lipsitz 2006) to which we are all victim. By the same token, it is important that those in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and other organizations campaigning for racial equality fine-tune their approach to reform so as not to overlook racism’s economic dimensions. In the end, none of us can hope to accomplish anything by shouting over each other as such action only fuels a deafening resentment. On that note, it is not up to White progressives to decide what are best tactics for Black protest, particularly in a movement that purposely eschews a politics of respectability in favor of a politics of disruption. The most important step across the color line is that of listening.

Hopefully, the chaos of righteous Black indignation and the White racial anxiety it provokes will pave the way for constructive, clarifying dialogue to take place across current divides. In the meantime, it’s important that we hear each other out and keep grappling with underlying causes–to paraphrase the words of a friend and colleague who quoted Dr. King recently in a facebook thread on this very issue–so that our social analyses remain as sharp and precise as the long arc of the universe which bends toward justice.