Opinionista Oscar Van Heerden 3 June 2020

Wokeness, the political economy of racism and who can lay claim to being black

One of the great successes of apartheid was dividing and ruling the black population by making a distinction between so-called coloureds, Indians and black Africans. How the woke generation today furthers that by drawing a distinction between yellow-boned, mix-race kids and Indian descendants, is sad. All they are doing is perpetuating apartheid doctrine and dividing the black population.

My otherwise tranquil week was curiously disrupted by my twins (17 years old in July) asking all sorts of questions about race, identity politics and who has lineage to the cotton-picking plantations in North America. It all started with who can and cannot use the word “nigger”. Naturally, there seems to be consensus that blacks can use the term and whites cannot. In come colourism, yes you heard me, there is an overt attempt on the part of some blacks to differentiate between who is really black, and by this I mean 100% black (their emphasis).

In much the same way the apartheid system attempted to divide and rule us as black people, so too today do these woke people perpetuate the same narrative. You are fair-skinned and hence would have been considered a house nigger and you would have been treated slightly better than us niggers who were in the plantations slaving away. The point is that, in case you haven’t noticed, we are both still niggers, period.

In a very good article by Hussein Badat from Rhodes University titled “Wokeness and the professional outrage machine”, he dissects this wokeness phenomenon quite clinically. And I wholly agree with him, when he says, “’Wokeness’ – the supposedly progressive force of contemporary culture wars – and their fascist antagonists, the alt-right, seem more and more to be different sides of the same ahistorical, professional outrage machine. Both sides are imbricated in constant social media jostling for who can adopt the most morally correct position in the form of ‘hot-takes’ on whatever manufactured trending impropriety is that morning’s crusade of virtue signalling.”

Badat reminds us that, “The contemporary ‘ideological’ wars of wokeness seem to be nothing more than a farcical pantomime of politics that serves to provide millennials with their drug of choice, affirmation, in the shape of likes and retweets.”

Take the South African context. With the wide penetration, at least among the new middle class, of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr, there is a disturbing trend of local political discourses and praxis being subsumed by the cultural behemoth that is North American “wokeness”.

The power relations that preclude black people from being racist do not, however, preclude the spouting of ignorant and hateful views by wokes and their self-appointed leaders.

New generations of activists in South Africa, as is evident through my teenage kids, have, as Badat says, seemingly “appropriated lock, stock and barrel the culture wars of African-Americans and American liberalism, including its musical, linguistic and fashion accoutrements. While no progressive political movement can forsake internationalism as one of its guiding tenets, this form of self-imposed cultural colonisation perpetuates northern cultural imperialism”.

And when I suggested to the twins that, actually, I have no problem with whites using the word nigger when it is captured in music (rap music in particular), novels and academic works, to mention a few, they too seemed to suggest that this is not acceptable at all. It became very apparent to me that this is the sum total of the woke generation’s struggle. To discipline and regulate whites as to what they can and cannot say and evidently, the word nigger is a big no-no.

The political economy of racism seems so far removed from their realities and where their emphasis and energies should actually be located.

Badat goes further: “That there is a long history of adoption and adaptation of African-American cultural forms by Black South Africans is undeniable.” It is common cause that “urbanising Black South Africans, excluded as they were from urban cultural centres under apartheid, took their cue from African-Americans whose vibrant cultural styles were overtly political reactions to white supremacy in the United States. This current trend of woke identity politics which adopts US popular culture products that, whether produced by Beyonce or Migos, are part of the dominant US cultural and economic system, seems to ignore many important material differences between the US cultural metropole and the South African periphery, as well as rich histories of local interactions between cultural and political forms, with the result being a purely symbolic politics rather than one that is grounded on concrete solidarity.”

The power relations that preclude black people from being racist do not, however, preclude the spouting of ignorant and hateful views by wokes and their self-appointed leaders.

Badat contends that “popular music has always been and will remain political, and there is a long history of celebrities using their position to make political statements. When these individuals show themselves to be less than perfect adherents to the woke orthodoxy — as all mere humans will inevitably do — a voracious feeding frenzy follows as the in-crowd competes to ‘cancel’ the heretic louder and more vociferously than the other. The stakes in this echo chamber of moral jostling, competition and virtue signalling may seem insignificant. However, this happens too often at the exclusion of a deeper interrogation of ideology, and the way that strands of woke ‘thinking’ and praxis work, have led to too much focus on individual positionality”.

As to where the real struggle must be located, the political economy of racism is where it’s at. Just a cursory look at some of the contemporary issues affecting us as blacks, and the woke generation will see that the struggle is simply misplaced if its only about who can or cannot say, n*****r, or who can or cannot appropriate certain elements of black culture.

Badat maintains that, sadly, “this need for marginalised voices to be heard too often seems to lead to competition as to who can claim the most subjugation, and therefore has the right to leadership positions and authority to speak on behalf of the masses. Ergo, whose ancestors were actually on the plantations. Intellectually gifted, charismatic students whose political nous is beyond question, are placed on pedestals and hailed as the voices and faces of the nascent movement. That these students speak the language of wokeness and are well versed in its performative identity politics means that their political bona fides are not interrogated to the extent necessary.

“These leaders come mostly from Model C or private school backgrounds and are well versed in this performative identity politics that paid lip service, if that, to issues of class.”

It is time for rethinking this individualising of politics and to move away from lauding and condemning individuals, just for its sake. In order to demonstrate the complexities of this and other such debates and arguments, allow me to take the woke generation on a short tour to simply demonstrate the enormity of this question of race, identity politics and who is, indeed, black.

As to where the real struggle must be located, the political economy of racism is where it’s at. Just a cursory look at some of the contemporary issues affecting us as blacks, and the woke generation will see that the struggle is simply misplaced if its only about who can or cannot say, n*****r, or who can or cannot appropriate certain elements of black culture.

A good friend of mine, Kwezi, in wanting to understand and take a deeper look at the current race politics and protests in the US, indicated rightfully so, that “we cannot use classical Marxism to examine the use and abuse of state power in the USA. The country’s history is shaped by the evolution of a racial capitalist system. Classical Marxism does not provide a sufficient theory for understanding racial capitalism. I think the work of people like Cedric Robinson, Oliver Cox, Robin Kelly and Angela Davis etc is more helpful. These activists’ historical account of American capitalism illustrates how racial domination is embedded in Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It is a constitutive element of capitalism, not a by-product of capitalist accumulation.

“This perspective of race is different from classical Marxian analyses. Our theory of state power needs to factor in domination and racial discrimination outside the economy. State power and policies produce multiple forms of oppression, which permeate different social institutions. For example, in this case, institutionalised racial discrimination is observed in the justice system. The political economy of the US prison complex is important. It is a billion-dollar industry embedded in racial profiling, black labour and criminalising black communities. This institution informs public policing and its racial underpinnings. In sum, we need a broader theory of racial capitalism, which does not reduce state power or domination to class centrism. It must appreciate the essence of racial capitalism.”

To which Phindile responded on social media: “There is a rich history of race theorising in the Marxist tradition. Cedric Robinson’s thesis on racial capitalism borrows heavily from our context, South Africa, something that he admits and pays homage to. Robin DG Kelley also extensively relies on the South African social formation to understand racial capitalism. Of the three thinkers who are regarded as founding fathers of the Black Radical tradition (James, Wright and du Bois), two have a trajectory and history in the Marxist tradition.

“So while I agree that orthodox Marxism is stale and robs us of the tools to understand multiple and intersecting forms of oppression, and doesn’t offer us a moving theory through which to grasp race and racialism as constitutive elements of capitalism, I would disagree entirely with the notion that radical race theorising is absent in Marxism, or that oppression is reduced simply to economic factors while ignoring some of the non-economic forms of oppression, alienation and so on. So, as we throw dust in the eyes of dry and orthodox Marxism that doesn’t grasp racial domination outside the ‘economic base’, we also must acknowledge the tireless efforts of scholars and activists who have sought to break this sterile approach, expand the boundaries and give us a worldview worth fighting for.”

Yes, black lives matter, but let us not get trapped in the slogans that excuse the perpetrators of racism.

My friend Rudy summed it up like this, “’Black Lives Matter’ is an insufficient call to action. What matters is white brutality and racism. We are black, so we need not remind ourselves that we matter. We need to be more explicit about white privilege, racism and white supremacy. It matters not that I am black and I have a life. I already value that. I don’t need a white person to value that. What matters now is the actions of racists in offending and murdering that life. We must choke the air out of all the spaces that fuel racism. It does not matter at all how a women dresses, it matters only what the rapist does.

“This same approach should also be used to fight white supremacy. Let’s keep the focus on the actions of the perpetrators. Call it out, ‘soft’ or hard racism. At the braai, in the workplace, in our all spaces. Let’s make racism a matter that matters for us all. Racists do not believe our lives matter, no need to respect them with diplomatic niceties about black lives. ‘I can’t breathe’ must be changed to ‘You are choking me’.”

And so, “let’s put our collective knee on racism and snuff it out!”

As for the other often not spoken about phenomenon, white privilege, I direct your attention to a wonderful paper written by Peggy Mcintosh, whether you love it or hate it, it usually correlates with the theory which casts you on the guilt vs innocence spectrum.

McIntosh states that “this paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the power which I originally saw as attendant on being a human being in the US consisted in unearned advantage and conferred dominance. I have met very few men who are truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. And so, one question for me and others like me is whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance and if so, what we will do to lessen them.”

I say again, one of the great successes of the apartheid government was the element of colourism, divide and rule the black population by making some distinction between the so-called coloureds, Indians and black Africans. How the woke generation today furthers that argument by wanting to constantly draw distinction between yellow-boned, mix-race kids and Indian descendants, is sad. All they are really doing is perpetuating apartheid doctrine and dividing the black population.

As she puts it, “to redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist. It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly enculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that all democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people, props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.”

No doubt, as Badat says, “the centrality of social media to the spread of this moralistic and individualised political discourse and to political mobilisation needs to be challenged. We need to recapture our proud history of grassroots political engagement and the time-consuming and decidedly un-sexy and un-retweetable process of structures and movement building. Intersectional thinking that goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to educating those both inside and outside progressive movements is the only way to engage in truly emancipatory praxis.

“This political engagement and discourse needs to move beyond the immediacy of reacting that ‘hot-takes’ on social media foster, and towards a reflective and reflexive engagement with political economy and ideology that focuses less on individual morality and conformity with the in-crowd. Shaming of potential allies and expressions of (legitimate) anger and outrage does not build an emancipatory politics that gives dignity to subjugated people everywhere and ends their intolerable and wretched conditions.

“Nor, of course, does consensus kumbaya politics that puts hope in wishful and polite appeals to the massively moneyed and oppressors. As we build an emancipatory politics, we cannot allow our hearts to harden towards those who also seek to bring about positive change in society.”

Another social media enthusiast also reminds us that “while being called a nigger or a kaffir can shake your entire day, racism, as with other structural prejudices like patriarchy, is not simply about name-calling and hurt feelings. It is about institutional power, formal or informal, as part of supremacy. It is the ability to manipulate the inbuilt bigotry of society and weaponise its structures against minorities. It is about the ability to snuff someone’s life out, while you stare without a care at someone filming you take a life. It is the stuff of ethnic cleansing.”

I say again, one of the great successes of the apartheid government was the element of colourism, divide and rule the black population by making some distinction between the so-called coloureds, Indians and black Africans. How the woke generation today furthers that argument by wanting to constantly draw distinction between yellow-boned, mix-race kids and Indian descendants, is sad. All they are really doing is perpetuating apartheid doctrine and dividing the black population.

Where some eloquently talk about how neoliberalism heaps blame (guilt axis and moral failings) on top of shame (ontological failings) thereby weaponising the discourse; in many ways enacting the zone of being vs nonbeing as a method of social control.

I do hope the above gave you a sense of the real contemporary issues surrounding the race question here and abroad. I would have loved to continue with much more complex arguments on this matter, such as, the zone of being vs nonbeing (Fanon and Dos Santos synthesised by Berkeley Professor Grosfugel). The very controversial Abrahamic guilts vs innocence spectrum, captured through a secular cultural lens, thus avoiding gnarly religious arguments. The origin of guilt vs innocence dichotomy is deeply ingrained in the social anthropology of Western society, shame, historically the social control mechanism of Eastern and Middle Eastern society, and last but not least, the political economy of guilt and shame.

Where some eloquently talk about how neoliberalism heaps blame (guilt axis and moral failings) on top of shame (ontological failings) thereby weaponising the discourse; in many ways enacting the zone of being vs nonbeing as a method of social control.

Personally, I believe many progressives do the same thing, but on woke topics; firstly through ad hominem arguments that “play the player, not the ball” and cast some demographics, ontologically, into a position of shame, and secondly through a list of moral behaviour expectations that must be adhered to in order for those demographics not to be deemed guilty of immoral behaviour by the Twitter warriors of the progressive priesthood. Again, I would have loved to continue with much more of these complex arguments on this matter but alas, time does not permit.

As for my twins, by the time I had concluded on this very serious matter which speaks directly to their identity and how they will henceforth interact with their woke counterparts, it left them very seriously saturated. Never before have they, until now, so fully understood the adage, the struggle continues for the black man! We simply must stand together in this fight.

Aluta continua! DM

 

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