Saturday, March 30, 2013

Whiteness Supreme: Towson University and Liberal Ironists

A few theses, none too controversial or not said before: Whiteness is a property, a possession, one unevenly distributed across the social terrain. White supremacists tend to have diminished access to the supreme property of whiteness. White supremacy is thus an aspirational politics, one that attempts sticking close to what it imperfectly is in order to become what it should be. It’s an evil, vile reaction to the maldistribution of a mode of social power that cannot not be maldistributed. The effect of the unevenly distributed racial property, white supremacist politics will remain a possibility (and a violently aspirational actuality) so long as whiteness continues to be a possible mode of being social.

I’m offering these theses as a corrective to the dominant ways in which writers and news outlets have been approaching the White Student Union at Towson University. For those who do not know, the WSU (a student group unrecognized by the administration) announced that it would conduct nighttime patrols to protect white people (and, in particular, the “virtue of white Christian womanhood”) from “black predators.” One writer at AlterNet has commented, “It’s like they watched the Birth of the Nation and thought it was a PBS documentary.” Another, at Jezebel, writes, “The Towson University White Student Union (WSU), an allegiance formed of supremely ignorant and bigoted college students, has officially transgressed the border of deeply offensive and trundled into the realm of completely batshit with its decision to form an all-white campus patrol to defend their innocent (white) peers from the threatening threat of black people.” Irony, then, is one of the dominant modes through which the WSU has been presented to, and critiqued for, the public.

Irony has never been a very effective mode of redressing fascism. (Think Charlie Chaplin tossing that globe in the air, and his later regrets over the film.) As I see it, the capacity to be merely ironic about white supremacy derives from two linked causes—or, really, one cause viewed through two lenses. Irony regarding racial supremacist politics requires the distance from the scene that race affords; it requires, in other words, being properly white. Being white here has two vectors, negative and positive. The first condition of possibility for being merely flip with fascism is not being a PoC, one who might be physically attacked by these assholes or subjected to the psychic violence their bile might occasion. The second condition of possibility is the maintenance of an unproblematic relation to whiteness. It seems to me—based on tone and forum; I don’t know their bios—that the writers of the pieces cited above are both geographically and existentially distanced from scenes wherein they would experience a deficit of whiteness. The pieces are enunciated from a position in and around proper whiteness, where a white college-educated person’s access to whiteness goes unquestioned—the urban Northeast. To even begin to analyze white supremacist politics, we need to account for the striations of whiteness, the ways in which a host of social levers—space, class, gender, sexuality—distribute whiteness across the social.

A merely ironic disposition toward white supremacist politics is only available to those who possess whiteness supreme. The desire for whiteness does not make sense to those who have it. Consider Jezebel’s description of the WSU:

This belief [in white superiority] epitomizes a ridiculously antiquated racial hierarchy, in which white men alone are constitutive of civil society — which exists solely for their benefit — and African-Americans are perpetual outsiders who can only benefit the white society from which they are excluded by having their labor exploited, otherwise they're merely a menace to the established order.

White supremacy is here coded as an ideology, a belief. What’s astonishing to me is that the writer’s reduction of white supremacy to ideology actually results in her describing, with some realism, the material structure of a society in which whites (and white men) do reign supreme, do have power concentrated in their hands. Weeks after the murder of Kimani Gray, after which black protestors excoriated police for materializing black exclusion from the social, can one possibly say that blacks—especially in New York—are not outsiders vis-à-vis the white-dominated social? Desirous of patrolling a Baltimore burb with “nonlethal” weapons, the WSU really just wants what white liberals in Bloomberg’s New York already possess—it’s merely that New Yorkers’ property in whiteness is more or less unconsciously embodied, a possession assumed and assured. White supremacists’ desire for the very denegated structure of racial-rule possessed by Northeastern urban whites exposes this structure, and this exposure is managed by irony. This irony doesn’t offer a critique of whiteness, still less a radical attempt to undo it. Rather, such irony merely reinscribes the distance between zones of aspirational whiteness and zones of achieved and non-problematic whiteness, between zones of white supremacy and zones of whiteness supreme. Liberal irony reproduces the structural conditions for white supremacist politics.

My aim here isn’t to pile on this writer; still less (and this should be obvious, but you never know) is it to apologize for white supremacists. It’s rather to say that we cannot treat white supremacist politics in a merely ironic mode without a) reinscribing but denegating whiteness and b) failing to attend to the actual gravity of white supremacist organizing. Sure, the WSU appears clownish, “ignorant,” and silly, “antiquated” and not hep to our post-racial times. They wouldn’t fit in in white Brooklyn. To treat such politics as merely silly, however, is itself a position derived from racial privilege (like it or not, laugh at it or not, white libs, the WSU is out to protect you). Moreover, there is no white supremacist group that does not appear silly, ignorant, or clownish. I promise. Read their websites (I won’t link to them), check out updates on white supremacist actions from your local antifa or ARA group’s blog. They seem ridiculous, vile, and inept. The problem, though, is that three boneheads gathered together do not require much in the way of brains or organizational chops to beat the shit out of the next PoC they happen across. Wade Michael Page (the Sikh temple shooter), for instance, was a white supremacist who travelled with groups as ridiculous and dinky as the WSU. Fascism starts small. White supremacy thrives in the comedic social zone assigned to it by the liberal-dominant, but it takes very little for the farce of white robes, shaved heads, and bad angry music to convert to tragedy. Whether gathering to ineptly organize a political rally, going to a white power punk show, or just having a beer, any gathering of white supremacists poses an immediate threat to people of color. Antifa and ARA direct action people know this, some act on it, and some languish in prison for having so acted.

It’s simple, really: White supremacy isn’t funny, and it can’t be counteracted with irony. Such irony is enabled by the very social structure to which not-quite-white white supremacists aspire. If you’re committed to eradicating white supremacist politics, work toward eradicating whiteness. (That, of course, is less simple.) And, if you’re in Baltimore, stand up to the boneheads.


[Edit: White supremacist comments will be deleted. If you wish to spew nonsense at me, you can email me at Or come by my office hours. I know, I know, emailing is less anonymous than commenting anonymously. My apologies. And (for those interested) I'll have a reading list of good whiteness / critical race studies stuff up soon.] 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Dr Franklin, Meet Shri Modi: Right-Wing Transnationalism and the Limits of Postcolonial Critique

Dr Franklin, meet Shri Modi
Photo from The Daily Pennsylvanian

On Saturday, the group “Americans for Free Speech” joined up with diasporic segments of the Indian right to protest the Wharton India Economic Forum’s disinviation of Narendra Modi from participating in the event. Modi had been disinvited due to a protest raised by various segments of a U.S. and South Asian left (myself included) who did not want the Islamaphobic Chief Magistrate of Gujarat, culpable in some manner for a 2002 pogrom against Gujarati Muslims, to purify his personal record and legitimate his Hindutva-plus-neoliberal-technocratic development policies under the sign of “Wharton.” And so the protestors marched, claiming that we denied Modi his right to free speech (I write about the absurdity of that claim here), chanting, “We want Modi,” and holding signs that put the Indian CM into a common ideological space with Ben Franklin.

The iconographic juxtaposition is striking, and one imagines that Modites walking on 34th Street revelled in the comparison. Modi is, like Franklin was, invested in technology, in science; the latter tied keys to kites and developed communication technologies and networks, the former offers stunning, Thomas-Friedman-esque formulas like “IT+IT=IT.” More importantly, Modi is, like Franklin was, acutely aware that nations are formed out of and through a manipulation of a global/international fabric of institutions, ideologies, and materialities. Franklin went to England and France to constitute the outline of a nation that had not yet been formed; Modi desires to go to the U.S. to naturalize and legitimate a Hindu-supremacist image of a nation-to-come. Indeed, it is in the U.S. that Modi’s Hindu nation can be pawned off as a nearly accomplished reality.  The signs that his supporters carried read “Narendra Modi | Future P.M. | India”; the mood is indicative, not subjunctive, as if his rise is ineluctable. The sign functions as a request that local Philly audiences treat the transnational collectivity of U.S-Indian right-wingers as proleptically representative of the Indian nation and so deserving of the international recognition such a representative deserves. The sign—and, more broadly, Modi’s invitation to Wharton in the first place—isn’t merely proleptic; it attempts to produce the reality it can now only project. The Indian right hopes to use transnational circuits to secure the patterns of recognition facilitating international relations so that Modi can turn to his national electorate and pass himself off as having already been recognized, by the global polis, as India’s ruler. It’s simple scale-jumping: you leap from the local (Modi’s Gujarat, say) to the international so as to back-form the national.  (That somewhat obscure senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, did something similar with his trip to Europe during his first campaign.) The key to such scale-jumping is that sites of transnational connection (Modi at Wharton in Philly, Obama in Berlin) need to be coded and re-figured as scenes of incipient international recognition. Otherwise, Modi would simply appear as another rando addressing a foreign crowd with platitudes about India, the internet, and what he calls democracy.

What has astonished me is the extent to which Modi is successful in this operation. It is partially a problem of the nearly non-existent transnational competencies possessed by your average Yankee. Students at Penn—particularly, those running the student paper—can’t wrap their heads around the idea that, in this case, Penn and Wharton are not local sites embedded within the U.S. but are rather scenes of a transnational struggle with potentially extraordinary ramifications for India. But the provincialism of Yankees is exacerbated by a certain form of liberal-postcolonial normativity. Consider this counter-factual case: the Penn students, professors, and administrators who support protests against Modi’s disinvitation in the name of “free speech” would (I think) be unwilling to support, say, a propagandistic presentation from a member of the Greek Golden Dawn on campus. I think that they would be able to see that allowing such a presentation would be tantamount to legitimating and supporting Greek fascism. But the BJP is no less vicious than Golden Dawn. How, then, to account for this discrepancy between (possible) receptions? Aside from the BJP’s possession of a better propaganda machine, aside from the fact that BJP supporters are enrolled at and teach at Penn, I want to suggest that a certain form of postcolonial normativity inhibits U.S. liberals from protesting and preventing their manipulation by Modi. The soft postcolonial normativity of the U.S.’s liberal public sphere enables India’s diasporic right to achieve incipiently international recognition for its racial-nationalist aims.

We can see this dynamic at work in Rajiv Malhotra’s article, “The Hijacking of Wharton.” A crazy conservative, Malhotra is syndicated on the supposedly progressive Huffington Post. To be blunt, Malhotra is a moron, and he has a made a career of deploying postcolonial critique for crazy Hindu-right ends. Malhotra is just outraged that “Indian professors specialize in scholarship criticizing colonialism” (he’s talking about my teachers and friends) could be complicit in “serving…American policies on interventions in India.” Malhotra calls my teachers and friends “sepoys,” a term he helpfully glosses in parentheses: “(The sepoys were Indian soldiers serving the British army to fight against other Indians.)” A few things are happening here. First and foremost, Malhotra assumes an audience entirely unfamiliar with South Asian history; anyone with the barest modicum of knowledge would not need “sepoy” glossed (or, indeed, would accept so inadequate a gloss). Malhotra hopes to capitalize on the ignorance of the average HuffPo reader. Second, Malhotra abstracts what was a transnational dispute between a transnational South Asian left (with Yankee allies) and a transnational Indian right (with Yankee allies) into the international field, coding the dispute over Modi speaking at Wharton as having taken place “in India” and as a struggle between the Indian nation and Yankee imperialists. Third, Malhotra uses anti- and postcolonial symbolics to transform race into the bedrock of the nation and so as a regulative principle for international relations. Think about how Malhotra defines and uses the figure of the sepoy. Given the uneven and complex political cartography of 18th and 19th century South Asia, it’s difficult to understand how a sepoy could recognize himself as an “Indian” conscripted to “fight against other Indians.” But that’s no problem for Malhotra, for whom Indianness functions as a racial essence; it’s there even when it isn’t or could not be. In yesteryear, British colonialism prevented this racial nation from achieving full institutional positivity; today, it is race-traitorish “sepoys” like my friends and teachers who inhibit India’s ability to become a fully sovereign India (which means an India in which non-Hindus know, or are put in, their place). By returning to the cathected symbolics of colonialism, Malhotra can code the Hindu right’s blockage from circuits of transnational power (Modi's disinvitation) as an international and imperialist denial of Indian sovereignty. Malhotra’s message to a liberal Yankee public is clear: Keep your hands off India, let it “be different” (as one of his book title’s has it), or else you’re supporting a racist neo-colonialism.

This soft postcoloniality poses the moral and political borders of the international as ethically impregnable (e.g., I, a white Yankee, can’t offer a critique of Modi without being coded as an EIC operative) in order to provide cover for an Indian right eager to deploy transnational economic and political resources for racial-nationalist ends. Of course, every single postcolonialist ever knows that Malhotra is perverting the legacy of anticolonial revolution and the ever-necessary practice of postcolonial critique. If postcolonial critique begins with anticolonial resistance to Eurocentric forms of power—political, economic, cultural, epistemic, and so on—it’s very next step is to critique those elites who, seizing upon the affective and ideological rush of anticipated sovereignty, transform anticolonial revolt and access to global capital into a process of inegalitarian nation-state-building. Malhotra holds onto the first, necessary moment, using anticolonial negation as a means to assert a multicultural right to hard-right difference. He seizes upon aspects of 90s poco/multiculti theory, a theory that valued the difference of dispersed particularities, in order to justify the will-to-power of a phobic, violent particularism. He’s doing it consciously, poisonously, making a mockery of the very real necessity to confront the structures of racial power that he supports.

But it works. For a U.S. public sphere, for well-intentioned liberals and college students who don’t want to be racist or colonialist and love the right to free speech, such claims are convincing. (I refer again to his early millennial—and ongoing—critique of South Asian religious studies, which [I think] knotted U.S.-based scholars up in fear that this racist asshole was going to accuse them of being colonialist racists because their scholarship could not be made to jive with a racial-nationalism organized by a transhistorical image of Hinduism.) The effect is that, in the name of postcolonial difference, in the name of the right of colonized peoples to sovereign statehood, U.S. liberals are willing to tolerate the intolerable, to provide institutional spaces and pseudo-constitutional cover for a Hindutva technocrat with blood on his hands. It’s not a question of “intervention,” as Malhotra puts it; this shit is happening in West Philly. The soft normativity of postcolonial respect transforms transnational interactions into scenes of international recognition. Thus, the claim, “the U.S. needs to respect India’s sovereignty” becomes, by a conservative poco sleight of hand, “Penn needs to welcome Modi.” By legitimating Modi and assisting in the purification of his bloody record, such welcome might end up producing the reality it assumes: enhanced by a positive reception in the U.S., Modi might end up personifying India on the international stage as its PM.

We desperately need to update postcoloniality for transnational times. Not in theory (it’s already there) but in our pedagogy, whether in classrooms or in the public sphere. This is a boots-on-the-ground question: soft postcolonial normativity calcifies the political and ethical purchase of international borders, producing what the arch-conservative Burke called a “moral geography” utterly out of sync with the transnational political exigencies of our times, and so inhibiting potential allies from helping out. Indeed, those of us who organized against Modi’s coming to Wharton were a little saddened by the lack of reception that we expected from our friends and colleagues—people who, just last year, were out and about for Occupy. I’m also saddened that anti-racist and anti-fascist organizers are not more invested (invested at all?) in preventing the BJP from using U.S. localities to gain enhanced power for anti-Muslim ends—they certainly go after Golden Dawn. We need, then, to develop a public political language for relating the necessity of challenging this pernicious form of transnational right-wing organization. I’m not sure if the rhetoric of “fascism” that some of us have been using—myself included—is useful, no matter how accurately it describes either the existent phenomenon or anticipated project of Modism. I say this because the sign “fascism,” in the U.S. public sphere, invokes an event so horrendous as to be removed from politics and so (except for antifa people) from politicization. The horrific grandeur of the term might turn some off (“That’s an exaggeration”) or reduce others to quietism (“What can I do?”). In the U.S., fascism is (for better or worse) in a museum, but Modism is on the streets.  It walked across 34th Street yesterday, arm in arm with the U.S. right, carrying posters of Franklin and Modi and racist caricatures of my teachers and friends. College liberals clapped their hands, congratulating them on defending their rights.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Fact of Whiteness; or, Philly Mag's Ersatz Fanon

How does it feel to be a problem? Du Bois’ great question—the one that, for Dubois, goes unasked or cannot be asked directly—haunts Robert Huber’s recent article, “Being White in Philly: Whites, race, class, and the things that never get said.” Many have already offered their own critical commentaries on Huber’s, well, racist nonsense, and many of them are fantastic. Here, I want to track how Huber implicitly draws upon currents of black Atlantic 20th century social theory in order to construct whiteness as a kind of public disability. Huber’s piece tries (journalistically) tacking between the sociological and the phenomenological, between an appreciation of the structuring of social reality and the modalities by which social reality comes to appearance. Huber’s piece should be located, then, in a genealogy of black thought that might go from Douglass to Du Bois to Fanon. Black thought is repurposed to construct an aggrieved white subjectivity. How does it feel to be a problem? A white guy from the Mount Airy is going to let you know.

Indeed, the rhetoric of the problem is set to work both in Huber’s piece and in the justification for running the article offered by Philly Mag’s editor. Tom McGrath gives two reasons for publishing Huber’s article. First, black people have kind of monopolized discussions of race, and, you see, “to pretend that white people don’t also have thoughts and feelings about the issue is dishonest.” So, Huber offers to readers a kind of Cugoano-esque Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Race. As a second reason for publishing the article, McGrath offers that “not to do this story would be to declare that the problems of Philadelphia’s underclass are theirs and theirs alone.” Apparently, the Philly poors are so poor that they can no longer claim possession of their problems. If failing to publish the story would be to cede possession of these “problems” wholesale to Philly’s underclass, publishing the story functions as a declaration of proprietorship, of property. These problems affect white people, too—particularly when these “problems” become embodied and personified in people bearing black skins.  For McGrath and Huber, the primary problem affecting white people is that “being white” disqualifies white people from assuming some form of public proprietorship over the public discourse of race and racism. “Being white” means that you don’t get to articulate all of those “thoughts and feelings” welling up in your white breast. “Being white” means that the moment you try to articulate those thoughts and feelings, you become a problem, you risk being racist. What McGrath and Huber are after, quite simply, is a way of “being white” that is not “being racist.” They want a public discussion where people with white skin can speak as white, as “being white,” and to have this racialized knowledge accepted as a meaningful and valid contribution to the public. But, alas, to be white is to be a problem.

So, how does it feel to be a problem? After telling us that he lives on a “mostly African-American block” in Mount Airy, Huber confesses:

Yet there’s a dance I do when I go to the Wawa on Germantown Avenue. I find myself being overly polite. Each time I hold the door a little too long for a person of color, I laugh at myself, both for being so self-consciously courteous and for knowing that I’m measuring the thank-you’s.

One can hear, in this quotidian staging of racial awareness, of becoming raced, echoes of Du Bois, echoes of Fanon. One can hear the opening lines of the chapter “The Facts of Blackness” from Black Skin, White Masks, the lines that resound throughout Fanon’s meditation on what being black is: “Look, a Negro!” Huber feels a duplication of consciousness, he feels the awareness that another’s eyes are running over his body, that his skin conveys certain meanings. “Look, a white guy! Being liberal!” He feels awkward, he laughs at himself. But this awkwardness conveys a deep anxiety: Huber knows that all of his actions are scripted, that he’s performing a certain kind of liberal whiteness, and he knows that the black people for whom he holds doors know it too. When he “measure[es] the thank-you’s,” he’s not simply disciplining potentially discourteous black people with his judging eyes; he is, first and foremost, trying to ascertain whether or not he properly pulled off the performances that being a liberal white guy entails. Huber, in essence, is non-sovereign: to be a good liberal white he has to act in a certain way but—and here’s the kicker—he is himself not allowed to judge the felicity of his own performance.  Non-sovereignty marks the quotidian phenomenology of being-white-around-black-people. To feel white is to feel compelled to perform a set of actions whose success white people are constitutively prevented from measuring.

Huber, in effect, suddenly feels what it is to feel racially marked, to feel that one’s existence is a problem for reasons derived from a source beyond one’s immediate control. He recognizes that the black guy passing through the door that he holds open has him pegged, that his capacity for free and spontaneous action has been constricted—so temporarily—by the fact that this black guy has a kind of knowledge of the generic forms Huber’s actions can take. (That Huber has a special kind of racial mobility, that he can drive through the ghetto and get out quickly, that he can ask his son to move from his gentrifying but “dangerous” neighborhood—this raced/classed ability to avoid encounters is ignored.) The problem is that Huber wants to convert this felt recognition of extremely temporary non-sovereignty into the basis of a plea for racial sovereignty. He doesn’t want to destroy whiteness; rather, he wants whiteness to be something more than the awkward embodiment of a structural entitlement. He wants whiteness to signify a special claim to a special knowledge. He wants whiteness to be a substantive identity in the public sphere, one that can claim some kind of knowledge, some kind of property in the common problem of race. He wants to transform the fact of passively being white into an active identity: To fix the “problems” of race, white people have to start being white. Moreover, they have to be allowed to be white in the public sphere, to speak as white. As Huber relates, white dudes are already speaking privately about race, anyhow (pooling knowledge on how to say hi to people with black skins, for instance); this knowledge simply needs to be made public. At stake, McGrath claims, is the future of the future, of progress itself: “To not talk about race is to admit that we can never move forward.”

The fantasy underpinning all of this horseshit is that “we can…move forward” without the “we” undergoing a qualitative alteration, that racism can be ended without whiteness being eradicated. Let’s be clear: Whiteness has no future. Huber knows this: being white, holding open a door in Germantown, suspended on the threshold, he knows that his capacity for action is limited, that he can’t move forward or backward, that whiteness can only maintain itself so long as it preserves a suspended present. And note all the space-thinking in his article: all synchrony, no diachrony: whiteness can only preserve itself by eliding open time from the equation and distributing temporality throughout contained spaces. Huber wants to think of “being white” as identical to being any other race (although, as many have pointed out, he elides the multi-racial composition of Philly). Indeed, as I’m suggesting, he deploys classic moves of black social critique in order to code whiteness as a tragic form of epidermalization, a terrible denial of his full range of human potential. He wants white to be (like) black, as if race-thinking and the horizontal, non-hierarchical thinking of democratic publicness were in any way compatible. They aren’t. Race is always already a discourse and material practice of stratification, with White Guy sitting at the top of the heap. The problem of race is the fact of whiteness.

This means, well, being white contains no special insights into race, it doesn’t offer a program for progress into an anti-racist future. “Being white” in a publically active sense or claiming whiteness as a viable identity will never yield an anti-racist politics. Anti-racism is the dialectical negation of whiteness. There is quite simply no way of achieving an anti-racist society and preserving whiteness. Negating whiteness isn’t/won’t be easy; it necessitates a wholesale structural transformation, from reconstitutions of ordinary language and social ritual to massive politico-economic revolutions. It also necessitates that white liberals like Huber take seriously the fact that “being white” offers no insight into how these transformations will come about, that racialized people have knowledges (like, say, a knowledge of Huber’s scripted performance) that people committed to “being white” do not possess, and that people with white skins need to listen, learn, and follow—not preach. The negation of whiteness does not begin from within whiteness. It never has.

Huber is not alone in possessing these thoughts and feelings, of course. The intimate public of middle-aged well-off white dudes he writes for is pretty broad. I hate this fucking article so much because he wants to conscript me, a white Philly-born well-ff guy, into his public; he wants me to say, I hear ya, man, shit’s fucked up when a field of being is marked as constitutively beyond the range of the social-managerial authority constitutive of being white. The article will no doubt be met with quiet nods of assent from readers in Center City, Bucks County, the Main Line…a group of already privileged people will have learned that being white entails even more privileges than they knew about: White people should be allowed to speak with untrammelled authority about black people, once again—that’s what racial equality is all about. The article will be discussed at dinner parties, a reasonably priced bottle of wine in; it will be introduced in a conspiratorial tone, as one white dude hopes another feels, like he does, the burden of having a white skin. They will learn, together, that the problem of being white is not whiteness but their not being allowed to be white. But a tremor of anxiety will inflect the conversation, an anxiety produced by the only knowledge that comes with being white—that whiteness has no future, that it cannot last. And maybe one of their kids, home for the weekend from Villanova, having just read Fanon and Du Bois, will tell them why that is so.