Before I get into it, I just want to say that this is a long, difficult post–as in difficult for me to write and put out there. Not just because I’m jumping around from a whole bunch of source material, and keeping track of the source material, much less my own train of thought, is pretty difficult in this mess. I want to try and open up conversations that need to happen that, but unfortunately, not a lot of folks want to have or are willing to have in the layered, deliberate process that needs to accompany it.
I guess that’s sort of the point of this blog though. So here goes.
I caught Dr. Jared Sexton, author of Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiracialism, and Associate Professor and Director of African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, on a radio podcast talking about the notion of “multiracialism”. The whole interview is about an hour long, so to save you a little time, here’s the gist of his criticism. The problem of “multiracialism” is that, in name, it seeks to address and supplant the notion of “White Superiority”, as Sexton describes it (NB: NOT to be confused with White Supremacy), but does nothing to address the accompanying notion of “Black Inferiority”. The norms of multiracialism in America state that one must make oneself as “White” as possible and do everything possible to avoid presenting oneself as “Black” or in proximity to Blackness. Thus, Whiteness retains dominance as a point of aspiration and the seat from which the rules and regulations of multiracialism/culturalism are dictated. You should really just listen to Sexton, though. The link’s right here. You should also check out his book.
Remembering that Dr. Sexton came to speak at my school last year, a lecture which I unfortunately had to miss, I put his name into YouTube to see if I could find any videos of him speaking. What I found was this fantastic lecture, entitled “People of Color Blindness”, which he had delivered at UC Berkeley. It had the same title as the lecture he gave at my school, so I assume them to be more or less similar in content.
Now, that’s a pretty long video. Just as a heads up, the actual lecture only lasts about 50 minutes, the rest of it is Q&A (although that part’s great too). I’m gonna try and summarize what he said, but I will referencing and recapping.
The reason I have this video up, apart from the fact that Jared Sexton is awesome, is that it reminded me of another video I saw a week or two ago, by Janani and Mia McKenzie of BlackGirlDangerous on the topic of Racism in QTPOC Communities. This one is only about ten minutes long.
Janani has another great post on the problems with the term “people of color” that you should all read. The term “people of color” is not intended to denote a phenotypical, biologically determined distance from Whiteness. “People of color” refers to those persons who are minoritized and marginalized under White Supremacy, and who, subsequently, have a shared familiarity with racialized exploitation, oppression, and state-sponsored violence. However, where this term falls short is in the simple fact that it is not a shared history or a shared experience.
There is a shared historical context in that exploitation is exploitation, oppression is oppression, etc is etc, and everything feeds back into and upholds the same multivaried and mulitifaceted structure of disparate, yet intersecting and inextricable, systems of oppression that together make up the structure White Supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, ie kyriarchy.
But it’s not the same. It’s just not.
Sexton, drawing on the words of another scholar, puts it best in his lecture. To paraphrase, it is a very different thing to be coming from a slave population than an immigrant population, no matter how lowly such immigrants are regarded. I don’t like getting into Oppression Olympics, mainly because I think playing the game of who had/has it worse is unproductive in most instances. But the fact remains: the historical and ongoing manifestations of anti-Blackness in this country, from the dehumanizing traumas and racial-sexual terror of the Middle Passage, to their reiteration, revisitation and reconstruction under chattel slavery, sharecropping, white neighborhood organizations, Jim Crow, redlining, the Drug War, and the PIC is incomparable to what has been endured by any other marginalized racial group in this country.
The exceptionalism of anti-Blackness does not arise from it being a “worse” form of oppression than others Rather, it is anti-Blackness’ foundational role in the construction of White Supremacy that makes it indispensable to that system. Scott Nakagawa put it best, “anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy”. That is to say, White Supremacy is particularly reliant on anti-Blackness because of the historical intimacy the two share in their concurrent formation. The racialization of persons of Middle Eastern descent and of Muslim faith, East Asian/Pacific descent, South Asian descent, South Pacific descent, and Hispanic/Latino origin have their roots in this primary, intimate racialization of conqueror and conquered, master and slave. The birth of African slavery was also Europe’s first foray into colonialism. Later, it was slavery, an institution reliant on captivity, commodification, debasement, and racial-sexual terror to maintain a greater system of forced labor, genocidal expansion, and economic extraction, that provided the capital and the labor necessary to the preservation and projection of an intercontinental empire conceived of and realized in the name of White Supremacy. An empire that has persisted to this day, in spite of great ruptures.
Blackness has a unique relationship to Whiteness. As Sexton mentions, paraphrasing once more, it is possible to be anti-Black and not anti-X, but it is not possible to be anti-X and not anti-Black. This fact is present in everyone’s life.
For example, I am a person of color. However, I can still participate in anti-Blackness. More than that, I may do so and benefit from it, whether in housing, employment, education, or a couple other things. Even though I’ll never have White Privilege, I can still take a few chips home if I play my cards right.
Well, until America’s next war in the Asia-Pacific region. I am sure it will be fought for glorious reasons. Even so, hypothetically, if I were a good boy and sat very still for the whole thing, I might be ok. But I don’t plan on it.
This is where the 0.1% comes in. Non-Black people of color need to be conscious of the capacity to participate in anti-Blackness and how all non-Black bodies are positioned and permitted to benefit from participation in anti-Blackness. However, real solidarity cannot be created unilaterally, and the fact remains that Black people in this country have historically benefitted from and participated in anti-Asianness, anti-Arabness, Orientalism, Islamophobia and nativism in a manner similar to how Asian (in the most encompassing, continental sense of the word) people have benefitted from and participated in anti-Blackness.
The project of empire began with the enslavement of Africans and the conquest of the Americas, and reached its zenith with the colonization of Asia. From the beginning, Asia was the goal of the imperial project. Columbus sailed west seeking India to increase his patrons’ profits from and control over the spice trade. The British, French, and Dutch Empires reached the height of their power with the conquest and plundering of Asia. America, too, first globally projected its power with the Spanish-American War, a conflict with fronts in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines. Since 1898, US military power has established, defended, and maintained global hegemony through racialized military intervention in China, Japan, Laos, Samoa, Indonesia, Iran, Micronesia, the Sandwich Islands, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, Turkey, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan.
Every time, these places were/are deemed “strategically important” enough for “American lives” to be sacrificed, but little to no information is ever recorded or given with any regularity on the number of local casualties. That is because these conflicts are not about locals, they are about American interests, morals, and way of life. It does not matter how many Yellow and Brown bodies it takes to preserve these things, because they are just Yellow and Brown bodies anyway, and Yellow and Brown bodies are a different kind of enemy body in that they are antithetical to Westernness, rather than Whiteness. Americans have benefitted from all these conflicts, whether in relation to vague abstractions on national security or the more concrete returns of economic expansion, military service, and global hegemony.
Of course, anti-Blackness had its role to play in all this—a role that is primarily visible in the experiences of Black US servicepersons, the US military’s disproportionate drafting of Black soldiers, segregation in the armed forces, and the use of anti-Black imagery and discourse in turn-of-the-century American racializations of API peoples.
Why does any of this matter with regard to Asian America? It’s true, these conflicts belong to the history of a colonial struggle in a different land, but few Asian Americans did not migrate as a result of these conflicts or their shadows. It is not that the Japanese Internment Camps, Yellow Peril, coolies, paper sons, and Angel Island are not Asian American stories relevant to present experiences. America today is also inhabited by political and war refugees, war brides, the undocumented, victims of human sex trafficking, collaborators with failed American colonial ventures, bourgeoisie-in-exile, migrant workers, survivors of American military conflicts, and all of their children and grandchildren. Asian America is as of much here as it is there—we live today’s oppression in this land with yesterday’s traumas from across the sea. Many of us walk about this land in enemy bodies. Bodies of terrorism, communism, insurgency, foreignness, economic threat, and collateral damage. Bodies whose disposal or injury can easily facilitate a sense of masculinity, belonging, or patriotism in the otherwise unbelonging and unfulfilled. Bodies that have already dropped, and only keep falling.
Sexton speaks of the challenges of living in an anti-Black world. And it is certainly true that we live in a world entirely submerged in anti-Black philosophy and practice. But this global anti-Blackness is compounded by other oppressive systems, and must be unearthed just as much as it must be cleared away to reveal what lies beneath it.
Freedom is a particular thing. It must be everywhere or it will be nowhere; for all of us or none of us. There is no line or lottery to our liberation; freedom will not come to those who climb over others to achieve it.. We must pull each other up by the strength of our own shoulders, heave as one great mass to topple the yolk of White Supremacy. Pinning each other down to assert our own weight will only end in our collapse.