Oh. I wish someone had told me earlier they were just waiting on me… sorry all!

I was in the car and in slow traffic, the DVP (the major highway leading to downtown Toronto) was closed for the weekend and the local streets were jammed.

Along the way I was listening to talk radio on a college station.  It was playing a lecture by a black feminist from the States (I came in late so I don’t know her name).  She was your standard post-modern, identity politics, POC scholar.

The lecture was about the problems of racism and sexism.  The issue basically boiled down to individuals not having done the personal political work to liberate their minds from patriarchy and white power (with passing mention to intersections with class).

I didn’t agree with much of the lecture.  In fact it mostly saddened me.  I saw it as divisive and supportive of the current power structures that use racism and sexism as tools of oppression.

But of course I did listen.  It was like an aural car wreck, and as one is wont while driving, I was transfixed.

I say it was divisive, but that isn’t a knock on division—I think we need more division—it was just (to me) the wrong kind of division.

This was a division that cleaves a gap between those that should form a united front.  In her talk she used her white colleagues in academia who were self-described ‘feminists’ as examples.  She spoke of how they used to be ‘allies’ until, of course, they proved themselves to be racist/sexist (in her example by liking and promoting the book “The Help”).  Despite the collegues later apologizing to her multiple times (with tear filled eyes according to her story) it was too late, they had not done the work to truly understand and be an ally to her movement for social change.


I’d agree with this more if read from the bottom up.

I can’t speak about whether or not these former ‘allies’ were racist or sexist, I don’t know enough.  What I do want to comment on is the division line chosen.

In striving to end racism and sexism, the lecturer focused on the individuals ability (or more accurately in this case, inability) to push past the racist/sexist norms of modern Western life—all the while ignoring how these issues are created by this society.

Let’s not mince words, racism and sexism play a useful role in modern capitalism—but it is a symptom.  By making scapegoats of certain peoples, society as it is can be maintained.  It’s a distraction that helps obfuscate the material source of our collective suffering.

Remember that neither Malcolm nor Martin fought racism via the opinion of individuals.  They viewed racism through the lens of materialism, of how Blacks in the US were relegated to the fringes of society.  They criticized the lack of access to health care, to education, to jobs, etc.  They saw that how society viewed them was a direct result of this segregation from material well-being, and of the violent retribution of Whites when they tried to claim it.

Change the material, and the psychology of society will follow.

But the postmodern view flips the script.  It puts one’s individual opinion and thoughts at the forefront, because—I assume—only then do they think that material conditions will change.

And this line of thought confuses and saddens me.  To me, it concedes too much to the Right.  It basically agrees with one of the central pillars of their thought: that society is about individual.

For too many individuals in the mainstream Western Left (it seems to me at least), their frustrations are vented towards how other individuals are not able to see what they see, how they are less enlightened than they are, and how others are blocking the path to ‘true freedom.’

This to me is where a line should be drawn.  Not between the individual activist/ally and the rest, but between the centrality of the communal over the individual.

For those Leftists that see in terms of the individual there is a fight on every corner: between the anti-racist/sexist and the racist/sexist, the vegan and the carnivore, the poor and the rich, etc.

This is a division that any honest advocate for the status quo would encourage.  It is a division that ensures constant and never ending battles between so-called progressive forces.

It is an impressively effective continuation of the divide and conquer techniques used to colonise peoples around the world.  Where once this division was the easier to spot, colonials encouraging age-old community divisions in order to facilitate colonization and discourage the unity of peoples against them; today the battlefield is more subtle, it is fought on the field of opinion.

ImageMy ancestors in the 16th century did not see through this ruse.  And in allowing the colonizers to set individual communities against others on our archipelago a small band of Spanish conquistadors were able to gain control of millions who were not yet ready to think as a collective.

Today this battle sadly continues.  Today I am in awe at how a subtle modern twist has allowed the same tactics to be used.  Yes, the powers-that-be no longer pit communities in physical battle against each other (we’ve grown too wise for that in the West).  But in the psychological war, they have made many of us believe that to be “progressive” is to self-segregate based on symptomatic ideologies borne of common oppression.  We have been allowed the honour of building our own apartheids.

In the past the reward to those that sided with the colonizers was victory over an old community rival, and for the winning chieftain, relative power and prestige (under colonial rule of course).

Today they still offer rewards: a feeling of personal pride (victory) at being more intelligent, more compassionate more enlightened than our rivals.  And for the standouts (the modern leaders), positions of power and prestige in academia, cultural and political institutions, and NGOs.

What Mark Fisher wrote in his excellent book “Capitalist Realism” about climate change is applicable here as well, just replace that phrase with “racism/sexism:”

Instead of saying that everyone – i.e. every one – is responsible for climate change, we all have to do our bit, it would be better to say that no one is, and that’s the very problem. 

The required subject –a collective subject– does not exist…  …the model of individual responsibility assumed by most versions of ethics have little purchase on the behavior of Capital or corporations.

If I were of a different mind I’d be quite amused by it all.  To see the people of colour fighting with Whites, to see genders all abuzz over what it means to be a ‘feminist,’ to see the poor pushing others down in the hope of escaping poverty themselves.

It’s all quite the black comedy [uh-oh is that bad to say?].  But by accident of birth, and privilege of socialization and education I stand on the other side of that dividing line.

That said, that radio show did end with chuckles..

The lecturer made a big issue of not wanting to be the teacher to Whites who only want to ask questions to strong black women, but not to listen.  Soon after a female audience member started to ask advice on how to do the work of mental emancipation and then paused.  She stuttered, commenting awkwardly that oh no she was a white woman asking from a black woman….

The lecturer quickly retorted, “Don’t worry.  I won’t answer.”

And the audience roared with applause and self-congratulatory laughter.

From a workshop titled "exploring contradictions in feminist currents" at Waterloo Uni.  (Apr 2013)

Thankfully there is starting to be whispers of change…
The above is from a workshop titled “exploring contradictions in feminist currents” at Waterloo Uni. (Apr 2013)

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Now of course the individual exists within the communal.  And of course we do currently live in a society that puts the individual first, and in order to change it there requires a good number of individuals to choose to stand on the side of the community and to struggle to create a new status quo, one were the communal is the new normal.


Now therein lies the big question.

That is the conversation I rather wish we were having rather than the usual bits of middle class POC complaining about White people as a consolation prize that allows us the great privilege to feel better about our relative oppression within a modern ‘developed’ nation while our sisters and brothers below us worry about whether or not they will have any kind of future at all…

>>> A follow up piece posted on 21 April 2013 goes into this more:  Cough Syrup Politics: Fighting Symptoms, Ignoring Root Causes

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ImageFranz Fanon, an anti-colonial scholar that is beloved by even post-modernists has an excellent quote that I wasn’t able to fit into the above piece:

I am a man, and what I have to recapture is the whole past of the world. I am not responsible solely for the slave revolt in Santo Domingo. Every time a man has contributed to the victory of the dignity of the spirit, every time a man has said no to an attempt to subjugate his fellows, I have felt solidarity with his act. In no way does my basic vocation have to be drawn from the past of peoples of color. In no way do I have to dedicate myself to reviving a black civilization unjustly ignored. I will not make myself the man of any past….

My black skin is not a repository for specific values… Haven’t I got better things to do on this earth than avenge the Blacks of the seventeenth century?

… I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the past of my race. I as a man of color do not have the right to seek ways of stamping down the pride of my former master. I have neither the right nor the duty to demand reparations for my subjugated ancestors. There is no black mission; there is no white burden…. 

I do not want to be the victim of the Ruse of a black world…. Am I going to ask today’s white men to answer for the slave traders of the seventeenth century? Am I going to try by every means available to cause guilt to burgeon in their souls? … I am not a slave to slavery that dehumanized my ancestors…. 

It would be of enormous interest to discover a black literature or architecture from the third century before Christ. We would be overjoyed to learn of the existence of a correspondence between some black philosopher and Plato. But we can absolutely not see how this fact would change the lives of eight-year-old kids working in the cane fields of Martinique or Guadeloupe….    [from “Black Skin, White Masks”]

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