Beyond Black Only: Bonding Beyond Race By bell hooks
The following essay was written by social critic extraordinaire bell hooks and contains a very interesting discussion about African Americans and People of Color in the context on white dominated society. The essay is a very lengthy read, however the perspective and information it conveys are more than worth the effort.
Beyond Black Only: Bonding Beyond Race (taken from Killing Rage Ending Racism)
By bell hooks
African Americans have been at the forefront of the struggle to end racism and white supremacy in the United States since individual free black immigrants and the larger body of enslaved blacks first landed here. Even though much of that struggle has been directly concerned with the plight of black people, all gains received from civil rights work have had tremendous positive impact on the social status of all non-white groups in this country. Bonding between enslaved Africans, free Africans, and Native Americans is well documented. Freedom fighters from all groups (and certainly there were many traitors in all three groups who were co-opted by rewards given by the white power structure) understood the importance of solidarity-of struggling against the common enemy, white supremacy. The enemy was not white people. It was white supremacy.
Organic freedom fighters, both Native and African Americans, had no difficulty building coalitions with those white folks who wanted to work for the freedom of everyone. Those early models of coalition building in the interest of dismantling white supremacy are often forgotten. Much ahs happened to obscure that history. The construction of reservations (many of which were and are located in areas where there are not large populations of black people) isolated communities of Native Americans from black liberation struggle. And as time passed both groups began to view one another through Eurocentric stereotypes, internalizing white racist assumptions about the other. Those early coalitions were not maintained. Indeed the bonds between African Americans struggling to resist racist domination, and all other people of color in this society who suffer from the same system, continue to be fragile, even as we all remain untied by ties, however frayed and weakened, forged in shared anti-racist struggle.
Collectively, within the United States people of color strengthen our capacity to resist white supremacy when we build coalitions. Since white supremacy emerged here within the context of colonization, the conquering and conquest of Native Americans, early on it was obvious that Native and African Americans could best preserve their cultures by resisting from a standpoint of political solidarity. The concrete practice of solidarity between the two groups has been eroded by the divide-and-conquer tactics of racist white power and by the complicity of both groups. Native American artist and activist of the Cherokee people Jimmie Durham, in his collection of essays A Certain Lack of Coherence, talks about the 1960’s as a time when folks tried to regenerate that spirit of coalition: “In the 1960’s and ‘70’s American Indian, African American and Puerto Rican activists said, as loudly as they could, “This country is founded on the genocide of one people and the enslavement of another.” This statement, hardly arguable, was not much taken up by white activists.” As time passed, it was rarely taken up by anyone. Instead the fear that one’s specific group might receive more attention has led to greater nationalism, the showing of concern for one’s racial or ethnic plight without linking that concern to the plight of other non-white groups and their struggles for liberation.
Bonds of solidarity between people of color are continuously ruptured by our complicity with white racism. Similarly, white immigrants to the United States, both past and present, establish their right to citizenship within white supremacist society by asserting it in daily life through acts of discrimination and assault that register their contempt for and disregard of black people and darker-skinned immigrants mimic this racist behavior in their interactions with black folks. In her editorial “On the Backs of Blacks” published in a recent special issue of TIME magazine Toni Morrison discusses the way white supremacy is reinscribed again and again as immigrants seek assimilation:
All immigrants fight for jobs and space, and who is there to fight but those who have both? As in the fishing ground struggle between Texas and Vietnamese shrimpers, they displace what and whom they can…In race talk the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens. Whatever the ethnicity or nationality of the immigrant, his nemesis is understood to be African American…So addictive is this ploy that the fact of blackness has been abandoned for the theory of blackness. It doesn’t matter anymore what shade the newcomer’s skin is. A hostile posture toward resident blacks must be struck at the Americanizing door.
Often people of color, both those who are citizens and those who are recent immigrants, hold black people responsible for the hostility they encounter from whites. It is as though they see blacks as acting in a manner that makes things harder for everybody else. This type of scapegoating is the mark of the colonized sensibility which always blames those victimized rather than targeting structures of domination.
Just as many white Americans deny both the prevalence of racism in the United States and the role they play in perpetuating and maintaining white supremacy, non-white, non-black groups, Native, Asian, Hispanic Americans, all deny their investment in anti-black sentiment even as they consistently seek to distance themselves from blackness so that they will not be seen as residing at the bottom of this society’s totem pole, in the category reserved for the most despised group. Such jockeying for white approval and reward obscures the way allegiance to the existing social structure undermines the social welfare of all people of color. White supremacist power is always weakened when people of color bond across differences of culture, ethnicity, and race. It is always strengthened when we act as though there is no continuity and overlap in the patterns of exploitation and oppression that affect all of our lives.
To ensure that political bonding to challenge and change white supremacy will not be cultivated among diverse groups of people of color, white ruling groups pit us against one another in a no-win game of “who will get the prize for model minority today.” They compare and contrast, affix labels like “model minority,” define boundaries, and we fall into line. Those rewards coupled with internalized racist assumptions lead non-black people of color to deny the way racism victimizes them as they actively work to disassociate themselves from black people. This will to disassociate is a gesture of racism.
Even though progressive people of color consistently critique these standpoints, we have yet to build a contemporary mass movement to challenge white supremacy that would draw us together. Without an organized collective struggle that consistently reminds us of our common concerns, people of color forget. Sadly forgetting common concerns sets the stage for competing concerns. Working within the system of white supremacy, non-black people of color often feel as though they must compete with black folks to receive white attention. Some are even angry at what they wrongly perceive as a greater concern on the part of white of the dominant culture for the pain of black people. Rather than seeing the attention black people receive as linked to the gravity of our situation and the intensity of our resistance, they want to make it a sign of white generosity and concern. Such thinking is absurd. If white folks were genuinely concerned about black pain, they would challenge racism, not turn the spotlight on our collective pain in ways that further suggest that we are inferior. Andrew Hacker makes it clear in Two Nations that the vast majority of white Americans believe that “members of the black race represent an inferior strain of the human species.” He adds: “In this view Africans-and Americans who trace their origins to that continent-are seen as languishing at a lower evolutionary level than members of other races.” Non-black people of color often do not approach white attention to black issues by critically interrogating how those issues are presented and whose interests the representations ultimately serve. Rather than engaging in a competition that sees blacks as winning more goodies from the white system than other groups, non-black people of color who identify with black resistance struggle recognize the danger of such thinking and repudiate it. They are politically astute enough to challenge a rhetoric of resistance that is based on competition rather than a capacity on the part of non-black groups to identify with whatever progress blacks make as being a positive sign for everyone. Until non-black people of color define their citizenship via commitment to a democratic vision of racial justice rather than investing in the dehumanization and oppression of black people, they will always act as mediators, keeping black people in check for the ruling white majority. Until racist anti-black sentiments are let go by other people of color, especially immigrants, and complain that these groups are receiving too much attention, they undermine freedom struggle. When this happens people of color war all acting in complicity with existing exploitative and oppressive structures.
As more people of color raise our consciousness and refuse to be pitted against one another, the forces of neo-colonial white supremacist domination must work harder to divide and conquer. The most recent effort to undermine progressive bonding between people of color is the institutionalization of “multiculturalism”. Positively, multiculturalism is presented as a corrective to a Eurocentric vision of model citizenship wherein white middle-class ideals are presented as the norm. Yet this positive intervention is undermined by visions of multiculturalism that suggest everyone should live with and identify with their own self contained group. If white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is unchanged then multiculturalism within that context can only become a breeding ground for narrow nationalism, fundamentalism, identity politics, and cultural, racial, and ethnic separatism. Each separate group will then feel that it must protect its own interests by keeping outsiders at bay, for the group will always appear vulnerable, its power and identity sustained by exclusivity. When people of color think this way, white supremacy remains intact. For even though demographics in the United States would suggest that in the future the nation will be more populated by people of color, and whites will no longer be the majority group, numerical presence will in no way alter white supremacy if there is no collective organizing, no efforts to build coalitions that cross boundaries. Already, the white Christian Right is targeting large populations of people of color to ensure that the fundamentalist values they want this nation to uphold and represent will determine the attitudes and values of these groups. The role Eurocentric Christianity has played in teaching non-white folks Western metaphysical dualism, the ideology that under girds binary notion of superior/inferior, good/bad, white/black, cannot be ignored. While progressive organizations are having difficulty reaching wider audiences, the white-dominated Christian Right organizes outreach programs that acknowledge diversity and have considerable influence. Just as the white-dominated Christian church in the U.S. once relied on biblical references to justify racist domination and discrimination, it now deploys a rhetoric of multiculturalism to invite non-white people to believe that racism can be overcome through a shared fundamentalist encounter. Every contemporary fundamentalist white male-dominated religious cult in the U.S. has a diverse congregation. People of color have flocked to these organizations because they have felt them to be places where racism does not exist, where they are not judged on the basis of skin color. While the white-dominated mass media focus critical attention on black religious fundamentalist groups like the Nation of Islam, and in particular Louis Farrakhan, little critique is made of white Christian fundamentalist outreach to black people and other people of color. Black Islamic fundamentalism shares with the white Christian Right support for coercive hierarchy, fascism, and a belief that some groups are inferior and others superior, along with a host of other similarities. Irrespective of the standpoint, religious fundamentalism brainwashes individuals not to think critically or see radical politicization as a means of transforming their lives. When people of color immerse themselves in religious fundamentalism, no meaningful challenge and critique of white supremacy can surface. Participation in a radical multiculturalism in any form is discouraged by religious fundamentalism.
Progressive multiculturalism that encourages and promotes coalition building between people of color threatens to disrupt white supremacist organization of us all into competing camps. However, this vision of multiculturalism is continually undermined by greed, one group wanting rewards for itself even at the expense of other groups. It is this perversion of solidarity the authors of Night Vision address when they assert: “While there are different nationalities, races and genders in the U.S., the supposedly different cultures in multiculturalism don’t like to admit what they have in common, the glue of it all-parasitism. Right now, there’s both anger among the oppressed and a milling around, edging up to the next step but uncertain what it is fully about, what is means. The key is the common need to break with parasitism.” A based identity politics of solidarity that embraces both a broad based identity politics which acknowledges specific cultural and ethnic legacies, histories, etc. as it simultaneously promotes a recognition of overlapping cultural traditions and values as well as an inclusive understanding of what is gained when people o color unite to resist white supremacy is the only way to ensure that multicultural democracy will become a reality.
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