I Scratch Myself Fine, Thank You
Sometimes, race really is that complicated
There’s a fellow by the name of Sunn m’Cheaux on Youtube who teaches Gullah-Geechee, a creole language made up of varieties of English and Central/West African languages spoken in the southern United States. I am a language nerd, so I started following him, to find that he mostly posts about racial issues. Sometimes I agree with what he has to say. Sometimes I don’t.
I will admit it is a stupid phrase but all it means is I don’t see you as a black person or an Asian or whatever I see you as a human
In his most recent video, m’Cheaux responds to the above comment, which I assume is a reply to one of his videos. m’Cheaux tears this comment down, saying it’s redundant, because a human is a person. “You’ve already acknowledged their humanity when you called them a black person.” He then asks how the commenter scratches his butt, going through all sorts of silly methods, reaching over his shoulder, all the way across his waist, etc. He says that is in effect what the comment is doing: Complicating a very simple thing.
This is a little embarrassing. Obviously, the intention of the commenter was not to communicate “I don’t see you as a person; I see you as a person.” Looking beyond the word games and at the context, I think it’s pretty clear that the commenter meant that they see people in terms of their universality, not their particularity. This is to say, that they claim to see m’Cheaux as a human being just like anyone else, not as a distinct category of human by virtue of his blackness.
As m’Cheaux implies, there is something a bit paradoxical about this position. In our society, blackness is an arbitrary characteristic that has immense weight on the life path of a person. m’Cheaux’s identity is especially particular. I started watching him because of the Gullah-Geechee culture he was willing to share. As many of his videos discuss, he is constantly reminded of his blackness, even on videos that have nothing to do with it.
This reminds me of a scene in the movie The Hate U Give, which centers around a young black girl who is torn between two worlds: the upper-crust fancy white prep school where she has the most developed social life, and her inner-city black neighborhood where her family and old friends live. At the beginning of the movie, her boyfriend tells her that he doesn’t see her as black. He sees her as his girlfriend, Starr Carter.
She counters that if he doesn’t see her as black, then he doesn’t see her at all. She grew up being indoctrinated on the Black Panther bill of rights. She grew up speaking “black,” with a dad who had been in gangs and been incarcerated. Being black is at the core of how she interacts with society, how society treats her, her heritage, and her culture. By the end of the movie, her boyfriend learns to understand this and we are left with a happy synthesis between the two sides of her experience.
This is great. People and cultures are diverse and distinct from each other, and that’s part of what makes life beautiful and interesting. I personally get a lot of satisfaction out of m’Cheaux speaking Gullah-Geechee, and I despair when language varieties and other artifacts of culture die out as people are assimilated by the universalizing global capitalist system. I can understand black people fearing that “colorblindness” in effect discounts their lived experience, pushes back against social change, and even hints at the destruction of their particular culture.
Yet, there’s something about the comment I sympathize with, something that makes me want to problematize and push back against particularity. I spent two months in maximum security at the county jail. As a white person whose charges were related to a Black Lives Matter protest, it was fairly easy to get along with everyone. The white gangs had practically no influence, and most white people were NACs: Non-Affiliated Caucasians. I was told that if I went to prison, it was actually hardest to be white because of the strict control over the bodies and relationships of white people by the supremacist gangs. But, in county I was basically free to associate with anyone.
This wasn’t the case for the paisas (Mexicans, or Latinos more generally) or the blacks. In the beginning people were fairly segregated, but everyone got along and I remember the atmosphere being more like a rec center than what you’d expect from jail. Then, a particularly militant individual moved into our pod, and racial tensions flared up. One “paisa” (actually from El Salvador) told something to a guard, and all of the sudden everyone who spoke Spanish had to take a beating. The older inmates became increasingly uncomfortable, and one of the friendliest people actually left. I began to experience increasing pressure to join the “black” side.
There was one black individual who associated with us NACs. One day, when there was some vague racial violence going on (see no evil, hear no evil), I told him I didn’t want to be any sort of race; I might as well be green. He told me that at another time when he’d been incarcerated, the inmates had been pressuring him into joining a racial gang, asking if he was even black. He told them: I am a man.
Jail is an extreme environment, but it’s also a microcosm of society, in the same way that gangs are a microcosm of government. As new ideologies around race and identity develop and proliferate, we need to question exactly what world we are trying to build and how we’re getting there. There’s nothing more permanent than a temporary solution, and the ends will always be wrapped up in the means.
One minor thing that has bothered me for a while is the idea of being a “white ally.” On the face of it, it sets into stone the idea that I ought to function as a white person when it comes to politics, taking on the specialized roles, responsibilities, and privileges associated with that identity. Then, it distinguishes me as separate from other identities. When it comes to whites and people of color under this framework, we are clearly not the same people. Rather, we are two factions who have developed an agreement of some sort, an alliance. When push comes to shove, should we expect white “allies” to rally with their own people, or their allies? Why don’t we ask the Italians?
The fight against white skin privilege also requires the rejection of the vicious identification of North Americans as “white” people, rather than as Welsh, German, Irish, etc. as their national origin. This “white race” designation is a contrived super-nationality designed to inflate the social importance of European ethnics and to enlist them as tools in the Capitalist system of exploitation. In North America, white skin has always implied freedom and privilege: freedom to gain employment, to travel, to obtain social mobility out of one’s born class standing, and a whole world of Eurocentric privileges. Therefore, before a social revolution can take place, there must be an abolition of the social category of the “white race.” (with few exceptions in this essay, I will begin referring to them as “North Americans.”)
These “white” people must engage in class suicide and race treachery before they can truly be accepted as allies of Black and nationally oppressed workers; the whole idea behind a “white race “ is conformity and making them accomplices to mass murder and exploitation. If white people do not want to be saddled with the historical legacy of colonialism, slavery and genocide themselves, then they must rebel against it. So the “whites” must denounce the white identity and its system of privilege, and they must struggle to redefine themselves and their relationship with others. As long as white society, (through the State which says it is acting in the name of white people), continues to oppress and dominate all the institutions of the Black community, racial tension will continue to exist, and whites generally will continue to be seen as the enemy. — Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin
This quote comes from the Black Anarchism: A Reader. Naturally, it’s a bit of a radical text, but I think this passage is at least a logical extension of some of the ideas floating around the mainstream discourse about race. In some ways, it’s a more well-reasoned take than what some influential activists advocate.
For example, Robin DiAngelo, “perhaps the country’s most visible expert in anti-bias training,” argues that “since all individuals who live within a racist system are enmeshed in its relations, this means that all are responsible for either perpetuating or transforming that system.” She argues that all white people in America are racist by default, and must keep themselves personally accountable to that racism through a life-long dedication to atonement, education, and reparations.
Besides the whole industry she insists on cultivating (paid BIPOC accountability partners, conferences, workshops, tithes for racial justice organizations…), a rather interesting idea she brings up is the “white affinity group.” Basically, all-white groups of people should gather together regularly to talk about race without having to harass their black friends or irritate them with their stupidity. This sounds fine, until activists Ali Michael and Mary C. Conger say the quiet part aloud: “As an affinity group, White Students Confronting Racism provides a space for white people to develop our racial identity…”
I believe in Black liberation, so I am a Black revolutionary. I believe that Black people are oppressed both as workers and a distinct nationality, and will only be freed by a Black revolution, which is an intrinsic part of a Social revolution. I believe that Blacks and other oppressed nationalities must have their own agenda, distinct world-view, and organisations of struggle, even though they may decide to work with white workers. — Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin
Let’s come back to black anarchism. Ervin argues that the “white race” is an illegitimate and contrived “super-nationality” designed to oppress non-whites. It ought to be abolished, possibly by white “race traitors.” In response, he advocates for a black super-national community, spanning the entire global “black race,” who will unite in labor activism, political organization, and even violent revolution.
But wait, if the white race is contrived, isn’t the black race? So-called “white” people are more homogeneous than “black” people by leaps and bounds. Africa alone is the most diverse continent on the planet in terms of language, genetics, political systems, and so on. Many African countries can’t even build unity within their own borders; nevermind “super-national” unity that includes Canadian, Cuban, Brazilian, and French people with wildly varying interests and values.
The white race only exists in terms of a power relation, but so does the black race. They’re a dialectic. If you abolish whiteness, you also abolish blackness. Maybe he’s thinking in terms of a Marxist-Leninist kind of “build a state that will wither away and abolish the state” type of process, but it seems to me he’s very serious about maintaining black consciousness and particularity past the abolition of whiteness.
Speaking of white people, where does this leave us? I already know I’m not a German. That’s where the “white people have no culture” joke comes from. Europeans don’t want us “North Americans” either. When I spent two months in Egypt, I mostly hung out with the Africans and Asians; I didn’t get along with the Europeans or even the Canadian. The “white race” is a fantasy dreamed up by weird white supremacist types. We don’t actually like each other.
I doubt Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin has any respect for Robin DiAngelo, but they have at least one major thing in common. Their political projects institutionalize differences between racial groups. If I’m going to my white p̶o̶w̶e̶r̶ ̶s̶h̶o̶w̶e̶r̶ ̶h̶o̶u̶r affinity group every week and developing a “racial identity” while my black friends are off at their black consciousness class, who do you think we’ll learn to trust when push comes to shove? When the black labor caucus wants to implement a reparations policy that cuts white wages, do you think white people are going to remember their systemic privilege, or are they going to remember that one time all of their black friends had an awesome picnic with chocolate cake and none of them got invited?
I don’t want to turn into a man shouting at clouds or tilting at windmills. These issues are really complicated and they cut deep. It makes sense that black people have historically felt the need to form their own political organizations, and so long as the interests of black people do not align with white society, that will continue to be the case. It’s great that we’re developing ideologies and programs around dismantling structural racism.
I don’t mean to imply that Sunn m’Cheaux subscribes to any of the viewpoints I discuss here. I’m saying that he’s wrong when he argues that seeing someone as a “black person” is a simple thing. It’s actually one of the most contentious discussions of our time. It’s a question about where we’re going and where we want to go as a society, as a global community even.
Sunn m’Cheaux clearly cares a lot about people and makes fun, light-hearted, and classy videos often aimed at a stubborn and irascible white audience. I think he’s great and I would like to be friends. I do, however, want to point out that there is an abyss.