Racialism is a blight on the left

Long-read

Racialism is a blight on the left

Treating all people of colour as ‘victims’ is patronising and wrong.

David Swift

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Topics Identity Politics Long-reads Politics

In 2012, the American comedian Chelsea Handler told radio DJ Howard Stern about her brief relationship with hip-hop star 50 Cent, claiming she had ‘always had a thing for black guys’, as they ‘are very, very masculine, and I really like that’.

She told Stern that when she broke up with the rapper, she ‘called him the worst thing you could say to a black person short of calling him the n-word. I said something like you’re like a street person basically. Something along the lines of being a gangster, and it was really, really offensive… I said, “you have no business even talking to someone like me”.’

Eight years later, after 50 Cent tweeted he would support Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, Handler announced that she ‘had to remind him that he’s black’.

These two incidents, eight years apart, show the link between racialising people and political essentialism. In both of these instances Handler assumed that there was something ‘essential’ to all black men. In the first case she assumed it was their innate masculinity, and in the second case it was their political liberalism. Yet while suggesting all black men are ‘very, very masculine’ seems distasteful at best – if not out-and-out racist – suggesting black people are all essentially politically progressive liberals seems to be perfectly acceptable.

The two attitudes towards black people expressed by Handler represent two sides of the same coin of what I call ‘Neo-Orientalism’.

In his classic book Orientalism, Edward Said argued that even the most well-meaning 19th-century British or French Orientalist – in the sense of a scholar of Asian history, culture and language – was hamstrung by the origins of the discipline in European colonial and imperial projects. Try as they might, they could not appreciate ‘Oriental’ societies, cultures or peoples on their own terms. Instead they always viewed them through the prism of European – and later American – interests. This inextricable connection with imperialism past and present meant that even benign and well-intentioned Orientalism was inherently and inescapably compromised by racial, colonialist attitudes and prejudices.

Today, many corporations, politicians and individuals – the latter nearly always but by no means exclusively white – also think in racially essentialising terms of ‘people of colour’. They do so to sell products, win votes and earn social or internet-based clout. There has been no shortage of criticism of these practices. There have been denunciations of ‘woke capitalism’, such as the furore around the 2017 Pepsi commercial depicting a Black Lives Matter protest, and of cynical politicians using ethnic tropes for their own ends, such as Zac Goldsmith’s warning to British Indians that Sadiq Khan was coming for their jewellery when he ran for mayor of London in 2016.

However, there has been notably less criticism of this practice when it comes from liberal or left-wing politicians and individuals. It is usually assumed that these people do care about the people they are talking about, even if they weaponise their historical strife and current disadvantage for their own purposes. After all, I have no doubt that Handler does genuinely want to improve the position of black people in America. But this ‘Neo-Orientalism’ is no better than the old kind – and just as Said argued of the old 19th-century Orientalists, even if these Neo-Orientalists are well-intentioned, they still end up weakening the causes of equality, justice and so on that they claim to support.

For example, as a Palestinian, Said approvingly cited 20th-century French Orientalist Louis Massignon’s criticism of Israeli ‘bourgeois colonialism’. Yet, at the same time, Said argued that Massignon’s critique was compromised because of the way in which he viewed the Islamic Orient in relation to the West, objectifying and essentialising it. Massignon, wrote Said, ‘assigned the Islamic Orient to an essentially ancient time and the West to modernity’. For Massignon, ‘the British seemed to represent “expansion” in the Orient, amoral economic policy, and an outdated philosophy of political influence’, whereas what ‘the Westerner’ should really seek from the Orient was to recover ‘what he had lost in spirituality, traditional values, and the like’ due to the ‘tradition of the Orient as therapeutic for the West’. Massignon effectively turned the ‘Islamic Orient’ into an object to be used by the West for its own ‘therapeutic’ ends.

Today, the Neo-Orientalist concern about and for people of colour, informed by a perception of their weakness in relation to ‘white people’, is as instrumental and objectifying as historical Orientalism. Neo-Orientalism is driven by various factors, including exploitation by the media and entertainment industry; the imperatives of academic research funding; the solipsistic projects of the Western left; and a desire to make oneself seem cooler and more authentic.

It can be well-intentioned in some cases. But unfortunately the Neo-Orientalist polarity between ‘white people’ and ‘people of colour’, or between a morally compromised ‘West’ and the idealised ‘Other’ of the Global South, serves the ends of the Neo-Orientalist, not those of people of colour or the Global South.

Said wrote of how ‘the Orientalist provides his own society with representations of the Orient that bear his distinctive imprint, illustrate his conception of what the Orient can or ought to be, that consciously contest someone else’s view of the Orient’. This places the Orient, and Orientals, ‘out of reach of everyone except the Western expert’. Ultimately for Said, this served to provide Western discourse ‘with what, at that moment, it seems most in need of, and that responds to certain cultural, professional, national, political and economic requirements of the epoch’.

Today’s Neo-Orientalists do likewise. They put their own distinctive imprint – well-educated, middle-class, mostly white – on to the Neo-Oriental object, who is imbued with the values of the Neo-Orientalist, whether he or she likes it or not. This serves several purposes. It serves a cultural purpose, in the sense that it allows the Neo-Orientalist to appear as an interesting, multifaceted character. It serves a political purpose, in that it allows him to advance his various projects. And it serves an economic and professional purpose, in that it allows him to advance in academia, politics and the media.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, alongside fellow Democrats from the House and Senate, takes the knee in the US Capitol Visitors Center, 8 June 2020.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, alongside fellow Democrats from the House and Senate, takes the knee in the US Capitol Visitors Center, 8 June 2020.

The essentialising nature of Neo-Orientalism positions entire groups of people as victims. And this then allows Neo-Orientalists to don the garb of sainthood through public displays of contrition and attempts to redeem the unfortunates.

This has prompted self-promoting outbursts, such as that of the American actor Rosanna Arquette, who tweeted in 2019: ‘I’m sorry I was born white and privileged. It disgusts me. And I feel so much shame.’ Or that of journalist Laurie Penny, who confessed, in the aftermath of Trump’s victory, that while she’d ‘had white liberal guilt before’, it was ‘the first time I’ve actually been truly horrified and ashamed to be white’.

At the same time, Neo-Orientalism puts entire identity groups on a pedestal, implying that they are not just morally better, but ultimately just better people. This sort of patronising essentialism is just as racialising as that of the original Orientalists who also attributed positive, spiritual values to black and brown people.

It certainly leads to bizarre displays of virtue among Neo-Orientalists. A few years ago, I was at an academic conference when, in two separate incidents, white academics – one Canadian and one Australian – prefaced their papers with a ‘land declaration’. This was to acknowledge that the land on which their universities were built was stolen from the indigenous people through a process of genocide. If they were to perform this ritual in a lumberjacks’ bar in rural Saskatchewan or at a truckstop in Western Australia, I would have nothing but respect and admiration – certainly I would be too cowardly to do such a thing. But at an academic conference in the UK, where virtually everyone in the room fully agreed with and endorsed the message, it invited something analogous to contempt. Here were two white people, speaking before an almost exclusively white audience, using the historic suffering of indigenous people purely for their own self-aggrandisement.

Some might ask whether any of this matters. If well-intentioned people act in patronising ways, isn’t it ultimately harmless? But I think it very much matters, as this kind of performative Neo-Orientalism is not only self-serving, it also undermines attempts to actually tackle racial and social injustice. That so many white liberals and leftists have fantastical and essentialist views of people or colour is patronising and wrong, and leads to political overreach and an inevitable conservative backlash.

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 could have been an opportunity for long overdue reform of the US criminal-justice system; instead, it quickly descended into calls to ‘abolish the police’ and assertions that punctual timekeeping, family values and the written word were ‘white’ concepts. In the end, the expected Democratic surge at the 2020 election never came, with black Congressmen such as Jim Clyburn explicitly blaming ‘defund the police’ and the violence of that summer for the Democrats’ wafer-thin majorities in both houses of Congress.

Now, as a result of this overreach, we will see an increase in police budgets overseen by black, Hispanic and Asian Democrats like Eric Adams in New York and Garry Tan in San Francisco. A recent poll found that black and Hispanic Democrats are significantly more likely than white Democrats to favour more police funding in their area.

For the politics of the future, in increasingly diverse societies it is vital to resist the Neo-Orientalist tendency to ascribe special moral worth or epistemological authority to individuals or whole groups of people based on phenotypes beyond their control. ‘Believe all women’? But what about when a white woman inaccurately accuses an innocent black man? ‘Amplify black voices’? But what about when those voices are themselves used to amplify neoliberal, Islamophobic or anti-Semitic narratives?

Ahead of the Congressional elections this November, the Republican Party has deliberately recruited people of colour with powerful personal stories around law and order, small government and the usual rags-to-riches talk about the importance of self-reliance. They will be that much harder for the Democrats to refute given the Neo-Orientalist concept that ‘people of colour’ should be listened to, their stories recognised and accepted, even if they are talking nonsense.

The political right on both sides of the Atlantic is now building new, multiracial coalitions to dominate the politics of the 21st century – Hispanics, Asian Americans and working-class whites for the Republicans; British Indians, British Africans, and a cross-class coalition of white people for the Conservatives. And the political left, gripped by Neo-Orientalism, is finding it difficult to respond.

We must appreciate the tremendous complexity and often unexpected paradoxes within the politics, culture and voting habits of particular groups. Neo-Orientalism in the 21st century, no matter how well intentioned, can be as harmful as Orientalism was in the 19th century. Just as we would now consider it offensive to say that ‘black guys’ are ‘very, very masculine’, so we must see it as offensive, wrong and counter-productive to view all ‘people of colour’ as potential political radicals.

David Swift is the author of The Identity Myth: Why We Need to Embrace Our Differences to Beat Inequality. Follow him on Twitter @davidswift87

Pictures by: Getty.

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