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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Between Local and Global Racism

What about ‘Global Racism’? Some Reflections on Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Essay on ‘Racisms’

“We see it everywhere” – Kwame Anthony Appiah

Chambi Chachage

Kwame Anthony Appiah, both as a person and philosopher, has had a very uneasy relationship with his/our African identity. This is particularly evident when one juxtaposes Appiah’s (1990) essay on ‘Racisms’ with Appiah’s (1992) book In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture and Appiah’s (1997) article on ‘Cosmopolitan Patriot’. It is this uneasiness that informs his analyses of ‘racism(s)’.

Taking a postmodern pluralistic posture he persuasively argues – and can almost persuade anyone – that what is out there in the world is not racism. It is racisms. In this conception racism is not necessarily global – it is, in fact, local. Thus one can even imagine that a visitor from “Mars – or from Malawi – unfamiliar with the Western concept of racism could be excused if they had some difficulty in identifying what exactly racism was” (Appiah 1990: 3). In other words, a visitor from an African country that experienced British colonialism and its legitimizing myth-cum-ideology of global racism may find it difficult to identify it in the West as if ‘the West is local’!

When one reduces such a global catastrophe to local phenomena, he can easily assert that in “varieties of Pan-Africanism” race, rather than a shared history of experiencing Euro-American racism among people of Africa, is used “as a basis for moral solidarity” since it is “presupposed that a ‘people’” – in this case the “Negroes” – has “the basis for shared political life in the fact of being of the same race” (Appiah 1990: 11). One can even go an extra mile to thus contrast Zionism and Pan-Africanism in order to dismiss an African cultural identity born out of collective struggles against racism and its bedfellows – slavery and colonialism:

There are varieties of each form of ‘nationalism’ that make the basis lie in shared traditions; but however plausible this may be in the case of Zionism, which has in Judaism, the religion, a realistic candidate for a common and nonracial focus for nationality, the peoples of Africa have a good deal less in common culturally than is usually assumed. I discuss this issue at length in In My Father’s House: Essays in the Philosophy of African Culture, but let me say here that I believe the central fact is this: what blacks in the West, like secularized Jews, have mostly in common is that they are perceived – both by themselves and by others – as belonging to the same race, and that this common race is used by others as the basis of discriminating against them. “If you ever forget you’re a Jew, a goy will remind you.” The Black Nationalists, like Zionists, responded to their experience of racial discrimination by accepting the racialism it presupposed” (Ibid.)

But, in fact, accepting – or even being forced to accept – “the racialism it presupposed” does not make an African or a black person for that matter a practitioner of what Appiah categorizes as “intrinsic racism” let alone “extrinsic’ racism” whereby, on the basis of the assimilation of “race feelings” to “family feeling”, the former is said to “seem so much less objectionable” than the latter. It is these kind of arguments that are easily used to normalize and perpetuate global racism/orientalism since one can simply claim that even Blacks/Africans are also ‘doing racism’. Appiah even thus invokes a dialectician to build his case:

The reactive (or dialectical) character of this move explains why [Jean Paul] Sartre calls its manifestations in Négritude an “antiracist racism…Sartre believed, of course, that the synthesis of this dialectic would be the transcendence of racism; and it was his view of it as a stage – the antithesis – in that process that allowed him to see it as a positive advance over the original “thesis” of European racism. I suspect that the reactive character of antiracist racism accounts for the tolerance that is regularly extended to it in liberal circles; but this tolerance is surely hard to justify unless one shares Sartre’s optimistic interpretation of it as a stage in a process that leads to the end of all racism (Appiah 1990: 17).

However, historically, Négritude and Pan-Africanism is not one and the same thing. In fact one of the leading revolutionaries who abandoned the former for the sake of the latter did so after reading the same Sartre. In his 1951 essay on ‘The lived Experience of the Black Man’ reproduced in Black Skin, White Masks as the ‘Fact of Blackness’, Frantz Fanon (1952) intimates on how Sartre’s text Orphee Noir destroyed his black zeal that characterized Négritude’s form of black consciousness. This experience led him to realize that the affirmation of black essentialism is self-contradictory for blackness or négritude is not an essence.

Yet since the ‘white man’s global world’ hesitated to recognize him as a man there remained only one solution – to make himself known in that Manichean world though doing so is self-contradictory. This is so because the ‘Negro’ was/is well known to whoever constructed blackness as a supposedly essence of a ‘Negro’. Sartre, ‘a white man’ Fanon referred to as a friend of ‘Negroes’, led Fanon to realize that contrary to the Jews who were then disliked from the moment they were tracked down, the ‘Negroes’ did/do not have to be tracked down for they cannot go unnoticed – of course unless one could simply ‘pass for white’:

All the same, the Jew can be unknown in his Jewishness. He is not wholly what he is. One hopes, one waits. His actions, his behaviours are the final determinant. He is a white man, and, apart from some rather debatable characteristics, he can sometimes go unnoticed…The Jew is disliked from the moment he is tracked down.  But in my case I am given no chance. I am overdetermined from without. I am the slave not of the ‘idea’ others have of me but of my own appearance… When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my colour. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my colour… Either way, I am locked into an infernal circle…” (Fanon 1952: 82-83)

This is a global experience – from the local shores of Martinique where Fanon left to fight in Algeria to the local sands of Misrata where Black/African Libyans have been killed in a NATO-led ‘revolution’. Their response is neither intrinsic racism nor antiracist racism as appropriated by Appiah. In the quest to localize every experience we can easily miss the bigger picture of a globalized racism - of global apartheid. Yet we still see it everywhere as a local manifestation of a globalizing phenomenon.

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