The development of race (part 7): The UCU debate on racism

The UCU Debate On Racism

To be completely honest my sense of acting on ideals had somewhat deadened during my initial time at UCU, it got lost in a haze of parties. I was forced to take a hiatus and returned to get some high grades and was blessed with the UCU in Africa experience. To some extent this revived my White Saviour complex, but more so it revived my ideals, while making me acutely aware of the power structures in the world (together with some help from Lonia). Thus actually eradicating my sense of any achievement to be had from following existing power structures alone.

Although I do not feel I was one of the alumni that attacked Bryan Miranda as he said in his piece “UCU a school for the white privileged”. I did try to get him to moderate his tone. Something I now see as somewhat presumptuous. I also definitely felt attacked in my sense of self-worth, was I not a gifted individual?
I haven’t looked at the Facebook Alumni page, are the comments still there? In any case I feel indebted to Bryan Miranda for raising this issue.

Although I still feel it is not my place to moderate anyone’s emotion. I do feel that the debate is often had on false terms. I  now understand some the anger that people of colour sometimes display when discussing these issues. It seems to come from not being heard when speaking about injustice and from White people ignoring blatant realities of oppression to their own benefit. That being said, I think sometimes this anger also comes out when people are trying to be understanding.

The reverse is also true. White people sometimes get defensive even when one just states facts about racism in a neutral tone. So on both sides (if there are sides) there is a real and a perceived threat. Sometimes I feel caught between two camps who do not seem to understand or even hear each other. However my sympathy goes mainly to POC for the threat to their lives is real and takes on structural forms. Whereas the threat to White people appears to be mainly imagined, psychological and selfish.

When reading Bryan’s article again, I cannot help but agree with almost every point. Except perhaps that his views seem to generalizing, for there is more in the world than structures. We need people everywhere including in positions of power, to help make change. Although I do feel that to a large extent holding a position of power means acquiescing to existing structures.  This could be my white saviour complex resurfacing, but I think it is just a generic saviours complex (Jezus was black after all). This is also not really disagreement of fact but more of approach.

However when I read Omri’s piece “Criticism, inclusion and mobilisation the shape of things to come” again I run into some trouble:

“The accuracy or veracity of the claims I do not intend to address, but rather the assumptions and conclusions.”

So he is addressing not claims, but assumptions and conclusions? This seems like a smokescreen. It makes it look like he agrees with the claims while hardly addressing them. Let’s see what assumption are being made:

While “whiteness” or “blackness” in this area of social criticism refer not literally to colour but political and identity categories of inclusion and exclusion, it seems dangerous to then apply them a priori to individuals. There seems to be a contradiction in condemning racial prejudice, and then assuming an individual to wish to be defined politically by that category, or to accuse her of privilege or opinion she may not have. Would an Indian UC student from a wealthy background be defined as ‘white’ or ‘black’? Would a Dutch student from an inner-city housing estate be defined as ‘black’ or ‘white’? Who are we to judge? This seems an unsettling and dangerous muddle, which could lead to prejudice on the side of the critic.

So in this section it seems like he is addressing an assumption by Bryan, but in fact he is making his own assumption. While Bryan indeed does not actively define between different categories of colour. It seems clear from his piece that he is addressing three kinds of colour categories.

One being treatment which befalls one because of one’s skin colour (which is an arbitrary biological fact of melanin in the skin, that does not convey any other qualities). This treatment could be privilege or oppression, or a mixture of both. There are other factors mediating this, like wealth, religion or nationality.

Bryan also mentions “their cultural” which is the second way in which race is used in his piece. By which use he accurately points out that this is often a thinly disguised racism.

The political identity of black or white is usually reserved for those people that identify in that way to fight a political battle. Just because Bryan does not make his use explicit, does not mean he is assuming anything about anyone. Historically categories of who is white and who is black or yellow shifts.

Both in the political sense and in deciding who gets oppressed and privileged these categories are a site of contestation. In Britain for instance, people from certain Asian communities were originally part of the Black political movement together with Afro-Caribbean people. Later the movement split and later again the movement rejoined.

Similar things have happened to the Irish and also to poor whites. Sometimes being labeled criminals or being used as indentured servants (near slaves) at other times being drawn into more privileged positions. For instance the Irish’s role in policing black people in the US. There are more examples of categories shifting. The categories you utilize, as Omri rightly implies, depend on your perspective.

Prejudice is always a danger that can befall any one of us and tends to do so a lot. Everybody makes judgments and is partial to implicit racist perceptions. This does not equate to a system of oppression like White Supremacy.

Who are we to judge? Just people I’d say. But people that function in structures that cause suffering. Usually the judgments that sustain power structures win out. That is why I believe the situation Bryan sketches is so problematic. Because while a university should be place of learning and questioning, in this way by representing mainly the viewpoint of the elite, it becomes a site of indoctrination, at least in part.

Reality is a dangerous muddle, people die from too much reality all the time. The thing is, if we truly open our eyes to structural poverty and oppression and our own role as “leaders of tomorrow” in those structures. We can not claim as the Germans did “Wir haben es nicht gewust” (yes I went there). They could have known, and we can know.

“On the other hand, the structural mechanisms of racial exclusion operate on a macro level – through historical circumstance, public policy, political discourse, and economic conditions – education, housing, and social networks. To then attempt to make the accusation that UCU somehow guilty of practicing exclusion, because it is subject to the same social forces, simply does not add up. One would need to examine many more demographic and socio-economic variables to understand why one type of person might apply to UC and another might not. Very partial and rash conclusions do more to offend than they do to clarify.”

Again an assumption by Omri. Racial exclusion is a micro as well as a macro level affair. POC experience micro-aggression all the time, even in the way discussions are held. Bryan no where says that UCU is guilty of anything. However I would say that simply by being part of those structures we bear some responsibility. Which is ironic, because while ostensibly we set out to fight inequality, we end up supporting it as Bryan points out. Responsibility is not the same as guilt.

“Social exclusion and marginalisation, poverty, prejudice, and xenophobia have all been on the rise, and are more important to tackle head on now than ever. They are driven by elements of social class, gender, race, power relations, material incentives, or cultural practices – there is no benefit in omitting criteria from the analysis. Above all it is important to recognise the gobsmacking intransigence and immobility that have been characteristic of our current  politics, and through the bursting seams of that degraded structure, dangerous distasteful currents begin to flow.”

While Omri is right to point out the need for multi-faceted analysis. Something I felt was talked about more at UCU than actually done. All the aspects he names are important factors in marginalization. However talking about race does not mean leaving out gender.

It is now very fashionable to talk about intersectionality and with due cause. Certain groups have always approached oppression in this way, but even though the issues intersect they are simultaneously separate. Distasteful currents are flowing, they have never stopped, they have only slowed down to a trickle. Communities of colour, or of transgender people are well aware of this. Not just current politics are rotten, systems of power are rotten.

“The Right has proven its ideas bankrupt, while the Left has been unable to produce a new narrative to allow it to take political and policy discourse down a new route (yet).”

“What we have learnt, though, is that we have responsibility. If our generation do not aim to do things drastically differently than the way they are being done, we will not be able to tackle the problems of climate change, economic stagnation, and inequality. If we do not engage, these will overtake us. Whereas criticism and reflection are key, active involvement solutions are needed.

This generation needs to be one that is politically mobilised and socially engaged, willing to attempt to grasp and contend with interconnected problems. For those who spent time at UC and have taken these lessons with them can count themselves fortunate.”

I believe that doing things drastically differently means dismantling old power structures, including false oppositions between left and right. We need to move beyond oppositional dualistic thinking into a more holistic future. That means less elites and more community. There is more to Bryan Miranda’s story than criticism and reflection. It is a call to introspection, which can lead to powerful action.

Indeed such initiatives as “zwarte piet is racisme” are doing exactly that. Active involvement solutions of all kinds, can use these reflections, to make the solutions inclusive so that we don’t repeat past mistakes.

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