An Identity Political criticism of Identity Politics: On Racism & Cultural Appropriation

I’m updating this regularly. Last update was on February 2018.

“The sign of a truly totalitarian culture is that important truths simply lack cognitive meaning and are interpretable only at the level of “Fuck You”, so they can then elicit a perfectly predictable torrent of abuse in response. We’ve long ago reached that level.” — Noam Chomsky

Content Warning: The following article refers to severe cases of violence.

A quick introduction: I’m a Leftist and I’m relentlessly Anti-Authoritarian. The correct terminology in this case is Libertarian Socialist. I support Black Lives Matter. I identify as a Feminist. I’m for Identity Politics. I believe workers should have ownership over the means of production. For further context, the Left-Wing ideologies I best resonate with are Mutualism and Syndicalism. I reside in Bahrain, a country that has been ranked as the 131th least peaceful in the world (With the least peaceful being Syria at 163). A great score. Considering it’s within a region that no longer surprises the world in it’s unpredictably. For this very reason, my commitment is to analyze and combat patterns that lead to violence.

I’ll list down Leftist rhetoric and attitudes (In Bullet-points. Bolded) that are becoming increasingly popular on social media with my responses (Criticism) under each statement.

  • “Fuck all Whites”
    “Kill all Whites”
    “Minorities can’t be racist, racism is prejudice plus power”

This argument suggests the following: Prejudice can’t be referred to as Racism unless it is from a place of privilege and systematic power. There is no such thing as “being racist” when it’s under the oppression of Systemic Racism, and prejudice by the under-privileged and powerless is far less relevant than systemic prejudice by the privileged and all-powerful. One has power. One does not. They don’t lead to the same degree of damage on human lives, therefore it’s not reasonable to label both behaviors with the same expression.

The core component of this argument is that it is based on the sociological definition of Racism, which differs from both the casual and the dictionary definition, just as other terminologies (such as Theory) have different meanings when discussed casually and academically.

Prejudice by those who hold systemic power over others are objectively worse than prejudice by those who do not. The Greater Evil causes significantly more damage than the Lesser Evil. This argument is valid.

That said, to the ears of the average listener; the proposal that the term Racism should be limited to only refer to Systemic Racism (As opposed to Non-systemic Racial Superiority, Racial Prejudice, Racial Discrimination and the diverse tenets that exist outside the Sociological definition) is as to suggest that the term Evil should be limited to only refer to the Greater Evil, whereas the Lesser Evil shouldn’t be referred to as Evil (Perhaps as Prejudice instead) because it is not nearly as relevant as the Greater Evil.

In other words, to the average listener: This argument has the same tone as to propose that terms like Abuse and Bigotry can only be used according to a certain Professional Definition. One which would exclusively limit the usage of the words only to institutional Abuse and state-backed bigotry.

Whereas any “Bigotry” or “Abuse” that doesn’t fall in that category may be better referred to as “backlash” instead.

Broadly; an “Evil person” can refer to a passive person with evil convictions, beliefs and core values (Ideologically Evil), while it can also refer to a powerful person who directly commits evil actions (Institutional Evil). Both fall under the umbrella of b̶e̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶a̶ ̶d̶i̶c̶k̶ Evil.

In the same way, a Racist person is often used to refer to a passive person with racist ideological convictions (ideologically racist) while it can also refer to an active racist within a racist establishment (Systemic racism), both which fall under the broader umbrella of Racism. In the same sense a Republican may refer to a person with Republican viewpoints while it can also refer to an Active member of the Republican Party. Just as Nazi has a broader meaning than member of the Nazi Party, Anxious has a broader meaning than Clinical Anxiety, and Work has a broader meaning than the structure of Employment.

The Power plus Prejudice argument would be reasonable if a minority was accused of “Being Oppressive” by a privileged authority. In which case — it would be unlikely because of the probable absence of Power even if the Prejudice was indeed present. For these reasons, claims such as “The Mexican Minority are oppressing White People” or “White Genocide” generally come off as baseless and irrational. In addition to this, the power dynamics are well-calculated and thoroughly suggest that Non-PoC are generally empowered over PoC in much of the Western World.

That said, in relation to the Power Plus Prejudice argument: This does not suggest an inherent inability for a PoC to exercise their Limited Power to express their Prejudice. Rather, it suggests that Prejudice plus Less Power is by far a less destructive phenomenon than Prejudice Plus Extraordinary Power.

Arguing that one issue is far more urgent than another is a rational approach. Basing an entire platform on the philosophy that “Prejudice plus Less Power is not an exercise of Prejudice plus power” is where the red flag is. This is a position that is both fallacious and potentially dangerous.

If a White Student was assaulted by PoC students within a PoC-Majority classroom, knowing they would turn a blind-eye, it would be a blatant exercise of Prejudice plus Power and it needs to to be addressed as such while maintaining that systemic racism, the Greater Evil, is a far more destructive and urgent issue.

Another very unfortunate example of Racial Prejudice plus less power is the sexual assault and murder of PoC Nabra Hassanen by PoC Darwin Martinez Torres. An equation that did not make a difference to the victim herself, within her own horrid experience. Power plus Prejudice by a Majority Population leads to systemic oppression, sometimes with the realistic likelihood of ethnic-cleansing. Power plus Prejudice by a Minority Population leads to such crimes, and racially motivated acts of terrorism.

Prioritizing the fight against the Greater Evil over the Lesser Evil is a strategic and pragmatic approach. To pardon, dismiss, paraphrase, downplay, ignore or deny the Lesser Evil because of the presence of a Greater Evil is morally inconsistent at best.

Living by the latter philosophy is to downplay suicide attacks against Israeli civilians (Lesser Evil) because of decades of systematic Israeli oppression and massacres against the Palestinians (Greater Evil). As well as the 9/11 attacks (Extremely Evil. But to many perspectives; Lesser Evil) because of the generations of systematic and violent Western colonialism over the Middle East and their unconditional military support for Israel (Greater Evil). As well as expressions of prejudice towards White individuals (Lesser Evil) because of the presence of Systematic Power (Greater Evil) against minorities — the conclusion to this scenario is that their painful experiences are not legitimized and dismissed as mere “White Tears”. It’s refusing to call out Evil because it is the Lesser Evil (When evidently, categorizing attitudes towards a people are the common ground to both evils and the greatest evil of all).

Unsurprisingly, this lead to blatant refusal to condemn violent prejudice because it’s not Systemic Racism, which makes the moral philosophy easier to appropriate by the authoritarian of the Left under the guise of progressivism.

We are often shocked when noble movements around the globe start losing compassion (To put it lightly) towards other human beings. Then we wonder (perhaps for the hundred-and-tenth time) — How did it came to this?

Hint: Perhaps it is because we allow risky, loaded behaviors to infiltrate otherwise noble movements.

Conclusion: It doesn’t take anything away from our fight to use the term Systemic Racism instead of bullying listeners over their use of the term Racism, let along their experiences of bigotry and prejudice — while it certainly does take a lot away from innocent bystanders and allies, as well as the legitimacy and consistency of our cause when we actively and deliberately deny that minorities can be (Non-systemically) racist to individuals and other minorities.

  • “You can’t wear this”

Make no mistake about it. Cultural Appropriation is a thing.

There are those who intend to ridicule or harass others by caricaturing them, such as “Arab Suicide Bombers”. There’s racial bullying, such as “blackface”. Those who purposely and wrongfully attribute customs to one culture when it initially derives from another such as the “Great Middle Eastern Hummus dispute”. Let alone — Algebra, Science and civilization as we know it.

Another way to put this;

Cultural Appropriation is when one party takes credit for the discoveries or productions of workers from other cultures, with very little to no recognition nor compensation for their labor. Thus, attributing it to oneself and gaining status within their own community.

On a lighter scale, it can also refer to the act of representing symbols of other cultures without a personal association, knowledge or interest in the culture they are borrowing from ( Vaguely it can also refer to people who wear Nirvana shirts without even knowing what Grunge is. No really fuck that). In most cases, this is in reference to those who borrow fashion, music and cuisine from ethnic minorities in the working-class. As result, profit more than the communities that initially produced these contents, resulting in a foreign monopoly by a dominant group over a minority ethnic group’s own production.

These examples are often use to highlight the impact of Privilege over other ethnic minorities. Though, the argument about Privilege and Appropriation are used interchangeably, which is one of the leading causes to the confusion and conflict over this topic.

Cultural Appropriation is not when people have a genuine interest and involvement in the clothes and music of an out group’s culture while simultaneously having less melanin, such as Caucasian rappers and belly-dancers. Moreover, it isn’t when individuals choose to reject the culture assigned to them at birth to immerse themselves in other cultures, based on their own personal interests.

Had someone suggested the following:

“cross-dressing is offensive because it contradicts communal norms, and the feelings of many conservatives within these communities”.

Luckily — The New Left would counter-debate this stance by bringing up freedom of expression and civil liberties. The question is whether these values are consistent. Imagine if someone made the following proposal:

“Cross-Dressing is offensive because it’s an act of Male Cultural Appropriation of Female symbols, many of which have deeply-rooted links to Male Oppression over Women. Cross-dressing means that these symbols are taken lightly and belittled by the male populous who do so in the luxury of their power and privilege, all the while imposed as expectations over women. The practice of Male-over-Female Cultural Appropriation attempts to strip Female Symbols from their contextual meaning, and reduce them to exploitative fashion statements. All in all, it is a blatant practice of privilege and dominance of those with power over those without.”

This is an argument I wrapped up on the spot, one which I don’t actually condone. I fully support Trans Rights and Gender Fluidity. To some Leftists, there may be a dilemma where different interests are at conflict. They would want to support Gender Fluidity, but they wouldn’t want to contradict themselves on their stance on Cultural Appropriation, or Gender Fluidity for the matter — to which they are at high-risk of doing by opposing either components of this argument.

This conflict would highlight a moral inconsistency where a Neo-Conservative Stance is prioritized over Civil liberties in one debate (Cultural Appropriation), and Civil Liberty stance is largely prioritized over Neo-Conservatism in another debate (Gender Fluidity).

The conclusion of this is — Yes. That stance does sound pretty TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Feminism). It’s essentially the same argument.

In many cases, the argument extended to also include the condemnation of any person, of any ethnicity from borrowing from cultures that aren’t theirs. That it’s better if they stick to their own culture. Regardless of existing power dynamics between both groups, such as the Palestinian who dressed in Indian attire. This argument has the undertones a quasi-nationalism.

The reason why such dilemma is exclusive to this argument is due to a fundamental difference in the discussion of Cultural Appropriation compared to the following popular Leftist ideals:

Affirmative Action
Greater Freedom: ✓ Greater Security: ✓

LGBTQ Rights (and restrooms)
Greater Freedom: ✓ Greater Security: ✓

Worker Ownership of the means of Production
Greater Freedom: ✓ Greater Security: ✓

Ridiculing those who engage in customs widely exercised among minorities and other out-groups
Greater Freedom: X Greater Security: X

Hijab Ban (getting to that later)
Greater Freedom: X Greater Security: X

Not only is this proposal generally irrelevant in the advancement of Civil Rights and Security, it stems from a place that is explicitly against it. Proposals pushed by a platform that’s based on Civil Rights and Security are likely to steer the movement further into the direction of Civil Rights and Security. As it would attract arguments, proposals, and actions compatible with the given platform in-use. Alternatively, a platform centralized on achieving social justice by limiting individual autonomy would potentially attract traits compatible to its nature. In the case where one platform can be used to shun “Whites dressing like rappers” as well as “Gender Fluidity”. This platform poses a higher risk of attracting Neoconservative and authoritarian arguments.

Meanwhile in the Arab Gulf States — There are students (Particularly female) who are academically blackmailed by college campus security staff for dressing in ways that conflict with local culture and traditions. A Civil Right for which we risked our academic and professional future to defend.

In a another scenario, the same platform could be used to shun those in the Middle East who choose to dress “Secular” or “Western” by proposing the following argument. Again, one which I created on the spot that I do not condone nor believe in by any means:

“Muslims and Arabs who choose to dress Western often come from the privileged higher class. Mostly millennial, and less likely to have experience the trauma, humiliation, and frustrations due to Globalization. Let alone Western Imperialism and Warfare. These are the things wider communities are reminded of by the presence of these Western, civilized and hip symbols. Those who choose to “rebel” by dressing as such, choose to directly benefit from a system of globalist exploitation at the expense of the oppressed, who they blatantly taunt. The reality that the young are abandoning their Arab Culture to hold on to Western Values is a problematic trend and it needs to be questioned, as long as they are within Arab and Muslim communities.

The purpose of the following example is to highlight the vulnerability of this platform, and just how easy it is to legitimately advocate censorship with the right set of words. In both cases, the given platform can eerily U-turn from social liberalism to one that’s potentially more aligned with Islamists conservative apologia.

A suggestion to a less conflicted, conservative, authoritarian, and a more progressive alternative would be the following:

Less interest in which individual liberties need be shunned and controlled. More interest in which Civil Liberties need to be uplifted and empowered.

Exercise:

France believes that Hijab is a symbol of sexism, and misogyny and oppression of women, as it also stems from a religious doctrine that largely promotes sexist and misogynistic values. A point of view I personally agree with.

We could choose the following:

A. Call for the banning of the Hijab, forcing hundred of thousands of women out of their right to participate in this lifestyle.

or,

B. Call for more means to protect and support those forced to wear it and more freedom to what women can wear and do with their own bodies. Including the right to wear the Hijab, Abaya and Niqab.

Like the previous example, option B would provide more in freedom, safety, and justice. Option A would take more than it would provide. Thus, option B is fundamentally more Progressive. Despite my personal view.

For more discussions on progressive policies, and the potential dangers of regressive policies. I would highly recommend the following video by Toni Mac (Former sex worker) on TedTalks:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vc-n852sv3E

Philadelphia’s murals is another example of what happens when we look at things from the scope of its opportunities before its threats, the desire to uplift and empower over the desire to shun, suppress and shame.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qu7cen0VOAA

Bottom-line:

“To advocate the restriction of freedom on the pretext that it is being defended is a dangerous delusion.”— Mikhail Bakunin

 

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