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  • Isabel Steele

Educating ourselves about #blacklivesmatter

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

Following the latest homicide of George Floyd and violent protests across the United States, solidarity against racism is critical. Being a white woman in a position of relative privilege, I understand my limitations in this conversation. But I promise to continue to educate myself about the lives and opinions of those affected. I am also completely open to any advice and guidance on how to refine my approach to stand up for what is right. Short disclaimer: I want to make this blog more informative about publications and research that I've carried out this past year, in order to help direct anyone wanting to educate themselves about race. So if you would rather facts and figures on recent events, the BBC News Website[i] covers this in concise articles you can find on the link below.

[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-52902121


It's not the easiest topic to talk about or learn about, but please read on and take away what you can...

There is nothing revolutionary in recognising the deep seated racism in our societies and own psyches, and academic research and literature on the matter is not scarce. But as communities and citizens faced with gut wrenching headlines into 2020, we must learn how to decolonise our minds to achieve genuine equality. My undergraduate dissertation explored the prevalence of racism in post-modern society, using Frantz Fanon's Peau noire, masques blancs [Black Skin White Masks, 1952] as my primary text. He was a Martinican psychiatrist and political philosopher who worked extensively in psychology of race, especially during the Algerian War for Independence (1954-62). I'm going to compress my research into a blog post to continue the conversation and share my research. I'll also suggest some books by Black authors to navigate this age-old issue in a modern context, and suggest how knowledge acquisition can help strip back these white masks for good.



The aim of Frantz Fanon's Peau noire, masques blancs was to explore anecdotal and scientific research to expose the psychological effects of racism, and ultimately allow the colonised subject to regain existentialist subjectivity. This means allowing every individual to decide for themselves, for their societal value not to be blocked by skin colour or economic status. Reading his work in 2020 remains a powerful departure point in the continuous development of anti-racist, postcolonial[i] discourse, showing that it is often useful to go back to older publications to understand how the situation has developed.

[i] ‘Post-colonial’ is used to refer to the historical period after independence from colonialism (1946 in the Caribbean) and ‘postcolonial’ to refer to theory.


A quick Amazon order and you can be well on your way to understanding origins and effects of the racist construct. By looking at the current racist climate and recent attacks, we can see that decolonising the mind is far from complete. But it is only possible if we recognise our own priviledge and take responsibility for what we can do. This is by educating ourselves, empathising with people different from ourselves and valuing human diversity. Read on for some suggestions.

I discovered Peau noire, masques blancs while living in the Caribbean, as Fanon was born in Martinique. Alongside appreciating the palm fringed beaches, I also became acutely aware of the decontextualised education curriculum, metropolitan politics projected into this Antillean region and the prevailing divide between Creole locals and French expats. I was shocked by certain comments made towards different ethnic groups, an internalised racism also blatantly obvious in Peru, where I lived later in the year.


In the French Caribbean, I learnt that ‘despite the possibilities of proximity enabled by digital globalization, overseas France may very well experience an even greater marginalisation […] in a France whose head of state was elected on a platform of classical nationalism and economic austerity’ (Miles, 2007: 119). What this means, is that power remains centralised, white privilege creates dependency and inferiority complexes are maintained by a toxic colonial hangover. It maintains (often subconscious) social hierarchies to ensure financial gain and political power, usually towards European strongholds. The more research I have done, the more I'm aware that most citizens today are assuredly anti-racist, yet the white mask is still tied tightly around our faces as an assimilationist tool. As racism is today experienced with dehumanising thoroughness, it's about time we work together to untie them.

I chose Fanon for my dissertation because of how useful his research still is as insight into the experience of racism on a social and psychological level. It is especially valuable when compared and contrasted with modern developments, exploring how Critical Race Theory has responded to changing situations. He closes his first publication with a powerful declaration that will help us in our approach to racial awareness:


'Mon ultime prière: Ô mon corps, fais de moi toujours un homme qui interroge!'

'My final prayer: O my body, make me a man who always questions!' (Black Skin, White Masks, 225)


One of the most important things I learnt through my experiences abroad and through francophone research, is that it is crucial to avoid complacency in our knowledge; we should always be questioning. While 'to understand' in French is comprendre, this word contains the verb prendre or 'to take'. But rather than this possessive claiming or ownership of knowledge, which suggests a stagnation of our education, we must continue to question. To update our knowledge in tune with what is happening. And right now, the results of violent protests are threatening military intervention. How could we have let it get this bad?


To improve the prospects of future race relations is to begin listening to victims, understanding the root causes, reading up on the history and realising racism has been a tool to justify colonial subjugation for centuries. We must all take responsibility of our education of how racism manifests in our immediate community and worldwide. We must respond to continuously updating white masks worn by the masses - through our silence and passivity ourselves included - which maintain the impossibility of universal subjectivity by blocking truth and authenticity. If we don't, it results in horrific events such as George Floyd's death and prolonged socio-political protest.


Racism is a construct. Racism is a learnt social hierarchy to justify colonial expansion, exploitation, and extractive capitalist economies. If it can be learnt, it can be unlearnt. It has been used for financial gain or to protect positions of privilege, producing poverty and cyclical patterns of discrimination. This has been blindly internalised by centuries of repetition, to the point that while we are waking up to the unacceptability of the situation, these racist constructs still exist in our minds. The internalised black-white dichotomy maintains social hierarchy, and makes it so difficult to talk about race.

One field that must change is education, we must learn to approach race discourse in a sophisticated and educated way, not as social taboo or from fear of saying the wrong thing. If you're not sure, ask. From better contextualising education regionally, such as a celebration of Creole culture in the Caribbean rather than metropolitan projections, to openly discussing how our wealth is built on British Empire, it's crucial. Without such changes, racism cannot be deconstructed. It must be thoroughly unwritten from our psyches through questioning and learning about each other's realities, and being honest about our history.


In brief, one of the main complications I encountered while writing my dissertation is that the experience of race diverges on so many levels, be it geographically between countries, socially based on class, or demographically based on gender. We can never assume to understand that which we have not experienced ourselves, but an effective way to understand how to approach each perspective is going directly from sources of each. From this, we can build up a profile of the different experiences of race and the different areas to tackle.

Venn diagram I created for my undergraduate dissertation (don't plagiarise) to emphasise how postcolonial, anti-racist authors must be read as an existentialist collective. This is to better understand how the issue diverges and experience of racism differs according to race, class and gender. It is important when learning about racism, as one person's experience may be completely different from another, and this does not minimise or negate either.


For example, Frantz Fanon's work can provide a thorough analysis of the inferiority complex forcefully internalised by colonial subjects, now maintained through neo-colonial policies towards developing countries. Colonisation is but one example of white privilege in action, as an archetype of that which has existed for centuries through ‘relentless Caucasian expansionism' (Bhopal, 2018: xiii). Bhopal touches on this in unsettling examples of ‘aid agencies, tourist companies, big Western business and Christian missions in the 21st century’ (2018: xiii) which all maintain the noxious perception that white people are better off.


On the other hand, female authors like Maryse Condé provide valuable insight to the Black woman’s experience in colonial and decolonizing cultural spaces as well as models of intersubjective exchange. What they all have in common is the desire to redistribute subjectivity to the racialised individual, and white or black, we can contribute to making this reality.

Johnny Pitts, author of Afropean (2019)


Another book I found imminently useful in my writing process was Afropean (2019[i]), also a multimedia artistic forum https://afropean.com/. This recent publication by Johnny Pitts has created a non-hyphenated European space, allowing identity formation to move past Fanon’s claim that ‘la couleur […] est devenue le critère sous l’angle duquel on juge les hommes’ [colour has become the criteria by which we judge people]. Afropean melts symphonically together by reflecting the natural syllabic rhythm of European, representing the integrated experience of Black Europeans as belonging. It is an example of a successful counter-discourse, winning an ENAR Foundation Award for its contribution to a racism-free Europe in 2013 and gaining membership to The Guardian Newspaper’s Africa Network in 2014. By reading more recent publications like Afropean, we can see how race discourse has developed to represent society more realistically, and how white people can better understand their essential role in the decolonising process.

Movements like Afropean are useful in addressing the racial substructure in the colonised mind and in finding value in fusion of ethnicity. As an online forum, it curates a community of writers that ‘seizes the blur of contradictions that have obscured Europe’s relationship with Blackness and paints it into something new, confident and lyrical’ (Hirsch[i], Afropean, 2019). It also exemplifies how Fanonian thought has been surpassed in some ways as he maintains ‘that it is only through violence that man creates himself’ (JHA, 1988: 361).


However in an already volatile world wrought with violence, this cannot be the only way to free man's consciousness. There must be other ways to create peaceful societies without violent protests or military intervention. Movements like Afropean renounce violence completely, instead creating a ‘lyrical’ space where societies can interact and learn. It develops a fluidity of identity through multidirectional social movement, in blazing the way for other global networks like ‘Black lives matter’ (2019[ii]). [i] https://afropean.com/afropean-book-launch-2019/ [ii] https://blacklivesmatter.com/


Another solution I found useful, to ease navigation of the increasingly connected world might be opacité, from Edouard Glissant’s Poétique de la Relation (1990). Glissant is another Martinican writer, philosopher and poet who is famous in postcolonial literature, and a language student's reliable reference source for essays! Opacité offers a model for interaction which resists transparency, removing constant comparison to the scale of the Western perspective of comprehension. It suggests that while improving interaction between global communities, we should also appreciate that we may not be able to fully understand the 'Other' but that doesn't detract from the essential need to respect cultural differences.


Glissant's book develops the term ‘Relation’ to accompany Antillanité (Caribbean identity) which I discussed in a previous post. This is useful to take into our education about racism as it allows us a new way to conceptualise each other. Contrary to the exclusive approach of some anti-racist movements (Négritude for example was arguably anti-white, or at least criticised for being essentialist), ‘Relation’ removes centrality of origin by creating a more rhizomatic concept, (rhizome like roots of a tree reaching out). It imagines a non-hierarchical interaction model for race relations, in that no one is essentially superior. It can be used by us today to conceptualise equality in cross cultural relations, to see others as different but equal, extending between the local and global. 'Relation' allows us to remove the discrimination associated with race, which is not only possible but essential. We are all essentially equal.


Glissant also proposes mondialité as a more interactive way of conceptualising human relations during globalisation. It focuses on the productive ‘Relation’ between humans in contact rather than the homogenising nature of modern culture. The term can be used today to break down narcissistic barriers and white privilege that the globalised, capitalist mind-set is plagued by. There is such importance to cultural inflections and movement in identity formation, so keep in mind that set terms such as Négritude or even #blacklivesmatter should never hold as they are created to be destroyed, they are transitional. They are a means to an end, to raise awareness to educate ourselves and increase individual consciousness. But eventually, we shouldn't need these activism groups, as racism will be a thing of the past. Education will be a space of appreciation rather than desperation.


As I've already stated, the reversal of the racist construct is difficult to quantify as it affects different people in different ways. Nonetheless, Fanon’s message was to ensure that each individual has authority over their subjectivity, regardless of race. Rather than obsessing over the memories of the past, is a goal we all have responsibility to uphold. And this can be done through educating yourself and asking questions. Never assume to have the answers about something that you haven't known yourself.


I wanted to write this blog post to allow a transition of ownership to you. The world of information is available at your finger tips with the Internet and online book stores. Only you can take responsibility of your learning, to hone in on areas you don't feel comfortable talking about. Deconstructing racism is not yet achieved, as it is still engrained in our minds, whether a self-proclaimed 'anti-racist' or not. It must be approached by us all.


I've used Fanon in this blog as his message is only becoming more accessible to the transnational community. Although already available in French and English, Penguin Modern Classics are publishing an updated version of Peau noire, masques blancs due on the 24th September 2020[i], so no excuses. If read contextually, Fanon is timeless and ever more relevant to us now in the current racist climate, despite his debut publication being nearly seventy years ago. But witnessing the continued pathological racism owing to the rise of the war on terror, not to mention concerns that ethnic minorities may be being hardest hit during the current Covid-19 pandemic (Butcher and Massey, 2020), perhaps a whole new world of problems is coming into being.

[i]https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/313127/black-skin--white-masks/9780241396667.html


Finally, we must consider that while posting blackout images on Instagram are raising awareness and showing solidarity, wouldn't it be more useful to use these spaces for information and educational direction?

Stay safe, keep reading and keep asking questions. And let me know if I've missed or overlooked anything, as this is a subject I am ready to invest a lot of time in.


Issy x

I want to encourage people to read widely, by authors of different ethnic backgrounds and different socio-political contexts. Let's internationalise our bookshelves and normalise cultural difference...

Suggested Reading on Race (all available on Amazon):


Afropean, Johnny Pitts (2020)


Black and British: A Forgotten History, David Olusoga (2017)


Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon (1952)


How the World Thinks: A Global History of Philosophy, Julian Baggini (2018)


The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, Douglas Murray (2017)


Le Coeur à rire et à pleurer, Maryse Condé (1999)


Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World, Layla Saad (2020)


Poetics of Relation, Edouard Glissant (1990)


The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness, Michelle Alexander (2010)


White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo (2019)


Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge (2018)


White privilege: The myth of a post-racial society, Kalwant Bhopal (2018)


References:


Bhopal, K. (2018) White privilege: The myth of a post-racial society, Great Britain: Policy Press


Butcher, B and Massey, J. (2020) ‘Are ethnic minorities being hit hardest by coronavirus?’ BBC News

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-52219070


Fanon, F. (1952) Peau noire, masques blancs, Éditions du Seuil


JHA, B. K. (1988) ‘Fanon’s theory of violence: A Critique’, The Indian Journal of Political Science, vol. 49, no. 3, pp. 359–369, www.jstor.org/stable/41855881


Miles, W. (2007), ‘Once Again, From a Distance: Martinique and the French Presidential Elections of 2007’, French Politics, Culture & Society, vol. 25, pp. 102-122, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42843517




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