I type these words en route to a professional event that will involve no more than 30 people; it may not even get to 25 with the havoc Covid-19 continues to wreak. But none of that changes the fact that this is, hands-down, one of the single most important events of my professional existence thus far. Thanks to the Wellcome Trust, I am about to spend two day thinking very seriously about antiracism with the Society for the Social History of Medicine, and we are going to begin to change the game for how these sorts of conversations take place. There will be no exploitation on white guilt, nor simple offering of ‘tools for allyship’. But that does not mean that things will be easy. As Sarah Ahmed suggests, whiteness should also be understood as a process and we will unpack some of that over the next 36 hours.
Although there are significant problems with some of the race-and-ethnicity explanans that emerge from the US (not least, but not only in terms of the Black Atlantic), one’s US colleagues can often be relied upon for moments of singular insight. Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist contains one such (this is not to imply that there is only one in the whole text), and it involves the following tripartite schema:
Kendi argues that while segregationism is self-evidently racist, assimilationism – despite being taken to be (relatively) benign – is in fact also racist. Now, this is where a type of nuance that, amongst other things, does not attempt to address highly sophisticated problems with the bluntest of blunt instruments is necessary; but it is rare in the extreme. One of the ongoing tropes in Black America involves the observation that ‘Black’ people were doing better when they had to live within a literal social economy of Black people because they were denied access to the apropos of white society. A contemporaneous version holds that ‘people of [color] (US spelling used deliberately here) need their own spaces’, as Kelsey Blackwell attempts to argue here. Some BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) reject this idea and do everything within their power to ‘integrate’, or ‘assimilate’.
However, ‘assimilationism’ has always been a fluid continuum. The version of it that I held for years evolved to a place where I was not supposed to be an aggressive black (not Black in my case) man – it was my duty to show that we were not all in gangs or otherwise connected to (to use a very dubious word, but one with historicity) ‘ghetto’ culture. But somehow, I was also not supposed to just accept racism. So, long before the rubric ‘model minority’ gained traction, I was desperately trying to find a version of it that did not involved actually becoming an ‘Oreo cookie’ (a sure sign that US Afro-centric cultural hegemony had taken hold is the fact that this replaced ‘coconut’ LONG before Oreos were as widely available in the UK as they are now). Even as white people seemed to like and respect me in my black identity, I became very uneasy with the ways assimilated black people seemed increasingly determined to see their individual and collective future security/is as something dependent on white patronage. I exited adolescence into young adulthood with more questions than answers.
However, despite the fact that I quit my classical piano degree after one year to become a jazz pianist – in part because my suppressed black identity refused to go back into hiding once I hit London from the Northwest – I would still have denied that assimilationism was bad. It has taken years of life experience to see that it is ‘acceptance’ beyond ‘tolerance’ that is needed, and assimilationim brokers acceptance at a cost that is, in the end, far too high. In this regard, the extraordinary pathos of ‘The Coming of John’ in WEB Du Bois’ classic The Souls of Black Folk is a reminder of why the project of trying to persuade whiteness that b/Blackness is also human is a busted flush from the get-go; if a white person does not already figure that out as a human being, neither pathos (not least through the aesthetic or the emotive) nor ratio can achieve that. And when a serious pro-b/Black activist falls in love with a white person (as I have), this is more grist to the mill for the position that one is either ready for the humanity that ONLY exists in and through difference, or one is not; as one leading theologian once put it (paraphrased and re-stated): difference is the currency that makes relationship possible; otherwise, it is only narcissism in which one is engaged.
Kendi has gotten this one right. Assimilationism is a different sort of pathology to segregationism, but both are intrinsically cancerous; but one dupes by appearing to be benign. To that end, the next post on this theme will look at some black thinkers in the height of the Enlightenment as we endeavour to become more just and equitable in the intellectual histories we tell ourselves and others.