By Shereen Masoud
What happened during the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, VA in August was terrifying. A mass of extremist white men from fringe alt-right groups yelling violently — and killing a counter-protester in their midst — is what my nightmares have been literally made of.
However, in addition to the obvious horror, the riots reified another fear that such blatant displays of racism and xenophobia would work to downplay or mask less apparent, more insidious racist attitudes and behaviors.
At the Charlottesville march and other white nationalist rallies that continue to take place around the U.S. and globally, chants such as “White lives matter,” “You will not replace us,” and “Clean blood” not only suggest an abhorrence for non-white people. They insinuate a deep-seated fear that if Black and Brown people gain rights, white people will lose everything.
But such an undisguised demonstration of white pride mixed with white fear begs the questions for me, as a woman of color: What happens when marginalized identities are also rooted in the oppression of other people? What happens when our sense of selves and our ability to feel confident in our own bodies is dependent on the infliction of violence upon others?
Sometimes, self-worth is reinforced through silent complicity. When a cisgender person makes a joke at the expense of a transgender person and goes unchecked, when a non-black person of color says the “N” word without consequence, or when a teacher of color ignores indigenous genocide in the recounting of U.S. history, those with power—as well as those aligned with their beliefs—are comfortable in the silence. They take solace in not being that Other, and in the vulnerability of those who do not share their power. This can be carried out subconsciously, but it is nonetheless pervasive in thought and practice.
This sense of identity is built upon a faulty foundation. It is built upon the fallacy that some marginalized people will be OK as long as there are others who are not.
As long as we stay out of the line of fire, as long as the bodies captured in the cross-hairs do not look like us, we are safe. But allowing for any act of injustice to take place only strengthens the social and political institutions that feed off of and expand oppression. Furthermore, it cultivates conditions in which oppressed people may also become oppressors. As the Afro-Caribbean philosopher, revolutionary and writer Frantz Fanon says in Black Skin, White Masks:
“Hate is not inborn; it has to be constantly cultivated, to be brought into being, in conflict with more or less recognized guilt complexes. Hate demands existence and he who hates has to show his hate in appropriate actions and behavior; in a sense, he has to become hate.”
This summer, I had the opportunity to study with Angela Davis as a part of a decolonial Black feminism program. I was — and am still — grappling with how to deal with my own Arab Egyptian father’s anti-Black, homophobic and transphobic attitudes, which I have tried to change over the years through long conversations and heated arguments.
One day after class, I asked for Angela’s thoughts on the matter, and her response continues to resonate with me. She explained that my father thinks these are his original ideas and beliefs, emanating from his own experiences; but, in fact, he is simply doing the work of the state in perpetuating already established oppressive ideologies. Ostensibly, these ideas are a result of both Egyptian and U.S. anti-Blackness, related to each other vis-a-vis the global context of white supremacy.
Ultimately, it is all well and good to be able to articulate oppression and how it shows up in our own communities. The challenge, however, is to confront this racism head-on no matter how uncomfortable.
In my family, in my community, in the undergraduate classroom where I teach, and in my interpersonal relationships, I am confronted every day with the choice to either ignore or to engage with and struggle against oppressive ideologies. And I have committed to doing the work — through talking back and calling out, through building with grassroots and policy-based movements, and through the crafting of my syllabi and classroom discussions.
The more I travel and learn about the violent details of colonial history, it becomes increasingly apparent to me the extent to which the political ontologies of white supremacy and cis-heteronormativity are entrenched in (so-called) postcolonial societies. From Oakland to Cairo to Quito, I have witnessed the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness, which serves to buttress the superiority complexes of lighter skinned, white-passing, and non-Black communities.
Cairo may not have a white pride rally, but the everyday experiences of Black people who live and visit there speak to the violence of upholding white supremacist values.
In non-Black Arab American communities, anti-Black racism manifests through various means. It shows up as erasure of Black Muslims, Black Arabs, and the Black roots of Islam in North America.
It also informs explicit acts of physical violence. In a heart-wrenching poem performed at a youth slam poetry event in Philly, one of my partner’s mentees recalled her uncle being beaten by two Arab men outside of a mosque for his supposed “arrogance.” It also translates into verbal violence and abuse. Consider the Arabic word often used for a Black person, abeed, which means “slave.”
And yet, as widespread as anti-Black racism is across non-Black communities of color, so too is the denial that it exists or that we benefit from such racial hierarchies.
As non-Black people of color, we tend to deflect from any power that we do have in order to avoid engaging with it at an analytical level — because to acknowledge this power would mean having to grapple with its implications, and to admit that we are complicit in the same racist structures that seek to oppress us. It would also mean that we would need to give up this power in the pursuit of justice.
The U.S. may be a “melting pot” and “mixing bowl,” or whatever you want call it, of people with a range of socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, religious, political, sexual, and gender identities. But the truth of the matter is that “progressive” people often hide behind blatant displays of white superiority and racial hatred to avoid confronting their own complicity in maintaining the white supremacist machine, and to continue benefiting from it.
The “Not All White People” mentality prevents us from sincerely addressing the violent impacts of our domestic and foreign policies on people of color. It allows supposedly benign whiteness (and non-white identities that align with whiteness) to continue to benefit from power without taking responsibility for the violence it perpetuates. Destroying the KKK and dismantling Confederate statues are indeed necessary actions towards the implementation of justice in this country. Yet this will not be nearly enough. The work that true justice necessitates is constant, reflective, and above all, deeply personal.