scot nakagawa: why I, an asian man, fight anti-black racism

Why I, An Asian Man, Fight Anti-Black Racism.

I’ve read this article at least a few times, but it came up on my dash again today and I wanted to revisit it.  there’s a lot of stuff in here that I think helps me sort through some of my complicated feelings and thoughts on inter-PoC relations, such as this one, bracketed notes added:

But some folk have more on their minds. They say that focusing on black and white reinforces a false racial binary that marginalizes the experiences of non-black people of color.[1] No argument here. But I also think that trying to mix things up by putting non-black people of color in the middle is a problem because there’s no “middle.”

So there’s most of my answer. I’m sure I do suffer from internalized racism, but I don’t think that racism is defined only in terms of black and white. I also don’t think white supremacy is a simple vertical hierarchy with whites on top, black people on the bottom, and the rest of us in the middle.[2]

I’m thinking about a few things here:

(1) with regards to [1], there’s the tendency for people to derail and go “but what about us!” when Black people are talking about antiBlackness, which is imo a form of antiBlackness in itself, as it’s purposeful detraction from giving Black people a voice—one group speaking doesn’t necessarily mean another’s being silenced, and people forget this.

I don’t think focusing on black and white necessarily “marginalizes” the voices of those who don’t fit into that binary—I’m thinking here about Dave et al. (2000)‘s discussion of centers and margins.  if you try to recenter the discussion on racism on a non-Black group, you’re STILL going to have people being on the margins and it’s not a solution.  as for what IS a more viable way to talk about racism against non-Black people without being antiBlack, I don’t have an answer for that.  frankly, I still need to think a lot more on that topic.

(2) this declaration [2] of there being no “middle” makes me think about how I’ve been framing my discourse about asians’ relative privilege—we non-Black asians DO have relative privilege via not being the ultimate targets of antiBlackness, but I’m also trying to think about how acknowledging that relative privilege can be modeled (in my mind at least) as something other than a vertical hierarchy. I kind of wish nakagawa expanded on what he meant by there not being a vertical hierarchy, because I want to understand how he’s understanding racism and inter-poc relations.

I’m also thinking also about the harassment I got for saying that east asians have access to relative privilege that black people will never have—during the course of this harassment, a couple people said that it’s not so much that there’s a vertical hierarchy as it is the fact that our experiences are just different.

at the time I disagreed, and I still to some degree disagree, because saying “it’s just different” erases a lot of that power difference, and insisting that our experiences are fundamentally different also shuts down a lot of commentary and discussion on how there ARE similarities and we ARE treated differently.

but at the same time, I feel like there’s a lot of truth in acknowledging that some things ARE different and aren’t so easily comparable.  but if not a vertical hierarchy, then what?  I was trying to think through a different model in my head, but I ended up not really liking it.  I want something that preserves an acknowledgement of relative privilege while not categorizing us into a strictly vertical binary:

The racial arrangement in the U.S. is ever changing. There is no “bottom.” Different groups have more ability to affect others at different times because our roles are not fixed. But, while there’s no bottom, there is something like a binary in that white people exist on one side of these dynamics – the side with force and intention. The way they mostly assert that force and intention is through the fulcrum of anti-black racism.

(I’m also thinking about how people will scream “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE IRISH” when talking about racism, ’cause yeah, once upon a time irish people in the US were marginalized, but now? nope)

as for models… maybe a multi-armed scale?  where on one side, there’s a single, large, heavy weight called “antiBlackness” that continues to always be heavier and dominant, and on the right side, there’s another set of bowls like a mobile for various PoC groups, with different weights added depending on the relative social climate?  and the whole scale itself is white supremacy.

I dunno.  there’s probably problems with that model too.  namely, it doesn’t preserve the fact that chipping away at antiBlackness is not just a matter of evening the ground on which all PoC stand, but is also fundamentally chipping away at white supremacy.  if there’s no way to simultaneously break the scale while removing antiBlackness, then I don’t think it’s a full metaphor that works.

I’m also sort of headscratching at nakagawa saying there’s no bottom, in that if antiBlackness isn’t creating a “bottom”, then what exactly does it mean for antiBlackness to be a fulcrum of white supremacy?  maybe I’m misunderstanding “antiBlackness”, or at least the way nakagawa’s talking about antiblackness.

I dunno.  I feel like the takeaway message of antiBlackness being the fulcrum of white supremacy, and thus something that NEEDS to be addressed and destroyed, is something I wholeheartedly agree with.  but the details of nakagawa’s argument and model, I’m not so sure about.  mostly he’s raised more questions for me than answers, and there really wasn’t enough space in his article to go over all of that.  maybe he addresses my questions in previous articles.  he’s written a lot, so I’ll be poking at stuff gradually and eventually.

  • binaohan

    What I wanted to saw about the metaphor used ‘fulcrum’ is that it doesn’t really create a ‘bottom’ inasmuch as saying that it is the essential aspect to holding up white supremacy. Essentially that white supremacy *needs* anti-Blackness in order to exist.

    It isn’t so much about understanding Black people as existing at the bottom of some sort of hierarchy but understand that white supremacy has organized the world such your experience of oppression depends on your relative proximity to Blackness.

    (even though I usually hate this type of metaphor, maybe it is better conceived as a spectrum rather than a vertical hierarchy, but since this is the way that white binary thinking tends to organize the world, perhaps it is an apt way to conceptualize how this works)

    • sqlu

      *nod* That helps a LOT. Also, when you say “spectrum”, how do you conceptualize these ideas?

      • binaohan

        I guess… because we are talking about how whiteness organizes itself and shit, it is okay to use the binary/spectrum type of conceptual space (even though I personally find it a blech way to think about things).

        In any case, we can recognize that whiteness tends to organize the world around binaries and binary thinking. The way I understand this article to be saying, essentially, is that there really is a Black/white binary. Importantly, for understanding how other people fit into this (those non-Black and non-white), is by seeing it as a spectrum. With whiteness at one end and Blackness at the other. And, since whiteness does tend to organize everything along these binaries (and we can see this even just with colour metaphors), whiteness = all things good and Blackness = all things bad.

        If we arbitrarily assign numbers to the poles (to make it a number line) we could say that whiteness = 10 and Blackness -10, with zero representing the empty space of neutrality (there is no possible way for people to be neither ‘white’ nor ‘Black’ in this space).

        So… if we push this metaphor… we could understand, say, early irish immigrants as maybe being a 3, as in, very much white, but not as white as an white american. This is why they were able to pull on the mantel of whiteness (by shitting on Black people) and work their way up to being a 10.

        But, in the case of Asians at least, we will always be on the negative side of things. The chasm between 1 and -1 is impossible to breach because 0 represents the empty and impossible space. Without the possibility of transition. THis means that, for example, maybe when Chinese people first started being in america, they were like… -8. And through time (and being anti-Black) and the shifting sands of the ‘good’ immigrant narrative and model minorities, maybe they’ve managed to get themselves to a -3 or whatever. But the highest for any PoC to get is -1 in a white supremacist world.

        More importantly, however (to re-introduce the fulcrum metaphor), the only stable categories are ultimate whiteness and ultimate Blackness. White supremacy will continue to shift and change in order to insure that Blackness (and Black people) remain as distant (thus polar opposite) as possible within this conceptual scheme. And it will use whoever it needs to ensure that that this structure is maintained…

        Um. Okay. I’m rambling. I’m not sure if this will be actually helpful or not.

        • qiouyi

          No, this was really helpful—like you said, I’m not fully satisfied with a spectrum conceptualization for reasons I can’t yet articulate, but it’s still a useful sort of protomodel/foundation for understanding whiteness and white supremacy, if that makes sense? Thanks for explaining :)

          • binaohan

            *nods*. NO problem. As much as I don’t like the spectrum thing either… it may actually just be because I don’t like the whiteness of it, even though as an explanatory tool for white concepts, it actually might suit it best.