First published on February 18 2016 as a Guest Post on www.kafila.org here.
"The first thing you do is to forget that I'm black
Second, you must never forget that I'm black"
Pat Parker (1978) here.
In these opening lines of her poem, For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to be My Friend, Pat Parker names a paradox at the heart of challenging socially produced difference. Parker is speaking not to diversity in nature, nor to the diversity of nature. Not to the variations of appearance - size, shade, height, foliage, texture; or mode of expression – hoot, howl, accent, gesture, cultural practices. Her lines address a uniquely human phenomenon: prejudice. They speak to the poignant difficulty of challenging a spurious and malevolent construction of racial difference in a society still in the grip of its miasma.
I have recalled Parker’s lines many times in the days of sorrow, tumult and righteous rage that have followed Rohith Vemula’s suicide.[i] “Rohith Vemula’s suicide.” I am holding off from saying “Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide.” Or, as is now being said with good reason, “Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder.” I defer by a couple of sentences a description of him that refers to the caste into which he was born; to honour if only symbolically his anguish that the contingent facts of his birth had indelibly defined his life.
How do we acknowledge the quotidian and institutionalized violence of race, caste or any socially sanctioned form of discrimination in contexts defined by their simultaneous avowal and disavowal? By documenting, narrating and insisting on their reality. By drawing out the multiplicity of causes and effects that the forked-tongue of dominant discourse elides, denies and/or rewrites as pathology and lack. By turning the discourse of the privileged on its head; pointing to the lies that sustain it and the refusals in which it is founded. “Never forget that I’m Black.” This we have substantial experience in doing. And we do it well: not only those who are subject to discrimination but also many among the privileged who are committed to social justice. Academic and activist research, investigative journalism, fact finding commissions, government and other reports attest to a well-developed documentary tradition.
But what about, “Forget that I’m Black”? The first injunction is calling for something else, hinting at something other. It is asking one to see anew. Take note of what we seem to notice and to think about what we make of it; look again at what we tend to overlook and ask why. Look. Again. Think. Re-think.
“Forget that I’m Black” At first blush it seems to address the privileged. “You who see me solely as X or Y” think again!” But it could equally be said to address those hemmed in by a given social description. It is Parker speaking of herself, to the fact that her life exceeds the categories that supposedly render it intelligible. She is reminding us that one is more than the sum of reigning social descriptions. One is other than; one is “also-and.” One is not-that/not-just-that/also yes, that!; and far far more besides.
Rohith Vemula’s suicide note states it eloquently: “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.” here.
Given the necessity to insist “Never Forget that I’m ____” we can easily overlook the warning Parker embeds in her prior call to “forget that I’m black.” Speaking truth to miasma involves a terrible burden. We are required to repeat its lies in order to establish their continued social circulation. Critique and its object are always necessarily in dialogue. Consequently, every repetition invokes not merely the fact of injustice but also the sense of diminishment, the pain of discrimination. To speak to/of miasma involves temporarily inhabiting its lies, embodying them as speech. The effects are searing, acidic, toxic.
Resistance is often imagined as acting against an external force or edifice. But this is only one movement in a process that continually returns us to ourselves. We are located within the structures we seek to dismantle. They inhabit us as much as we them. We may be differentially positioned within them and manifest varying degrees of awareness about them. But each of us is on the inside. Indeed part of our work is that of insisting on each of our belonging, on all of our insider-ness; even as we propose to reimagine the republic and our interrelationships.
To do battle with a miasma is to wrestle with a delusory and illusory mode of perception. Illusion: seeing what is not there. Delusion: a misperceiving that has crossed over into psyche. To do battle with the miasma of caste or race is to simultaneously hold in one’s consciousness a challenging amalgam of truth and falsehood, fact and fiction: lies about caste/race, facts regarding their brutal persistence and the truth that these categories can never adequately express the rich actuality or fullness of who one is. It is a tall order. The wear and tear on psyche, body, mind and heart can be insuperable.
Perhaps this is what Rohith means to say when he writes: “I feel a growing gap between my soul and my body. And I have become a monster” (Vemula, 2016). Holding steadfastly to truth in the face of continual lies and harassment had produced in him a sense of alienation from self. The feeling that he had become something other than himself distressed him and compounded a prior loneliness.
The discourse of social justice is structured by the dialectic of negation and assertion. Every negation is itself a form of assertion, every assertion an implicit negation. But despite the fluid, evolving and multiplicitous character of life, and by extension of resistance to how society deems it should be lived, social resistance frequently tends to manifest as a binary force not a multilateral one. This is even more so when opposition is directed toward apparatuses of the state, the arbiter of social life in our times. This tendency to binarism cannot make room for the kind of complex simultaneity of negation-assertion invoked in Parker’s invitation to “forget” as well as to “never forget.” It cannot facilitate acknowledging negative social ascription in a way that centers the vibrant richness of the lives and life-worlds of those discriminated.
To the contrary. The facts of discrimination become the motor of social justice rhetoric. It is as if the lives being defended are comprehensible within its terms and containable by them. The inertia of the tendency generates a discursive continuum whose two endpoints are victimization and liberation. The former temporally signifies past/present, the latter a present/future to be galvanised via individual and collective agency. This narrative reduces life to the logic of social ascription. It accords precedence to prevailing structures of power over the human capacity to creatively resist even under dire circumstances. In so doing it diminishes the multidimensionality of what it means to live under the sign of a negative social ascription, to be dalit or black or ____. Activists fighting social exclusion on behalf of themselves and their communities face a peculiar predicament. The critique of social exclusion can itself, if only inadvertently, contribute to a sense of alienation from self.
What can social justice discourse do to ameliorate the trauma wrought by the need to engage with the falsehoods of miasma? It can more fully commit itself to an affirmative discourse that goes beyond the language of rights denied and of cultures of resistance; for these continue to place structures of power at the center. These concerns can be reframed within a broader consideration of the life worlds and practices - cultural, ethical, aesthetic and philosophical - that give meaning and texture to the everyday lives of individuals and communities deemed marginal by the social order.
Power may cast a long shadow but except in its own imagination it is not the sole actor or determinant. There are many dimensions that lie beyond its reach, others that retain a degree of autonomy and still others in which it is navigated, negotiated, ignored and challenged in small and not-so-small ways; through non-cooperation, wit, paradoxical thinking, counter-narratives that invert and rewrite the sociocultural script. Expanding the frame in the way suggested here will ensure a fuller, more balanced, perspective.
It will also relieve activists from a narrative whose burden many find too heavy to bear; one in which heroic social activism is made responsible for slaying the shame-dragon of social ascription. Given the sorry state of human affairs victory can seem distant and unreachable. The ensuing sorrow, rage and despair can congeal into depression and hopelessness. The biographical, social, institutional and political can fold in upon each other. Finding it difficult to keep going some have taken their lives.
It takes more than a discursive shift to resolve social problems. But our rhetoric and framework can either nourish our capacity to stay the course or else unintentionally serve to inhibit it. Addressing social problems involves analyzing each oppressive detail even while seeing beyond their constricting view towards the expansiveness of freedom. The social critic or activist confronts a problem that contemplative traditions would pose as that of ‘how to touch the story of suffering.’ Perhaps this question along with Parker’s twinned instructions to “Forget,” “Never forget,” can serve as a kind of koan upon which we might reflect in seeking another way forward.
[i] For those who have not been following the disturbing sequence of events in India, Rohith Vemula was a Dalit scholar and activist who took his own life on January 17, 2016 after months of harassment by the University of Hyderabad for his work toward an expansive, inclusive and just society. His death has sparked nationwide protests against entrenched caste discrimination in education and the systematic suppression of dissent as “anti-national.”