What settler colonialism does is that it sets a ceiling on what the future can be such that we cannot even imagine a future without genocide. This tendency then leaves us to develop critical visions only within the constraints of the possible and then infects all the work that we do.
For instance if we look at the Academic Industrial Complex. We whine and complain about how racist it is. As if the only problem is a few racist administrators who need to be fired. And if we just convince them how great Ethnic Studies is, they’d just give us more money. But if we were actually to imagine a liberatory educational system would this be it? Professors, do we say, “Tenure was the most fun thing I’ve ever done, I wish I could do it again”? Do students say, “You know, I love it when I work really hard for my finals and then get a bad grade anyway, how empowering was that”? We don’t even try to imagine building an alternative to the Academic Industrial Complex. We act as if the problem is that there is racism in the academy, not that the academy is structured by racism. And here’s where we can learn from the Prison Industrial Complex. Is not that the organizing against the Prison Industrial Complex puts forth a model of abolition that doesn’t just say that it’s about tearing down prison walls now but it’s about building alternatives that squeeze out the current system. Similarly, while we might have day jobs in the academic system, why can’t we start building alternatives to this system, build the educational system that we would actually like to see that could then squeeze out the current system as it develops. So, for instance, when Arizona says something like they’re going to ban Ethnic Studies, we think, “Oh no, there’s not going to be Ethnic Studies because the State says so!” We presume the state owns Ethnic Studies and it actually can ban it. We don’t say, “Uh, whatever, Arizona! Ethnic Studies is not a gift from the Academic Industrial Complex or from the state. It’s a product of social movements for social justice, and as long as they exist there will be Ethnic Studies wherever and whenever we go.” And did we ever really think Ethnic Studies was going to be legitimate in a white supremacist and settler colonialist academy? And if ever did become legitimate, we would know we had failed in our task.
If poor urban people of color rioted in the areas they live in, in cities in the US, in a serious huge way, what fraction of property destroyed would be their own? What fraction of people rioting would be destroying property of their own, their friends and families, people they’d…
So it’s mostly taken as a given in the fannish communities I hang out in, at this point, that *ist criticism of things you love is GOOD, getting defensive about said criticism is BAD.
But I often see the explanation falling somewhere along the lines of “you can love something and…
These three Japanese American women are just arriving to Lone Pine, California (May 1942, photographer unknown). They’re walking to a bus that will take them to Manzanar internment camp. There is so much to love about this photograph: the saddle shoes and socks combination, the headscarf, the wide-legged trousers, and, oh yes, the suitcases (including that makeup case!). More striking, still, are the huge smiles.
“For the camera, you smile”: Feeling Political
The first time I saw photographs of my family at Camp Pendleton (a refugee camp for Southeast Asians following the Viet Nam War), I was really confused by how happy everyone looked. Though Southeast Asian refugees were definitely not “interned” at these refugee camps, national politics and geopolitical forces compelled them to leave their homes in much the same way Japanese Americans were forced to leave their homes. So why did everyone look so happy? When I was about 10, my mom explained it this way: “Of course we were sad and worried but - for the camera, you smile.”
Many of the Japanese American internees photographed by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange must have felt the same way. According to Sue Kunitomi Embrey the chair of the Manzanar Committee, Adams hoped to capture the despair of camp life in order to stir some public sympathy for Japanese Americans but was frustrated by all the primping and posing Japanese Americans did when he was photographing. (Recall that internees were not permitted to bring cameras of their own into the camps).
While I don’t take lightly this decision to include photographs of internment life (or refugee life) in this fashion archive, I’ve decided to include some that depict not only the rich fashion sensibilities of Japanese American women in the 1940s but also a style of strength and resistance often captured in the best fashion photographs. Rather than glossing over the ugly realities of racism that led to this serious infraction of civil rights, I hope that including images of smiling and fashion-conscious Japanese American women like the three here adds to and deepens our appreciation of the small acts of feeling, creativity, and resistance that happen everyday in spite of huge limitations.
In an act as seemingly trivial and trite as smiling for the camera, these women interrupt and take some control of the historical, political, and visual frames through which they’re being viewed. And in this way, these kinds of photographs exemplify precisely the goals at the heart of this alternative archive: to present an alternative mode of historical knowledge that is based not simply on an archive of facts (e.g., dates, designers, and design styles) but rather - to adapt a phrase from the queer performance scholar Ann Cvetkovich - one based on an archive of feelings.
“The existential challenge to the new cultural politics of difference can be stated simply: how does one acquire the resources to survive and the cultural capital to thrive as a critic or artist? By cultural capital (Pierre Bourdieu’s term), I mean not only the high-quality skills required to engage in critical practices, but more important, the self-confidence, discipline, and perseverance necessary for success without an undue reliance on the mainstream for approval and acceptance. This challenge holds for all prophetic critics, yet it is especially difficult for those of color. The widespread modern European denial of the intelligence, ability, beauty, and character of people of color puts a tremendous burden on critics and artists of color to “prove ” themselves in light of norms and models set by White elites whose own heritage devalued and dehumanized them. In short, in the court of criticism and art - or any matters regarding the life of the mind - people of color are guilty (i. e., not expected to meet standards of intellectual achievement) until “proven” innocent (i.e., acceptable to “us”)…
The most desirable option for people of color who promote the new cultural politics of difference is to be a Critical Organic Catalyst. By this I mean a person who stays attuned to the best of what the mainstream has to offer - its paradigms, viewpoints, and methods – yet maintains a grounding in affirming and enabling subcultures of criticism. Prophetic critics and artists of color should be exemplars of what it means to be intellectual freedom fighters, that is, cultural workers who simultaneously position themselves within (or alongside) the mainstream while clearly aligned with groups who vow to keep alive potent traditions of critique and resistance. In this regard, one can take clues from the great musicians or preachers of color who are open to the best of what other traditions offer, yet are rooted in nourishing subcultures that build on the grand achievements of a vital heritage. Openness to others - including the mainstream - does not entail wholesale cooptation, and group autonomy is not group insularity. Louis Armstrong, Ella Baker, W. E. B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jose Carlos Mariatequi, Wynton Marsalis, M. M. Thomas, and Ronald Takaki have understood this well….
The new cultural politics of difference can thrive only if there are communities, groups, organizations, institutions, subcultures, and networks of people of color who cultivate critical sensibilities and personal accountability - without inhibiting individual expressions, curiosities, and idiosyncrasies….
The aim is to dare to recast, redefine, and revise the very notions of “modernity,” “mainstream,” “margins,” “difference,” “otherness.” We have now reached a new stage in the perennial struggle for freedom and dignity. And while much of the First World intelligentsia adopts retrospective and conservative outlooks that defend the crisis-ridden present, we promote a prospective and prophetic vision with a sense of possibility and potential, especially for those who bear the social costs of the present. We look to the past for strength, not solace; we look at the present and see people perishing, not profits mounting; we look toward the future and vow to make it different and better.”
I was answering your question and this came up and it’s actually one of the texts I was directed to! and wanted to use so seredipity!
I sometimes like to make fun of the ease with which Cornel West refers to himself and his work as “prophetic”, but in all honesty this is great stuff — important insights on navigating political culture — and his use of the word is more technical than grandiose, so maybe I should take it easy on Professor Big Brain over there.
In a phone interview over three years ago I was asked, “What do you think of Asian women who bleach or dye their hair; do you think they’re trying to be white?”
That day my hair was chin-length, a faded green. I said, “No.”
What does it mean to be “assimilated”? I’m suspicious of, say, fork, no chopsticks. A ridiculous concept with far too much currency; I get it all the time. In the zero-sum struggle between a fluid “Western” modernity and a static native “authenticity”, what confuses is the space between the either/or, the “difference they keep on measuring with inadequate sticks for their own morbid purpose.”
But wait: “they” is a fluid concept.
My interviewer was a middle-aged, heterosexual Asian American man with his fingers pushed deep in the white avant-garde tradition. Did I ever mention how much I hate the white avant-garde tradition? He revels in the modernist circumstance: the Western bourgeois and usually masculine subject imagines himself artist and rebel, bemoaning/celebrating his alienation while seeking to impose some more basic “truth.”
Please read the whole thing.