Wednesday, 18 December 2013

‘Colonialism and the Desiring Machine’

Another Oxford presentation/talk thing, also on Deleuze. Yeah um I don't know you guys... But yes tada!

tw: racism, colorism, anti-blackness and 'tragic mulatto' sterotype

Robert C. Young's ‘Colonialism and the Desiring Machine’ investigates those that reside within the borders of blackness, working against a simplistic East/West reading of Said’s Orientalism, through considering the fearful nature of crossing ‘racial’ lines in the figures of the 'mulatto' and the 'quadroon'. For the flaw of a binary, first world, third world, model is its division into colonizer and colonized, the mean, nasty white men against a defenceless amorphous blob of sad, brown faces. An argument that can helpfully forget the Ottoman Empire’s own contribution to slavery and the rampant anti-blackness of the Arab world. As if Palestine erases Darfur, or that crimes against humanity can be worn like armour deflecting criticism and eschewing responsibility for the brutalities of their own history. I think of the movie ‘The Last King of Scotland’, which subverts the white saviour narrative by telling the fictional story of a white doctor’s destructive relationship with Idi Amin, the president of Uganda. This quote by Amin to the white doctor, is especially important, contrasting the fantasy of ‘Africa’ with the reality of Ugandan life under Amin. He says:

“Did you think this was all a game? 'I will go to Africa and I will play the white man with the natives.' Is that what you thought? We are not a game, Nicholas. We are real. This room here, it is real. I think your death will be the first real thing that has happened to you.”

This is not a free pass for white supremacy. But rather a reminder that homogenous categories such as the ‘East’, ‘blackness’, ‘people of color’ and ‘the third world’ fail to recognise more intricate power structures at play. We cannot ‘undo’ colonialism and the scars of white oppression run too deep to declare this world as post-racial, post-colonial. However, for white people to even attempt, to see the inhabitants of the so-called ‘third world’ as human they must actively work against what the novelist Chimamanda Adichie describes as “the single story”.

The single story is a pre-set narrative, which forces a shallow tale of imagined suffering onto people of color. The single story can be identified in the trope of 'the tragic mulatto'. Here the mixed race woman is presented as a beautiful freak of nature whose story always ends in disaster, a rightful punishment for upsetting the pre-set borders of whiteness. Often she tries to pass as white only to be discovered, horrific consequences inevitably ensue. This particular film follows a woman named Bernice living a double life as a white woman named Lila. The movie culminates in her going into premature labour, giving birth to a stillborn child, whilst crying out ‘is the baby black?’ to her horrified white husband.

Here I am reminded of James Baldwin argument in ‘On Language, Race and The Black Writer’ that “The American idea of racial progress is measured by how fast I become white.” Whitewashing is certainly an enduring concept. Illustrated by the fact that the Spanish-Brazilian artist, Modesto Brocos, put forward this very same argument in 1895, in his painting The Redemption of Ham. The work shows a family lightening their skin each generation, starting with a dark skinned grandmother, we move to a 'mulatto' daughter who marries a Portuguese man and produces a, seemingly, 'full white' baby. The grandmother lifts her head and opens her hand, thanking God that the ‘black stain’ has been lifted from her family.

Yet the colonised subject can never truly escape the single story through white passing. Young’s extensive research into racial classification, the one-drop rule and the quantification of whiteness illustrates this vividly. Raising the question of how we can escape these rigid binaries and pre-set narratives. 

One model could be through subversive humour, expanding and exaggerating stereotypes of blackness until they collapse in on themselves, revealing the constructs of race and third world identity as nothing more than an elaborate grapevine game. We can find these works outside of the confines of academia and in the world of popular screen culture. The comedy sketches of Dave Chapelle is a great example of this. Not only is his work enormously popular (for instance in 2005 his first season DVD became the best selling TV series of all time). But it is radically critical of the trappings of African-American history. One skit follows the adventures of the time haters, a group of well dressed players that travel through time killing icons of white supremacy from Hitler to a Southern plantation owner. This model reminds us, not just of the inherently ridiculous nature of racist tropes, but that people of colour contain more than tragedy, as the  poet, Jenny Zhang argues, “we contain multitudes”.

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