THE WAR AGAINST RACIST REPRESENTATIONS
When we think about systems of oppression, we tend to think about societies in which a dominant group uses open coercion to suppress a subordinate group. We imagine militarized police forces, invasive surveillance, organized state violence, censorship and the blatant denial of human rights and dignity to the subject group.
This assumption is not wrong. Indeed, with even the most anemic observation skills, we can see the structures described above play out in communities of color all over the nation. They are very visible artifacts of what Chris Hayes rightly refers to as a form of internal colonialism.
When we think about systems of oppression, however, we certainly don’t think about The Cat in the Hat, or Gone with the Wind, or Bugs Bunny cartoons or Jessica Rabbit for that matter…the target of so-called “woke culture”. At least, we don’t think about these things when we are members of the dominant group. That’s the privilege of being a member of the dominant group. We don’t have to think about these things.
However, if we are members of the dominant group who believe that dominance and oppression are morally reprehensible and are dedicated to creating a world free of coercion, then we need to open our eyes to the micro-aggressions that imbue our culture. We understand that systems of oppression cannot be sustained through the use of or threat of force. Open coercion is energy and resource intensive. It cannot be sustained for long without more subtle and in many ways more insidious techniques of power. We can refer to these more subtle technologies as structures of cultural oppression.
First, in order to justify the expense and social energy required to sustain coercive dominance, members of the dominant group must have a justification for doing so. The subject group must be defined by the larger group as “the other.” They must be defined as a problem in some way that requires the investment of intensive social control mechanism. The subject group may be defined as a particularly dangerous population that must be policed and subject to the full authoritarian power of the state. Or the group may be defined as a drain on society or in some way necessitating interventions that forces them to serve the needs of the society…which in turn means serving the needs of the dominant group. Either way, the subject group is framed by the dominant group as a problem. As W.E.B. Dubois pointed out in his incomparable Souls of Black Folk, “Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. How does it feel to be a problem?”
However, there’s a higher, even more insidious level of cultural oppression involved in colonizing subject groups. As Michel Foucault pointed out in Birth of the Prison, “A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of their own ideas…” True domination happens when the subject group accepts as valid the discourse of their own innate pathology. The subject group then accepts as valid the measures, the techniques of power, imposed upon them by the dominant group. When that happens, the individual members of the subject group are truly broken, truly incorporated into the power structures of domination.
The great sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B Dubois was the first to effectively elaborate a model of cultural oppression. His model has become a powerful instrument of civil rights activism, of an analysis of hegemonic power, and the formation of “critical theories” for challenging existing power dynamics.
Dubois pointed out that cultural domination includes two layers. First, the dominant group controls the history of the subject group. It’s the dominant group that writes the textbooks, publishes the analyses, decides upon the holidays to celebrate. The dominant group may…perhaps…set up monuments in the town commons commemorating terrorists and traitors who fought to preserve slavery as heroes for some romanticized myth of the lost cause. The dominant group gets to decide who is identified as a hero, like (Robert E. Lee) and who becomes a villain like (John Brown) and who is written out entirely (the slaughtered African Americans in Colfax, Louisiana). The dominant group decides upon the details of history that are emphasized, like Lee’s noble bearing as opposed to Grant’s slovenliness and propensity for alcohol. The dominant group also decides the details to de-emphasize (Martin Luther King Jr, was a socialist who advocated for a mandatory minimum income, universal healthcare, unilateral disarmament…he didn’t just give a cool speech about “content of character).
Secondly, the dominant group controls how the subject group is represented to the larger society. From minstrels to Aunt Jemima, from passive and nurturing chamber maids to coked up drug dealers, by controlling representations, the dominant group sets the boundaries by which the subject group can be accepted and ultimately how members of this colony can see themselves. These representations become universally accepted and become coded into the language. This makes it possible to communicate the “otherness” of the subject group without actually saying the quiet parts out loud. So when members of the larger society hear terms like “welfare queen” or “strapping young bucks” or “gang member” we don’t need a reference to race or ethnicity to understand the underlying theme. Racism is coded into the language.
If you are a member of the subject group, living within a social world in which your history is told by others, who is confined by the representations perpetuated by others, whose cultural story is told by others, then otherness is likely to be incorporated into your very consciousness. You recognize your own subjectivity, but you also carry with you the internalized reality that you are “the other” subject to an alien gaze and to the application of power over which you have no say. You are, to quote Dubois, “…a stranger in mine own house.” You exist with what Dubois refers to as a Double Consciousness. In Dubois’ words:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.Strivings of the Negro People, 1897
This is an important nuance to add to the discourse. The kind of colonization discussed by Chris Hayes in his invaluable book is largely composed of external structures. We can see them in action. Policing, surveillance, policies designed for exclusion, segregation and humiliation. For those interested in resisting dominance, we must confront these often brutal external forces. So, when we demand defunding the police, or march for justice and participate in civil disobedience, it’s often to confront these forms of external colonization.
The kind of colonization Dubois describes, however, is internalized. Our history and how we are represented in the larger society is part of the story that we tell about who we are and how we fit into that society. More importantly, they are incorporated into the stories well tell about who we are as individuals and human beings. The kind of Double Consciousness that Dubois describes is destructive to the very fabric of our identities.
In 1947, Mamie Phipps Clark1, with her husband Kenneth conducted a famous experiment on over 250 young, black children between the ages of three and seven. She showed the children two dolls that were exactly the same but for skin color. One was black with black hair, the other white with yellow hair. She asked the children a series of questions about the value and perceived worth of each doll. She discovered, much to her horror, that most of the children preferred the white doll to the black and associated positive attributes to the white doll and negative attributes to the black doll. Phipps Clark concluded that racial segregation and discrimination carved permanent scars on the identities and lives of black children…who would grow to be scarred black adults.
Resisting racial colonization is one thing, but to really pursue racial equality and liberty the kind of internalized colonization perpetuating Dubois’ Double Consciousness must also be confronted. When activists reclaim their histories, as was done in the Freedom Schools in the 1960’s and promoted by racial justice groups all over the country, this isn’t simple revisionism. Tearing down statues of Confederate terrorists isn’t erasing history, it’s reclaiming a history that has been replaced by dogmatic myth making and propaganda. Demanding that school textbooks include a more comprehensive, multicultural perspective, isn’t unAmerican. It’s the most American thing in the world. These are acts of resistance confronting racism at its internalized core.
When our so-called “cancel culture” and reviled “woke” activists tirelessly call out racism where they see it, be it in movies or syrup bottles, this isn’t a petty grudge match. They are challenging the representations by which they have been defined and shaped for hundreds of years. They are saying that they demand to be included as equal protagonists in the American story and equal members of American society.
Reclaiming one’s history and challenging the false representations that reproduce the discourses of racism and otherness, subject groups are trying to accomplish the most important goal of any movement for civil and human rights. They are trying to shed the extra internal baggage of the Double Consciousness, their otherness, so they can more easily carry the singular identity of American–and better still…dignified human being. What can be more American than saying, ‘I am an American just like you?’
So, when private interests like Dr. Seuss Enterprises decide to no longer publish racist representations, it’s valuable to think of this in terms of Dubois’ Double Consciousness and Cultural Oppression. This may not be mere value signalling2 for marketing sake. It’s not just another company yielding under the pressure from the left-wing Social Justice Warriors. Perhaps it is a form of self-censorship3, but in the interests of acknowledging the very real harms done by oppressive representations. It may be a way for this company, or for cultural industrialists like Marvel, to express that they now recognize their role in promoting cultural oppression and have decided to no longer participate in the process.
In the end, this is a good thing. Perhaps they have made the decision because they care about the legacy of their founder. Perhaps they are responding to political pressure. Maybe they are just trying to appeal to a broader market. In the end, does it matter why they are doing the right thing?
- Despite her achievements including a PhD with significant contributions in research one of which was influential in the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, Clark could not get an academic appointment in a college or university. A black, female represented as a doctor of psychology was not a story any institution was willing to tell.
- Can someone please explain to me why signalling one’s values is such a bad thing?
- I’m wary of censorship in any form. That being said, I think there is a difference between a powerful entity censoring others and an individual or private concern deciding that its previous work no longer represents the values it now has evolved to hold. I know nothing about Seuss Enterprise’s motivations and have not read the books in question.