Sanober Umar

Eight years ago, my mother and I cried as we watched on television our first Black President get elected. The day Donald Trump was elected, we had tears of a different kind. As Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, one thing that has been made clear for “colorblind” liberals is that there is no such thing as “post-racial America.”

Obama’s two terms were contentious in their own way, with questionable mass deportation and drone policies. Hillary Clinton, too, may have been a flawed candidate. But Trump is, simply put, a corporate billionaire with possibly exponential debts, no experience, no grace, no self-restraint and a vocabulary limited to “great” and “disaster.”

Since Trump’s election, the historian in me has sat up at unearthly hours, frantically imagining scenarios. Sometimes our professions as analysts and political commentators on the past turns us into prophesiers of covert and overt totalitarian policies that we are aware will arrive shortly. Not surprisingly, each day, as the news arrived of Trump’s cabinet- and staff pics - Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Mike Pompeo, Betsy DeVos, Mike Flynn - my heart sank. As many scholars and activists have noted, resistance against the racism, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia and misogyny that lies ahead is integral to challenging Trump’s establishment. Equally important, we should not lose sight of how Trump’s white supremacist rhetoric turns our attention away from the workings of crony corporate capitalism as we immerse ourselves in his crass “anti-PC culture” tweets. Racism masquerading as freedom of expression for the privileged is an old trick that has become all too common, particularly for white men. Nonetheless, important questions lay before People of Color (PoC) who are invested in resisting right wing white nationalism with intelligence, sensitivity, nuance and hope. At this crucial juncture, I attempt to outline broadly four important aspects for the road that lies ahead.

In the aftermath of the election, several critics were already using reductive frames of analysis to blame “identity politics” for Trump’s election. They make it appear as if class does not have a race or gender informing it, or that class is not a part of identity itself, or that the “culturalization of racism” (for folks who claim it is not race but certain “cultures” that bother them) is somehow insular to material structures. It is indeed indicative of their myopic analysis, which fails to see how capitalism thrives through the business of rendering some identities as more objectionable than others (such as Muslims), or invisiblizing their presence by relegating it to the periphery (such as indigenous peoples of North America), or outright attempting to silence or discredit their concerns in mainstream media (movements such as Black Lives Matter). But it is critical to highlight here that political economy and identity politics are often intertwined. Blacks and Hispanics are the largest victims of the prison-industrial complex. The incarceration rate of Black men is increasing, as are acquittals of police who shoot unarmed black men. It brings to fore the ugly truth about whom “law and order” seeks to protect. Islamophobia serves as an important screen to dehumanize Muslims and Arabs as particularly dangerous, even though the United States has a history of supporting dictatorships and oppressive monarchies in the Middle East; never mind wars over oil masquerading in discourses of “freedom.” The consequences of hypocritical imperialism are obvious today: Not only have Western powers and competing interests unleashed greater havoc than before in the Middle East, such as Daesh and other Islamist groups committing international acts of terrorism, but Muslims continue to be victims of both Islamist regimes and Islamophobia in the West. Let’s also not sideline indigenous land grabbing, a struggle in which Standing Rock is a victory, but also not the only battle left to fight to prevent fracking and oil pipeline development in North America by companies that deny the dignity of indigenous lives and usurp colonized lands. In these complex historical trajectories, built on the otherization of minority identities and screens that racialization aims to serve in capitalist projects, excluding or negating the very real experiences of the folks most impacted and likely to be impacted by what is to come, is another way of contributing to white supremacy. 

Articles on the “revenge” of rural whites and poor whites as the bastions of righteousness are on every news forum and discussion, as if poverty is unique to them and not black workers in industrial wastelands of Detroit or indigenous peoples living in reservations. We are still living in a time in which the failure of white male millennials to get jobs is attributed to the economic crisis, but women and racialized people with twice the qualifications are struggling to prove their "competence" as several studies have conclusively shown (particularly concerning popular perceptions of drug abuse, even in discourses about “incompetence”). The fact is that when scholars and activists use terminologies like “white privilege,” they are not claiming that working class white people do not have disadvantages, but that race is certainly not one of the important institutional disadvantages they must contend with in their everyday lives. As for Asian and Indian “model minorities” who are from middle and upper class backgrounds, often constituting the base in terms of highly skilled immigrants, there too lies a glass ceiling when it comes to gendered representations of their race(s). Their access to certain spaces, even within privileged white elite circles, is heavily conditional on their approval of what I would label as “acceptable Orientalism." This can be witnessed in examples of exoticization of certain practices such as yoga, Buddhist mindfulness, chrysanthemum tea and so on. But you only have to switch on your television set to recognize that, in most cases, “diversity in representation” still largely means your token person of Color who is not the center of the narrative, but rather the oddball sidekick to the protagonist. And this isn’t just limited to the idiot box: Such is the way we write mainstream histories or relegate what news stories invite our sorrow and are assigned with significance. When tragedy occurs in the global climate of terrorism, social media, too, dictates for which European countries should be offered a flag as the background for solidarity and not others. 

Yet, an issue that continues to persist and remains largely unaddressed is that “People of Color” is not a shared group identity. As mentioned earlier, it would be short sighted to dissociate identity politics, different histories and processes of racialization, from the capitalist project that white supremacy thrives upon systematically. One would imagine that, given the complex ways in which identities intersect, how we all encompass privilege and disadvantageous positions in relation to each other via class, race, age, space, religion, ableism and gender, it would produce a shared sense of solidarity and empathy towards those differently marginalized than us. But that’s where much work remains to be done. Many communities of color have their own prejudices and fault-lines to address. Anti-Black racism particularly continues to exist among many non-black communities of color. Misogyny is an inescapable reality in many communities. Trans and homophobia exists in communities that face racialization. Racism exists in queer spaces, too, and those with intersecting minority identities find themselves struggling at the crossroads. In my own encounters as an immigrant brown Muslim woman, many non-Muslim PoC friends have shared stories of Islamophobia in their families with me. As upsetting that is for me to know, it is, however, not surprising. Perhaps when we talk about resistance against an empire of white supremacy, we have to also ask ourselves if we are truly united in that battle. This requires a sincere willingness to learn and educate ourselves about communities differently marginalized than ourselves - how those of oppressed identities within our own groups of identification want us to express solidarity with them - and to endeavour to read histories of activism and structural discrimination as more than just a cursory glance through a fashion magazine. In recent times, some examples that have demonstrated such sensitivity, reflection and solidarity include: Asians writing to their grandparents about the relevance of Black Lives Matters; millions of people across the world supporting the Standing Rock water protectors via social media; interfaith dialogues between Christians and Muslims; accepting queers into religion-based communities; and queer conversations challenging racism in LGBTQIA+ spaces.

With examples of effective and affective solidarity in mind, I turn to the direction of white allies. This is a time when we need not just white allies who sympathize, but those who are willing to be “accomplices,” a term I borrow from the widely circulated and available indigenous pamphlet called, “Accomplices, not Allies: An Indigenous Perspective and Provocation.” The authors and activists behind this piece call upon progressive whites to forward effective strategies with their relatively advantageous racial positioning. White and non-white people can together confront an unrelenting anti-minority and anti-indigenous establishment. In other words, moving beyond placards and hashtags to actual solidarity in actions. An activist colleague in Toronto wonderfully expressed on social media the other day how activists and scholars, too, should end the self-righteous rhetoric of “Where were you when….” with white people willing to learn and engage respectfully. Without biting into the emotional and intellectual labour of PoC folks, turn to them for solidarity. This is the time to make friends who invest with the causes we believe in, not push them away. Something so provocative as Trump’s election has finally (I hope!) compelled them to take note. Another example that comes to mind is the safety pin campaign by white allies, which has led to mixed responses from PoC folks. Irrespective of what value one assigns to the campaign, what remains pertinent nonetheless is to have conversations with people who you know have the same intentions as you to fight against queer phobia and racism, and if necessary, explain to them what kind of solidarity you feel your disadvantageous community can benefit from, or what even you as an individual need.

However, we also must confront our own prejudices and understand how exponents of the system want ignorance to not be eradicated between communities in the tussle for power. Even those of us with the best intentions in our constant focus on white supremacy may tend to overlook the ontological or impulsive possibilities of white people who are willing to learn, listen and not usurp the centre stage for heroism. As we come together to move forward from Trump-the-Slump and engage more thoughtfully with one another as an organized pluriveral movement, we have to make sure to never lose sight of how these relations tie to the political economy at a time where democracies have become business oligarchies, global warming is supposedly a myth to prevent America from becoming great, and "welfare cuts" for differently abled people are not outrageous enough for right-wingers, while access of trans persons (especially femmes) to toilets of their choice is a graver concern because a pussy grabbing president is the new saviour of women. Additionally, an important factor to account for in in our understanding of patriarchy is that white liberal feminism fails women of color. It no longer deserves to occupy a space in any conversation about confronting patriarchal institutions in the aftermath of Trump. White feminism has an ugly history of throwing race under the bus when it privileges them, and Miss Lucy of the plantation past and Becky-with-the-nice-hair today continue to oppress those women who are marginalized differently, or even more so, than them.

Lastly, and this stands true particularly for immigrants, confronting white supremacy or far-right politics in the United States is not where the struggle ends or begins. We must think beyond territorial borders of the Caucasian nationalism we critique, and hold our own diaspora communities and families accountable for the way they contribute to such politics in our respective homelands, be it through long-distance remittances to political parties in these countries, or even talking about our cultures and identities in our intimate or home spaces in ways that reiterate hierarchical normalization of any kind. Keeping an eye on transnational right-wing solidarities between different countries is critical for a politics that is not territorially bound and demands global accountability from our governments. A fine example of this is King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia being commemorated as a “moderate” in American media. Perhaps the project of reading against grain is a useful strategy in this aspect of international relations. Furthermore, for otherization of minorities to be radically challenged, the artificiality of modern borders must be quashed, and for this, creating spaces that are "sanctuaries" for undocumented migrants is a must to protect them from exploitation of the labour market and deportation. In a settler colonial state, where these undocumented migrants end up paying more taxes than a "citizen" (like Trump), tropes of belonging and the patriotism of white nationalists reeks of extreme hypocrisy. 

In short, there are primarily four things that I am attempting to highlight here. First, there is an important link between identity politics and capitalist economies that seek to hierarchize whites at the top of the ladder. The two are not mutually exclusive and in fact reinforce each other in myriad ways. Second, in our quest to challenge white nationalists, the diverse histories and different interests and needs of PoC need to be reflected upon with greater sensitivity. PoC must challenge in-group biases and prejudices towards those differently marginalized from their groups of identification. Third, while structural limitations on PoC across the spectrum exist and will become harder with Trump taking office, ontological possibilities for becoming better allies to each other are a must now; we must educate ourselves beyond our own navel gazing in order to agitate effectively. This also stands true for whites who claim to be sympathetic to minorities but have to now act as accomplices in a system which they have an advantage. Here, too, caution has to be exercised such that well intentioned white people do not become the center of the narrative, but instead allow the space for PoC voices and concerns to be addressed. Lastly, breaking the nationalist parameters of our politics is a must in a time of corporate imperialism, and this requires a critique of right-wing regimes in countries across the globe, especially the ones that maintain friendly relations with Western superpowers and all too often escape our attention. The hymn of our triumph in the march forward must be: “Rage rage, Together, against the dying of the light.”

Sanober Umar is a doctoral researcher at Queen's University. She has worked with several local communities and transnational organizations on a range of issues such as asylum laws and obstacles for refugees, immigration and labour market complexities for Women of Color, Muslim women's feminist politics in India and Europe, besides organizing or partaking in several anti-racism workshops in Canada. She is presently researching on minority citizenship politics in liberal democracies.