Vijay Prashad: Polyculturalism and Kung Fu

17608Kung Fu! Finally we learn some lessons from one of my favourite things… Vijay Prashad’s Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asan Connection and the Myth of Cultural Purity lives up to its name, and provides much food for thought as it tries to uncover a useful antiractist ideological framework that destroys the standard binaries of Black and white. It starts (and ends) with the idea of polyculturalism:

Polyculturalism, unlike multiculturalism, assumes that people live coherent lives that are made up of a host of lineages–the task of the historian is not to carve out the lineages but to make sense of how people live culturally dynamic lives. Polyculturalism is a ferocious engagement with the political world of culture, a painful embrace of the skin and all its contradictions. (xii)

I like his use of adjectives, and of course this comes much closer to capturing the reality of our lives, the intersectionalities we all experience.
On Xenophobia as Opposed to Racism
Like Albert Memmi on racism, this book goes back a little ways to try and untangle what we actually mean by it.  Back in the old days before the rise of slavery, what we faced was a little  different. Prashad explores this through a look at the Indian Ocean where many cultures had come together to trade for many centuries:

It would be inaccurate to reduce this ethnocentrism or xenophobia to racism, mainly because there was little sense that the difference was predicated on the body (biological determinism) and that those who are biologically inferior can be put to work in the service of their biological betters. (4)

Thus, while there were ‘undoubtedly fear and feelings of superiority in the face of difference…’ (5) among the various cultural contacts and even empires that have arisen over our history, what has arisen in modern times is qualitatively different.

Modern notions of “race” and modern, capitalist racist institutions render most of the fluidity of cultural difference moot. From da Gama’s arrival onward, traditions of xenophobia in the Indian Ocean world were transformed into the hidebound theories of race that emerge from Europe’s experiments with the enslavement of human beings for profit, most notably in the Atlantic slave trade, With the invention of race and the advent of racism, the Afro-Asian world would alter dramatically. (6)

He places the origins of these new theories of race here, where ‘Two sixteenth-century developments indicate the beginnings of raciology: the Iberian Inquisition and the slave trade’ (15). The Inquisition required tests for the purity of blood, and the justification of slavery, the fundamental difference of African peoples. These distinctions lie at the birth of a new era:

Columbus and da Gama operate as metaphors for how our world entered modernity: by the genocide in the New World (Columbus) and by the end to the cosmopolitanism of the Old World (da Gama). (35)

The antidote, as it were, consists in moving beyond all of this rather than embracing it —  ‘raciology’ has not been limited to whites (though of course, they have wielded it in dominance):

The Brahmin accommodation to, and the Diopian reversal of, the Aryan Myth shows us how those outside the camp of whiteness nourished the categories of raciology, and, more specifically, of white supremacy. Atlantic racism, then, is not the special inheritance and legacy of those who deep themselves to be “white.” (19)

So we move from xenophobia through raciology to modern racism, and from there to fascism:

Fascism (in the European and U.S. core) and colonialism (in the Asian and African periphery) exemplify the highest stage of racist statecraft. (20)

I like this distinguishing of different kinds of racism, different kinds of fascism groups around a core of ideas:

While all fascisms are not identical, there is something Gilroy call the unanimist principle that unites most fascisms, whereby the “people” are one, division is not integral to social relations, and the members of a nation are interchangeable and disposable. Furthermore, the unanimist principle perverts the idea of democracy into a racial hierarchy of the population in which those who sit atop the totem are seen as chosen by God or destiny. (20-21)

Specifically for our purposes, fascism or a movement with fascistic tendencies has at its core hierarchy, racism and militarism. (21)

An oppositional politics requires a new model that will move beyond the challengers already failed — essentialised identity politics and multiculturalism:

The desire to go beyond skin does not necessarily mean to plunge oneself into the socially impossible world of individuality. We are social beings who make communities with an urgency…human identity is constructed…multifaceted and multivalent…(36)

On The American Ideology:

We have come some way since da Gama and Columbus, in analysing it, Prashad reworks the famous phrase from de Bois in ways that I am still thinking through.

neocolonialism was replaced by the theory of neoliberalism in which freedom came to mean liberty of the moneyed to act unburdened by notions of justice and democracy. Neoliberalism threatens us with the reproach of equality, and forbids us to create organizational platforms based on our historical and current oppression. To fight against racism is twisted into a racist act, for to invoke race even in a progressive antiracist agenda is seen as divisive.

The problem of the twenty-first century, then, is the problem of the colorblind. (38)

I am still thinking about whether I find this useful, or if it might not be better to cleave to the problem of the ‘color line’ from de Bois’s original formulation. Not that I disagree with any of the ways he formulates the problem of colourblindness, which seeks to understand racism as nothing more than wrong-headed individual actions rather than ‘the coagulation of socioeconomic injustice against groups.’ (38) I rather like that definition. I also like this description of its effects:

Color-blind justice privatizes inequality and racism, and it removes itself from the project of redistributive and anti-racist justice. This is the genteel racism of our new millennium. (38)

It sounds so elegant — I am not sure I quite know what the privatization of inequality and racism look like, I need to think about that more too. But it becomes a little more clear further on:

Since the state deems the differences within civil society as “nonpolitical distinctions,” it is able to arrogate for itself the role of being above those very distinctions. The formal democratic state can then manage difference with such strategies as “unity in difference,” or, much later, in the United States, as multiculturalism. (57-58)

Thus the state becomes a manager above the justice fray, and multiculturalism becomes its management method.

Beyond the color blind and the primordial is the problem of multiculturalism. (39)

Why problematic? Because this idea of multiculturalism arose to ‘undercut the radicalism of antiracism.’ The difference between the two:

The difference between antiracism and diversity management, then, is that the former is militantly against frozen privilege and the latter is in favor of the status quo.(63)

So we need something different, something that is not primordial and essential, something not colourblind, something not just a management of difference in support of a racial hierarchy with whites at the top.

The theory of the polycultural does not mean that we reinvent humanism without ethnicity, but that we acknowledge that our notion of cultural community should not be built inside the high walls of parochialism and ethno-nationalism. The framework of polyculturalism uncouples the notions of origins and authenticity from that of culture.

He draws from Robin Kelley’s idea of polyculturalism which plays with the idea of polyrhythms, bringing together multiple drummers…

A polyculturalism sees the world constituted by the interchange of cultural forms, while multiculturalism (in most incarnations) sees the world as already constituted by different (and discrete) cultures that we can place into categories and study with respect… (67)

This is a world that is changing, growing, becoming.

A broad antiracist platform would not (like liberal multiculturalism) invest itself in the management of difference, but it would (like a socialist polyculturalism) struggle to dismantle and redistribute unequal resources and racist structures.

Instead it concentrates on the project of creating our humanity. “Human” is an “unfinished product,” one divided by social forces that must be overcome for “human” to be made manifest. In the nineteenth century near Delhi, Akbar Illahabadi intoned that we are born people, but with great difficulty we become human (aadmi tha, bari muskil se insan hua). (69)

Coolie Purana — chapter title for this look at polyculturalism in action. There are lots of little awesome facts in here, like this one on the origin of thug:

“to cover up” in Hindustani, but came to mean “deceiver” in the nineteenth century when the British colonial officials identified certain brigands as thuggees. (70)

On the working class, where this idea of polyculturalism is rounded out and given a little more flesh:

not syncretic (two distinct entities melding with a consciousness of difference), but forged together from the beginning through the byways of Jamaica, the streets of Hartford, the avenues of New York, the dole queues of London, and beyond. Polyculturalism exists most vividly among the poor and working class. (71)

There are, of course, tons of examples. All of his are very different from the ones I grew up with, there is a lot that resonates but border culture is rather different that the crazy mixings that emerged out of the British Empire. I never knew this though:

from 1834-1916, British took almost half a million East Indian people to work as indentured labour in Caribbean and South American plantations. (87)

I’d never heard of Albertha Husbands leading domestic workers on strike — she was amazing, I found a little more from this article from the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian on women’s labour.

But I love this point about struggle in Trinidad — the leaders approach was ‘that in struggle cultural forms would be reshaped to accord with the need for popular dignity.’ Rastafarianism is one example. (87)

I like to be thinking with terms that allow for this change to happen, this growth and becoming are part of the term rather than bending or breaking it. Prashad argues that this bottom-up lived experience of polyculturalism is often greater than its leaders understand…

The will of the polycultural working class, then, drew from, and exceeded, the attempts by Gandhi and Garvey to retain the boundaries set up by imperialism. (95)

It’s not always that simple of course, and some of the dangers and obstacles are explored in the chapter on Merchants — starting with the importance of place to culture and identity:

If there is nothing else to own, at least I own my own body and I have my ‘hood. The anti-Jewish and anti-Korean tendencies in the ‘hood come from this profound desire for dignity among the working class who labor for others, but who do not have the means to produce the services to run their own territories. (115)

I have to think more about this, think more about status and turf and power, but also topophilia and the importance of living well and coming to know intimately the place you live in for survival, the importance of transforming neighborhoods into positive places. Still, this rings very true.

When the working poor has lost every other asset, it holds on to its place of residence and life as the most precious resource ever… a subaltern nationalism, one that demands the protection of territorial sovereignty as the only resource at one’s command. When all else has been stripped away, it is land (place) that must be defended.

And it is often the immigrant who is seen as colonizer, against whom the battle rages… (121)

Kung Fusion:

The final chapter, the hopeful chapter, the chapter I realised I had no idea Bruce Lee had written a book and was ashamed of that. Quoting Lee’s The Tao of Gung Fu: A Study in the Way of Chinese Martial Art, Prashad writes:

Kung Fu, Bruce pointed out in his sociology of the art, “serves to cultivate the mind, to promote health, and to provide a most effective means of self-protection against any attacks.” It “develops confidence, humility, coordination, adaptability and respect toward others.”

I am educated further on the women stars in martial arts world — Pauline Short, Ruby Lozano, Graciela Casillas (Bellflower!), Judith Brown. Prashad quotes Jim Kelley, describes solidarities — Aoki with the Black Panthers, Ho Chi Minh in Garveyite Halls in Harlem and swapping stories about it with Tobert F. Williams, Nkrumah hanging out with Stokely Carmichael. Quotes Nehru speaking at the Bandung conference, 1955:

There is nothing more terrible, there is nothing more horrible than the infinite tragedy of Africa in the past few hundred years. When I think of it, everything else pales into insignificance; that infinite tragedy of Africa ever since the days when millions of them were carried away in galleys as slaves to America and elsewhere, the way they were treated, the way they were taken away, 50 percent dying in the galleys. We have to bear that burden, all of us. We did not do it ourselves, but the world has to bear it. We talk about this country and that little country in Africa or outside, but let us remember this Infinite Tragedy.

To end with a little inspiration:

History is made in struggle and past memories of solidarity are inspiration for that struggle. Indeed, the Afro-Asian and polycultural struggles of today allow us to redeem a past that has been carved up along ethnic lines by historians. To remember Bruce as I do, staring at a poster of him ca. 1974, is not to wane into nostalgia for the past. My Bruce is alive, and like the men and women before him, still in the fight. (149)

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