Bourgeois (adj.) – of or characteristic of the middle class, typically with reference to its perceived materialistic values or conventional attitudes
Race (adj.) – a social-historical construction of the modern world in response to the discovery of people who looked “different” as Europeans expanded their empires into Africa and the Americas in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Today’s scientific thinkers agree that race is not representative of biological difference, but eighteenth and nineteenth-century scientific minds thought differently. As colonization and the transatlantic slave trade continued, religious debates flared up among European thinkers about how to reconcile their understanding of Scripture with the idea of “racially distinct people.” Did they all belong to the same “family of man?” Did all have equal rights to land, property, and freedom? The meaning of race is differently defined and contested based on collective action and personal practice in any given society. (paraphrased from “Racial Formations” by Michael Omi and Howard Winant)
So, I’ve been thinking a lot about black subjectivity in this nation. Admittedly, I have more questions than I do answers. The more I think about the conditions under which black people live in this nation, the more disturbed I become. But, as a middle class black American person, I become even more troubled and disturbed when I consider transnational racism, transnational racialized sexism, and the ways that both here in the United States and around the world impoverished women “of color” are neglected and even violently discarded without so much as a fleeting thought. I put the words of color in quotation marks because I understand (see the definition above) that race is a socially constructed category. It is constructed differently depending on where we are in the world. If folks who live in New York City construct race differently than folks who live in Atlanta, we know for sure that race is constructed differently in Houston than it is in South Korea. Nevertheless, I think we all can agree that the construction of a category of racial difference impacts not only domestic politics, but international politics too! Whether we like it or not, race is a category that exists. We can smash the category to pieces and reinvent to reflect the world in which we hope to live, but a lot of the damage is done and we will not get rid of its deadly effects without honestly confronting each and every one of them. The truth is that poor women of color around the globe are erased and diminished in life, and even in the wakes of their violent deaths. We live in a world that is deeply troubled by the killing of men, but that, through its profound silence, says that the lives of poor women are insignificant.
One of the most challenging aspects of racism in the United States is that it is so contested. In the 1970s as black and brown Americans began to be carted off to prisons in massive numbers, black social standing began to change to reinforce not only the idea but also the reality of a black lower class, and black and brown youth and adults became the targets of police (or state if you prefer) surveillance and violence, we also witness the rise of neoliberal politics. The neoliberal order allows the state to promote the symbols and ideologies of freedom while continuing to promote policies that take access away from the poor and people of color to things like health care, education, and housing. By providing the same level of access to all people regardless of race or gender, the state can peddle the myth that if someone works hard, no matter their race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, or ability level, they can all achieve the same thing. And, let me be clear, this is a myth that has been peddled since the 1970s by Republicans and Democrats alike. How many times did Barack Obama name “hard work” as the key to the “American Dream” regardless of race or current income level? In some ways, Obama and his family were the ideals pawns of what America would like to imagine herself to be, a place where educated, “articulate,” and respectable black folks can do anything, including becoming the most powerful people in the world.
But, let’s just be real, friends, if power looks like being able to blow up someone in another country with the push of a button while not being able to help a working-class mom send her child to the school he has earned the right to attend, maybe our idea of power is skewed. But, I digress. Suffice it to say that the success of a few black folks in this country in a neoliberal framework allows certain segments of our society to claim that there is no racism or sexism and that anyone who claims that those categories are impediments to their success simply has not worked hard enough. Even as black folks witness the murders of our own people, the raids of our communities, the naming of our children as super-predators, and the mass incarceration of our young people, we are told that racism is over. And that is a tragedy.
But, I want to drive us to a slightly different point. Can the middle class (or bourgeois) black person have a critique of the evils of American empire? It is the right of every American to peacefully assemble and to protest, but it seems like if a black person has attained a certain tax bracket, they are to remain silent. But, what recourse is there for those who continue to suffer if those who have “made it” are coerced into silence? We do not hear the voices of the poor, the “uneducated,” the outsider. How then can we speak?
I have been thinking a lot these past few days about the NFL protest especially after GQ magazine named Colin Kaepernick its Citizen of the Year. What is the role of the bourgeois black American in the cause of the global struggle against white supremacist violence against black and brown people? Does the neoliberal idea that racism and sexism are over and that the problem for so many oppressed people is simply their profound laziness prevent us from changing our world? Should black and brown people who have achieved “success,” I guess success is defined solely on economic terms, be silent about the struggles we still face, and more importantly about the struggles of the African diaspora on the whole? If these past months have demonstrated anything it is that black protest is always suspicious but that rich white women’s protest is to be believed. And, no doubt, anyone who has endured any sort of oppression ought to be believed and we ought to demand change and that change ought to happen and continue to happen today, tomorrow, and forever until we live in a better world. Will we creatively resist, or will we be shamed into death-dealing silence?