This post began as a reflection on why the term ‘imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy’ isn’t funny. I attended a conference session on gender violence and inequality in universities in which the term got a good laugh. It was nearly inaudible amidst the noise of sexual assaults and harassment on high school and university campuses, the complicity of institutional management in silencing gender critique, persistent racism–sexism in the academy, gendered precarity and inequalities in pay, and institutionalised and legitimised patriarchy throughout the educational system. There have been advances. Earlier this year, campaigners in the UK (including high school students Jessy McCabe and June Eric-Udorie) overturned a government proposal to remove feminism from the A-level curriculum – although with many reports on the campaign emphasising the inclusion of Simone de Beauvoir, Hannah Arendt, Rosa Luxeburg and Ayn Rand, it remains to ask #whyismycurriculumwhite.
But one report of this campaign from January of this year caught my eye just after I returned home. In the image, standing to the left in a red dress, is Jo Cox, then the UK Minister of Parliament for Batley and Spen. Days before, she had been fatally stabbed and shot three times outside her community constituency office by a man shouting ‘Britain first!’ A mother and long-time human rights defender, Jo Cox had been campaigning for the UK to remain in the European Union ahead of a national referendum on the issue. At the time of her murder, she had also been preparing a new report on Islamophobia and the dangers of far-right nationalism in the country. Speculation whirled around social media as it emerged that the man who killed her had been in contact with fascist and white supremacist organisations, including in the United States, at various points in his life. One newspaper article led with the statement that his ‘earliest apparent connections to the far right date back to a time when there were still parts of the world ruled by white supremacists’.
On June 23rd, 33.6 million British people – over 70% of the eligible population – voted in the referendum. Just over half (52%) voted to leave the EU, pitching the society into an acrimonious state of anxiety and forcing its divisions to the surface. Post-referendum analyses revealed that votes fell broadly along multiple boundaries of a colonial matrix of power which has been exacerbated by austerity, media discourses constructing a politics of othering and fear, an abandonment of political education, and EU neoliberal policy itself. What is surprising is that there is any surprise. There have been campaigns for Britain to leave the EU since the 1970s, and in recent years political thinkers at all points on the Left–Right spectrum have put forward arguments for both ‘Brexit’ – not least of all as a response to the EU’s neoliberal policies, including in education and in Greece – and for ‘Bremain’.
Yet as Laleh Khalili argues, ‘what has transpired in Britain since the Leave campaign won has only shown how easily the veneer of civility and conviviality can be peeled back to reveal the virulence of racism and xenophobia seething under the skin of British social life’. Analyses are now focusing on demographics. On the surface, it appears that those voting to remain were younger, formally educated for longer, wealthier and racially and ethnically diverse. On average, both men and women voting to leave the EU were older and had less formal education and lower incomes. The publication of these crude demographics prompted a simultaneous romanticisation and vilification of a partly imaginary white English working class. More nuanced calculations, however, suggest that person-for-person, more middle and upper-class people voted to leave the EU than to stay for a variety of reasons ranging from business interests to critiques of bureaucracy to visions of possibilities for a more radical democracy outside the EU. One exit poll suggested that ‘two thirds (76%) of those describing themselves as Asian voted to remain, as did three quarters (73%) of black voters’ (in a context where ‘people of colour are more likely to be living in poverty and are being hit hardest by austerity measures’), and while ‘nearly six in ten (58%) of those describing themselves as Christian voted to leave, seven in ten Muslims voted to remain’.
Any meaningful discussion of these complex dynamics is now muffled, however, as attention turns towards the spike in incidents of public violence against migrants and ethnic and national minorities across the UK. Viral smartphone videos of racist aggression and attacks, and of individuals’ and communities’ counteractions to promote tolerance, show how public pedagogies of both hate and love are being engaged with force. Yet as Akwugo Emeljulu points out in her article ‘On the hideous whiteness of Brexit’, even the love overlays a mass unconsciousness of how institutional and everyday racism are sites of constant silencing, suffering and struggle. Witnessing and intervening in abusive incidents is important, she says, but ‘…without any imperative to dismantle white supremacy, the system of racial hierarchy remains firmly in place, with whiteness preserved, unchallenged and intact’. Kept in place by the organized distance between those who believe there was a ‘time when there were still parts of the world ruled by white supremacists’ and those who know that this time and place is now. Or now.
Schools, universities and popular education projects can offer spaces to have this conversation, allowing people to make sense of how what appear to be individual choices and events are shaped by logics of imperialism, racism, patriarchy and capitalism, and how these intersecting systems can be resisted through diverse forms of collective action. This is back on the agenda in the UK after Brexit, as teachers report confusion and fear amongst children and post-referendum racism in schools. Yet the marginalization of citizenship and politics curricula, the imposition of a counter-terrorism act which contains guidance obliging educators to monitor and report children and young people displaying signs of ‘radicalisation’ (which might include Islamism, environmentalism or far-right politics), the proclivity of universities to censure and punish academics for making critiques that bring an institution ‘into disrepute’, and the foreclosure of democratic governance in schools and universities makes it incredibly difficult for teachers and students to think or speak openly about politics in this way.
Thus back to the initial inspiration for this piece. It’s what lies beneath and comes bubbling up, sometimes with a smile rather than a fist. It came when I was at an academic conference with forty-odd other people, discussing the gendered politics of the university. There were presentations on inequalities in academic labour and higher education, women’s experiences of being transmogrified into precarious entrepreneurial subjects, and the masculinization of knowledge and institutional governance. There was a presentation on epistemic justice, and a brief intervention on queering academia and instituting a post-capitalist politics in the classroom. Discussion ensued. After a spell of thoughts skirting around formal institutional equalities, one woman asked whether anyone had read bell hooks’ work and whether her concept of ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ might be helpful in conceptualising the deeper and intersectional politics of women’s experiences and problems. People laughed.
That’s funny, I thought. Because it’s not. There’s nothing funny about imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism or patriarchy, or the multifarious injustices that emerge from the formidable rationalities and relations that hooks uses these terms to describe. They are brutal systems of oppression and annihilation; each deforming and denying and wounding and killing in its own special I’m-with-the-others way. The laughter was about something else. It signaled that we needn’t–shouldn’t–couldn’t-possibly be expected to stumble around bleeding bodies and souls or embrace subjugated knowledges or assume responsibility for encountering the ethical demands of any radical others. So we carried on. Later, we were invited to discuss resistances to gendered inequality and oppression in higher education. Instead we reflected on abstract problems – not ours, not us. The concept of ‘imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ evaporated to make room for easier discussions about work-life balance, equitable wages and how to squeeze social reproduction and care into neoliberal frameworks of ‘performance exercises’. But it hung around as an absent presence. I could feel the silence reproducing itself. I heard myself not saying that the laughter and the civility were harmful until after the public conversation was over. Not daring, as Audre Lorde pleads from across space and time, to ‘reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside…and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there’.
I went looking for hooks’ original text but found this statement, which is part of a longer passage in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, published over a decade ago and worth quoting at length (2004, p. 29).
‘Radical feminist critique of patriarchy has practically been silenced in our culture. It has become a subcultural discourse available only to well-educated elites. Even in those circles, using the word “patriarchy” is regarded as passé. Often in my lectures when I use the phrase “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” to describe our nation’s political system, audiences laugh. No one has ever explained why accurately naming this system is funny. The laughter is itself a weapon of patriarchal terrorism. It functions as a disclaimer, discounting the significance of what is being named. It suggests that the words themselves are problematic and not the system they describe. I interpret this laughter as the audience’s way of showing discomfort with being asked to ally themselves with an antipatriarchal disobedient critique. This laughter reminds me that if I dare to challenge patriarchy openly, I risk not being taken seriously.’
There is another passage from hooks’ work that I find helpful in thinking from a different direction about why it is important not to distance myself from efforts to witness, name and make sense of this formidable system of domination, and why it is necessary to build concrete foundations of care and support – ‘life-sustaining communities of resistance’ – which enlarge possibilities for doing so. It is part of her reflection on the impossibility of making sense of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US and the work of this insensibility in the rise of nationalist, patriarchal and racist divisions and aggressions. ‘Even though I could walk to the sites of the 9/11 tragedy’, she wrote, ‘I was not able to speak about these events for some time because I had come face to face with the limits of what I know. I could not be a critic of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchal mass media, then rely on it to teach me about what had taken place’. At the same time, society locked down and blew up, and in the absence of understanding people reacted through simplification, anger and fear. She writes of outpourings of care from around the world, but also how ‘racial hatred, coming from folks who had always presented themselves as critically conscious, was as intense as that coming from groups who have had no concern for justice, who are not even able to acknowledge that our nation is an imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy. It was a moment of utter chaos where the seeds of fascist ideology were bearing fruit everywhere’ (Teaching Community, 2003, p. 10).
Alternative ways of being can’t emerge from silence or despair. ‘Our visions for tomorrow’, she wrote, ‘are most vital when they emerge from the concrete circumstances of change we are experiencing right now’. In order for them to emerge, however, we need spaces in which we can practice facing what we do not know and respond to testimony that calls us to account. Schools and universities and selves for which terms like ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ present opportunities for disobedient critique, radical intersectional thinking and learning hope rather than for normalizing repressive nervous laughter. Let’s make more of these.
‘I think if you’re really serious, you came here to make a difference. And in order to do so you have to laugh as often as you get a chance. Must do. Must do. Create some time. Create some time to laugh.’ (Maya Angelou)