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Life Near the Colour Line – Part 2: The Fool’s Paradise of Race

So, it turns out that, unbeknownst to me, that thing about the direction that water corkscrews down a drain varying based on which side of the equator one is on is actually an especially persistent urban myth. There is no actual scientific foundation to this belief, which is perpetuated through a combination of confirmation bias and minor fraud.

The kind individual who drew this to my attention was worried that the debunking of this popular myth might hurt my project of attacking the colour line. But when I learned this, I was nothing short of elated. In fact, it was all I could do, in writing the second part of this essay, not to claim that I had known all along and suckered people into believing that the Coriolis Force Effect on drains was real in order to illustrate my larger point more effectively.

Needless to say, the fact that the equator the men with the metal bath tub in Meru were demonstrating had no scientific or ontological reality beyond its social manifestation renders it more not less like the colour line. The men are still sweating and running for the Kenyan shillings in the white tourists’ pockets; it’s just that they know that their performance of the equator’s physical power is not a response to an external physical reality but to the beliefs inside the tourists’ heads. Their ability to make the world around the tourists converge with their expectations conditions the number of shillings they can earn. They are engaged in a high-stakes performance. And performing a non-existent effect of the equator is much like performing race.

One way or another, people in Meru were living on the equator on a warming planet, where Lake Nakuru, which once attracted tourists with its enormous flocks of flamingos, was now a mud flat, a malodorous brown mass of flamingo bones and bugs. Like it or not, the people of Meru were living on the equator and dealing with the consequences of their position. But these men’s social performance of the equator could profoundly affect their lives; by confirming the beliefs of the tourists, by making the equator real in the way we needed it to be, they could support their families. And performing race is a lot like performing the equator. It is associated with great risk and great reward.

One of the manifestations of privilege is the opportunity to inhabit a fool’s paradise, to hold cherished beliefs about the world around you that other people feel compelled to make real. That is because the more privileged one is, the greater the reward people experience for confirming the things you need to be true and the greater the risk for challenging your beliefs.

Cherokee English professor Thomas King speaks of this when he writes of people’s accusatory distress at discovering that he is “not the Indian [they] had in mind.”

Fundamentally, the power of racism inheres in its accuracy. It allows people to make guesses about how people will behave and what will happen to them that are accurate more often than not. Even if we factor-out confirmation bias, racism works because the people who live at the top of racial systems live a fool’s paradise. As they move about, those around them stage performances of their race in order to minimize risk and achieve reward.

On the rare occasions people decide to entertain the idea that I am black, I am conscripted to into validating their predictions. Do I feel a connection to Africa? Do I have a sense of rhythm? Do I enjoy a Trinidadian curry and a slice of watermelon? Have I been in conflict with the law? Can I speak with a US inner city accent? Well, if not that how about a Southern one? A Jamaican one? No? Really? If I refuse to shore up the fool’s paradise of racism, the conversation soon moves to derision, confusion or frustration and my interlocutor soon concludes that I cannot be black. I can inhabit the fool’s paradise of race as a black person, only so long as I perform that blackness.

Perhaps I, a socialist intellectual, am trying to make the point that race is a social construction—further evidence that I am white because that is what racism predicts that white people will do.

Luckily for me, I can just shut up about who my ancestors were and I am no longer performing forced labour in a fool’s paradise. But people who are clearly on the black side of the colour line never get a rest. They have to find a kind of black person to be, a kind of person that their blackness predicts, an identity that maintains race as the powerful predictive tool that it is. If they won’t, they are some kind of asshole, someone who lacks grace and decency to pick one of the accepted black roles to perform. If they are so damned insistent on being a black intellectual, perhaps they could be Cornel West and use their PhD to say prophetic, mystical things to white America about their shared destiny, things that captivate yet are found insubstantial and trite under rigorous examination. Or, failing that, maybe they could be one of those angry, uppity black woman intellectuals nobody likes. Elevated by their spirituality or blinded by their uppity, misandrist anger: look! there are smart black people to be!

It tells us much that the international media have reached a consensus that the Spokane NAACP is an organization of such significance, such importance, such power that the composition of its current executive merits headlines, scrutiny and international attention. Whatever her motives, whatever her inner thoughts around which she structures community activism through a medium-sized private club in a third-tier American city, her existence cannot stand in the fool’s paradise of America.

While our new system of race nullifies the existence of people like me, people with black parents who refuse to perform our race for an audience, people who voluntarily choose to be black are beyond the pale. When people have tried to explain to me why this woman infuriates them, many of these self-identified progressives explain that it’s not “fair” that a person who has all the advantages of a white upbringing should then get all the “advantages” of being an adult black woman. These are the same people who, a week ago, knew that being a black female adult in today’s America is anything but advantageous. That is why such arguments soon descend into other intellectual positions that are equally bankrupt and absurd, like the assertion that race and ethnicity are clearly bounded, independent variables, or the claim that race is incomparable to gender because it, unlike gender performance, is enmeshed in the legacies of colonialism and empire.

People need to do something about Rachel Dolezal because she is fucking with their ideas of what race is, where it comes from, how you authenticate it and what guesses it lets you make about what is going to happen next. But most importantly, she is fucking with who gets to decide people are black. It as though she has got hold of one of the ends of the colour line and is dragging it towards white people against their will. And that sort of thing cannot stand in our great American fool’s paradise.

More on these last few thoughts in part three—and on the ownership of shoes in seventeenth-century Angola.

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