An excerpt from Bayo Akomolafe’s “Homo Icarus: The Depreciating Value of Whiteness and the Place of Healing.” Dr. Akomalafe is globally recognized for his poetic, unconventional, counterintuitive, and indigenous take on global crisis, civic action and social change. He is the author of the about to be published These Wilds Beyond Our Fences.
To address Charlottesville is to meet the implosion of white order and normativity. It is to go by way of a prevalent distrust in the political order, a coming to terms with the real limits to the power of neoliberalism to cater to our basic needs and yearnings as an ever-emerging co-species. It is to touch upon the silent racialized class war that is still being fought – only under other names and so invisibly as to now be expected. It is to exorcise the demons of fruitless wanderings and search for land. It is to meet those who are broken, who – like the rest of us who might claim some sanity or goodness to ourselves, who might consider ourselves on the right side of history, who might think of ourselves as progressive and welcoming to diversity – are not yet at home.
It is to meet whiteness in its diffracted and sophisticated agency, and hear it pose its riddles to us. Some of those riddles might be these: how do we respond to whiteness? What simmers just outside our view when hate springs in the heart of a Nazi sympathizer as he watches a black man cross the street? Who do we drag to the courts for betraying the trust of those displaced white people, who later became slaves instead of the owners of 50 acre plots of land in the new continent? And how does such justice take into account the displacement of the original inhabitants of America?
It bears repeating: the heart of hate is the universe of relationships it excludes. Crossroads teach us that. Nothing is ever singularly itself. I don’t mean that in a Freudian sense of suggesting some hidden truth or core reality behind objects or phenomena. I mean to say that relationships congeal to create things, which in turn are already in relationship with other phenomena creating other things. Only in a Cartesian-Christian sense does hate refer to an inscrutable ‘evil’ within that evokes the theo-psychological construct of choice/free will. I believe that the intergenerational trauma of displaced feet and the fears of replacement and the involutions of spacetime are churning absences we thought we were done with. The unresolved past has made a bold return, albeit slightly reiterated.
If I haven’t prattled on too long, then it might be obvious now that something else is needed as a response to Charlottesville. The cultural space to truly ‘stay with the trouble’ (to use Haraway’s phrase) of these complicated realities is not to be found in the mainstream – so to speak. It is to be found, we learn, at the borderlands. We must learn to listen for it.
The kind of work that needs to happen now, in order for racial healing to take place, will not be held by the combative punditry of CNN or be championed by the White House and the mass culture of occlusion it presently preserves. It will take place (and is already happening) in the cracks…in the between-spaces and borderland sanctuaries that understand that we often reiterate crisis and reinforce it even with the best of intentions; and, that healing is not a matter of banishing monsters but of embracing our alter egos – the wilds we often exile beyond our fences.
Some scholars are beginning to catch up with this: we are realizing that we are living in a post-structuralist, post-whiteness world, whose aspirations have to be redefined and reconfigured in light of what we now suspect to be true about ourselves and our place in nature. From manifold feminisms, new materialisms and the resuscitated study of indigenous wisdoms, to idea incubator collectives, street art performances, unschooling networks and queer festivals, we are seeing a composting of whiteness – a hospicing of the earth-wide enterprise that co-opted white identity as its liaison with skinned society and sought to dispel alterity.
I think of this work – this utterly incoherent murmuration of platforms and practices and concerns and offerings – as a decommissioning of whiteness. I think of it as the regeneration of spaces for us to grieve, to celebrate, to eat together, and to learn anew how to relate to the world around us. This decommissioning of whiteness is decolonization. A reacquainting ourselves with roots – the tentacular things that tether us to terra firma, which we like Icarus believed ourselves to be free of. Let us remember that whiteness was/is the invitation to forget roots, to deny the significance of the multitude and the wilds, whose tendrils are our seams. You might as well call it a ‘lie’ – there’s some rhetorical advantage in such directness. Whiteness is a lie because it claims those who join the project of white-identified people are not indigenous. What of druids, the pagans, witches, the alchemists, and the magicians? Even modernity is the indigeneity of denying the significance of indigeneity. It is no less connected and entangled than isolated ‘tribes’ of people who have lived without modern technologies.
Decolonization is rehabilitating connections and making ‘new’ ones. This is not about restoring originals in a neat way. Even the ancient remembered is new. Remembering is re/membering or reconfiguring. The past is always yet to come.
Further down this road, decommissioning whiteness is the world’s work – the concerns of a larger self, something more ancient than humans, but inclusive of humans. It is not simply about removing structures, or removing racists, or excoriating white-identified people. It is not about defeating the other side or stopping hateful people. If the French Revolution teaches us anything it is that solutions are often how problems grow intelligent and perpetuate their agency. The impulse to stop whiteness in its tracks is itself occasioned by whiteness. It’s red meat for humans who still presume that the world is driven by their intentions, and passive until they swing into action. This is not up to us; there is no master toggle switch. Whiteness itself is not a simple choice, nor would ‘redemption’ be a matter of marching through heaven’s gates.