When the American Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars, nominated no black actors or actresses in 2015, the African-American journalist April Reign responded by creating the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, which instantly became the top trending Twitter hashtag in the United States.The killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, among others, as well as the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, were powerful catalysts of the ensuing debates, as many critical tweets about the Oscars referenced police violence and inserted the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag next to #OscarsSoWhite. While racial diversity in cinema is an important issue in its own right, the critique of the Oscars’ whiteness was obviously about much more than Hollywood. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag sparked protests on social media not only because it allowed African-American Twitter users—collectively known as “black Twitter”1—to express anger over what they considered to be snubs to films like Selma, the biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr., but because it extended and amplified ongoing debates about the persistence of white supremacy in contemporary American society.
Remarkably, the 2016 Oscars again nominated no black actors or actresses, and #OscarsSoWhite returned with a vengeance. In fact, the hashtag became so prominent that it probably had more viewers than the Oscars, a broadcast TV event whose cultural importance has been in decline for several years. One study found that a sample set of just 85 tweets that used the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag generated 52 million views. In comparison, the TV audience for the Oscars was 36 million. What these numbers suggest is that social media platforms like Twitter, for better or worse, have become brokers of public consciousness. As they become the dominant channels for presenting, sharing, connecting, filtering, and organizing information, social media platforms increasingly shape what Americans pay attention to, what they regard as meaningful and relevant, and what they consider to be political as such.
The White People’s Choice Awards
The political power of social media motivates my examination of another debate that erupted online in connection with the 2016 Oscars—a debate that, in my view, should prompt Americanists to reconsider the categories of racialization. One of the key figures in this debate was the African American comedian Chris Rock. Although Rock was selected to host the 2016 Oscars before the nominees were announced, and thus before the reappearance of #OscarsSoWhite, his selection seemed perfectly timed to address the subsequent racial tensions, which included calls by actress Jada Pinkett Smith and director Spike Lee to boycott the show.
Back in 2005, when Rock hosted the Oscars for the first time, some critics felt his comedy was too caustic. In addition to criticizing the Iraq War, Rock poked fun at white English actor Jude Law, whom Rock suggested was featured in so many films that he would soon even play the role of African American basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But Rock’s blunt political and racial commentary made his presence at the 2016 Oscars “utterly necessary,” as a journalist for Time magazine wrote during the controversy . And Rock did not disappoint. No sooner did he begin his opening monologue than he called the Oscars the “White People’s Choice Awards.” The only way to ensure the nomination of black actors and actresses for future Oscars, Rock quipped, is to create “black categories,” that is, categories that reflect the formulaic roles that African American actors and actresses are expected to play, such as “Best Black Friend.”
When Rock directly addressed the question of racism in Hollywood, he unequivocally acknowledged its existence, but also reduced the issue to equal opportunity: “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. […] We want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunity as white actors.” In response, Huffington Post’s LatinoVoices sent out the following tweet under the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag: “But what ABOUT the Latinos? We want that [opportunity] too!” Almost simultaneously, Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented Filipino American and journalist, tweeted to Rock: “When will Chris Rock bring up Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American actors and opportunity?” The tweets reflect not only their author’s particular interventions, but also a broader subtopic within the #OscarsSoWhite discussion that was led primarily by nonblack people of color who sought to push the debate beyond the categories of blackness and whiteness, which some Latinx Studies scholars have come to designate the “black-white binary”2. The project of broadening the meaning of “American” is also at the heart of Vargas’s online platform EmergingUS, which is dedicated to understanding a “new America” that is “more multi-ethnic, more immigrant, more colorful than ever before.”
Some African American voices in the #OscarsSoWhite debate also stressed that racism in Hollywood affects nonblack people of color, too. In an interview published on the same day as Vargas’s tweet to Rock, Reign clarified that she created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag to address the exclusion of black and nonblack people of color: “there has been a surge of diversity at the Oscars, but there has been an overwhelming lack of other races, Latinx, Native Americans, and Asians, so this definitely is not just about blacks.” But in the context of the Oscars controversy, the most important advocate for expanding the vocabulary of racism in Hollywood was Rock himself. In a 2014 essay for The Hollywood Reporter, Rock draws attention to the plight of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Hollywood: “But forget whether Hollywood is black enough. A better question is: Is Hollywood Mexican enough?” Rock uses the figure of slavery—a controversial rhetorical strategy, as we will see—to explain Hollywood’s racialized division of labor, which consigns Mexicans and Mexican Americans to service and manual jobs:
[T]here’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else. […] You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up?
Statements such as these motivated Vargas’s tweet to Rock. In calling on Rock to address the absence of other people of color at the Oscars, Vargas was trying to remind Rock of a political stance that he had already taken.
Get Your Own Movement
Nonetheless, black Twitter’s reaction to LatinoVoices and Vargas was mostly defensive and hostile. Some users equated the call to mention Latinxs alongside black Americans with a denial of the existence of a third group, Afro-Latinxs. This “erasure” was taken to be an expression of antiblackness. For example, one of the first African American users to reply to LatinoVoices tweeted: “funny thing about that tweet is they show that they pretty much forget black Latinos even exist. …[T]hat’s anti blackness in itself.” Another user tweeted: “fix your damn anti-blackness and stop erasing Afro-Latinxs.” I find this criticism to be a cheap shot that misses the substance of the interventions by LatinoVoices and Vargas, although this sort of simplification is common, perhaps even inevitable, on Twitter. Asking a black actor to address the problems of Latinxs and other nonblack people of color could imply ignorance or disregard of black Latinxs. But this logic is, ironically, the same logic behind conservative white Americans’ rejection of the political slogan “Black Lives Matter,” which in their view means that white lives do not matter. As Black Lives Matter activists and supporters have made abundantly clear, the advocacy of A does not entail the rejection of B. This is true whether A is black lives and B is white lives, or A is nonblack Latinxs and B is Afro-Latinxs. In both cases, the interpretation of advocacy for A as the negation of B functions as a containment strategy that sidesteps the proposition that A is worthy of special attention and concern. Instead of expanding the field of political significance, the dominant reaction by black Twitter was to double down on the parameters of the existing field, while translating the potentially unsettling categories of Latinx identity into the more familiar conceptuality of antiblackness.
In part because of its brevity, the tweet format invites conceptual shortcuts. Twitter often prohibits the sort of nuanced statements that racially explosive topics such as #OscarsSoWhite require, and instead encourages expressions of outrage and slick phraseology at the expense of genuine dialogue. According to Geert Lovink, while the “ideology” of social media is that content is “surrounded by a lively social sphere,” the reality is that “rarely do we see respondents talking to teach other.” “Lively debates,” Lovink continues, “are the exception.”3
The more theoretically problematic response to LatinoVoices and Vargas came from black Twitter users who claimed that Latinxs should speak for themselves instead of demanding that black people speak for them. “It’s not up to black people to represent other racial minorities,” tweeted one African American user; “START YOUR OWN MOVEMENT! That’s not our job,” tweeted another. The critique became especially pointed when it intersected with the hashtag from which I derive the title of this post: #NotYourMule, which Mikki Kendall started on black Twitter in 2014 to highlight the ways that black women are expected to provide free labor to others while remaining silent about their own concerns. Kendall and others resuscitated the hashtag during the debate between black Twitter and LatinoVoices and Vargas, and implied that their tweets to Rock were yet another case of the instrumentalization of black labor. LatinoVoices and Vargas were allegedly repeating the logic of slavery by demanding that a black man—and by extension, black political actors in general—do the hard work of activism for them, while they sit back and appropriate the rewards. Although Kendall specified later that she was not targeting all nonblack people of color, only those who do not truly stand in solidarity with African Americans, most of her tweets, and most of the other #NotYourMule tweets, assert that Latinxs do not support black movements enough, that too many of them are complicit in antiblackness, and that they should devote their energies primarily to forming their “own” movements—as if politics were a kind of race-specific private property.4 If the chance for solidarity exists, it comes not through black people’s adoption of the struggles of other people of color, which would supposedly perpetuate the burden placed on black people to “carry” others, but through the reverse: nonblack people of color must recognize the centrality of antiblackness and commit to foregrounding the problem of antiblackness in their own communities.
The rejection of attempts by nonblack people of color to push beyond the black-white binary in American discourses of race and racism is not limited to Twitter. It is also a touchstone of the intellectual formation within contemporary black studies known as Afro-pessimism, one of whose most articulate and polemical representatives is Jared Sexton. In “People-of-Color-Blindness,” an essay that encapsulates several of his core positions, Sexton argues that “slaves are paradigmatically black” and that “blackness serves as the basis of enslavement.” While these may look like empirical statements about the history of slavery, they are instead formulations of the “political ontology of race,” that is, of the ways that blackness “functions as if it were a metaphysical property across the longue durée of the premodern, modern, and now postmodern eras.” In other words, while the enslavability of black people takes historically different forms, from chattel slavery to contemporary mass incarceration, Sexton claims that its core, antiblackness, is a structural constant, “invariant and limitless.” In the view of Frank B. Wilderson III, another major Afro-pessimist whom Sexton quotes frequently, antiblackness is the condition of possibility of civil society itself: “civil society gains its coherence […] through the violence of black erasure.” While Sexton acknowledges that nonblack people are “unequally arrayed,” his commitment to the ontological priority of antiblackness requires that he lump people into two groups, blacks and “all nonblacks.” Other forms of racialized oppression, such as settler colonialism, labor exploitation, or anti-immigrant and anti-refugee nativism, are all secondary in Sexton’s view to black slavery and its legacies. Sexton thus argues that the very concept of “people of color,” with its collective noun and presumption of commonality, produces its own kind of “colorblindness,” namely, “people-of-color-blindness, a form of colorblindness inherent to the concept of ‘people of color’ to the precise extent that it misunderstands the specificity of antiblackness.” Within this theoretical framework, moving beyond the black-white binary would be tantamount to moving beyond the capacity to think racialization as such.
I find both Afro-pessimism and black Twitter’s criticisms of LatinoVoices and Vargas to be fundamentally flawed approaches to thinking about racialization in the United States. Building on Iyko Day’s critique of the nondialectical, totalizing nature of Afro-pessimism, I propose that Afro-pessimism is a species of what the western Marxist tradition calls expressive causality. The Marxist theorization of expressive causality grew out of the critique of reductionist and economistic tendencies within Marxism itself. By positioning Afro-pessimism against Marxist thought, Sexton ironically reproduces these tendencies. Implicitly using the architectural metaphors of classical Marxism, he exchanges antiblackness for economics and argues that social formations are the superstructural effects of black slavery:
[T]he study of slavery is already and of necessity the study of capitalism, colonialism and settler colonialism, among other things […]. Slavery, as it were, precedes and prepares the way for colonialism, its forebear or fundament or support. Colonialism, as it were, the issue or heir of slavery, its outgrowth or edifice or monument.
Similarly, when Sexton claims that “black existence […] indicates the (repressed) truth of the political and economic system,” and that “the whole range of positions within the racial formation is most fully understood” from the perspective of blackness, he unwittingly echoes Georg Lukács’s argument that the standpoint of the proletariat is the key to understanding the social totality. Many contemporary Marxists have abandoned this position in favor of the concept of intersectionality and theories of class that treat the latter as a social and political process, not a substantive identity.
None of this is to say that Afro-pessimism is without merit. On the contrary, to the extent that Afro-pessimists challenge Latinxs, Asians, Native Americans, and other nonblack people of color to confront their potential role as “junior partners” of white supremacy, to use Wilderson’s term, their interventions are necessary. But I reject the expressive-causal logic according to which complexly mediated social formations are reduced to antiblackness, and according to which everyone necessarily participates in the antiblack foundations of society by virtue of their inclusion in the abstract category of “all nonblack.” Moreover, Sexton and Wilderson trivialize the power of “people of color,” that is, the interracial alliances that already exist in the United States, and that have been active throughout American history. Many Latinxs support Black Lives Matter, and many black political movements support issues that are central to Latinxs, such as immigration reform. These movements should be object lessons for Afro-pessimism and black Twitter because they do not compartmentalize their politics, or frame interracial solidarity as a lazy, racist demand for one group to carry the other, or bicker about whose oppression is more fundamental or “ontological.” As I already mentioned, both Rock and Reign also have a more expansive understanding of racism than was on display during the #NotYourMule controversy.
But here we meet another complication, for in contrast to LatinoVoices and Vargas, Reign rejected Rock’s capacity to represent her position: “Chris Rock doesn’t speak for #OscarsSoWhite. I do, as its creator. Don’t assume he does because he’s Black.” This is a remarkable statement. It not only reiterates the problematic language of private property, but also reveals an important assumption in many of the critiques of LatinoVoices and Vargas. Those black Twitter users who told Vargas to start “his” own movement for “his” own people presumed that Latinxs are an undifferentiated mass whose allegiances are, and should be, limited to their own group. With a certain poetic (in)justice, they misrecognized the Asian Vargas as Latinx, due to his Spanish name and his advocacy for Latinxs. The same critics presumed that black people are also an undifferentiated, self-identical mass, and that a black actor, simply by virtue of his blackness, represents all blacks. While calling on Vargas to get his own voice, many critics took for granted that Rock was their voice. But why is it more reasonable to believe that a rich, famous, heterosexual black man can speak for all black people than to believe that this same actor can speak for Latinxs? Why is the one presumed to be legitimate representation while the other is attacked as antiblack exploitation, even though they both require an expansive concept of affinity? To put it the other way around: if black Twitter could presume that Rock legitimately crosses the gender, class, and sexual divisions within black America so that he represents all blacks, why could they not accept the legitimacy of a request by an undocumented Filipino American for Rock to cross additional boundaries (which he had in fact already done in his Hollywood Reporter essay)? Once we drop the essentialist or ontological concept of blackness at work in the #NotYourMule debate, we can probably say that working-class and poor black women, on the one hand, and working-class and poor nonblack Latinas, on the other, have just as much, if not more, in common with each other than working-class and poor black women have in common with Rock.
Discourses of Race in the US
To get to the heart of the matter, we must examine the different political locations of African Americans and Latinx Americans in American race discourses. These differences are the major context for LatinoVoices’s and Vargas’s comments. While Sexton’s critique of “people-of-color-blindness” also aims to highlight difference, my position differs from his insofar as I do not ontologize and rank different modes of racialization relative to blackness. Indeed, a consideration of the different discursive positions of African Americans and nonblack people of color shows that Sexton’s defense of the privileged explanatory power of blackness and antiblackness is somewhat redundant. For when LatinoVoices and Vargas asked Rock to address Latinxs, Asians, and others, they practiced a necessary rhetorical strategy among nonblack people of color: they compared their oppression to the oppression of African Americans. More than a mere means of freeloading off black people and treating them as “mules,” this rhetoric strategy negotiates the privileged status of blackness in public consciousness of race, racism, and antiracist struggle.
I must try to be crystal clear on this point. I am not saying that black people are privileged members of American society. Such a belief is not only demonstrably and nonsensically false, but also plays into ideologies of postracial colorblindness and racist discourses that claim that whites are the true underdogs of liberal America, while blacks and Latinxs allegedly receive constant government handouts (a discourse that, alas, has been legitimated by the recent electoral victory of Donald Trump). One Obama does not cancel structural racism that took centuries to build. However, I am saying that blackness is the default setting for most discussions of race in the United States, that slavery and Jim Crow and antiblack policing are the lenses through which most Americans understand racism—that is, when they acknowledge its existence at all—and that the African American Civil Rights movement is the gold-standard narrative of resistance to racism. If I may say so from my own perspective as a nonblack American of color, this default setting gestures toward one of the great contradictions of black life in America. On the one hand, far too many black Americans are treated as a disposable, even killable, surplus population, making it politically necessary to assert and struggle for the basic dignity of black lives. On the other hand, black history and culture are institutionally and popularly memorialized and celebrated more than the history and culture of any other racialized group—except for white history and culture, which of course goes unmarked as just plain old history and culture. One rarely comes across a study of Emerson that is labeled an investigation of “white philosophy.”
In the academy, I find the token status of blackness to be especially prevalent in European American Studies, perhaps due in part to the continent’s dearth of ethnic studies programs that are semi-autonomous from philology and English seminars. Even the most cursory survey of books, journal articles, conferences, university courses, instructors’ specializations, funding programs, and job announcements will show that European American Studies usually treats “race” as a synonym for blackness. African American studies is a pillar of European American Studies, as it should be, but other racial and ethnic groups are mostly treated as electives. To give just one concrete example: when I search all issues of Amerikastudien/ American Studies from 1997 to 2012 on JSTOR, the words Latino or Hispanic appear 42 times. Asian appears 140 times. African appears 420 times. While Amerikastudien is the journal of the German American Studies Association, it regularly publishes articles by Americanists from across Europe, and is probably representative of the broader field.
If nonblack people of color want to be heard, they must find a position within this dominant, and contradictory, racial discourse. Take the case of Louis Torres, a Mexican immigrant who was killed by Texas police in 2002. Latinx activists spoke of Torres’s death as “Rodney King en Enspañol,” referencing the infamous beating of African American motorist Rodney King by white Los Angeles police officers in 1991. Here I can only underscore the assessment of John Márquez, a professor of African American Studies and Latino/a Studies at Northwestern University who articulates a powerful alternative to Afro-pessimism. Marquez’s analysis of the rhetoric of “Rodney King en Enspañol” is worth quoting at length:
This maneuver, I believe, derives from a haunting presupposition that the death of persons like Torres […] will not spur much alarm from the body politic, that the names of those Latino/a victims will never be recognizable as are names such as Rodney King and Trayvon Martin within debates on race and racism in the United States, and that the mass-scale police brutality mandated by border militarization and other harsh measures to police and punish immigrants will not receive much attention in the “lives matter” campaigns that have proliferated as of late. The activism elicited by these cases implies that this invisibility is due, in part, to the black-white binary, a discursive condition through which “relations” between whites and African Americans are positioned as the epicenter of “race relations” writ large, and in part to the extent that the histories and struggles of groups like Latinos/as, American Indians, Asian Americans, and Arab Americans are routinely overlooked or marginalized in political discourse.
Surely someone could reply to the Rodney King analogy by telling Latinx activists to get their “own” history, or by criticizing the way their analogy dulls the specificity of antiblack violence by equating it with anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant violence. But while such views might be motivated by authentic and legitimate concern for African Americans, they refuse to acknowledge the discursive struggle that is necessary for Latinxs and other nonblack people of color to make their claims recognizable in the first place.
The situation of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Hollywood reiterates these broader social dynamics. Let us return to one of the sparks that helped to ignite the #NotYourMule and #OscarsSoWhite debate, namely, the absence of nominations of black actors and actresses in 2015 and 2016. Once we stop seeing the Oscars exclusively in black and white, a more complex picture emerges, one that suggests that the basic problem is not antiblackness, but rather white supremacy, which works against several racialized groups in various ways. In the case of Hollywood, white supremacy is not manifested primarily against black people. The Economist magazine has tabulated that since 2000, African Americans have received only 10% of Oscar nominations. But Latinxs have received only 3%, and Asians only 1%. When each group’s nominations are compared to their share of the total population of the United States, the disproportions become more revealing. Whites are nominated at disproportionately higher rates, blacks are nominated at rates roughly equal to their population size, and Latinxs and Asians are nominated at disproportionately lower rates.
Thus, black Americans are significantly more visible in Hollywood than other people of color. They attend drama schools at higher rates than nonblack people of color, they audition for top roles in major films at disproportionately higher rates, and they receive more Oscar nominations. And, as in the case of Rock, who has hosted the Oscars twice, African Americans have had multiple opportunities to host the show since the 1970s, whereas, as far as I can tell, a Latinx or Asian American has never hosted.
Of course, the success of black Americans in Hollywood deserves celebration. African Americans have produced a brilliant and thriving popular culture. It is also vital to clarify that I am not simply trying to turn the tables on the Afro-pessimist position by demonstrating that the oppression of Latinxs and Asians is more fundamental than antiblack racism. My point is that if Latinxs and Asians ask Rock to mention them, it is not simply because they want black people to be their “mules,” but because Rock is in a position that has been closed to them. To say that this difference is just the fault of nonblack people of color, that they have not tried hard enough, or that they lack the talent, is to reinforce the same ideologies of colorblind meritocracy and work-ethic moralism that blacks themselves have fought valiantly to disrupt. It is to choose identity-specific, property-based accomplishments within a system of white supremacy over an interracial politics that aims to dismantle white supremacy by challenging it from multiple directions. When black Twitter mocked the requests by LatinoVoices and Vargas for support, the result was a radical impoverishment of the possibility of multipronged, antiracist solidarity.
The lesson to be drawn from the #NotYourMule controversy is that Americanists need broader and more intersectional maps of social identities, as well as more complex and cross-sectional maps of the hierarchies through and against which antiracist solidarity must be created. I am reminded of the Indian American Hari Kondabolu’s comedy album Waiting for 2042, which references the year that whites are predicted to fall to 49% of the American population. This figure represents a minority, Kondabolu points out, only if we contrast it to all nonwhite people, who must be lumped together as though they had no differences or tensions. “Just ask a black guy and a Korean guy what happens when the black guy walks into the Korean guy’s store,” Kondabolu jokes. “I bet you the interaction might not be pleasant. I bet you it’s not going to be like, hey, teammate. How’s it going, teammate? Pretty excited, you? 2042, am I right?” Kondabolu reminds us that solidarity among people of color is not a given. It must be won, and again, it can be won only by understanding the different ways we stand in relation to power, to one another, and to the prevailing conceptuality of racialization.
To be sure, understanding the significance of blackness and antiblackness is necessary for any analysis of American society, especially as it becomes ever more undeniable that racism did not end with the Civil Rights movement and the Obama presidency. It is equally obligatory for nonblack people of color to critique antiblackness in their own communities and political movements. If there is one point on which I agree fully with Sexton, it is his view that “every attempt to defend the rights and liberties of the latest victims of state repression will fail to make substantial gains insofar as it forfeits or sidelines the fate of blacks.” “Without blacks on board,” Sexton continues, “the only viable political option and the only effective defense against the intensifying cross fire will involve greater alliance with an antiblack civil society.” But while blackness is a necessary component of the study of racialization, it is not sufficient. To believe that this statement is antiblack requires the false logic that the critique of racism is a zero-sum struggle over political private property, such that affirming the semi-autonomous logic of other forms of racialization, or even simply asking for solidarity, means taking away the political focus that “belongs” to black people. As American society undergoes far-reaching demographic change, it is urgent that we understand the various ways that different racialized groups stand in relation to the history and structures of white supremacy, as well as the various ways that they stand in relation to one another, without falling into a competitive race to the bottom to prove whose oppression is more important, and without fighting one another for the scraps that fall from the master’s table. Instead of vying for a seat at that table in a game of racial musical chairs, we must work to upend the table together.
- “Black Twitter” refers loosely to a social network of mostly, but not exclusively, African American Twitter users and their hashtag-mediated political campaigns on the Twitter platform. The reader should keep in mind that my criticism of black Twitter in this essay refers to a specific set of users and claims that dominated the #NotYourMule and #OscarsSoWhite polemic, not to all African American Twitter users, and certainly not to all African Americans.
- Latinx is a designation that, like Latina/o and Latin@, is meant to avoid the sexism of using the male-gendered Latino as a “neutral” term. I prefer Latinx, and will use it neutrally throughout this essay, because I see the “x” as a kind of algebraic variable that registers the fluidity of identity. The term brown in my title is a related designation that was developed primarily by Chicanx activists in order to articulate a nonwhite, nonblack identity
- However, it is important to avoid attributing the communicational failures to social media as such. For example, even when Vargas wrote an apologetic essay on the lessons he learned from the #NotYourMule controversy on the blogging platform Medium, several readers still nitpicked his language for any possible indication that he was “blaming” African Americans. I would speculate that an important additional factor in the controversy is the moralistic sensitivity in interracial polemics that transforms principled debate into a competition over which side is more or less worthy of blame.
- I would like to thank Dread Scott for drawing my attention to the prominence of the language of private property in interracial dialogue during our conversations at the “Black America and the Police” conference in Bamberg, Germany, in 2016