Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Shades of Brown, Day 2: Hamid Dabashi's Rhetoric of Brownness

Given the nature of the project I'm beginning, it seems hard to pass up an engagement with Hamid Dabashi, who recently published a book called Brown Skin, White Masks (Pluto Press, 2011). The main intention of the book is to attack what he calls "comprador intellectuals" -- mainly prominent Arabs, Iranians, and South Asians -- who he feels have been too conciliatory to western liberalism (or western imperialism). Dabashi uses the language and logic of Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks and essentially applies Fanon's critique of his peers with respect to contemporary writers and media figures like Azar Nafisi, Fouad Ajami, Salman Rushdie, Ibn Warraq, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

There are many places where I disagree with Dabashi, but I'm not going to go into all that here.

Rather, I'm more interested in Dabashi's rhetoric -- the way he approaches "brownness" as a rhetoric and as an identity. How is brownness positioned vis a vis whiteness and blackness? Since he's replacing Fanon's "Black" with "Brown," how does he position the targets of his critique vis a vis the older tradition of black "comprador intellectuals" they are ostensibly replacing?

The answer appears to be that Dabashi is treating brownness as a transparent and self-evident reality (X is "brown" -- it's as plain as the nose on her face), and he doesn't appear to have thought through the implications of his displacement of blackness much if at all. For Dabashi, the transparency of brownness is due to a racialization that he accepts and never seriously questions.

Here's a pretty representative early passage:
In what follows, I pursue an argument about the conditions under which the figure of the native informer has assumed a key function in the American ideological machinery. In making this machinery, I wish to argue, brown has become the new black and the Muslim has emerged as the new Jew. White stays the same, but it has lost its iconic power to name, color, and designate. (20)
This phrasing, "brown has become the new black," recurs several times over the course of the text, but with little apparent awareness that there are of course still black intellectuals who are very much interested in talking about issues of race and identity. Dabashi, of course, is operating in a post-9/11 framework, and many of the texts and statements he singles out for scorn date to the 2001-2005 period, when figures like Nafisi and Ajami were frequently in the news to represent "Muslims who favor the west." But his apparent complete disregard for what happens to "black" when you say "brown has become the new black" is pretty stunning.

Here's another passage that makes some similar moves:
The most significant lesson in the current recodification of racism in America is that racism as a phenomenon stays constant while its signifiers change visual and affective registers—from black to brown, from Jew to Muslim, at the center of which bifurcations remains a fictive white Christian interlocutor who demands and exacts racialized superiority. Islam is the new Judaism, Muslims the new Jews, Islamophobia the new anti-Semitism, and brown the new black—all in the racialized imagination of a white-identified supremacy that must first alienate (both in itself and of itself) in order to rule. (128)
Here the issue might be that while the logic Dabashi is outlining seems sound on its surface ("racism as a phenomenon stays constant while its signifiers change"), he hasn't really bothered to take the time to think through what racism was and how it worked before its "recodification" in the post-9/11 moment. It may be that Muslims have been racialized post-9/11 (and indeed, President Trump's approach to the Muslim Ban suggests he thinks in exactly these ways), but if so this is happening under an entirely different set of material circumstances than America's anti-black racism. (It's surprising, since Dabashi is a thinker influenced by Marxism, that he doesn't seem to consider that material history important.)  I think the prospect of "Muslims the new Jews" might be supportable -- but that's a religious logic as much, if not more, than it is a racial one. 

One question Dabashi never really raises is whether Azar Nafisi (as an Iranian) is "brown" the same way Salman Rushdie (as an Indian) is "brown" -- and he doesn't really stop to consider whether Ayaan Hirsi Ali should be considered "brown at all. Here, for instance, he simply marks Nafisi as brown -- but seemingly unaware of it:

Perhaps because Nafisi has never taught at any liberal-arts college or university in the United States, she appears entirely ignorant of the decades-long struggle that minorities (Native Americans, African-Americans, Latin Americans, Asian-Americans, gays and lesbians, and many more) have waged to make a dent in the vacuum-packed curriculum of the white establishment. She is, though brown, white-identified to the marrow of her bone. With utter disregard for the struggle of disenfranchised communities, Nafisi squarely places yet another non-European culture at the service not only of the empire's global insatiability but also of its domestic agenda. (80)

Why is Dabashi so sure that Nafisi is "brown"? Here is Professor Nafisi, from a recent picture:

My point isn't necessarily that Dabashi is wrong -- and again, I'm not interested in critiquing his claims so much as following his rhetoric. But his presumption of racialization is problematic, in part because he's not engaging the long tradition of racial identification among Persian and Arab immigrants in the U.S -- not as brown or black, but as white. What would it mean to acknowledge that immigrants like Nafisi and Rushdie might have more in common with white-identified immigrants from Europe than with darker-skinned immigrants or the descendants of enslaved Africans?

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