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Fear of Black Consciousness
Lewis R Gordon
Allen Lane, £20
“I CAN’T breathe.” George Floyd’s dying words have established an iconic meme resounding throughout the world.
Just as the asphyxiating coronavirus “sees” no boundaries, responding most effectively to pre-existing conditions, Lewis Gordon, a leading Afro-Jewish existentialist philosopher, recognises that “our pre-existing pandemics of neoliberalism, neoconservatism, fascism, and their accompanying racism” provided vulnerable social sites for the virus to spread more efficiently.
Gordon quotes WEB Du Bois, the famous social scientist, educationist and socialist, founder of the NAACP: “Being born black does not entail in social scientific terms what it means to be black.”
This immensely informative, scholarly but nevertheless remarkably entertaining exploration of “black” consciousness and Black (with a capital B) consciousness, the former being “mostly affected and sometimes immobile,” the latter is “effective and always active.”
Both, but especially the last, are feared by white elitist societies, whether those where black inhabitants form a majority or those belonging to the ethnic minority.
Gordon sets out to reveal how this fear of the rise of Black consciousness, signalled by the Black Lives Matter movement, leads to a hypocritical disrespect for truth and “a flight from reality” on the part of white consciousness.
Those blacks who accommodate themselves to living in a white world, seemingly without tension, “look black … but do not be black.” Gordon questions whether Barack Obama’s popularity among white Americans, even including some Republicans, reflected their seeing a black body lived by a white consciousness and mind — a white reflection of themselves.
While the black reader will have no difficulty in accepting Gordon’s definition of “whiteness” — a state of “pleonexia” or wanting everything, in Sartre’s phrase, the desire to be God — the white reader may indignantly bridle.
However, the author’s skill in lacing his argument with extensive examples of attitudes and behaviour he or she would recognise as “natural” within white consciousness is convincing.
Every page makes the white reader question his or her own social awareness.
“While being white connotes a right to everything, being black … connotes a lack of a right to anything.”
Although Gordon’s is an American take, with its inevitable black slavery context, on black/white issues, the white British reader must face the argument that racism is a social construct bred into white consciousness.
Those who claim “I don’t see race” are indulging in “a pleasing falsehood” involving a rejection of responsibility to face “challenges posed by a world in which race matters.”
Where, for instance, has the current, government-embarrassing well of sympathy for white refugees come from when the public concern for Syrians (non-white) seeking refuge met with minimal sympathy reflecting Home Office responses?
Lewis Gordon ranges confidently over philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology and notably linguistics.
Throughout, he deconstructs the language we employ to understand ourselves. By tracing meanings of words from their inception, he uncovers their dangerous reverberations controlling our actions.
Similarly, our very social identities — race, gender, class, black, white, all cross-related — are socio-political constructs rather than being innate.
If all this sounds rather heavy-going, the range of Gordon’s fields of reference covering for examples the relevance of the Black Panther character in the Marvel film universe and the essential role and influence of the blues in black consciousness — coupled with his engaging anecdotal asides — will keep the reader, black or white, fully engaged and, as importantly, self-questioning.
A last warning. If you do not enjoy having preconceptions challenged, don’t read this book!
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