Before I read Houria Bouteldja’s Whites, Jews, and Us in full, I heard about the controversy that accompanied its initial French publication in 2016, especially in leftist circles there. With Rachel Valinsky’s English translation in 2017, the controversy has crossed into other parts of Europe and North America. Bouteldja is taken to be a stand-in for political antiracism in the West, portrayed as the purveyor of regressive identity politics, and then denounced for causing the worst sorts of trouble to progressive and radical movements for freedom, justice, and equality. French republicanism, of course, is especially innervated by campaigns based in a politics of identity and difference, seeing in the social categories of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or religion only the means of state-sanctioned discrimination, the catalyst of civil unrest, and the prelude to historical catastrophe. On this account, which is shared by large swaths of the Euro-American Left, there is no such thing as a critical formulation of any such categories and they cannot serve as principles of political mobilization, social organization, or cultural production, except as an unwitting play into the hands of the Right. To persist, as Bouteldja does, in using race as a central category of analysis—even as a metalanguage of power, pleasure, and possibility—is to run afoul of the prevailing forms of leftist universalism in the global north. It is also to challenge many of the particular, intersecting claims of the new social movements born of the economic dislocations and political tumult of the last several decades. But, in each case, to reformulate is not to refute.
In her interrogation of the positions and propositions of the white working and middle classes in France, of Jews in Israel and throughout the Diaspora, and of white women in the West (which are questions, respectively, about socialism, Zionism, and feminism), Bouteldja is asking about the function, and not simply the status, of the battery of rights claimed and exercised in the liberal democracies. And she is asking not whether a right is meritorious or meretricious (a debate that is deliberately suspended here and whose significance is mocked insofar as it is taken to be self-evident), but rather whether it enables or disables, in this conjuncture, the most radical, i.e., deep-rooted and far-reaching, analysis and action. In this, she is a fellow traveler of scholar-activists working alongside Aníbal Quijano within the “coloniality of power” framework, part of a network of theorists like Paola Bacchetta, Ramón Grosfoguel, Sadri Khiari, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and María Lugones. And her deepest inspiration is found most readily in the gravity and generosity of Black Power as the latter sensibility was expressed in an earlier generation by the likes of James Baldwin, Jean Genet, Audre Lorde, and Malcolm X.
The procedure undertaken in Whites, Jews, and Us is, from one vantage, fairly straightforward. Bouteldja is interested in returning a sense of verticality to analyses of power, not only between the top and the bottom, the haves and the have-nots, but also among those excluded, by differences of degree and of kind, from the commanding heights, a stratigraphy of being and value. Yes, the ruling classes exploit the white working people of France, Europe, and the West, but the latter also represent, for themselves and their bosses, the “small shareholders of the vast enterprise of the world’s dispossession.” And, within “the gigantic hold-up” inaugurated as a slaveholding conquest circa 1492, they seek to retain the “infinite [material, statutory, institutional, political, symbolic] privileges of colonial domination,” the full benefits derived from the wages of whiteness. If there will be a robust international workers movement in pursuit of socialism, Bouteldja contends, it must begin with and remain rooted in an understanding of this fundamental division, one forged by the material and symbolic practices of racial differentiation.
The Jews of Europe come in for a related confrontation to the extent that the (asymmetric) Zionist pact with Euro-American imperialism seeks to combat the long history of anti-Semitic persecution on the continent with a bid to inhabit a “buffer” between white Christendom and the Muslim world. Jews are “integrated into a superior echelon of the racial hierarchy” or “ladder of oppression” above the Arab-Berber Muslims hailing from North Africa and the Middle East. Jews, in this dispensation, would be whitened but not fully white, stuck, as it were, in an “uncertain, uncomfortable, in-between.”
So, too, for white women whose struggle for gender equality in the metropolitan milieu fails to grasp, let alone to challenge, the inherited and (unevenly) shared conditions of racial power that make possible the very terms of debate appropriated by feminists since the eighteenth century. A colonial order can never be genuinely egalitarian, Bouteldja reminds us, even for its putative beneficiaries. All of which is to say that Whites, Jews, and Us is a work of critique that identifies the true sources of suffering of those in intermediary positions of relative power—“to identify your real enemy”—and that points out the disavowed capitulations and conflicts of interest at work in order to better address and undo them. Crucially, this is also the case among the Indigenous of the Republic themselves. Bouteldja notes clearly that any “big fat machos” from the banlieue must abandon their quest for dominant masculinity, even if she understands the structural conditions giving rise to a lived experience of its seeming necessity, “this masculine, indigenous ‘gender trouble.’”
Lest we think Bouteldja assumes a position of self-righteous authority, she announces throughout that she and her most immediate constituency of indigenous communities, women foremost, all generations of Eurocentric postcolonial migrants, are implicated as well: “I am in the lowest strata of profiteers,” she admits, “white” in the eyes of the so-called third world, but “not quite” in the view of Europe. She is among “the wretched of the interior, at once victims and exploiters.” In sum: “We are complicit in the exploitation of the South. Luckily, under these skies, we are not beloved.” That good luck of being unloved, despised, profiled, harassed, attacked, of being among those who “do not make up the legitimate bodies of the nation” is, for Bouteldja, a gift or opportunity to save oneself by relinquishing the feigned ignorance and tormenting innocence of actual or potential complicity. One must, by contrast, take advantage of one’s suffering in order to open up new horizons of struggle, “to go in search of our solidarities,” those “dangerous convergences” that might truly challenge the order of things: between Muslims and Jews, colonized and colonizing workers, indigenous women and men, and so on. So this book involves a searing critique, but it is more basically an elaboration on the theme of revolutionary love, embracing the denigrated, minor terms of the structuring binaries to which we are all condemned.
On that score, the impious and seemingly libelous attacks Bouteldja launches on the touchstones of contemporary civil society are aimed squarely at what she terms the “white immune system” and its self-arrogated “monopoly on ethics,” the myriad ways the colonial order cleanses its hands in the ever-flowing stream of domestic progress: “You are the greatest antiracists . . . You are the most appalled by anti-Semitism . . . You are the greatest anticolonialists . . . You are the most involved in humanitarian causes . . . You are the greatest feminists . . . You are the most anti-homophobic . . . How could we possibly climb to your level? We are gnomes, you are giants.” The image of the indigenous other in the racist imagination represents an offense to and violation of liberalism as such, including its progressive and radical offshoots. So be it. But in her irreverence, Bouteldja is not spitefully committing to reactionary causes or even pandering to the unseemliest elements in her midst; she is ironically performing the contradiction of a morally repugnant stance as it appears before an ethically compromised judgment. The fact that her critics can do no more than caricature her position and discount her intellectual formation tells us she has struck a nerve.
Bouteldja has accumulated a coterie of notable detractors, but the criticism from other indigenous feminists stands out for its strident mischaracterization. Chapter 4, “We, Indigenous Women,” has been deemed an apologia for indigenous patriarchy, a soft-pedaling of intramural gender violence, sexual regulation, and reproductive control. Bouteldja’s alchemical proposal to engage the masculinism, misogyny, and homophobia of indigenous men, especially of the youth, has been ridiculed to that end. Bouteldja writes:
We will have to guess which part, in the testosterone-laden virility of the indigenous male, resists white domination. Then we will channel it, neutralize its violence against us, and orient it toward a project of common liberation. This fundamentally white masculinity [“an imitation of an imitation,” in Baldwin’s phrase] will require something to offset it that is at least as gratifying. That is called respect. It is not complicated, but it is costly.
But what is so ridiculous about this approach? Bouteldja states, at the outset, that she wrote this book with an expressly Gramscian concern for the future. Is this proposal not an aspect of the “war of position,” a strategy of rearticulation, adjudicating “between the reactionary features of popular consciousness and the progressive potential that it also contains”?1Jones, Steve. Antonio Gramsci. New York, Routledge, 2006. Bouteldja is interested in organizing for radical prospects within actually existing communities, forging something “popular,” in Antonio Gramsci’s sense of the term. That popular movement would avoid the reactionary lures of racist ethno-nationalism or religious fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the bankruptcy of social democracy, on the other. En route, though, she refuses to accuse just as much as she refuses to excuse. Regarding indigenous men, she writes:
Them, enemies? There is no simple answer to this question. I would be lying if I answered with a candid and irrevocable no. But I make the conscious choice to say no because my liberation will not be attained without theirs. […] The indigenous man is not our main enemy. […] We especially know that our men are just as oppressed as us in different ways.
This is but one example of how everything previously considered a firm plank in the platform of the Left must be rethought from the perspective of “global economic and political structures and North/South relationships” as they have taken shape across the modern era. Not least, “thinking about gender and the types of relations between men and women cannot be done without a radical calling into question of Modernity and a reflection on its civilizational alternative.” It is within this larger, world-historical context that Bouteldja can proclaim: “To be honest, between us, everything is still possible. I might be optimistic, but that is my choice. We have a common destiny in the same way that we potentially have a common political future.” This is the purview of the We of revolutionary love she outlines.
And yet, because this love is grounded in “conserving the memory of societies based on solidarity,” “before they were engulfed in modernity . . . when there were still cultures, chants, regional languages, and traditions,” because this movement toward the We is animated, in part, by a concern for or experience of “the dissolution of identities,” it remains bound up in that allegorical Sartrean paradox that launches the book: a hedging radicalism. If this revolutionary love draws fully from the encounter between Baldwin and Lorde, or the thousands of others like it in the black political cultures derived from “the world the slaves made,” it would have to look beyond the broad heading of the indigènes and turn itself toward “those who are beneath those who are at the bottom.” Specifically, toward those slaves and their disinherited descendants whose historic alliance the proletarians could not abide, whose enslavement and its afterlife precedes and belies the suffering of the postcolonial immigrant, and whose ongoing predicament subtends any and all “groups seeking plenitude,” material or symbolic. Those who are not simply shorn of “noble titles” but who have lost even that wretched status as “losers.” Those that will write the next chapter of this story, the seventh chapter, from below: You, the Indigenous.