Decentering the U.S.: Introduction



Lambert Funambulist
A cartographic attempt at pluriversality. Map by Léopold Lambert (2022).

Welcome to the 41st issue of The Funambulist. Some of our issues’ editorial lines are deliberately left a little bit looser (cf. Politics of Food, Music and the Revolution, etc.) to allow for a more open-ended approach to their respective topics. On the other hand, some of our other editorial lines try to be as precise as possible in order to make a point. This is most definitely the case for this present issue. The question that motivates it is simple: how come so many of us outside the settler colony called the United States of America, are so deeply influenced by and interpret our own contexts through the political ‘software’—an odd word perhaps, but a more direct one than “epistemology”—created by U.S.-based academics and activists?

In my own context, a country that still has not accepted its ever growing irrelevance at the global scale, asking this question could be interpreted as adopting the protofascist rhetoric of the government. Indeed, the Macron administration has repeatedly accused the antiracist movement in France to have been contaminated by U.S. “wokeness” (a term emerged from U.S. Blackness that they have learned to misappropriate), which supposedly essentializes racialized communities in opposition to the sacrosanct French (white) universalism. Facing this demagoguery, we have three possible responses. The first one consists of denying such an influence. Given the ubiquity of the U.S. cultural infrastructure in our lives, and the local media’s daily treatment of U.S.-based events as if they were happening next door, it seems a rather disingenuous claim to make. The second possible response—the most common one—consists in accepting this influence and describing the United States as a society where antiracist speeches and other intellectual productions are more easily facilitated than they are in France. This spans from social media commentaries that suggest “never in France would we see cops taking a knee for Black Lives Matter,” to more sophisticated arguments perceiving U.S. universities as a land of milk and honey for academic research on antiracism and anticolonialism. This claim not only fall into every trap of “greener grass” arguments that invisibilizes the relentless settler colonial and structurally racist violence that so many people in the United States are up against, it also develops a unicentric system of ideas meant to be applied to all situations.

A third option is to not let nationalist actors monopolize this question and (as we propose to do in this issue) re-appropriate it for ourselves, for it was never theirs to begin with. Our perspective on the U.S. should also be radically different from theirs in the strict separation they imply between Europe and the United States. The latter is nothing more than a West European settler colony, which could not possibly be considered independently from its genitor continent. As such, this issue almost took the name “Provincializing the U.S.,” as a continuation of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s classic essay Provincializing Europe (2000).

The goal here is less to disqualify the U.S. political software, than to demonstrate that the successful ways through which it analyzes its own context may not be as useful when analyzing other situations. Take whiteness for instance. In the context of 21st century U.S. settler colonialism, there does not exist 50 shades of whiteness to qualify the political trajectories of settler citizens. The transatlantic transformation of a people like Irish Americans, from the anticolonial struggle against British occupation to the ranks of the New York Police Department—at the risk of being caricatural—is a stunning example of this (cf. Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, 1995). Nevertheless, the recent interpretations by many North American and other Western activists on the treatment of Ukrainian refugees, perceived as absolutely and definitively white, is evidence that the monolith we’ve made of whiteness has become inadequate to analyze this specific situation.

The U.S.-produced equivalence of whiteness with epidermic paleness is indeed flattening the many layers of racialization at work on the very Continent that birthed colonial whiteness. Dismantling this equivalence does not in any way mean disqualifying colorism—a system that recognizes a higher intensity of racist violence towards bodies in closer proximity to Black skin tones. In this regard, the example of the Indian Subcontinent is an enlightening one. On the Subcontinent coexists on the one hand a colorist hierarchy of people (in particular between the North and the South) and, on the other hand, a dreadful daily colonial violence against the most northern people: Kashmiris. Seeing an unsolvable contradiction in this coexistence of two oppressive systems (colorism and colonialism) is tantamount to intellectual laziness.

If we go back to Europe, it is also crucial to recognize that just because the political history of Polish, Irish, Portuguese, Sami, Bosniaks, Greek, Ashkenazis, Danes, Basques, Albanians, and French people (to cite only a few and, importantly, understanding these identities as ethnic groups over nationalities) place them on very distinct shades of whiteness, does not mean that any of them escapes the structures of anti-Blackness or those of systematic racism against Roma people.

Those take different forms and different degrees of structural violence, which relate to contexts’ specific histories, but it is undeniable that they relentlessly operate everywhere in Europe.

Blackness too, tends to be understood almost exclusively from intellectual and cultural production emerging from the U.S.. Césaire, Fanon, and Glissant—all Martinicans—may provide counter-examples, but they do not fundamentally alter an understanding of Blackness exclusively centered on North Atlantic history, ignoring the myriad of Black cosmologies from South America, the interior of the African Continent, the Indian Ocean, and Melanesia—in this regard, I highly recommend reading our conversation with Quito Swan about Black internationalism in Vanuatu, West Papua, and Kanaky in our 39th issue about the Ocean. Once again a clarification may be needed here. The problem we are pointing to is this issue of universalizing one paradigm; not necessarily the paradigm itself. For instance, the relationship African Americans have with the concept of citizenship—the very adoption of the term “Americans” in this identifier that makes this relationship particularly explicit—as pointed out by Cases Rebelles in their contribution, is certainly not on trial in this issue. However the idea that Angolans in Portugal, Cameronians in France, or Kenyans in Britain (to cite only a few) should have a similar relationship with Portuguese, French, or British citizenship (whether they have access to this citizenship or not) would transpose a U.S.-centric history of civil right struggles over those organized against European colonialism on the African continent and subsequent anti-racist diasporic struggles in Europe.

Although I have said earlier that what’s critiqued in this issue is less the U.S. political software itself and more so its application elsewhere, we did also want to humbly suggest that this model has room for growth even within the United States itself. This is how, in their contribution, Sinthujan Varatharajah questions the usefulness of the political concept of “brownness” in the way it flattens and makes uniform the violence within relationships of power between the many diasporas from the Indian Subcontinent and Sri Lanka-Eelam. This critique operates in dialogue with the conversation between Shaista Aziz Patel and Vijeta Kumar about this paradigm’s lack of consideration for the way caste operates not only on the Subcontinent itself, but also for diasporas living in the U.S..

Another concept forged in the United States that appears to us as worth questioning, despite its own productive political appropriation, is the Latinx identity grouping. Beyond the very name that immediately situates it in a eurocentric imaginary (Latin being the antic language of the Roman republic/empire that later gave birth to Italian, Romanian, French, Catalan, Portuguese, and Spanish), the idea that a Maya indigenous person living in the U.S. would have more in common with a white Argentinian descendant of Italian settlers, than with a member of one of the many Indigenous nations dispossessed by the U.S. settler colony is questionable at best, as Floridalma Boj Lopez describes (with a higher sense of nuance) in her contribution.

A final point. Decentering the U.S., importantly, also means refusing to make the United States the source of all imperialist projects in the world. As Zoé Samudzi writes in this issue, the phrase “the U.S. is the worst” is not that different from “the U.S. is the best”; in both cases, there is no imagination for a world where the United States is not at the very center. Besides this narcissistic vision, this also leads to “Leftist” excuses for other imperialist projects: the empires that the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation embody (even before their political and military ‘external’ incursions), but also the renewed imperialist ambitions of Turkey, India, Iran, Ethiopia, and many others at a regional level.

This introduction may read as judgmental, if not angry. Furthermore, the issue might be falling in the trap of recentering the object it advocates to decenter in analyzing it, rather than, say, ignoring it altogether. It is however crucial to say that this group of contributions presented here is not meant to focus on a specific critique, as my words may have suggested until now.

In our commitment to internationalism, we want to humbly contribute a response to the universalization of the U.S. political software by encouraging a pluriversalization of our influences.

This does not mean, of course, that we should part from the crucial work done by many in the United States (in our conversation, Rahul Rao, reminds us what we owe to Black U.S. feminist authors for instance), but rather, consider how these works can constitute one of many fragments within our political imaginary. This issue might provide a few other fragments informed in Maya, Guadeloupean, Cameroonian, Eela Tamil, Ugandan, Dalit, Palestinian, and Southern African sensibilities, to cite only a few of the many sensitivities our contributors generously brought to this issue following their own life trajectories, as well as the pluriversal influences they have themselves received and cultivated. I sincerely hope that this attempt at pluriversality will resonate with you and the potential frustration you might be experiencing in relation to the way struggles are approached in your specific context. This is only the beginning of laying out many questions whose answers we would never claim to have. I wish you an excellent read. ■