In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Marzia Milazzo. Milazzo is an associate professor of English at the University of Johannesburg. Her book is Colorblind Tools: Global Technologies of Racial Power.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Marzia Milazzo: Colorblind Tools: Global Technologies of Racial Power demonstrates that white supremacy and anti-Blackness continue to structure material conditions and racial ideology on a global scale. Through the study of texts on race produced in Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, the United States, South Africa, and Italy, the book shows that white people as a collective disavow racism to maintain power, and that anti-Black and colonial logics can infiltrate even some decolonial literatures. In the process, the book pushes against the widespread emphasis on historical change that shapes much contemporary racial theory, especially the argument that racism has radically changed since World-War II. While many scholars have argued that we are now confronted with a new racism (a term often used interchangeably with cultural racism and colorblind racism), I trace the racial technology of colorblindness from the inception of colonial modernity and racialized slavery to the present to demonstrate that racism today is fundamentally tied to the past.
Instead of insisting that we live in a new racial era in which racism has gone underground, the book traces the workings of what I call colorblind tools: strategies and technologies that at once obfuscate and reproduce racism. These strategies circulate across temporal, linguistic, and national borders, even as they display local peculiarities. The disavowal of racism and anti-Blackness, I show, is institutionalized in the law, the media, and academia beyond national boundaries. Consider how the denial of anti-Black racism is actively encouraged and even rewarded in academia, whether in the United States, Brazil, or South Africa. In all the contexts I study, white people maintain control over the economy, the media, and the university, yet actively disavow the existence of structural racism. This disavowal is a central tactic of white supremacy: as white people, we do not want to give up our privileges; therefore, we try to hide their very existence—globally. Colorblind Tools unmasks disavowal as a constitutive technology of racism.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
My thinking on racism is informed by the work of scholars and activists grounded in the Black Radical Tradition and Afropessimism, who have provided fundamental knowledge on racism and anti-Blackness that Colorblind Tools could not have been written without. Moreover, several histories of Black and Indigenous resistance permeate the book, which pays attention to the demands of radical social movements such as the West Indian-led labor movement in Panama, the Chicano Movement in the United States, or the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. These histories show that the white camouflage and disavowal of racism have been around for over five centuries not by chance, but precisely because white supremacy is constantly under attack. Racial power, like all power, depends on a certain secrecy. Unable to count on truth or moral high ground, but fabricating both, white supremacy is always in hiding. As Colorblind Tools exposes common strategies that conceal and thereby strengthen white supremacy, it also pays attention to how anti-Black and liberal logics can be reproduced even within some antiracist movements, literary traditions, and epistemologies. In making visible key mechanisms of racial reproduction, engaging transnational histories of organized resistance, and grappling with the complex ways that antiracism can sometimes collude with racism, I hope that the book will be useful not just to students and scholars, but also to activists and organizers.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
First, the book aims to challenge white supremacy itself by showing how white people’s global political and socio-economic dominance continues to be contingent on ongoing white denial, disavowal, and outright lies, including lies fabricated and sold as truth at the highest echelons of academia. The book insists that there is nothing new about this disavowal as white people have always tried to silence the fact that, as Aimé Césaire writes in Discourse of Colonialism, “Europe is responsible before the human community for the highest heap of corpses in history.” Rather than with a substantial alteration of the racist infrastructure, we are dealing with cosmetic change—that is, reform—which is itself instrumental to the reproduction of white power. Colorblind Tools thus contests the myth of progress, the idea that, when it comes to racism, things are better now than in the past. It also challenges the idea that “time heals all racial wounds,” a myth that I call colorblind time. The myth of time as racial healer serves to obfuscate how time is itself a technology of racial subordination.
The shared white tactics and rhetorical maneuvers across four continents that Colorblind Tools documents also challenge the idea that most racism is produced unconsciously, subconsciously, or even unwillingly. While many scholars remain committed to the notion of implicit bias, my book supports Frantz Fanon’s argument that “a social group, a country, a civilization, cannot be unconsciously racist.” In showing how white people actively work together across temporal, national, and ideological boundaries to maintain power, the book also challenges the theory of white ignorance, developed by the late philosopher Charles Mills. I contend that disavowal, which presumes knowledge, more adequately describes white epistemology in matters of race. White people are not primarily ignorant about racism. We rather understand that it benefits us immensely and, therefore, strategically perform ignorance as a tactic that protects white supremacy and allows us to appear innocent in the process.
Which intellectuals and/or intellectual movements most inspire your work?
The work of Steve Biko has been particularly influential for my thinking on anti-Black racism and white supremacy. As a white woman, I must constantly critically interrogate my place in the world and my own work. I must be attentive to how white people work together to maintain the racist status quo, regardless of political or ideological affiliation. Biko called this “the totality of the white power structure.” Within this totality, he argued, white liberals pose a particularly insidious threat to Black people. Many Black USAmerican revolutionaries, such as Assata Shakur and Kwame Ture, have made similar arguments, warning against liberalism and “well-meaning” white people. These analyses of white power have been crucial for my understanding of how racism functions and the treacherous ways that white supremacy and anti-Blackness are often reproduced within white thought that appears antiracist on the surface.
Which two books published in the last five years would you recommend to BAR readers? How do you envision engaging these titles in your future work?
While this is a difficult question as many important and useful books have been published in the last five years, two immediately come to mind: Savannah Shange’s Progressive Dystopia: Abolition, Antiblackness, and Schooling in San Francisco (2019) and Lorgia García Peña’s Translating Blackness: Latinx Colonialities in Global Perspective (2022). Shange’s eminently engaging ethnography shows how, even in a seemingly progressive school in which the curriculum centers the experiences of Black people and people of color and students are required to take ethnic studies courses, Black pupils are subjected to what Shange calls carceral progressivism as they continue to be criminalized and excluded. Shange exposes the anti-Blackness of liberal logics and calls attention to the continuities between racism and antiracism. This is a book to which I will return again and again as I continue to grapple with how anti-Blackness can be reproduced even in seemingly antiracist spaces and works.
While Shange’s study is firmly located in the US context, García Peña’s Translating Blackness provides a model for transnational scholarship on racism and antiracist resistance that centers the experiences of Black people, while remaining attentive to local differences. Moving deftly from Frederick Douglass’s support for a US annexation of the Dominican Republic and Gregorio Luperón’s opposition to US imperialism to anti-Black racism in contemporary Italy and so-called Second Generation activists’ resistance thereto, Garciá Peña shows how Black people have created spaces of belonging in what she calls contradiction to white supremacist laws, spaces, and logics. I will return to García Peña’s book for the wealth of its archive and critical analysis, particularly as I further engage with racism and antiracism in the Italian context.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.