American Multiculturalism, French Universalism, Antiblackness, and the French Headscarf Ban

22 Pages Posted: 4 Nov 2013

See all articles by Brynne Sharafi

Brynne Sharafi

California State University, Dominguez Hills

Date Written: November 4, 2013


From the United States’ foundations, colonialism’s oppressive policies have been the legitimating factors of the nation’s authority. “The history of colonialism in North America, the expropriation of Indian lands and resources, parallels the history of U.S.-Indian relations in and social services.” The United States was established upon the crushed psyches (and bodies) of Indigenous-Americans. In accordance to an assimilationist and universalist framework, school was forced upon indigenous youth to re-socialize them so that resistance to complete colonization would be less likely to come about. When it did come about, bodily harm would be utilized to keep the colonized in check. In the 16th century, mission-schools were established for the physical and psychological domination of the various indigenous nations that inhabited what is now the continental United States. All indigenous nations (re-named ‘tribes’) were distinct, with varying histories and ways of life. The unique identities of indigenous peoples were muddled together and eradicated so that a white notion of the friendly/compliant and/or hostile/savage native subject could be constructed in their places. Not surprisingly, the territories of the non-continental United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, have histories of indigenous colonization, displacement, and death as well. Indigenous peoples were told that “a bilateral arrangement” was to be established, when in the 1830s “court decisions...enabled the United States to subordinate Indian nations.” Such determinations of what was deemed law were the means by which U.S. colonizers could create some authority to begin a full destruction of the land and people. In the later 19th century, continued use of education as a tool of colonization was in full effect:

“During the years of the boarding school system, Indian children were kidnapped from their communities by the military and taken to far away places where they were punished for being ‘Indian,’ for speaking their native languages, or for practicing their cultural traditions. In these schools, infamous schoolmasters...used Indian youth as factory and farm labor to pay for their upkeep.”

Once indigenous people were made docile through death and re-education, “bewilderers” (race-scientists and law-makers) began to create models of supposed biological pathology that used a false science called Craniology to claim the inferiority of Indigenous-Americans and African-Americans. The forces behind the re-education of indigenous groups began an attack that used ‘biological’ determinations of non-whites to compare all minority groups to irrational animals. False historians made claims that there were barely ever any indigenous peoples in the Americas. This was despite the large and diverse nations of ethnically unique Indigenous-Americans who first inhabited what is now the United States, mass numbers of whom were displaced and killed by European disease and weapons. This created a system of pseudoscience to support myths that allowed for the colonial government to further segregate and confine Indigenous-Americans, sending them to reservations in the name of inferiority and labor.

“Increasingly sophisticated versions of Eurocentrism assist in smoothing the transition from traditional colonialism to Third World neocolonialism.” In Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon explains that in “capitalist countries a multitude of moral teachers, counselors and ‘bewilderers’ separate the exploited from those in power...[while in]...colonial countries...the policeman and the soldier, by their immediate presence and their frequent and direct action...advise [the native] by means of rifle butts...not to budge.” The American imperialism that exists in post-civil rights United States is a hybrid of the two. Capitalism was raised in America by colonialism to create today’s environment in which corporations and laws work together to administer physical discipline and psychological manipulation. The work done during the civil rights movement is used as a scapegoat by ideology-makers who claim that now everyone has ‘equal opportunity’ (phrases like this have been used to take place of critical analyses of racism). Claims of equal opportunity for all groups mask the “growing balkanization...[and] racial conflict ...[witnessed in] schools...workplaces, neighborhoods, ...and political parties.”

Conservative and liberal politicians are apart of a “para-academic domain” that directs critical conversation away from racial experience “by neutralizing (re-depoliticizing) identity through normalizing practices. “As liberal discourse converts political identity into essentialized private interest, disciplinary power converts interest into normativized social identity manageable by regulatory schemes.” Essentially, state-manufactured markets use stereotypes to shape target-markets, and the state uses stereotypes to “[configure]... disciplinary subject[s]” within certain groups. “The idea that white racial identification could be a handicap” is used in a present day “backlash...discerned against the institutionalization of civil rights reforms.” Such talk is formulated and used by ideologues whose “white racial nationalism” is at risk. Historical structural racism (and sexualized racism) is thus ignored so that new myths can be manufactured to serve post-colonial interests.

Multiculturalism is a term that attempts “to represent challenges to the persisting problem of racism,” but has failed to address the structural issue that, without colonialism and slavery, ‘democratic‘ America (politics ironically controlled not by “We the people,” but by interest groups backed by money from powerful corporations) would not have thrived. Multiculturalism does for existing structures of power today what traditional colonialism did for early capitalism during its fledgling stages in the U.S.: by hiding the forces of power behind a syntactical smoke-screen.

In the “1970s, multiculturalism was a grassroots attempt at community based racial reconstruction through that vital local institution, the neighborhood public school.” Activists wanted to use the space of the public school to continue civil rights dialogue during a time of governmental backlash responding to the civil rights movement. Language born in activism, though, was twisted into “something named identity politics to suggest the limited usefulness of a discussion of identity.” (My emphasis added.) Dialogue initiated by well-meaning activists was hijacked before further necessary discussion could take place on a deeper level. “The absence of a clear post-civil rights understanding of race has meant that issues of racial equality and racial identity have been vulnerable to re-articulation from the right.” What began as a neighborhood collaboration to keep discussion of race on the table was turned into an ideological tool used to represent political correctness in a supposedly ‘color-blind‘ era to prevent discussion around race. Avoidance of issues practical to race were ignored in order to mend the identities and representations of white men who could not bear the marring of their reputations (well, the reputations of their ancestors by way of a few hundred years) as dictatorial rapists. This stems from pockets of white offense taken at the historical documentation of black sexual exploitation and abuse during and after slavery, such information compiled by black feminists, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians.

White supremacy needed a rebuttal. “The culture [part of] multiculturalism [shifted] attention from racialization to culture...[making] racism more difficult to acknowledge and control” and it was thus “normalized in [a way] that [lent itself] to static and conservative politics.” Ideology that claimed that culture was an inherent part of race narrowed representations of people of color, simultaneously reenforcing the biological notions of race it claimed to be attempting to challenge. The mainstreaming of images, dialogue, and other representations of people of color were used to legitimate and prop up white hegemony. “The reduction [in conservative and liberal politics] of all racialized groups to a nonexistent level playing-field...invoke[s] a culture of poverty” which tends to blame the oppressed for their position.

In Amalgamation Schemes: Antiblackness and the Critique of Multiculturalism, Jared Sexton provides a deconstruction of the works of several Multicultural scholars who rewrite the history of American slavery through a neoconservative discourse that seeks to reclaim the symbolic interracial (sexual, thus social) union through the subjective position of the white male. The role of the slave master during American antebellum slavery is discussed in various texts by various Multicultural authors to illustrate the historic nature of the interracial (sexual, and social) relationship. Through the subjectivity of the slave master, the reader of such authors as Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, experience how the white subject felt in relation to his own interracial sexual relationships. “We can be sensitive to the plight of enslaved women...and still acknowledge that consensual sex, prompted by erotic attachment...has occurred between subordinates and superiors in even the most barren and brutal settings.” Kennedy goes on to claim that there is “evidence of consensual sexual intimacy” even amid “confines of bondage” such chattel slavery. Analysis from this perspective is pointless if considering how to create social progress today. It is obvious after acknowledging this contradiction that there can be no freedom, choice, or consent within the institution of slavery, as the accounts of black (feminist) historians and the histories of enslaved black women attest. Analysis of the master- slave relationship from the (sympathetic) perspective of the master does away with the historical colonial context of such a relationship, and seeks to look away from the inherently sexualized and gendered nature of racism. It also mystifies the institution of race in avoiding who the idea of racialized (sexualized) difference was created to profit. Whether there was erotic attachment encircling the master-slave intimate relationship is irrelative to the topic of social progress; it speaks more to the psychological colonization enslaved individuals are at risk of in such a restrictive environment. In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon, in the chapter entitled “The Woman of Color and the White Man,” tells of the ways in which the colonial subject’s psyche is transformed by colonial iterations of blackness, an internalization of anti-blackness inside of the black colonial subject. This black individual lives out self-conflict in that she assumes a white view of herself, seeing beauty and value only in what is deemed white. In order to “escape [her] blackness,” the black woman (and man) is taken over by white thought, action, and interaction, hoping to gain recognition in a world that equates blackness with invisibility.

Multicultural scholars such as Kennedy seek to separate the material conditions of slavery from the degrading relations that slavery enabled. To ignore black female subjectivity when discussing the history of slavery is to re-articulate notions of the happy slave and white pity on the savage, inventing a history of consensual slavery that portrays the black woman as having agency in her experiences of social, physical, cultural, psychological, economic, and sexual exploitation. This insulting articulation of the master-slave relation is apart of a “[political program with a] ...principal ramification... to undermine the legitimacy of collective efforts for progressive and radical social change,” a direct assault on the research of black feminists and black radicals. The invention of an equal master-slave sexual relationship provides the foundation for a denunciation of the black community’s existing needs and concerns. It not only belittles, but completely leaves out the centuries that institutionalized slavery was endured in the U.S., the continued institutionalization of anti-blackness after the Civil War, and the continuation of anti-blackness today. Such dialogue incorporates discussion of race mixture for the purpose of homogenizing the multiracial sexual experience/multiracial body with mainstream notions of individual choice, free agency, governmental recognition, and ultimately of whiteness. This way, it sidesteps an awkward (at best) discussion of raced gender inequality. Once a morally sound symbolic multiracial representation is fashioned by the modes of what used to be distinguished as mainstream whiteness, the continuation of those ideals will have the free-reign to flourish and to appropriate other ‘minority’ groups. Old modes of anti-blackness, morphed into a multicultural enactment of whiteness, allow for traditional white supremacist sentiment to continue growth. Antiblackness is related to other types of racial hatred and subordination as well, and plays part of a larger critique of the treatment of non-white bodies who participate in low wage labor, labor used all year around to produce affordable products (affordable because the extremely minute workers’ pay compensates for any surplus jeopardized by debts, investments, salaries, shipment, packaging, and sale). Alas, the production of surplus capital seems a much more pressing matter to the leaders of the world than the lives of those who are laboring to make it.

Suggested Citation

Sharafi, Brynne, American Multiculturalism, French Universalism, Antiblackness, and the French Headscarf Ban (November 4, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Brynne Sharafi (Contact Author)

California State University, Dominguez Hills ( email )

1000 E. Victoria Street, Carson, CA
Carson, CA 90747
United States

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