“For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man.” — Frantz Fanon
The basis for modern political economy is the system of international trade. This global system– capitalism– was created when Europeans began to enter the “markets” of Africa, the Americas, and the rest of the globe, more than five hundred years ago. European imperialism created not only capitalism but whiteness, a political identity that grew out of Europe’s ever-increasing material benefits gained from its trade relations with “non-Europeans.” Since trade relations elevated the wealth and power of Europe and Europeans, it followed that the newly created white identity would reflect our elevated colonial or class status within this international context of the capitalist economy.
A global system of trade made capitalist power possible, which, in turn, led to the creation of the white identity. So the white identity is essentially the [false] class consciousness that tells us we are superior, because we are part of a class whose riches and power came about mainly on account of a certain advantage gained on the stage of international trade. Whiteness is a product of the global exchange of goods, and the exchange of humans who are objectified by the European capitalist power which controls this system of exchange.
Karl Marx wrote that “the characters who appear on the economic stage are but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.” Africans became black to the white person on account of an economic system based on international trade, and due to the capitalist mode of production that grew out of this newly created global relationship. And Europeans became white to the white person for the same reasons. “Black” and “white” became “the personifications of the economic relations” existing between Africa and Europe, and, as a result, the inequality of the “races” became simply an expression of the unequal wealth and power in this relationship.
In order for the capitalist system to function in this continuous exchange of goods on an international scale, it became necessary for Europeans to objectify Africans and Indigenous peoples, as well as all identities outside Europe. Marx also stated, “In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another, as persons whose will resides in those objects … .” The commodification and exchange of Africans became absolutely necessary within this system of global trade for the continuing expansion of European wealth and power. The will of Europe, whose goal was to create commodities for profitable exchange, was imposed on the objectified African identity. However, Europeans could only enter this relationship by imposing whiteness on our identity, so that we could then play the role of the “guardians” of the “commodities.” This role on the global stage– that of the “superior” white person– was necessary to congeal or solidify in the form of a white body the economic relations that existed between Europeans and the rest of the world, as part of this growing system of international trade, a system that launched Europeans out of the impoverished, diseased age of feudalism.
In 1965, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) said:
“[T]hat European, he’s got something going for him that other people don’t have going for them: he loves to kill—oh yes, he does. In Asia and in Africa, we kill for food. In Europe, they kill for sport. Have you not noticed that? Yes, they’re bloodthirsty, they love blood; they love to see the flow of other people’s blood, not their own. They’re bloodthirsty. But in all of your ancient Asian or African societies, the killing of game was done for food, not just for sport. You don’t get your kicks killing. They get their kicks killing. It gets good to them. Oh yes, you watch them sometime when they shoot a pheasant. I’ve watched them; when I was a little boy, I lived on a farm with white folks. When they shoot something, they just go crazy, you know, like they were really getting their kicks. And we have heard stories where they have lynched Black people, and right while they were lynching that Black man, you could see them getting their kicks, the thrill, while they do it. Whereas you and I, when we kill, we kill because we need to, either for food or to defend ourselves. That’s something to think about … once he got ahold of the gun, that suited his nature; and he used it, and took over the world, with that gunpowder and his lies—I don’t know which was the most effective. He lied and killed, to take over the world.”
In order to gain the upper hand or the advantage on the global stage of trade for profit, the Europeans not only used gunpowder– invented by the Chinese, as Malcolm X also stated– but Europeans also created ships that could travel great distances and carry large cargoes. If Europeans had created ships that were only able to travel great distances, but couldn’t carry large cargoes, this technological advantage would have been of little use in the growing system of international trade. On the other hand, if European ships had been able to carry large cargoes, but couldn’t travel very far, then they wouldn’t have been useful in establishing Europe’s domination of this emerging world economy.
Overall, European society was backward in comparison to the societies of Africa, the Americas and Asia. Europe lagged behind the rest of the globe in the arts, the sciences, and the development of progressive ideas and government. And perhaps it was this need or lack in European society which led to the creation of the tool or weapon– the ship– which would literally carry Europe out of the so-called Dark Ages and elevate it to the position it held on the world stage. In any case, Europe used this one technological advantage– the ship– to create a system of regular and consistent trade in goods and lives, as well as the goods produced by these enslaved lives. Without the slave ship, it’s unlikely that global capitalism would have given Europe the wealth and power it came to enjoy in this system of imperialist exploitation.
Dr. Walter Rodney wrote in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa:
“The first significant thing about the internationalisation of trade in the 15th century was that Europeans took the initiative and went to other parts of the world. No Chinese boats reached Europe, and if any African canoes reached the Americas (as is sometimes maintained) they did not establish two-way links. What was called international trade was nothing but the extension overseas of European interests. The strategy behind international trade and the production that supported it was firmly in European hands, and specifically, in the hands of the sea-going nations from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. They owned and directed the great majority of the world’s sea-going vessels, and they controlled the financing of the trade between four continents. … Europe had a monopoly of knowledge about the international exchange system seen as a whole, for Western Europe was the only sector capable of viewing the system as a whole. Europeans used the superiority of their ships and cannon to gain control of all the world’s waterways, starting with the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic coast of North Africa.”
So the slave ship became both a symbol and a concrete example– the congealed or physical form– of the dialectical relationship that would exist between Europeans and Africans in this world economic system. Objectified Africans were below in the hold: valuable as commodities and as the labor necessary to produce the commodities in this system of international trade. Africans were both the capital and the labor necessary for world capitalism to flourish. But first Africans had to be objectified and subjugated by an outside force whose lack of humanity failed to recognize their humanity. And the objectifying Europeans were above on the deck: invading Africa, enslaving Africans, and violently suppressing the rebellion of Africans, and their revolutionary force rising from below.
Without Africa and Africans, the slave ship and its crew lacked any purpose, and any destination point, any jobs for the sweating, red-faced crew on their dangerous journeys abroad. Without African wealth and power, the triangular trade on the Atlantic Ocean would have lacked an entire side, and would have collapsed. Africa, and its workers, its gold, its great wealth, were absolutely necessary for the further colonization and exploitation of Indigenous peoples and lands in the so-called New World.
African life became the basis for European wealth and power. Capitalism only could function as a global system of trade if subjugated Africans performed a certain role in this exchange, which then created the role for the Europeans, and the primary dialectic of capitalist oppression: oppressed and oppressor, colonized and colonizer, enslaved and slaveholder, cargo and crew, proletariat and bourgeoisie. In the context of imperialist capitalist rule, it became absolutely necessary (in the words of Fanon) for “the black man [to] be black”— and (furthermore) to “be black in relation to the white man.”
In the struggle to be liberated from this dehumanizing relationship which arose from a system of international trade, the African, as subject of their own struggle, throws the white person’s identity into complete disorder– chaos, confusion– as soon as the African sees themselves outside this unequal relationship of power. Once Africans have recognized that the standard of humanity, as it has been defined by the white man, is hardly the highest goal for what it means to be a person (man, woman, nonbinary, agender– any person, generally speaking), and, in fact, is a mediocre level of personhood– or even lower than mediocre, is a backward object of exchange in human relations– then this freedom from the European’s definitions of humanity tends to ENRAGE white people.
As part of a system of international trade, of which white people are the guardians whose collective will resides in the objects to be exchanged, our entire existence as persons in this relationship depends on the subjugation of the Other: the human cargo in the hold. Indigenous lands support the white American identity: above, below. African lives and labor and resources enriched the white colonies of Europe, allowing us to break free from British monarchy. White American freedom became the exchange value in the commodification of African lives, whose labor also produced the exchange value of cotton, sugar and gold which created the wealth of the settler colony called the United States of America.
White settlers were freed from England through the genocidal subjugation of Indigenous peoples and Africans. The value of their lives was reflected in the value of our lives: “We the People”: independent, equal, prosperous, on top of the necessary dialectical counterparts, who must be dependent, inferior, poor. If colonized Africans threaten to overthrow this relationship, the basis of the white identity is also toppled, and we grow angry, we feel all at sea, aimless, our system of “law and order” transformed to lawlessness and chaos.
The white woman in the Victorian novel sits sipping tea in a tidy garden, sunlight reflected in the silver teaspoon which she uses to stir sugar in the fragile porcelain teacup held by dainty fingers, as her white cotton dress ripples agreeably in the cool June breeze. Although a slightly acrid odor is carried by the wind from this slender blotchy body, to be reinforced by the unpleasant odor of breath expelled through rotting teeth, this white woman, nevertheless, fancies herself to be superior to the invisible dark productive forces of Asia, Africa and the Americas which made this elegant English scene possible for her in the first place. Her position in this exchange– tea, sugar, cotton, femininity etc.– exists in relation to the rough, rude men who brought these commodities over perilous seas to her little round table by a rosebush. She becomes the Woman– generally so– and Superior– in relation to the “black” workers– only on account of a system of international trade, one in which the value created in this exchange flows primarily in the direction of whiteness, and (more importantly) toward this one, unique, special white woman. Her self-image is shaped by the role which she plays on this stage of commodity relations– mainly as the fragile, precious default of Womanhood who is prized by the default of Man, both of whom are White. Her value is calculated by the exchange of all the labor that went into creating White Womanhood.
The international system of trade– a complex net that supports the weight of infinite exchanges for profit– reinforces the hierarchies of European society by bringing resources from Africa and the world to the wealthiest and most powerful class of this society: white cisgender heterosexual able-bodied men with money. This web of exchanges stretches around the globe, so all its crisscrossing lines– created by ships carrying their cargo, or by planes, or drones, or long-range missiles, or Super Bowl broadcasts– are not directionless, random, unpredictable. Capitalism never could function on a global scale without the predictability of its ships– and their precious cargo of commodities/lives– arriving right on schedule.
Such a system requires managers who will direct these lines that crisscross the globe, assuring they do not become tangled, directing the materials that move along these paths toward Europe and whiteness. The white man becomes the technical-minded manager, the professional “thinker” and “motivator”– the entrepreneur, the executive, the born leader who is the visionary of global “progress.” Without the cargo, he is nothing. He isn’t even white. He’s just a diseased, impoverished serf who lacks the skill to produce the resources necessary for the advancement of his community. Without capitalism, and the international system of trade that gave birth to capitalism, and to whiteness, the white person loses all sense of self– we no longer have any Marxian role to play “on the economic stage,” and our self-image crumbles along with our (false) consciousness of its relation to the larger world.
“London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down”
The white person is a worldly person; they are a creation of the world economy. This sense of worldliness leads us to believe that we are advanced, independent, and exceptional in our progressive ideals (“the American way of life”). Yet the white person lives off the resources of the world. Our clothes are produced by the skilled hands of woman workers in Bangladesh. The oppression of migrant workers on the occupied lands of the U.S. settler colony allows us to bring our unchapped but agreeably tanned unskilled fingers holding a piece of delicious fruit up to our eager mouths.
The white person is not only a worldly person, we are a consumer at heart. We eat the world. Whites consume the labor and resources of Africa– congealed in the form of the cellphone in the other hand– as we walk over the bones of Indigenous lives on land we just assume is ours. It never enters our mind that the “locally grown” organic orange from Whole Foods is the product of [very much differentiated] labor by the skilled hands of the global proletariat whom we call “people of color” (when we aren’t entirely ignoring them, or when we’re not calling them “illegal aliens,” “thugs,” “rapists” and a hundred Other names required to prove our “superiority”).
To be a white person who plays the role of the bourgeois owner and manager, or the role of the petit bourgeois office worker (that irritable, bored professional who sits and types at their computer in a cubicle), or the rancher who brands cows and drives tractors on occupied Indigenous soil, is to exist on a plane that divides us– body and mind– from the global proletariat within an imperialist system of exploitation and exchange which is controlled by Europe. Our existence on top of this plane unifies and shapes the white identity. White people must be white in relation to “the black man,” an inverse (and perverse) image that is necessary for the ongoing subjugation of all colonized identities. Whiteness is the reflection in the cracked mirror of colonialism as described by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks: not only must the white man be white; he must be white in relation to the black man.
Five centuries ago, European humanity was broken, shattered– it lay in fragments. The system of international trade that created capitalism gave the European a role on the global economic stage, as he became the personification of the objectifying force of slavery, colonization and exploitation. In exchange for this role– created only on account of the relations among the commodities which entered into this exchange, making whiteness both possible and necessary— the liberated white man could feel superior … but superior to whom? To the enslaved African, to the African and Indigenous victims of colonial genocide. But this image of the European self– who saw his personification through the role he played in the exchange of commodities on the international economic stage– did not repair the broken, shattered humanity of Europe. Quite the opposite: the shards of our humanity were fixed in place, only magnified beyond proportion, all gigantic sharp edges and monstrous distortions.
As capitalism gained more and more power, Middle Age European mediocrity was elevated– it must be elevated in relation to Blackness– and was then regarded as exceptional: “American exceptionalism.” To be middle-class and white, and cisgender, was to be exceptional: the highest form of humanity that anyone in the world would ever wish to achieve. And the requirement of capitalist power is that anyone who belongs to the working class and is Black and transgender must believe that they are far from the wondrous, unattainable level of not just the white man, but his counterpart, the white cisgender woman– the woman who sees herself in the negative of the white man, and sees the world outside her identity as the reverse image of the default identity of universal Womanhood.
Five centuries ago, European humanity was broken. Today, it is still in fragments– “A heap of broken images, where the sun beats”— but, our white skin reflects something other than the light. “Looking into the heart of light,” we may recognize that whiteness reflects the power gained in a system of global exchange, the wealth of the world and its productive forces stirred in a cup of tea. We aren’t well. White people fell down and can’t be put back together again– not without blackness, not without the connected oppressions of capitalist patriarchy.
Just as whiteness must be elevated in order for this system of exchanges on the world economic stage to function, so must the cisgender identity. Cisgender womanhood as the default for all womanhood– an international system of trade requires such an arrangement.
To be transphobic is to be a white supremacist. Why? Because there are Black transgender women; there are transgender people of color. It is highly unlikely that a desired transaction of identities on the global stage will be completed if the cisgender person recognizes that the commodified life, while inferior as trans, is nevertheless an acceptable level of humanity as Black: whiteness and capitalism have taught the cisgender Black man to murder the transgender Black woman. The body that plays all these roles (gender, race, sexuality, and so forth) within the global system of exchanged commodities/lives is but one form all at once, and cannot exist separately from the various roles that are required by capitalism to be inferior: transgender, Black, woman. For this reason, to be misogynistic is also to be racist. Black women– and Latinas, and Afro-Latinas and Indigenous and Asian women– perform all these roles simultaneously on the international economic stage. Their values cannot be separated within this global context, a context in which Europe plays the role of defining rates of exchange where all lives matter as objects designated to fill out its hierarchy of wealth and power. But if the objectified person begins to define themselves– and furthermore, if they begin to recognize that the European is hardly the “measure of man,” of civilized, progressive humanity– then the elevated status of white cisgender personhood comes crumbling to the ground. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
The fear of the cisgender, white, middle-class (or wealthy) identity– elevated to the status of greatness within a system of international trade– is that their dialectical counterparts will no longer view their lives as the inferior, or even as the equal, of these roles, but as liberated beings who strive to reach a higher level of human development. To be outside this trap, is to be human in a way that Europe has never attained– certainly not since capitalism solidified the roles of the colonizer and the colonized in a system of global exchange where the value of personhood was measured by its profitability as an object among Other objects.
And so, it follows, that the struggle to liberate humanity from this dehumanizing system of imperialist exploitation, is the globally connected revolutionary movement to destroy capitalism. And this is a movement defined by the “unexceptional,” the “inferior,” the sex workers, and prisoners [of war], triggered disabled nonbinary unapologetic fat femmes, “oppressed” Muslim women, trans women who aren’t “real women.” Only outside the capitalist, patriarchal definitions of exchange can we escape the trap which this international system of trade has created, and begin to share the planet as people, on humane terms of cultural exchange, rather than as mere representatives in the exchange of commodities whose sole aim is the creation of greater wealth and profits for the few.
“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”