A Wretched Trifecta

Anti-Blackness, Carcerality, and Global Capitalism

Photo by Mehdi Sepehri on Unsplash

I have been brown all my life.

Mostly on the fair-skinned side of the shade, although according to my mother’s side of the family not nearly as fair/pale as they would have liked my skin color to be. Growing up I was always compared to what my mother’s skin was like — her nickname as a child was “memsaheb” (a (white) foreigner) at birth, the name signifying her almost white porcelain skin. In the poor, working-class Bengali family that she grew up in, her white skin was considered an object of pride and one of immense capital. That, and the fact that she was born into a Brahmin family. Poverty sucked for this family, but even in the worst days of their lives, a fair-skinned Brahmin daughter was a prized possession. My mother ended up being a math wizard and an all-around warrior woman defying all gender and class stereotypes, ultimately got married into another Brahmin family, and with the financial and intellectual cheerleading of her in-laws, she completed her masters degree in Applied Mathematics. The family on my father’s side (lower middle class) was quite infamous for denouncing Brahminism as a force of oppression, boycotted the rituals associated with practicing this caste status. Although they were somewhat known as the notorious caste-traitors in the small town they were from, my maternal grandparents went along with this “controversial” (imagine two Brahmins coming together being controversial) match. As a result, I grew up in a household that most ceremoniously rejected Brahminism.

Family histories and cultural positionalities are always more complicated than a paragraph can allow, but I think it’s an important datapoint that adds to the context of my brown-ness. I am brown, yes. And, although the savarna caste status I was born into was introduced to me not as a piece of token demographic information about my identity but as a cautionary tale for how the very status that I hold in Indian society has been weaponized against those marginalized by the caste system, I will be, in the eyes of a Hindu nationalist state and everything else that is unholy, a Brahmin. So, ultimately, a light-skinned Brahmin girl with two university degrees and a faculty position in a predominantly White university in the United States.

And yet, I read, write, study, and teach about anti-Blackness and technology.

I have been nurtured by Blackness through my work in the U.S. South, and I have known (some aspects of) anti-Blackness being born into a savarna category in India. I believe that among all the different kinds of capital that were needed to survive (and thrive) in India (where the ruling class can be broadly conceptualized as aspiring capitalists with a raging colonial hangover aka an acute case of “we wish we were white”) was: being white enough. We could get away with our dissent and organizing legacy against casteism and class warfare because at least when it came down to our bodies and their colors, we were non-threatening.

Despite the long essay on my positionality, I am not writing this post to inform you about my origin story. My origin story is an important context for where I am now and what I am going to share about the primary commitment driving most of my work, and most recently, a course I am teaching on critical technology practice at the University of Washington.

My research findings as well as my theoretical explorations in the context of community organizing in the U.S. South exposed me to the radical joy that is at the core of Blackness. A phenomenal politics of hope, rich in culture and history of, and love for, community. For the world, really. Its land, waters, and life that make it so eternally precious. A politics of imagining and building glorious “alternatives” in the face of absolute horror that continue to being thrown at Black people in the U.S. and beyond. A friend, co-organizer, and a frequent feature in my dissertation spoke on the technologies of Blackness:

I can’t capture the brilliance and ingenuity of radical Black imaginaries (I mean, read the works of Katherine McKrittick, Tao Leigh Goffe, Alexis Pauline, Marquis Bey, Joshua Bennett, André Brock — the list of contemporary writings is endless) in this blogpost, but I am here to talk about what whiteness (and I am including savarna logics in the umbrella term of “whiteness” though it can be so much more than just whiteness) is constantly in a mission to extract from Blackness. My work and readings also continue to suggest that anti-Blackness (which in the South Asian context also continues to shape and inform anti-Dalit, anti-poor, and other casteist and classist systemic assaults) has always been and always will be a precondition to capitalism. A grand scheme to exploit the brilliance of Blackness while continuing to punish Black personhood. Critiquing prominent Marxist thinkers who believed that slavery and feudalism were only mechanisms for primitive accumulation of wealth (i.e. technologies of oppression used prior to capitalism, Black Studies scholar Cedric Robinson writes in his book “Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition” that Black enslavement is one of the preconditions of global capitalism. Far from being prior to or separate from capitalism, Black enslavement is, in fact, one of the main resources that make global capitalism possible.

The capital of “not being Black” is only going to be more precious as our planet approaches the crisis of climate-driven migration and inhabitability, as Cameroonian philosopher, political theorist Achille Mbembe shares in his recent book “Brutalisme” (the French edition is out right now, see this talk for more context). Globally, we are already seeing this morph into a range of alienation tactics. Formerly colonized nations channeling their anti-Blackness as well as other ethnic and religious power plays have been giving rise to the disenfranchised class that consists of Dalits, Palestinians, etc. Many critical theorists and political economists alike are predicting a rise in the global, carceral, extractive labor practices towards Black people. A new and improved version of enslavement and extraction.

It may not look like the slavery of the past, or the fascism of the past, or even the militarized policing of the past (or the present, according to Media Studies scholar and prison abolitionist Jackie Wang and her book Carceral Capitalism).

It will become more and more subtle.

Increasingly complex.

More and more concealed.

All thanks to digital technologies.

If you have made it this far, I implore you to read more about how technologies powered by and powered for global capitalism are being perfected as we speak on Black and Brown bodies in the U.S. and beyond via state-sponsored policing. How the epicenter of this violence has been and continues to be located at the experiences of the U.S. Black South. How the global rise of fascism of all flavors (e.g. Hindu nationalism in India) is going to further help in the growth of such technologies. My syllabus can be a starting point if you want.

My goal for writing this post, therefore, was to establish something once and for all:

Now, for the other bit that I have not addressed so far, what lies beyond individual praxis? The collective praxis. I am grateful to have my movement family — the Southern Movement Assembly. The most precious belief that I take away from my activism in both India and the U.S. South is the fact that a southern praxis grounded in anti-Blackness is an immediate need in this world. One that connects the disenfranchised of the Global South, and positions the U.S. Black South as its core (I am planning something along the lines of this goal with my friend and co-conspirator J. Khadijah Abdurahman).

In a world that not only criminalizes Blackness but also rewards and protects its people for not being Black; that not only commits to capitalism but also decidedly does so at the expense of Black and Brown lives; the necessary next step is to disrupt the trifecta of anti-Blackness, carcerality, and global capitalism.

Assistant Professor at HCDE, UW. PhD in Human-Centered Computing from Georgia Tech.