Guilty Indulgences

Reviewed by Sharmeen Khan

Reviewed in this article

Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society
by Inga Muscio, Seal Press, 2005.

I read Inga Muscio’s first book Cunt: A Declaration of Independence a few years ago when I wasn’t really in the mood for a “love the cunt” diatribe. I was never one to look lovingly at my own cunt while making vagina cookies for the annual showing of the Vagina Monologues. But the reason I loved Cunt was because Muscio forced readers to closely examine the relationship between our bodies and sexuality in the context of social relations, history, patriarchy and violence. She was able to root her experiences in the relationship of capitalism to patriarchy by showing how women’s health, body image, and violence against women were based in economic and ideological forms of control and consent. Following Muscio’s research-based personal writing, I learned how to bridge lived experience to the histories of capitalism and patriarchy in my own writing and activism.  I read the book while tenting with my British commie lover and, for the first time, was able to articulate the fucked up dynamics of sexism and sexuality.

Despite her successes, Muscio did not elaborate on the role of white supremacy within feminism. I felt a little left out, but wrote it off as another white feminist ignoring racism.

I read Muscio’s latest book with Cunt in mind. Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society should not be read as a continuation of Cunt or as an addendum of all the other issues she forgot to mention in that book. It is a serious political book that reworks similar themes to those addressed in Cunt, such as the history of control exerted over women’s sexualities. In the same grab-you-by-the-throat style in which Cunt was written, Muscio puts forth a personal testimony to origins of white supremacy and racism in the histories of slavery and colonialism. Historical amnesia, she argues, maintains a culture of white normativity that bombs its way around the world via imperialism. She writes of her own schooling, and critically analyzes national holidays that celebrate slavery and genocide. For her, acknowledging the past is the starting point for understanding racism and normativity.

I admit to feeling suspicious when I began to read the book; I wondered whether Muscio might use the 400-plus-page book as a way to absolve her white guilt. Contrary to what I half-expected, the book is not a self-congratulatory treatise on whiteness. Muscio writes as both witness and benefactor of white supremacist history without absolving herself or feeding into the politics of guilt. Her storytelling is strengthened through the inclusion of personal anecdotes that detail how her own life has changed in her discussion of personal privilege in the context of empire.

Autobiography is organized around a simple premise: to be white in America is to be treated as hardworking and ingenious. Even if white people don’t actually fit this mould, the culture of white supremacy supports the myth by celebrating the stories of such genocidal icons as Christopher Columbus, pioneers, and cowboys. For her, the cultural ideal of white settlers as ingenious, inventive, and productive both propagates and justifies US foreign policy. America is fictionalized as the land of the hardworking white person protecting his honest gains from the terror and chaos of the underdeveloped brown hordes.

The fact that Christopher Columbus Day is a racist holiday is not news to progressive readers. But even die-hard radicals will probably find her outline of colonialism and the church as the foundations of contemporary imperialism and racism interesting. For Muscio, resistance starts with rejecting the basic racist premises of US history. 

Muscio also gives readers some interesting terms to help better describe white supremacy and racism, such as the “Lucky Sperm Club”, “Manifest Destiny”, and “Arbusto” - a term she applies to Bush. Her intent is not only to share her understanding of white supremacy, but also to engage readers with questions about “democracy” and the ideologies of imperialism. She writes:

For people living in countries where the US decides “our democracy” is needed, but has not only never existed, our imposition of “democracy” generally creates a vacuum, sucking everything alive and beautiful – old trees who are the earth’s sentinels, the innocence of children, sustainable organic farms, loving family-centered communities who argue, debate and deal with each other, and all who call the rainforest home – into its insatiable sweatshop, torture chamber, and clear-cut maw. This did not start when an Arbusto became a president, and it will not end just because an Arbusto is no longer a president.

From her everyday experiences of witnessing racism to an analysis of the portrayal of whiteness in popular culture, Muscio provides examples of how whiteness is set as the standard for the world, how it defines worth and provides the justification for exploitation and oppression. She argues that institutions, from multinational corporations to non-governmental organizations, are “selling more than sunglasses, alcohol, movie tickets, and charity. They are selling whiteness too.” She claims that white normativity is the “foundation, the framework, the house that Jack built. And we all live in it together.”

A great deal of the “they” vs. “we” implies that all white people experience white normativity in the same way. This is as false as the perception that all people of colour experience racism in the same way. Maybe the world looks sinisterly white and pro-Columbus to her, because she is a privileged white woman living in America that can’t see past all the whiteness. True, she is probably writing for a white audience, and her testimonial style could very well be a powerful catalyst. But I wonder if white normativity is really so all-powerful. History and normativity are understood differently depending on the colour of your skin; people of colour don’t necessarily fall for the white lies she catalogues and thinks are destroying the world. Furthermore, not all white people feel the same way about Columbus and white supremacist culture. She inadequately accounts for the exceptions to what she presents as rule – for instance, the struggles of white anti-imperialists make no lasting impression on her. Finally, Muscio’s analysis fails to acknowledge that the degree to which an individual upholds white normativity depends on social position, class, language, gender, and political identity.

Muscio touches on a contentious issue in anti-racist discourse when she notes how certain anti-racist, feminist movements and discourses have been co-opted to allow a few key figures into positions of power while people of colour disproportionately make up the working poor. Is racism over just because Oprah can buy a mansion and Condoleeza Rice is Secretary of State? Though Muscio states the obvious – that racism is not over - she does not take up the more difficult questions that show the limitations of identity politics and how certain kinds of “anti-racism” can be used to legitimize capitalism and imperialism in different communities.

For instance, Muscio likes Oprah because she “truly wants the world to be a nice place for everyone.” For her, Oprah seems incapable of selling white normativity like other white capitalists on television. I remain unconvinced by her argument – does she see Oprah as part of the same struggle? Or is she forgiving Oprah on account of her charity? In either case, Muscio’s argument falls dangerously short because she fails to address anti-capitalism.

Perhaps the most worthwhile attribute of Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil is that, in contrast to the countless academic anthologies devoted to the construction of race, Muscio’s interrogates the construction of whiteness in a clear and accessible style. As someone who is consistently put on the spot to explain racism and the construction of race in a white supremacist society, it was refreshing to read the analysis of a white radical who shares my politics. It was another example of fucking around with the gaze, being able to peer into her own navigations of whiteness and history and place myself in relation to her experience. Though this has been done before in the writings of Toni Morrison and bell hooks, this book takes up this process in a readable and approachable manner.

However, I do question her understanding of racism within feminist movements, and sadly expect that she has limited experiences in direct anti-racist organizing. Not once does she talk about activism or movements for social change, save for her celebratory description of Venezuela as the pinnacle of both democracy and social movement organizing. But how do white activists in the West engage with these politics in their own communities as a form of anti-racist activism?

It is probably good that I was left with more questions than answers; I am not one to demand a list of solutions. But I do hold Muscio to task for the lack of connection she makes to other forms of oppression, especially class and poverty. She bluntly writes that “we pay to keep this system in place” and by pay she means the stuff “we buy from places like Wal-mart, Starbucks, and Target that use a racist division of labour through sweatshops and child labour.” Her argument almost leaves the impression that there are no racist divisions within Wal-Mart, as if the people who shop there are not also forced to work there. But many of these people who “pay to keep the system in place” are the working poor, who are also disproportionately people of colour. Are they also to blame for this racist and imperialist society?

I was curious about her impressions of the white working class and white working poor, as well as the various alliances that occur across the lines of race and gender. While I understand, on the one hand, the emergence of a “fast-food” culture with cheap products, I also understand the realities of working-class people who are not in a position to engage in consumer politics. Wielding power at work through union organizing is perhaps a more realistic and effective strategy for addressing their own exploitation than is buying pricey “ethical” goods.

Because her first book had a huge impact on me in terms of sexuality and body image, I admit to being disappointed with this book. Her simplistic rendering of whiteness and racism also simplifies peoples’ engagement with identity politics. I understand that the aim of the book may not have been to address the contradictions of identity politics. However, not complicating (or even defining) the role of class and gender within race seriously compromises her project of deconstructing white normativity. It was irresponsible for her to not define for her audiences how capitalism structures the histories of imperialism and influences racism internationally. Rather, readers are left with the message that the role of white activists is to re-learn history, buy fair trade products, and begin to navigate the pitfalls of an incoherent trend than focuses on “how to be an ally”.

Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil is an easy read, but it lacks coherence. Like in an unpublished diary, Muscio jumps from topic to topic, from anecdote to anecdote. After it all, I thought to myself “Okay Inga. You’re white. What are you gonna do about it?” Perhaps it would be insincere or simplistic to make a list of “how to do anti-racism” – but when a book is centered around history and contemporary politics, I was left wondering what anti-racism organizing looks like beyond writing a book?