Notes on the Autobiography of Malcolm X

The Autobiography of Malcolm X isn't just an important historical document, but skillful storytelling about the investigation of a mystery: why are white people like that?

In his description of his early life, he seems to clearly show that “imitating white privilege folkways” is an orientation white upbringing & schooling cultivates by hooking into attachment-seeking, but keeps it ambiguous whether he’s noticed this is what happened to whites too. He shows that privileged whites fetishize natural/bad/sexual/embodied blackness as their shadow, while blacks fetishize whites as status symbols. Again, unclear whether he’s noticed that whites also fetishize whites as status symbols.


He’s clear that white people are taught to dance through internalized authoritarian rule-following, and that black people are natural dancers if they throw off that conditioning, unclear whether he’s being coy or actually hasn’t generalized to whites.

He describes his own learning to dance as a process of learning to spontaneously move to music, combined with some amount of imitation of showoff moves others were doing. I "learned" to "Lindy hop" from white people teaching steps explicitly (consistent with how he thinks white people dance), and this bears no resemblance to the process of learning to dance the Lindy hop that Malcolm X describes. It's just a totally different way of relating to one's body. I've only very recently started to regularly be able to dance simply by wanting to move to music. I had to stop fighting myself first.


Got to the part where he discovers Nation of Islam ideology (he implies he no longer believes the chronology involving the scientist Yakub deliberately breeding white people on the island of Patmos through a policy of dysgenics). When told that all white people without exception are wicked, the concrete counterexample he comes up with from his own life is Jewish. On top of that, the one European philosopher he approves of is Spinoza! (Even Nation of Islam claims that Allah sent Moses to civilize the Jews first among whites.) But he still doesn't connect the dots, at least not yet, that whiteness is unevenly distributed.

A lot of disapproval my father expressed about self-despising Jews aspiring to white gentile beauty standards (straight hair, fair skin) is nearly word for word something Malcolm X might have written about black people.

The general case is, whites are more uniformly and persuasively educated to mimic whiteness than minorities are. This is becoming clear to me as a Jew brought up to be confused about whether we’re white. (Been getting to know some unprivileged white people lately and it’s amazing!)

March on Washington

Interesting perspective on the March on Washington beginning as an authentic spontaneous, distributed grass-roots revolt successfully coopted by Liberals and the Establishment-friendly Black clients.

Nation of Islam

After his ample lived experience that white Americans were lawless, interesting that the Nation of Islam is in part a flight to lawfulness; creating a somewhat decoupled black economy, a separate set of mores within which people are expected to keep commitments and invest in the future. This seems like it is functionally integrated with a rejection of a strategy of placation.

The Hajj

This is the payoff. Receiving real, warm hospitality from white-looking Muslims from all over, including Saudi royalty, Malcolm X figures out that palefaces don't have to be the way they are, that white nationalism seems to be more of a Christian cultural thing.

As I read Malcolm X's description of his Hajj, I reflected on the emotions American propaganda has instructed me to have towards Islam. It seems like there's a kind of panic around the idea of Sharia law, which can't really be explained by its harshness; America keeps a lot of people in badly inhumane prisons, and innocence doesn't reliably protect you from the death penalty. I think the panic I'm picking up on comes instead from the idea of applying judgment uniformly.

I see this in microcosm in my personal interactions. I am not especially vindictive in terms of imposing actual penalties on transgressors, but I am unwilling to withhold judgment when I think someone is behaving badly. When people object to this, it is often hard to elicit a clear opinion from them as to whether they think the problem is that I am unreasonably mistaken, or that someone who sincerely and reasonably holds my opinion ought to express it differently, but when I do manage to pin things down it generally turns out that they endorse a norm where criticism of transgressors is suppressed relative to other kinds of speech.

There's a large class of mostly white people who seem threatened not so much by any particular punishment, but by an invocation of the general idea that symmetrical standards of judgment might be applied to their behavior. In this antinomian perspective, only corruption feels safe and comfortable, and the prospect of revelation is met with abject terror.

There's a competing Semitic culture that feels the opposite. I'm happy to learn of an immigrant to a justice culture, and sad that I'll never get to meet him.

11 thoughts on “Notes on the Autobiography of Malcolm X

  1. Alleged Wisdom

    I agree that the 10% often behave unethically, but can you cite any evidence that similar elites in Islamic countries act more ethically? I doubt it. You seem to be comparing the reality of our culture to idealized propaganda of theirs.

        1. Benquo Post author

          Narrative control is a real factor, so reviews and perceptions are often going to be biased; trends in harder to fake metrics like mortality rate by age are better indicators of how well people are doing, and the rising rate of deaths of despair in the US over the past several years really isn't looking good for the current regime. By revealed preferences ISIS was a great place to live for a while; not sure if I agree but we should at least take the enthusiastic immigration (but also bad reviews by women who moved there) seriously.

          Regimes aren't consumer products, and have to be judged relative to the circumstances of the regime. Cuba and (surprisingly) North Korea look *very* good by this metric (militarily isolated, high life expectancy vs GDP per capita), the US looks pretty bad given its overwhelming military dominance.

          The US is very culturally heterogeneous, it seems like it would be a good idea for white residents of the USA to try to emigrate to Hispanic culture. My mother befriended some Brazilian housepainters and hung out with their community for a while, and it seems like they're living much happier lives than white Americans of similar income levels, which matches the racial life expectancy statistics.

    1. Benquo Post author

      Expanding a bit on my prior comment, Malcolm X reports that at some point there were objections to letting him proceed to Mecca, but these objections were met with a genuine investigative process which seriously evaluated the evidence for and against the legitimacy of his presence. The impression I got was of an attitude radically more lawful than that of ICE. Obviously one favorable review is thin evidence, but there are also structural reasons to expect this. The US regime, at least post-1933, is executive-dominant, organized around exception-making. Muslims seem to be dominated more by their judicial mechanisms, organized around the issuance of legal opinions, at least in many countries.

  2. Idek

    Sharia law doesn't enforce punishment uniformly, but it does explicitly lay out the ways in which punishment is to differ towards separate classes of people. I'm not sure that makes it *better*, because when the disadvantages are codified like that, they are even harder to change to be truly uniform.

    The most obvious classes of people who are punished differently from the norm under Sharia are women and non-Muslims. When I get upset about Sharia, I am more concerned about the discriminatory aspects that are baked into it than the idea that I might lose privilege. But, I do get why white people in particular might be terrified of an actually just system of justice. They'd get pulled over a heck of a lot more, for starters, and they might actually see jail more often, and for longer periods for their drug use and possession.

    I personally think that I should *not* have gotten through my entire life thus far without having been pulled over, just because I look like someone who the state wants to protect. Police officer and judicial discretion is completely unfair. I long for a system of justice that actually works for everyone equally, but Sharia is not that. It just makes the unfairness explicit.

    1. Benquo Post author

      The US also treats citizens differently than noncitizens; this isn't unusual to Islam. It's notoriously difficult to become an American citizen (and on top of that the US discriminates on the basis of employment and country of origin) and notoriously easy to convert to Islam.

      The main reason Islam isn't an appealing option for me is its gender norms, but I can imagine a situation where some variety of Islam is a good legal service provider for people not subject to its criminal code to do business under. Prospera also looks interesting.

    2. reality requester

      > [in] an actually just system of justice[, most people in the United States would] get pulled over a heck of a lot more, for starters, and they might actually see jail more often, and for longer periods for their drug use and possession.

      [Citation needed]

      1. Benquo Post author

        What's your implied default hypothesis relative to which a citation would be needed here?

        It seems to me like an actually just system would be more likely to reduce the schedule of punishments than increase the rate of enforcement, but if you look up prosecutorial discretion and stop-and-frisk you'll see that search and punishment are applied very unevenly right now.

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  4. Helico Pterosaur

    I started going to cafes in Houston, and learned I had obnoxious ordering habits (not having an order ready when I arrive at the counter, changing my answers to yes/no questions) on a visit to NYC, by being told by annoyed baristas. I attributed this to NYC culture, but also all the baristas in Houston were white or east asian and the ones I met in NYC were black, so it could be that too. Or maybe it's just because NYC cafes are more crowded and it's more important to teach customers to do things quickly; they can't know that I'm just going back to Houston soon.


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