The dominant approach to race after the Holocaust, particularly for most of the European states that positioned themselves as anti-fascist, has been to treat it as a taboo topic. However, brushing race under the carpet and failing to systematically study the ways in which it has been such a key ordering principle of the modern era is largely to blame for the fact that racism is still so prevalent.
The Black Lives Matter movement, the Indigenous sovereignty movement, the migrant and refugee rights movements, and the movements against Islamophobia, and all forms of state racism, as well as all of their predecessors, have pushed endlessly not only for a recognition of the insidious, violent – and often murderous – effects of race, but also for education about race and racism. However, this has been met with push-back every step of the way. And despite the recent uptick in interest from liberals and progressives in antiracism reading lists, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade in the US, there is an assault from western governments on the kind of education necessary for giving us the tools to start understanding how to overturn a system that has been fundamental to the world over for 500 years.
We have a crisis of racial literacy. I want to be clear about what this means. When we think about literacy, we often think of it as a kind of passive ignorance – how can we know what we haven’t been taught? But in fact, this is a constructed illiteracy, similar to what the philosopher of race, Charles Mills, calls ‘white ignorance’: a structured and wilful ignorance that is necessary to allow for the persistence of racialised injustices on a mass scale.
Fundamental to racial illiteracy is the notion that race can be boiled down to the idea of biological difference between groups of people originating in different parts of the world. What this view neglects is the context in which such an idea develops and becomes the common sense over the course of the modern period. Race is best thought of as a key technique of governance that, while beginning in Europe – as Cedric Robinson shows in his 1983 book, Black Marxism – came into full force with the spread of European power across the globe, within colonial regimes, and those based on slavery. Racial rule constructs the divide between Europeanness and non-Europeanness, as Barnor Hesse writes, and posits racial essences to be immutable and hereditary.
In Why Race Still Matters, I define race, following Wendy Hyui Kyong Chun, as a technology for the management of human difference, the main goal of which is the production, reproduction, and maintenance of white supremacy on both a local and a planetary scale. Race is above all a project of rule.
While race may create identities – or the idea that there is an equivalence between the ways in which we are racialised and our identities – it is not identity. Races do not pre-exist in nature. But neither, as many think, does the ideology of racism create the idea of races. Rather, race is constructed over time and theorised as scientific in order to legitimise the domination of Europeans over non-Europeans, and to give the illegitimacy of white supremacy the veneer of rationality. The overall purpose of the project is the exploitation of the majority of the world’s population for the material benefit of those who constructed themselves as racially superior: white European elites.
For Stuart Hall, race inscribes power on the body, but it has no real biological or physical purchase. There are no such thing as ‘races’ in the way we think about them genetically. Neither is race an invention of racial scientists; it pre-existed the fascination of racism’s ‘golden era’ with the inherent racialised differences that were imagined to exist within what Hall called the ‘genetic code’. So, it is crucial to understand that race has always relied on a variety of discourses of legitimation in order to rule. These include the religious, the biological, the cultural, the legal, as well as the purely genetic.
Thinking analytically with race does not mean accepting the idea that there are fundamental differences between human bodies that map onto groups known as races. Race is produced in the aim of both inclusion and exclusion. But, as Hall taught us, the boundaries around it shift and slide.
The crucial thing about race, as Patrick Wolfe wrote, is that it is an inherently unstable concept. But it is its instability that lends itself to success, as much as it does to failure. Because race is on such shaky ground as an idea and a mode of governance, it constantly has to be remade and reproduced. This makes it difficult to pin down, but it also provides the key to its undoing. Race has a complex and varied history, it is constantly being remade, it shape shifts and adapts to new contexts. This is what makes it incumbent upon us to submit race to rigorous analysis.
We need to build racial literacy to have any chances of defeating the injustices done in the name of race. As the critical race scholar, Kamilaroi and Wonnarua woman Debbie Bargallie notes, for the Australian case, ‘racial literacy must become fundamental to education at all levels of Australian institutional systems.’
While I understand why we might wish to think without race, I believe it is impossible to undo something without talking about the thing we want to undo; in this case, race. While it may have been progressive in the past – in a more celebratory mood of multicultural optimism – to talk about getting beyond race, and achieving a postracial nirvana, today the refusal to talk about race is a right-wing demand. In the second chapter of Why Race Still Matters I call this demand, ‘not racism’. ‘Not racism’ is both the denial of negatively racialised people’s experiences of racism and the redefinition of racism from a white perspective that is said to be more objective.
These supposedly objective definitions are what the ‘liberal Powellite’ David Goodhart describes as ‘the normal definition’ of racism. This ‘normal definition’ is said to be the ‘irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group,’ an outlook that does not take into account the more insidious and less wilful forms of institutional racism that shape everyday life for many negatively racialised people, such as those Bargallie describes in her new book, Unmasking the Racial Contract, a study of the racism faced by Indigenous employees of the Australian Public Service. I write about ‘not racism’ as a form of discursive racist violence. It is enacted by a growing number of centrist academics whose support for what they call ‘viewpoint diversity’ increasingly leads to the legitimation of racial eugenics under the supposedly more neutral moniker of ‘race realism’.
Of course, the paradox is that the same Right that wishes to shut down talk of race, unless it meets ‘the normal definition,’ talks about race non-stop. When figures on the Right and the Centre talk about the ‘left behind’ and the ‘white working class’, for example, they are talking about race without ostensibly talking about it. They constantly elevate the concerns of a supposedly more deserving ‘indigenous’ population over Black, Brown, Muslim, Jewish and Roma people, but that doesn’t stop them from pointing the finger at us for ‘making it about race’. However, as I describe in Chapter Three, the complaint that antiracists and those who are dismissed as the peddlers of ‘unhelpful’ identity politics are ‘making it about race’ also comes from the Left. Figures such as the German Marxist economist, Wolfgang Streeck, prefer to talk about class over race, and see all attempts to show, as Stuart Hall did, that ‘race . . . is the modality through which class is lived’, as nothing but a dangerous dance with neoliberalism. However, when an analysis that centres race is dismissed by would-be allies as ‘unhelpful,’ we must ask to what or who it is unhelpful to? As the authors of the 1977 Combahee River Collective Statement wrote,
‘If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.’
It would thus appear that understanding how race plays a central role in persistently unjust economic and political arrangements and thus negatively shapes social relations both locally and globally would be ‘helpful’ for everyone except those with the most to lose under current relations of racialised power.
What those of us committed to a race critical scholarship and activism need to do is point out the precise ways in which it is the forces of racial rule – western states, their institutions and their allies in media and academia – who in fact ‘make it about race’, and have been ‘making it about race’ since its invention. Talking about the ways in which race continues to structure and inform social life for us all, whether we are on the side of benefiting from current racial arrangements or losing it, is necessary to force the contradictions of liberal democracy to its limits.
It is at our peril that we give in to the forces of racial rule and white supremacy by accepting race on its own terms – as identity – and fighting among ourselves about whose struggle is purer or more representative. I want to believe that we are at a juncture when more and more of those who benefit from racial arrangements as they stand are willing to see that their freedom is predicated, to paraphrase the Combahee River Collective, on the freedom of everyone. But, we have also been at what seemed like crucial moments before; so it is up to us not to relinquish the struggle, not to be naïve about the challenges we face, and not to reproduce the logics of white supremacy in our ranks.
Racial literacy cannot be taught at a training course or from a bestselling book of bullet points. It is a process of life-long unlearning. It requires the relinquishing of power and the remaking of the world in utopic ways. This process, as Stuart Hall told us, has no guarantees, but it is worth it if one day – most probably not in our lifetimes – we will be able to say that race no longer matters.
Alana Lentin is Associate Professor in Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University. Her book, Why Race Still Matters, is now available from Polity.