Racism and liberal culture: a love story

‘The racist in a culture with racism is therefore normal. He has achieved a perfect harmony of economic relations and ideology…’ – Frantz Fanon in Towards the African Revolution

A video recently went viral on social media. It depicts the vile and repugnant behaviour of two Australian women terrorising the passengers of a bus in the Gold Coast. In the recording, as obscenities and fists go flying about, it becomes clear that foremost among the victims is a partially blind and elderly man who is beaten and verbally abused after he is suspected by his attackers of being an ‘Abo’.

The initial ramifications of this ‘incident’ were very telling in respect of where the issue of racism currently stands. The response of the local police was bureaucratic, with assurances that attackers would only be located, questioned and charged when the victim filed an official report. Mainstream media reporting focussed on trivialities such as the seeming intoxication of the assailants, and the fact that the victim, after all, does not identify as Indigenous.

Social media users quickly censured the behaviour of the two women – their opprobrium occasionally containing a hint of misogyny, and even racism – but were not so quick to reflect on the real and disturbing nature of the incident, and the pattern to which it belongs. Meanwhile, all the usual suspects were named: the ‘irresponsible’ bus driver; the ‘cowardly’ passengers and onlookers.

In the din of these self-serving rituals, the main message will once again be lost: liberal western societies are the products of the very racism they claim to abhor.

When seemingly random acts of racial violence take place, white society’s first line of defence is to vilify, reproach and even put on trial those it deems dispensable: women, youth, the working class, and perhaps even privileged groups of racialised or migrant others. In this case, the attackers fit at least two of the descriptive categories. They will now be offered up as sacrificial lambs at the altar of white, liberal values: both have been charged with assault and public nuisance, and have had their names released to the public.

This acts as a perfunctory ritual of purification, whereby the unwanted elements are excised to revalidate the general body of civil society and to redraw the lines of power and cultural superiority. Hence the disgust and sanctimony from the general public. It explains why social media users are content to heap vitriol of all sorts on the individual ‘racist’, while ignoring, if not condoning, the invasion of the Northern Territory, the regular brutalisation of young aboriginals at the hands of authorities, and the general state of misery to which Indigenous people are subjected.

On the one hand, a systematic and institutionalised form of racism that is ‘out of sight, out of mind’. On the other hand, a very public and visceral form of racism that is expedient to re-affirm the values of liberal civil society, even as it works to police and scapegoat other minorities.

Two birds with one stone.

It is sometimes assumed that in societies where multicultural tolerance is the norm, incidents of racial hatred are some form of incidental deviance or a ‘return of the repressed’. Another, seemingly more radical, version of the argument contents that a liberal society is nothing more than an empty façade that disguises an essentially racist core. My response to this is a tentative yes and no. It may very well be that the relationship between multiculturalism and racism is multi-layered, complex, and sometimes paradoxical. But on a general level, it seems to me that the two ideologies play very commensurable roles vis-à-vis one another. In fact, it’s feasible to argue that multiculturalism today is only possible because of racism.

Societies (like those in Australia and New Zealand) that present themselves as tolerant and multicultural do not do so as a ruse to cover up an essentially racist core. Rather, they make multiculturalism possible by the violent and daily practice of racism. The distinction may seem facetious, but I think it’s important.

The nations in question are settler societies that have experienced a history of European colonisation in which racist ideologies played an invariably central and violent part. Throughout this history, colonial discourse forcibly defined and separated the private and the public spheres of life, a binary necessary to consolidate class and racial power. In the process, the active presence of the indigenous and racialised other in the public realm was policed, suppressed, and, where possible, assimilated.

From this perspective, racism means the historical, systematic, and institutionalised suppression of the visibility of the other in the public space. (The Gold Coast incident is after all the latest in a tradition of racially-motivated abuse on public transport and in public spaces in Australia.) This is necessary not only to establish a white, capitalist regime of power, but also to acquire legitimacy and consent

Herein lies the inherent contradiction of colonial rule.

The only way for such societies to present themselves as civilising/multiculturalist projects is for the post-/colonial discourse to actively deny its history of racism and its colonial past. But in order to do this, it must persistently wipe traces of the indigenous/racial other from the public canvass, as this other constitutes living evidence of that history – a witness to the past and a threat to liberal narratives. This contradiction is the reality of post-colonial societies: that the claims to multicultural tolerance and liberal culture are only made possible by the persistent and systematic denial of others and their narratives.

If the point is still unclear, allow me to explain via a simple, if very crude, analogy. Modern capitalist economies survive on the ideology of endless growth, progress, and profit. These claims are necessary to sustain the hegemony of capitalism in its various forms and processes. However, endless accumulation of wealth rests on the endless dispossession, pauperisation, and exploitation of large swathes of peoples, their lands, and their resources (what David Harvey calls ‘accumulation by dispossession). Moreover, the privatisation of property, physical and intellectual, and the erosion of the commons, work to exclude those who are dispossessed from contesting such encroachments.

What I am trying to clarify here is that the claims made by a particular discourse (in one case, that a society is predominantly tolerant and multicultural; in another case that ‘the economy/market’ is a benevolent cornucopia) are inseparable from the material and social conditions that produce them (systematic racism in the one case, dispossession and impoverishment in the other). The common sense notion of a separation between the claim and the reality comes about as a result of an ideological and violent displacement of the counter-claims/narratives of others, and their exclusion from a heavily policed and contracted public space.

This argument allows us to view the actions and behaviour of the Gold Coast teenagers and the subsequent reaction of the general Australian public not in opposition but in correspondence. What we witnessed was the policing operation of a racist culture that sensed the potential presence of the other in the public space. The boundaries were crossed, as they are on a daily basis in countless instances, and the teenage women acted as border control. The backlash against the latter worked in tandem to redraw the boundaries and simultaneously reassert the liberal values of white society. Racism was enacted and at the same time made possible the reclamation of liberal tolerance.

It is commonly understood that racism is the creation of difference, and the projection of hatred and conflict. I think this idea is quite limited and in many cases misplaced, as it neglects the many nuances in racist ideology and colonial discourse. For example, where would this notion leave the work of missionaries and other benevolent institutions of racism?

Another way to view racism, as I have argued here, is as the forcible eviction of difference from the public space, and the creation of consensus and complicity. Whether through force or assimilation, racism attempts to reduce as much as possible the visibility of different others, traces that might reveal the social tabula rasa for the palimpsest that it actually is.

Furthermore, the longevity of a racist culture depends on its ability to stave off conflict and disagreement, and to manage popular passions so as to keep them from spilling over into the public domain. When such overflows do take place, as on that bus, we are witnessing not some re-emergence of a latent racist ideology, but rather getting a glimpse of its cracks and weaknesses. These instances divulge the inherent contradictions of a culture that tries in vain to legitimise itself by denying the other as well as its own colonial history, while also failing to manage the excesses of its own internal processes.

Faisal Al-Asaad

Faisal Al-Asaad is an Iraq-born writer, researcher, and educator based in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. He is primarily interested in critical theories of race, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism.

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  1. The article is a clearly elucidated review of a Colonial society coming to grips with its heritage by marginalising the dispossessed and excluding the ‘other’ from public discourse.

    While logical as a review of the process of racist actions as an external expression of failed internal discourse, what is lacking is a broader global perspective. Without diminishing the repressive nature of Colonial annexation, and all of its inherent faults, any consideration of a liberal society approach to racism by its constituents should be seen in the context of global alternatives. If we were to set aside liberal democracies and consider for a moment alternative societal structures… how many will provide an environment in which the respective “other” are allowed even a shade of protection that the liberal society provides?

    Arguments can legitimately be made for the legitimate protection to be at a structural and process level only – but that ignores the fact that such structures and processes exist. While is is a facile argument to point to “worse than me” situations, there is never-the-less a requirement to exceed the minimalist assumptions underlying Winston Churchill’s statement on democracy… “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (http://wais.stanford.edu/Democracy/democracy_DemocracyAndChurchill(090503).html).

    Could it be that this act of violence against a defenceless person using public transport was just the act of people struggling so much with their own status that the opportunity to belittle someone perceived to be lower again was just too much..? Perhaps there is no more to be gleaned from such an incident than this simple yet subtly nuanced example of societal stratification? Perhaps we do not need to reach for an “other” to explain the lashing out of those who do not feel that they themselves meet their society’s expectations?

    Racism in the individual is individual racism. Racism in a society bereft of remedies for racist actions is racism. Racism in a society that sits up and listens may still be called racism – but we are beginning to talk about shades of grey here, and this article does not seek to tread the no-man’s-land between the extremes.

    1. Thanks for reading the article, and for your response.

      A “global perspective” would hardly be a perspective at all. In fact, it would just be an extension of a Eurocentric, colonial mindset that seeks to speak for and on behalf of the rest of the world through its universalist assumptions; a mindset, incidentally, very typical of the colonial architect you quote.

      If you want to talk about historically global dynamics, however, I’d point out that liberal democracies have traditionally been very happy to accommodate racist and apartheid systems in their own countries and overseas. It was only relatively recently that structures of “protection” were selectively offered, because of 1. the struggles of ethnic and racial minorities and 2. the wave of neoliberal restructuring of Western economies that made it expedient to outsource the more blatant forms of racism, making it possible to assume the “worse than me” situation in the first place.

      If “protection”, pseudo-tolerance, and so-called dialogue are the extent of our ambitions, then perhaps it is sufficient to dismiss/excuse these societal patterns as nothing more than acts of bullying. But for those interested in questions of power, social justice and equality, then it’s important for us to really be still thinking.

      1. Thank you for your comments.

        Australia is a racist country. It has a brutal colonial past, and even recent interactions with the indigenous communities retain largely colonial in their overt paternalism. Australia’s police and legislative systems must deal with the conflict between the ruling hegemonic order and the presence/activities of the “other” in whichever form the “other” takes. In effect, any overview of that process will find faults in the system.

        Liberal democracies are a product of their history, which is inevitably violent, oppressive and built on foundations stolen from the “other”. Actions such as the recent legal claims of Caribbean nations aiming at recompense for today’s implications of a colonial or repressive past are likely to only grow in volume and intensity.

        Racism, bigotry and hegemonic oppression exist at the individual, local and national level. To suggest otherwise is to ignore the daily realities of women, Aboriginals, Asians, Africans, Indians and anyone else from a non-white European background.

        Yet this does not mean that a society is not tolerant. By its nature, a democracy is a body of people presenting a singular outlook to the world while internally being under a state of continuous tension. Minorities, splinter groups, pressure groups and politically-driven groupings create an interplay which shifts the bell-curve of “public opinion” in subtle ways.

        The point of my original comment was perhaps irrelevant to the point being made in the article. Any attempt to highlight the necessity of that social tension inherent within a democratic society will appear to be an apology for an oppressive hegemonic system. Raising the issue of Japanese, Chinese, Saudi Arabian, Ugandan, Brazilian, American, Icelandic, Italian, Moroccan or any other country’s racism can be seen as an attempt to reduce interrogation of Australia’s, and that was not the intention of my earlier comment. Please accept my apologies for diverting the discussion away from your primary investigative points.

  2. Why this kind of behaviour has taken so long to be discussed is truly beyond my understanding. While Kiwis have their reputation, and not nice ones either, (White) Australians on the other hand are well known for arrogant, racist, obnoxious behaviours. Experienced it myself on a few occasions, fortunately, I met some absolutely ‘Bonzer’ Aussies, who I count as life long friends. We take the piss out of each other, and still remain friends.

  3. Thanks for this article.

    Multiculturalism therefore is a form of racism in that it accepts different people, so long as their minds submit to the cultural superiority of the White system?

    Celebrating multiculturalism is an act of acceptance and reassurance that despite the intolerance of some people, we live in a happy diverse society. But this itself is racist in the way it reinforces the current system and excludes those who see it differently.

    Would like to read more from you on how this works.

  4. While I understand the narrative of this article and it is a common narrative, not much changed over the last 30 years, there is a fundamental problem within it. It falls to recognise, as did Marx, later Weber, and others, the inherent radical nature of capitalism and liberalism. It fails in its total ahistorical underpinnings. It also assumes that ‘colonialism’ is by nature static and ideologically predetermined. It is these sort of intellectually naive postmodernist assumptions that have undermined the left and the progressive nature of liberalism, social democracy and democracy. the report also seems to totally misunderstand the nature of the state and its impact on cultural relations. Finally, at the expense of being banal – one would much rather be a migrant of non Anglo background in Australia, Canada, USA and UK than most other parts of the world. The essential openness of liberalism is to be found in its internal contradictions.

    1. Thank you for having a glance at this, and for leaving a comment.

      The “expense of being banal” turns out to be the comment’s betrayal of its own parochial agenda. “One”, I take it, here means one of Anglo background? Presumably, one who has also barely risked being a committed migrant to those “other” parts of the world, whatever the latter designation might mean with all its Orientalist undertones. In this case, one would be well-advised to check one’s privilege: a good starting point for any critique.

      More to the point, the “migrant” is hardly the subject of this article, so I can only assume that the comment is predicated on its own hapless suppositions than on any careful reading of the argument. Had the latter actually taken place, it would’ve been obvious that I had stressed over and over again the very fragile as well as dynamic nature of colonial and racist discourses – far from being “static” or “predetermined”.

      Also, the inherent radical nature of capitalism didn’t stop Marx from subjecting it to the most ruthless critique. Don’t see why anything that might be presumed radical in some circles should be absolved of the same.

      The left isn’t undermined by its different intellectual traditions: it is in fact strengthened and enriched by these debates. The left is undermined by careless ways of reading, and dogmatic ways of thinking: what everything in Marx goes against. It’s a pity really, and pity is all that it deserves.

  5. Good article.
    I’m interested in your thoughts on racism in non-Anglo (non-Western?) post-colonial societies such as Mexico and Brazil.
    Is the situation similar/the same as in Aust/NZ etc?

  6. the issue of identity is so precious and guarded everywhere. The old man with his privilege of not identifying as Aboriginal (I am Aboriginal), the identity of the ‘attackers’ etc etc all combine in some ugly way to be ‘Australian’ – whatever that is!!
    This country is racist. Racist and violent past. Racist and violent now….there was no gracious ‘settlement’…violent contact, expressed in acts and in laws. The footpaths at home- (Bourke) , still have blood stains of men and women, particularly of the black people who live, or have lived there, defending themselves against racist attacks. It happens more frequent than a country wearing blinkers, and ‘turning away’ wants to imagine. The mono-centric views by the dominant in society, supported via media outlets, and often accompanied by organisations like Police and Governments do little…But why leave the changes that we need/want/should have to them?….We are all citizens. We all suffer when one suffers. Direct action, and personal actions in our everyday will make a difference. I was so happy to see Melbourne people re-claim the night after the murder of the woman last year. They took to the street. I don’t know how to organize a million person march, culminating in a pledge/commitment ceremony to say I won’t participate in racist attacks. racist talk or racist acts…but if I did, I would do such a thing.
    Meanwhile, I am going to ask the university I attend to support me and make such an event on campus. The uni I attend is very conservative, and mostly, politically dead…but,
    I’m going to give it a go.
    It might not achieve anything significant in the bigger world, but at least it will be my way of saying to the world, I won’t take it, and I won’t do racism.

    Thanks for the article…great insight, and is a worthy discussion piece.

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