‘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.