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04 Aug 2014 15:58
'Recalling' is a way of reflecting on modernity, combining remembrance of past achievements and the option to recall a product with defects.
Anti-racism as a current of thought and as a social movement has a long history. From the opposition to slavery to the
anti-colonial struggles and until today, anti-racism has been and remains a
vital and important current of thought and a social movement embodying the
noblest of all human values: at the very least, a belief in the right of all
human beings to be related to in a decent and dignified manner regardless of
where they come from and how they happen to be perceived and categorised.
Yet, despite this long history, and some
remarkable victories against the forces of racism in their variety of forms, it
cannot be said that anti-racism has been particularly successful.
look today, racism is on the rise.
Most importantly, we are seeing a massive
rise in virulently racist and intolerant forms of ethno-religious-nationalism,
with Israel being a model form. The salience of racism was brought particularly home to me here in South Africa. As a guest of the Johannesburg Workshop in
Theory and Criticism, travelling from Johannesburg to Cape Town on a bus and
holding workshops, learning about local histories and meeting a variety of
people, it became clear to me that even here, the country where the forces of
anti-racism have registered what is undoubtedly their greatest victory, racism
remains nonetheless an enduring social force leaving its imprint on many facets
of South African life.
It is with the above in mind that in the
workshop we have discussed what we called the “recalling” of anti-racism. “Recalling”
has been advanced by the anthropologist Bruno Latour as a critical way of
reflecting on modernity. It
combines both recalling in the sense of remembering to ensure we build on past
achievements, but also recalling in the way a company recalls a product when it
realises it has some defect.
As Latour highlights: “In no way does this
recall aim to damage the product, nor, of course, to lose market share. Rather,
it has quite the opposite strategy. By showing consumers the care it takes with
the quality control of its goods and the safety of their users, it wants to
demonstrate initiative, rebuild media confidence and, if possible, recommence
the production that was too quickly halted.” It is in this spirit, then, that
we want to recall anti-racism.
More so than “modernity”, anti-racism is a
product with a well-defined function: to combat racist modes of relating and
living and replace them with non-racist ones. Although it has had some notable
successes, it has been far from a fault-free product; it has failed to rise to
the situation on many occasions. Indeed, if we are to compare racism and
anti-racism as products, we can say that across history racism has been far more
successfully “recalled” and made operationally suitable for a variety of socio-economic
and cultural environments.
It has morphed and shown a capacity to
target a variety of people, sometimes many at the same time: blacks, Asians, Arabs,
Jews, Romas and Muslims. It has been used as a tool of segregation, a tool of
conditional integration and, most dramatically, a tool of extermination. It has
efficiently constructed its object, successfully adapting to the dominant modes
of classification of the time, be they phenotypical, biological, cultural or a
combination of these and more.
Comparatively speaking, anti-racism has
been conceptually rather ossified and always trying to catch up with the racists’
fluid mode of classification. Anti-racist thinkers bear some responsibility for
this ossification. Whereas racists happily move from one form of racism to
another, caring little about logical contradictions, inconsistencies and discrepancies
in their argumentations, anti-racist academics spend an inordinate amount of
time trying to judge racists on precisely such grounds. They criticise racists
as if the racists are students or fellow academics with whom they are having
disagreements in a tutorial room about how to interpret reality.
The lethal performativity of racist
statements and, of course, action, which is what is most important to the
racists, is given far less attention than needed. It is as if the racists’
greatest sin is that they are bad thinkers: they are “essentialists”, they deviate
from “classical biological racism” or they are making false empirical statements
about reality that the anti-racist academics work for long hours to correct by
highlighting a lot of statistical data that proves them incorrect – “No, there
aren’t that many asylum seekers, no there are no ghettoes here.” This is “look
at the demographic data”-type argumentation.
It is because of such tendencies that
recalling anti-racism is a crucial task. It is particularly so since racism for
the last couple of decades or so has been yet again undergoing an important
reconfiguration, becoming intimately fused with the logic and needs of
neoliberal capitalist accumulation. To recall anti-racism now in the midst of
this transformation might allow us to develop an anti-racism that is evolving
in continual response to, rather than trying to catch up with, the racisms it
is trying to oppose.
One of the most important transformations
that have shaped the new “neoliberal racism” is the increasingly important
role that nationalist ideologies play in securing the relative cohesion of most
nation states. Economic globalisation has meant that very few nations are left
with a national economic structure that works as a solid base for securing the
togetherness of the nation regardless of what people within the nation thought.
This has meant, among other things, a
relative increase in the importance of the function of the ideological (for
example, national values, national histories) as a centripetal force securing both
the practical and the ideological unity of the nation-state. Because of this
centrality, the social forces that take on the task of protecting ethno-national
ideologies develop an increased racist intolerance towards the plurality of
ideas and identities that not long ago marked the most benign forms of
multiculturalism. Such pluralities are increasingly constructed as centrifugal
forces of disintegration and are systematically attacked as a national threat.
The second feature of neoliberal
globalisation that is having an important impact on shaping the dominant forms
of racism in the West is the increased move towards a de-industrialised
Despite the plurality of forms that
racism has taken throughout history, it has always fluctuated between two
tendencies: the racism of exploitation and the racism of extermination. The
first is deployed when the racialised are considered valuable, such as in the
case of slavery or migrant workers. The second dominates when the racialised
are considered harmful, or at least when they are evaluated as more harmful
than they are useful, such as in the case of anti-Semitism, as well as in certain
instances of colonial encounters.
In the first case, racism works to
in society, ensuring they have a place in it even if it is a precarious place. In the
second, racism aims to marginalise people
society, ensuring they have no social or even physical presence in it
whatsoever. This could be through active physical extermination or through passive
extermination: letting people rot through a strategy of neglect the way
one lets an old truck rust away on one’s property, or, in a similar manner,
through ensuring the targeted people remain on the outer side of the borders
they aim to cross, as with asylum seekers.
The third feature is the rise of
particularist anti-racism. This is the anti-racism of those who are racialised
and are as such struggling against their racialisation. But in their struggle, what is important to them is not that “racism is wrong”. Rather, it is that
racism against them is wrong. Such
people don’t mind racism as such; they mind being subjected to it themselves.
Indeed, they often are happy to dispense racism themselves. Nowhere is this racist
particularist anti-racism, with its capacity to racialise others in the name of
fighting against one’s racialisation, more powerfully present and
institutionalised than in the state of Israel today.
But it can even be said that this
particularism has become a generalised cultural form, with so much racism today
being dispensed by racists claiming to be racialised. Even white
populations in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia, with their long history of
colonisation, have happily taken it on board, often arguing that they are
subject to “reverse racism”.
This particularist anti-racism raises
what is perhaps the most crucial point that needs to be considered in the
process of recalling racism: to what extent is anti-racism wedded to an “alter-racial”
conception of society? That is, to what extent does it not only work on
opposing existing racism but also work on thinking through and working for a
The non-racial today, like the
post-racial, rightly has a bad name because like most conservative strategies
it posits as achieved what people are still struggling to achieve. As such it
works at delegitimising those struggles. This, however, does not mean that
alter-racial conceptions of the social have to be given up and surrendered to
conservative forces. No social movement is successful by being simply an
oppositional force. Opposing what is bad does not by itself produce something
It remains the case that it is only by
remaining wedded to a fantasy of a non-racial society that the struggle to
achieve that anti-racism can remain a potent social force. Reinjecting this
fantasy into anti-racism is therefore one of the most crucial tasks of the
process of recalling.
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