On March 8 2016, Michael Pezzullo, Secretary of the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, was moved to issue a press release. He felt compelled to defend the actions of his department against criticisms of what he called a ‘contentious area of public policy and administration’, the mandatory and indefinite detention of asylum seeker children. Critics on social media rushed to point out that the most telling part of Pezzullo’s statement was his comment that,
Recent comparisons of immigration detention centres to ‘gulags’; suggestions that detention involves a ‘public numbing and indifference’ similar to that allegedly experienced in Nazi Germany; and persistent suggestions that detention facilities are places of ‘torture’ are highly offensive, unwarranted and plainly wrong – and yet they continue to be made in some quarters
It was the use of the word ‘allegedly’ that raised the most ire; the statement had made it sound like the DIBP was denying the magnitude of the Holocaust. Pezzullo followed up with another release:
Any insinuation the Department denies the atrocities committed in Nazi Germany are both ridiculous and baseless… The term ‘allegedly’ was used to counter claims of ‘public numbing and indifference’ towards state abuses in Nazi Germany and the link to immigration detention in Australia. We reject the comparison to immigration detention as offensive and question this being made as a blanket statement – an allegation hence ‘allegedly’ – to describe the attitude of the German population at large during that terrible time.
The Victorian Premier at the zoo with young asylum seekers
Since I wrote this post I have had much time to reflect on the critique of it made by Angela Mitropoulos on her website. It is no defence that I wrote the original blogpost in a hurry and that I failed to reference the three articles linked to in the postscript or her own longstanding work onthe subject, for example (but not exhaustively) here, here and here. It has also caused me to reflect on how to better represent the underpinnings of the knowledge I have gained in my work, and to avoid formulations that give the impression that they originated with me, or only with a selective literature.
As I tell my students, which of course is a well-founded antiracist principle that I did not invent, intentions don’t mean a thing. I cannot erase past mistakes, I can only strive to do better.
In an attempt to do so, I have left most of the post intact so that I do not create an impression after the fact that it was better than it was, but I have inserted references that I hope show the trajectory of the development of my thought, and might go some small and modest way towards redress.
I would also like to add that since I wrote this, further crucial reflections were added to the general topics by Carolina Lee, Ahmed, Sanmati, Tom, Matt, Liz and Angela Mitropoulos in this Roundtable discussion.
Here is the original post with inserted references in red.
I’ve been going at this question of what race does for the last few years. I’ve mainly been thinking about the question in relation to Barnor Hesse’s crucial explanation of the performativity of race which he explains in a fantastic lecture which can be watched below.
At the moment, I am finishing off an unwieldy paper with the working title, ‘Not Doing Race in Australia’, on the absence of race in much Australian racism studies (to distinguish them from race critical or decolonial approaches). My focus is on the work that gets the big grants. (Ironically, given that I have recently been led to understand that neither writing these sorts of blog posts, collaborating with other scholars, or doing any form of activism or public engagement, despite the hype, gains one any institutional recognition of the value of your work, I should probably taking a leaf out of their book and use this time to apply for some research funding, but that is a topic for another day!). Continue reading →
On April 23 I was invited to talk at the City University of New York Graduate Center by the European Union Studies Center, the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, the Committee for the Study of Religion, Political Science, and Sociology and Just Publics. Here are the slides from my talk. The paper forms the basis of two publications, one in completion with Gavan Titley, the second paying closer attention to the what the aftermath of Charlie Hebdo has to say about the problematic relationship between the ‘white left’ and identity politics.
An asylum seeker says the burns on his hands were caused by Australian Navy personnel holding his hands to hot parts of a boat engine.
This last few weeks has provided a quick lesson in the myth and mechanics of border policing in and beyond Australia. Linked is a Working Paper on ‘operational matters’ in the campaigns around border issues in and beyond Australia. It is meant to provoke a focused discussion about how to bring about change. [An earlier version of this was distributed on January 26, 2013.]
I’m a bit late updating the site with this article from last week in which I argued, against Antony Loewenstein, that Section 18C of the Australian Race Discrimination Act should not be repealed as proposed by the Attorney General, George Brandis. I preempted Antony’s argument, that the 18C which protects against racial vilification could be used against those who campaign in favour of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, as Zionist organisation Shurat Hadin is trying to do against Sydney University Professor Jake Lynch.My argument is that, it is undoubted, as I have argued in many places, that the state is duplicitous in its implementation of antiracist legislation while enacting racist policy and practice at the same time. However, protection from racial discrimination and vilification is generally called for by those who face racism, and it is not up to those not directly affected to argue against it. Antony’s argument and those of his supporters is that vilification laws are an ultimate danger for freedom of speech. But, the fact is that, in practice, any threat to the freedom of speech of the middle class, non-racialised population is outweighed by the daily racism (systemic and casual) experienced by people of colour, migrants and asylum seekers. Right-wing media pundits like Andrew Bolt, against whom Section 18C was successfully used, do not suffer in any real way from the existence of these laws. He did not lose his position or his ability to sully debate in this country in any sense. However, giving him license to spout racism in the interests of ‘freedom of speech’ would be a significant symbolic loss for those of us committed to racial justice. Freedom of speech is a strawman of liberals across the West; we all know that the freedom they expect for themselves is deemed higher than that of their opponents. You can be ‘free like me’, but not free ‘against me’. That is why those who cried freedom of speech following the publication of the ‘Muhammad cartoons’, opposed the freedom of speech of outraged Muslims to protest their publication. I am not under any illusion that Section 18C will end racism, but in the limited armory available to us, it is an important – symbolic – tool.
I had the pleasure of participating in a live debate on Wednesday August 28, Organised by Intelligence Squared Versus Debates, on the question ‘Has Martin Luther King’s Dream Been Realised?’ It was a tough gig at 4 am for me in Sydney, but it proved well worth it, especially due to the participation of Sohail Daulatzai who reminded us that ‘you have to be asleep to dream,’ that essentially using MLK’s speech as a clarion call for a postracial society is to literally be dreaming. I also made the point that no women of colour were asked to participate and that the use of the trope of ‘personal responsibility’ not only vilifies black womanhood, but is a complete misunderstanding of how structural racism works. I also noted that it was paradoxical that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation had several programmes commemorating the anniversary of the speech, but failed to make a link to the disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people in Australia, or to the fact that they still have a life expectancy 16-17% lower than the average Australia. It was also interesting to hear British MP, David Lammy, speak out as an anti-capitalist and a Socialist. I asked him to confirm this on Twitter, but he declined to answer 😉 The discussion was expertly chaired by Kenan Malik with whom I always enjoy a lively debate. Off the cuff poetry from Benjamin Zephaniah was also a treat!
Published on Guardian Australia on 19 July, 2013, my reaction to Australian opposition leader Scott Morrison’s speech on integration. Meanwhile, the governing Labour Party has hit asylum seekers hard by effectively making it impossible to seek refuge in Australia for those arriving by boat and resettling them in Australia’s old colony, Papua New Guinea. Read Anthony Loewenstein’s excellent article on Kevin Rudd’s PNG Plan here.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison is nothing if not a skilful rhetorician. There was something for everyone in the speech he gave this week to the Affinity Intercultural Foundation, an interfaith organisation – migrants (skilled ones, mind) old and new, the religiously diverse, “my own adopted brothers and sisters, uncles and aunties”, the Aboriginal people of Australia.
Morrison reads his audience carefully. He’s listened to the polemics on multicultural failure screeched by his European counterparts over recent years and decided that, in Australia, they won’t wash. Rather,
We have learnt to appreciate our differences […] We must disconnect ethnicity from citizenship. We must come back to the important point of connection between all of us; which is not where we have come from, but where we are going together.
Morrison’s reading of Australia’s migration history is one of unfettered success.
The Guardian has recently launched in Australia and I have written an article on Comment is Free on the recent spate of racist attacks on public transport. I also hope to be doing some research into the matter from within my affiliation to the Institute for Culture and Society at the University of Western Sydney. I am particularly interested in the way public space is used as a forum for the airing and contestation of ideas. A lot was made of how fellow passengers challenged the racist ranters in some of the cases: what contexts makes this possible, and in which circumstances (arguable the majority) do people remain the silent by-standers? I would like to interview passengers as well as bus drivers and public transport officials to get a sense of the phenomenon. I noted that on online fora, bus drivers were commenting on the incidents in relation to their codes of conduct, thus belying the notion that there is nothing to be done. It is clear that buses and other public spaces become containers for the airing of frustrations about a changing society, one that the racist ranters probably see as beyond their control; the bus contains a microcosm of that changing society, a racially marked one, that threatens the privilege of those made to feel that all is not right in their (white) world. As I argue in the Guardian article, these rants are an echo of the public policies that embed racism in public culture: the deaths of asylum seekers at sea and in detention, the disciplining and punishment of Aboriginal lives, and the moral panic around Muslims and Africans are not separate, but continuous, with the racist eruptions captured on these moving mini worlds. Click here to read the article on The Guardian website…
An article I wrote with Valerie Amiraux on the plan to take the word ‘race’ out of the French constitution.
It’s become something of a commonplace to speak of the US as having entered a post-racial age. Both the right and the left have heralded the end of race, either triumphantly or as a way of dismissing talk of racism as so much political correctness. However, in Europe, the debate about race – post- or otherwise – is virtually non-existent compared with North America, where race never really goes away as a topic no matter how much people wish it would. Which is why it is surprising that the issue has become a significant part of François Hollande’s term in office. During the French presidential elections last spring, the Socialist candidate pledged to remove the word “race” from the French constitution. Currently, it states that “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. It guarantees equality before the law for all citizens without distinction of origin, race or religion.” He is promising to effect that change before the summer. Read more on The Guardian website