On the Indignance of the White Left

For over a month I have been ensconced in the rapidly evolving campaign attacking the supply chains that prop up the Australian system of mandatory detention. This has largely been through playing a supporting role in the blog, Cross Border Operational Matters in the context of which I am learning from long time activists from the Melbourne based Beyond Borders group, especially the burgeoning Women’s Caucus, as well as the unequalled intellectual and organising capacities of Angela Mitropoulos whose work I read many moons before ever dreaming about finding myself in this colonial outpost of the Southern Hemisphere. Recently, I have been particularly thankful for the interventions of Liz Thompson, long time open borders activist and Manus Island whistle blower. Apart from her crucial interview on the SBS Dateline show last week, her recent article in which she explains why she chose not to address the Refugee Action Coalition rally in Melbourne last Saturday was a vital intervention into the politics of the stagnated refugee movement such as it is in Australia.

Liz argued that

I have become increasingly concerned about the self-promoting, NGO-proliferating arm of the “refugee movement”, the lack of self-reflection on the amount of space taken up by white people saying “not in my name”. These rallies serve to reinforce and reorganise a white refugee movement that speaks on behalf of others.

Her call to ‘Step back, think about the space you are taking up or helping others to fill’ has filled others with ire, with one commentator recently writing, ‘I was rather disgusted by Liz Thompson’s elitist put-down of the movement, which does incalculable amounts of unpaid work to support asylum-seekers and refugees, both morally and physically.’ This comment came under an article by refugee lawyer, Lizzie O’Shea who dismissed Liz Thompson’s critique as one of moral outrage that ultimately disables the movement. Liz’s call to stop taking up space and to be reminded that ‘nothing moves without directions from within the camps, or from asylum seekers and border crossers in the community’ was read as a call to do nothing. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, the rush to characterise Liz’s argument as such plays into a white left agenda that participates in promoting a postracial politics that serves to further compound the distance between the radical left and people of colour, including refugees, asylum seekers and other ‘border crossers’. How is this achieved?

1. Moralism: Ever since I began to intervene in social media debates in Australia, I have been struck by the ease with which prominent actors on the radical left have rushed to dub me a moralist. This is achieved in roughly three to five moves, or tweets. By way of example, Tweet 1 could come from a woman of colour making a point about the elision of race and gender in a discussion of a particular issue. Tweet 2 comes from a white (usually male) Marxist to the effect of ‘accusing everyone of racism is depoliticising’ or ‘ordinary people are not racist, only the elites are’. I might respond in tweet 3 by saying, ‘to say that is to not understand how racialization functions.’ Tweet 4 from the white left: ‘here we go with the moral high ground again’. The pattern is always the same.

Playing the moraliser card plays into postracial agendas because it serves to create a separation between politics and what its spokespersons call moralism, which is to say an analysis which privileges race and gender as central to our understanding of political systems and power imbalances. When couched in the terms of moralism, race/gender is seen as purely ideological rather than systemic. This dismissal of race/gender as nothing more than tools used by elites to divide the working class not only fails to note their complex histories, but also gives weight to the hegemonic view that racism is always extraneous, rather than integral, to modern political systems. The postness of race, as Barnor Hesse argues in his article on The Postracial Imaginary, is already written into its formulation, not in the sense of the desire to eradicate it, but in the determination to discount its significance. It stands to reason from this perspective, therefore, that anyone who advocates foregrounding race/gender is not to be taken seriously politically, or to be accused of fomenting a divisive ‘identity politics’.

2. Reverse racism: Reverse racism is a key component in the postracial toolkit. We are familiar with the concept as it is used by right-wingers of the Glenn Beck school, in the genre, ‘Obama and the blacks are ruining things for downtrodden whites.’ The left is not immune to making similar arguments but their rationale for doing so is different. If people point out racism, left-wingers, and especially those in the white refugee movement whose line (rather than their practice) is that ‘unity in diversity’ is key to ending mandatory detention, often claim that to do so is divisive, or even racist. For example, when I pointed out the problem of dismissing Liz Thompson’s critique as disabling, rather than engaging deeply with the objective of considering how taking up space actually stands in the way of potential alliance-building, I was told that ‘the whole tenor [of the argument is] essentialist and, frankly, kind of racist’.

It’s quite easy isn’t it? Retort to a critique of racism, which is what pointing out the existence of a white left is, with an accusation of being racist against whites. Rather than considering how the positioning of the white left at the vanguard of refugee activism through statements such as, ‘Very few of my clients are willing or interested in speaking publicly about their plight for fear they will not be provided permanent residency or a protection visa’, to quote Lizzie O’Shea, closes off possibilities for autonomous action and self representation, the easy recourse to reverse racism accuses the critic of being out of touch with the real desires of refugees (that only they know). This of course establishes white activists as the real knowers and disregards knowledge constructed in fora to which it either has no access or wishes not to have. Lizzie O’Shea on Twitter claimed to be sympathetic to the arguments made here on Black Girl Dangerous, but also claimed to ‘struggle with some of the language’ which could mean several things but might mean discomfort with statements such as

Disclaimer: WHITE FOLKS: Please don’t take any of this as your okay to act a fool and expect POC to not get angry. We have EVERY RIGHT to get angry when you fuck up. And we have no obligation whatsoever to put your hurt feelings above the impact your behavior causes








But how many on the white left ever read this type of critique, listen to POC who ask them to be quiet, or take on board what their position as those who cross borders with ease and at whim actually means for upholding the border regime itself? O’Shea and others have, over recent days, repeatedly claimed that the border regime negatively affects everyone. This claim cannot be upheld, no matter how much we wish it to be the case because it assuages our guilt as insiders for whom the border is in fact maintained.

Here is the comment I posted under Lizzie O’Shea’s article for those who wish to avoid the rest of the comment thread:

This article misses the point of Liz Thompson’s intervention. The point is that there are times at which individual activists with the privileges of citizenship, and yes whiteness, must stop to take stock of their role in building a movement to oppose mandatory detention. To what extent are they actually connected to the movement within the camps and among ex detainees and people of colour that Liz wrote about? To what extent might they be using the refugee agenda as a platform on which to build another movement that does not have the interests of refugees, migrants and POC at heart and which may in the past or still be involved in their active political silencing, whether or not they admit or even know this? I have conducted extensive research into Antiracism over many years and have always heard the same argument from white activists : that refugees and POC are too frightened or too apolitical to speak for themselves. Often what this really means, as was admitted to me openly by a prominent Italian activist and academic is that the way refugees and migrants choose to do politics does not fit in with the established modes of political engagement already worked out. They deeply problematise the established forms by refusing to fit in, to play their role – often that of narrator of authentic stories – rather than decision maker. They might be too invested in what the white left dismisses as ‘identity politics’ which actually means that they want to foreground an analysis of the status quo which is critical of race and coloniality including that replicated by the white left. Working with, really working with, refugees, migrants and POC means giving up power, not just ‘listening’, then moving on. What Liz T. has done is to cede the little bit of power she knows she has in order to insist we all do the same. Of course, the white left’s feather are ruffled and it is doing all it can to reassert itself. That is to be expected, but the rest of us will keep making the point: no resolution to racism will be found without a displacement of privilege, and that includes dropping the ridiculous notion that the border negatively affects us all.


  • Zane Trow

    March 4, 2014

    Thanks very much, good read. Spot on.

  • Benjamin Laird

    March 4, 2014

    Thanks for quoting me Alana, but to clarify: I wasn’t pointing out that this was an issue of reverse racism. Rather, by you stating that POC have a certain kind of politics – which you claim by its very nature is separate from the Left or Marxism – is essentialist. In fact, your arguments seem to largely consist of POC say this or POC think this – that is, speaking for people of colour, as if they all think/feel/want the same.

    This debate strikes me as a lot of white folk telling other white folk to stay at home. And your argument goes further, basically claiming that POC can’t be part of the Left, meaning our activism and politics are erased. (What, for instance, of the Marxist Sri Lankans, who were once the largest Trotskyist group in the world?)

    The worse part of this is that now to gain any credibility in this debate I’m supposed to declare that I am a POC. Tell you about how I grew up in an outer suburb of Melbourne that was almost entirely white. That I have had relatives who have died in Sri Lanka and have gone missing or fled on a boat, only to disappear.

    So thanks for the erasure! Oh, and if I’m not brown enough for you, shall I ask my mum to leave a comment? She’s involved in the refugee rights movement, she’s a lifelong unionist, was involved in the moratorium and is never mistaken for white.

    I don’t appreciate the Glenn Beck comparison, for obvious reasons. I also don’t appreciate “white” comrades being compared to Beck either.

    Lastly, this is never a comment I thought I’d have to leave in a debate where we all want the same thing – open borders and equality.

  • Alana Lentin

    March 4, 2014

    Dear Benjamin, sorry if you feel insulted by my intervention. If you have time to consider it you might wish to note that at no time do I tell POC what to do or how they might feel. If you wish to identify with the left that’s fine. So do I. But the white left does not refer to individual whites on the left, although they most certainly represent it, but rather a structure that mirrors hegemonic culture within the left. It operates within a nationalistic, often patriarchal logic that is closed to critique. In it’s rhetoric of breadth and unity it nonetheless sets the agenda and expects conformity. You can be of the left but you can’t reshape it. It is your prerogative to identify with it, but it is mine to critique the symbolic violence it constantly reenacts. Nowhere did I imply that you had to prove your racialist ‘credentials’ and I’m sorry you felt pushed in that way. I don’t push my own

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