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This is what race does

The Victorian Premier at the zoo with young asylum seekers
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 on the 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.

Postscript March 1, 2016:

Always happy to be set right, it has been pointed out that when I hastily wrote the below on February 8, I omitted to reference three important articles which preceded my thinking here. These are “To Hell With Progressive Intentions” by Wenny, “Why Were Most Of The Anti-Reclaim Protesters White?” by Sanmati Verma, and “GetUp and the Amazing Disappearing of Women of Colour” Ardhra. It also adds to my own thoughts in response to this statement by Liz Thompson developed here in 2014.

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.

I’ve tried to explain some of the ways I have taken up those ideas in my recent work, a response to Michael Banton called What Does Race Do? and an article on Racism in Public or Public Racism, as well as my response to Karim Murji and John Solomos’s book, Theories of Race and Ethnicity (these are all available on my Academia page should they be behind a paywall).

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!).

Taking a break from writing this paper which tries to point out the problems in searching for solutions to racism in the benevolence of white ‘bystanders’ or ‘deeper multiculturalism’, I had one ear tuned to the #LetThemStay rallies being held in cities across Australia on February 8. The image (above) of Victorian Premiere, Daniel Andrews taking two asylum seekers children to the zoo was emblazoned across my social media feed.

This, surely, is what race does. If we think about race not as something that describes something, because after all as a concept race is the least stable of objects, but as something that performs a function, then understanding Daniel Andrews’ photo opportunity encapsulates it. It is not that Andrews is not convinced of the absolute morality of his position – his pledge (later taken up by the Premiers of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia) to let the 267 refugees at risk of being sent back to Nauru stay in their states. He believes, indeed, that these people, and especially the children (always the children) should be given a permanent home in Australia, and that sending them back to offshore detention camps is not justified even in the face of the threat posed to those like them by people smugglers (to use the official justification for the deterrence of indefinite, mandatory detention with no prospect of settlement in Australia for refugees who attempt to arrive by boat).

However, what is notable about the #LetThemStay approach is its absolute reproduction of racial logic which after all relies precisely on the ability – the right even – to arbitrate over life. To use what might appear an over-wrought analogy, there is no great difference between what is presented as a pragmatic, ‘achievable’ focus on 267 asylum seekers who have already been living in the Australian ‘community’ (though what community life they must have had under the terms of the Code of Behaviour and the ever-impending threat of re-incarceration, one can only wonder) and the choices made by Dr Mengele at Birkenau. What did it ultimately mean to send one person to the right, the next to the left; the first to a quick death in the gas chambers, the other (often family members) to a slow death as a slave or a living death?

Why do we arbitrarily fixate on 267 people who were released from offshore detention and allowed to temporarily live in Australia while maintaining that, although we may be opposed to detention (and here too, the focus is on offshore detention as somehow worse than, the more justifiable, onshore variety)? Why do even those who would not have been caught dead at a #LetThemStay rally still argue that indefinitely detaining those who arrive by boat or pushing their boats back to sea is to the benefit of other refugees in, what is imaged to be, more dangerous predicaments?

There is the issue of cultural proximity, which is imagined in two ways. There is proximity of the more obvious kind, which has led to the serious argument that Australia should prioritise persecuted minorities (read Christians) from the Syrian conflict. But there is the less obvious one, one that is particular perhaps to Australia whereby, by the very fact of having lived in the ‘Australian community’, individuals are seen as shapeable according to a vision of multiculturalism that can include them because it centres the image of its own benevolence. In other words, liberal Australia cannot countenance sending these people back to Nauru because it dislodges the image of itself as the land of fairness, tolerance, and above all ‘Welcome’.

As Angela Mitropoulos pointed out already in 2006, with reference to the struggles over the Tampa refugees, and whose work on this has helped in many ways to inform these thoughts,

The prevalent and ostensible counter-slogan of ‘Refugees are welcome here’ not only repeated the classificatory machinery of migration policy that obliges the other to beg, but positions the ‘we’ as the one who must be persuaded by such pleading, who has the authority to welcome, or not.

As Wenny pointed out in her reaction to National Director of Welcome to Australia, Brad Chilcott’s equation of Reclaim Australia protestors with those who demonstrated against them, including members of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance,

In positioning himself against the “extreme” counter-protestors as a voice of reason for “progressives” in the Australian nation-space, Chilcott assumes the authority to speak for a “progressive” Australia, which is configured as a space where white-skinned citizens still dominate and nationalism is not in question. The insinuation, then, is that the “progressive” but “rational” management of Australia lies with white-skinned nationalist citizens who have the authority and ability to govern social relations between white supremacists and minorities.

This video made by the advocacy group, Get Up! states that ‘all of us in Australia’ are calling on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to stop babies being sent back to Nauru. This is patently untrue yet it is a convenient fiction that allows even those who are moved by pictures of cuddly infants to let their support for them coexist with their belief in detention (albeit of the less harsh variety) for adults without children.

'Real Australians Say Welcome', an historically amnesic slogan
‘Real Australians Say Welcome’, an historically amnesic slogan

In an article informed by the long-standing activists involved in XBorder Operational Matters and Beyond Borders, Omar Bensaidi and I suggested  the problematic nature of the slogan, ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’, notable more for what it masks than for what it claims to say. (I am also thankful to Shinen Wong for hosting a discussion on his Facebook page of the problematic conflation of Afghans and Indians in the ‘Real Australian’s art project instigated by the Adelaide-based artist, Peter Drew)

This is added to by the problem of centering whiteness in the challenge to racism whereby the role of the racialised in relation to whiteness is to comfort white racial anxieties about its illegitimate presence in a land that was never ceded. This is what Liz Thompson meant when she responded to those thanking her for speaking out about what she witnessed as a migration agent on Manus island by declining to speak at a rally and saying,

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.

It is not that we should not fight for the 267 people whose lives are held in the balance of racist rushes to the bottom. But we should be alive to just what is being said implicitly when a state premier takes young asylum seekers to the zoo while continuing de facto to uphold mandatory, indefinite detention for other asylum seekers just like them as a principle of ‘sovereignty’. I leave it up to others more capable than I at XBorder Operational Matters and Divest from Detention to make the case for #BDS as the only logical strategy to close the camps.



Alana Lentin