Skip to content

Concepts and Debates 2: Race and the Human

This week in the seminar we will continue to discuss issues of social construction and how to define race by engaging with Stuart Hall’s lecture, Race the floating signifier. The following is a more general concept note on the relationship between race and the human, which is also evoked in the following portion of Hall’s lecture, in which he discusses the various ways in which difference has been racially conceived.

On Tuesday 7 August at roughly 6pm I was in an Uber on my way to the launch of the the Transition Magazine issue on ‘Bla(c)kness in Australia’ at Sydney University. The radio was playing in the car and all of a sudden my ears pricked up at the discussion. The hosts, Kate, Tim and Marty were talking about the cancellation of the Pink concert, and from that they segued to discussing the announcement that Australia’s population was due to hit 25 million people that night. Making a dubious connection to their previous discussion, one of the hosts made the following remark, ‘if you’re a citizen of Australia… if you’re not, pack up your stuff and leave, you animals.’

When sitting down to write this post on the connection between race and the human, I couldn’t help but reflect on this experience (about which I have made a formal complaint). According to the host – no doubt intending it as a joke – if you should not be in Australia, meaning if are in the country ‘illegally’ to use the prevalent language of border management, you should leave, ‘you animal’. The use of animalistic signifiers to describe racialised people has a long lineage. It was central to racist caricature; Jews were rats and cockroaches, both Blacks and the Irish have been described as apes, and so on. A good resource on simianization is Simianization: Apes, Gender, Class, and Race (Hund et al. eds).

Far from historical, this language is still frequently used, for example in the recent likening of former Aboriginal football star, Adam Goodes, to an ‘ape’ by a 13 year old girl, and later to King Kong by football manager, Eddie McGuire. And in 2015, the racist British commentator, Katie Hopkins, likened migrants escaping to Europe on boats from war-torn Syria to cockroaches, writing, ‘Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit “Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984”, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.’

At the same time, outrage in Australia about issues of animal protection such as the live export of sheep and cattle is widespread, and arguably has more support among the public than concern for the Australian state’s treatment of First Nations people or asylum seekers locked in detention both in and offshore. So, the use of the word ‘animals’ to imply the illegitimacy or disposability (Giroux 2006) of people expresses something that is not about animals but about the relationship between those seen as intrinsically different to ourselves and their humanity.

The discussion about race and the human has animated anticolonial and postcolonial thinkers leading to myriad debates about whether or not the implications and effects of race thinking, which has justified the annihilation or extreme ill-treatment of non-whites and non-Europeans submitted to European colonial rule, means that the concept of humanity is not fit for purpose.

According to the International Humanist and Ethical Union, humanism is nothing but a set of ethical ideals that are available to all of humanity. However, a look at the principles laid out in its 2002 Amsterdam Declaration reveals that these cannot be disconnected from the Enlightenment ideas of rationality and secularism. Such ideas cannot be disentangled from the implied criticism of alternative knowledges – Indigenous knowledges, laws and ethical frameworks – that may sit uneasily with these hegemonic European frameworks. This was a key theme of Irene Watson‘s discussion at the Australian Critical Race & Whiteness Studies symposium, ‘Thinking Relationally about Race, Blackness and Indigeneity in Australia.’

In Lewis Gordon‘s discussion of Frantz Fanon’s concept of the ‘zone of non-being’ in What Fanon Said, he observes that the problem is not with being human or with humanity, but rather with the fact that Europeans sought to tether what it meant to be human to being European, or the idea of Europe itself. With the advent of Enlightenment, European thought and purported way of life were presented as rational and progressive (on a trajectory towards ever increasing progress) in opposition to non-Europeans who were considered either to be outside of history, or ‘stuck’ at an earlier historical stage to Europeans (for a fuller understanding of what David Theo Goldberg calls racial ‘historicism’ or ‘progressivism’ in his book The Racial State please see Chapter 2 of my short book, Racism).

Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks 1967[1952], p. 2.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks 1967[1952], p. 2.

However, as Gordon points out, it was not that ‘reason’ and ‘history’ were European inventions, rather the ‘modern collapse of “Reason” and “History” into all things European represented a failure of reason and history that required self-deception regarding Europe’s scope’  (Gordon 2015: 19). The deception was the attempt to make Europe equivalent to ‘Absolute Being’ (ontological). And as Gordon remarks, ‘such Being stood in the way of human being or a human way of being’ (ibid.). This idea was presented as a ‘theodicy’ which is the ‘attempt to account for the compatibility of an omnipotent, omniscient, and good god with injustice and evil’ (ibid.). In other words, this is the idea that one way of being, in this case Europe, can account for all things in the world. As Gordon puts it,

‘Rationalizations of Western thought often led to a theodicy of Western civilization and thought as systems that were complete and intrinsically legitimate in all aspects of human life, on levels of description (what is) and prescription (what ought to be), of being and value, while its incompleteness, its failure to be so, hallmarks of the “dark side of thought” loved by those constantly being crushed under its heels, remained a constant source of anxiety, often in the form of social denial’ (ibid.: 20).

So, the problem of proposing that everyone can be incorporated into a singularly European conception of humanity is that it requires those who are not European to deny the injustices carried out in the name of this humanity. As Goldberg’s concept of racial historicism shows, racial-colonial domination was justified in the name of bringing non-Europeans knowledge, technology, agriculture, and so on.

But, to do this, it was necessary not only for non-European knowledges to be set aside, but for the (educated) colonized to participate in the negation of their own knowledges by submitting to the supremacy of European ideas. This is the paradox at the heart of Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks where Fanon, a product of the European (French) education system, and having fought for the ‘Free French’ in World War II, comes violently face-to-face with the racism of those he thought of as his concitoyens (fellow citizens). Fanon famously recounts being confronted with French racism in the embodiment of a child turning to her mother and saying:

 ‘“Look, a Negro!” It was an external stimulus that flicked over me as I passed by. I made a tight smile. “Look, a Negro!” It was true. It amused me. “Look, a Negro!” The circle was drawing a bit tighter. I made no secret of my amusement.

“Mama, see the Negro! I’m frightened!” Frightened! Frightened! Now they were beginning to be afraid of me. I made up my mind to laugh myself to tears, but laughter had become impossible’ (Fanon 1967[1952]: 84).

Fanon’s meditation on racism, blackness and anti-blackness in Black Skin, White Masks has often been read separately from his critique of colonialism in The Wretched of the Earth or A Dying Colonialism. But colonialism and racism find their justification in the values of Western humanism, according to Fanon, because it allows the coloniser to constantly speak of universal ‘Man’ while murdering ‘men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe’ (Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth 1963: 251).

Fanon’s realization of the limitations of the Human, or universal ‘Man’ (admitting here also the gendered nature of the designation), is encapsulated in the sentence, ‘the black is a black man; that is, as the result of a series of aberrations of affect, he is rooted at the core of a universe from which he must be extricated’ (Fanon 1967[1952]: 2). This ‘black man’ exists in the ‘zone of non-being’ which is not outside of the universal, but which is an intrinsic part of it. In other words, while for Europeans, ideas of universality connote the positive – inclusive, holist, etc. – they mask the underside without which the very idea of a universal cannot exist.

Returning to Lewis Gordon’s idea of the theodic nature of ‘Absolute Being’, the point about the invention of the Human or ‘Universal Man’ (sic.) is that it is able not only to include, but to justify, wrongdoing. Bad things done in the name of the universal (higher good) are done precisely because this ‘Absolute Being’ is all-powerful and thus ‘knows better’.

2nd grade social studies textbook, NYC Public Schools; colonisers are reinvented as ‘immigrants’

To make this less abstract, we could think about the ways in which colonialism is constantly justified, not only by right-wing ideologues, but by the mainstream education system in most colonial and postcolonial countries. Despite the lip-service paid to opposing racism and appreciating Indigenous culture, for example, in the Australian education system, the main thrust of the curriculum still builds on a vision of colonization leading to the progress and development of the territories unified under the Australian state. As Aileen Moreton-Robinson remarks, in The White Possessive,

‘In Australian history books the violence continued in written expression by denying Indigenous sovereignty through portrayals of peaceful settlement, not invasion and war’ (Moreton-Robinson 2015: 26).

Colonialism then may have involved a degree of wrongdoing, such as in Australia the theft of children from their families, known as the Stolen Generations, but in the eyes of the mainstream this does not cancel out the overriding benefits of colonization. In the case of a settler colonial nation, such as Australia or Israel, this is not only about the ‘civilization’ of a purportedly ‘uncivilized’ population, but also about ‘rescuing’ those resettling in the lands occupied; poor convicts, in the Australian case, persecuted Jews in that of Israel. And indeed, these practices and their legitimation continue when we consider that today more Aboriginal children are removed from their families under ‘child protection’ than they were during the ‘Stolen Generations’.

When Fanon writes that the Black man must be ‘extricated’ from ‘the core of a universe’ where he is ‘rooted’ he means that to construct the very idea of the universal (inclusive of everyone on the planet), the inverse of the ideal type must be included. Etienne Balibar makes this clear in his discussion of ‘Universalism as Racism’ when he says that that the modern European project of constructing a ‘general idea of man’ necessitates including a reference point: the non-human. The basic point here is that we can only exemplify something by contrasting it to its opposite (a cup is a cup because it is not a plate). The Enlightenment  obsession with categorization and classification works by establishing what is inside and what is outside. In the case of constructing an idea of who constitutes humanity, this can only be established by identifying what lies outside of the human. Given that the context in which these ideas were being worked out was that of growing European colonialism, the theorization of ‘Man’ was effectively based on the opposition between white Europeans and non-white and non-Europeans. 

This opposition was based not only on the facts of physical difference, but also on the geographical existence of ‘non-Man’ on the lands coveted by Europeans (and which thus necessitated clearing of the humans living on them, as Roxana Dunbar-Ortiz points out in An Indigenous People’s History of the United States), on the realization that African slave labour could be used to grow colonial economies, and on the growing necessity for developing nation-states in Europe to bind their territorial identity to the idea of an intrinsic ‘national character’. In other words, we cannot separate the identification of differently racialised peoples with the needs of the expansionist European state, which were racially conceived. This is why, as we shall see when we come to discuss the relationship between race, coloniality and property in Weeks 6 and 7 (Sept.3 and 10), it is historically inaccurate to think about the growth of capitalism as separable from or irrelevant to race. Capitalism, as Cedric Robinson makes abundantly clear, was racial in its conception and its evolution. The lands that became known as Australia were labelled Terra Nullius (land without people) to justify their theft. The people on the lands had to be thought of as non-human for this to be achieved. As Irene Watson puts it,

‘From the attempted genocide of Nungas (Aboriginal peoples) the Australian state retains control over Nunga territory, the ruwi (land) of my ancestors, through a power which mantles a white Australian homogenous identity, over our Nunganess. The coloniser perceived this Nunga place as available to be filled with their ‘beginnings’ of history, and ‘evolving spirit’. Their new empire state, was forecast by ‘great white men’, as being part of an evolutionary process which would shift the centre of civilisation from Europe in a movement north west, to centre and ‘evolve’ itself further in the lands of Great Turtle Island’ (Watson 2002: 254).


Balibar’s discussion of ‘Universalism as Racism’ is essential for understanding how racism can coexist with the expansion of the ideas of democracy and liberalism, a theme also expertly developed by Lisa Lowe in The Intimacies of Four Continents (read my post about her book here). Balibar explains that universalism is usually presented alongside humanism as a value (as earlier discussed). Racism, thus, is generally seen as the opposite of universalism, as are sexism and nationalism. However, he explains, Enlightenment philosophers – he singles out Immanuel Kant in particular – required the ideal of universality to be rooted in nature. His so-called ‘pragmatic anthropology’ established ‘the characters of sex, people and race…as natural categories’ which mediated between individuals and the species (Balibar 1994: 196). In other words, it was these supposedly natural characteristics shared among certain groups of people that distinguished these people from others. A people’s ‘level of progress’, therefore, can be evaluated by comparing between these ‘natural characters’ of different groups. So, because differences are naturalized in this way, according to Balibar, there is no way for the human (‘which is so crucial for universalism’, p. 197) to be defined outside of an idea of hierarchy. As he remarks, ‘this is to do with the impossibility of fixing the boundaries of what we call “human”, or fixing the boundaries within which all human beings could possibly be gathered’ (ibid.) This last point relates to Stuart Hall’s reminder that

‘the biological-physiological level can never do what it claims in the discourse to do: it cannot establish permanent differences among diverse families of races; it cannot give these cultural, social, economic, and historical differences a guaranteed basis of inheritance in genetic distinctions; and it cannot fix, for either negative or positive purposes, the cultural, cognitive, emotional, and other social characteristics of the populations to which it refers’ (Hall 2017: 67).

As soon as we attempt to define ‘man in general, or the essence of the human’ we are led, Balibar writes, towards the the idea of Ubermensch and Untermensch (ibid. 198). If the aim of universalism is precisely this attempt to define the human in general, it is logical for Balibar that universalism and racism each contain the other within themselves, ‘or is bound to affect the other from the inside‘ (ibid.). However, I do not read Balibar as saying that this is inevitable, but rather that the conditions under which Enlightenment ideas of universalism developed were so tightly bound to the colonial context which made the development of certain methodologies possible. Philosophers and scientists of the 18th century in Europe were becoming more interested in classifying and categorizing human beings because the colonial enterprise made it possible for them, through travel and the accounts of travelers – including, most crucially anthropologists – to consider what it meant that humanity came in so many different varieties. But, as I have been impressing, this was not simple curiosity; rather the efforts at classification within the general theorization of what it meant to be human – who could and could not be included in a vision of humanity – could not and cannot be divorced from the aim of colonialism; the expropriation of the majority of the world’s resources and the theft of its people’s lands by Europeans.

Balibar’s attempt to tease out the relationship between universalism and racism is central to his quest to theorize racism. Racism, he says, provides answers to questions about why we are different. Racism makes sense of difference by claiming that differences between people, are not differences among individuals, but ‘among sets of similar individuals‘ (ibid. 200). Difference, is the ‘universal essence of who we are – not singular differences, but collective differences,’ he remarks (ibid.). Thus universalism contains racism within itself, and the quest to define humanity is ultimately the aim of classifying different groups of similar individuals and relating them to each other on a hierarchy. Because the quest for the universal idea of humanity starts out as a European endeavor, and because Europeans were those colonizing and dominating the rest of humanity, this racialised universalism (or racist universalism) cannot but place Europeans at the top of that hierarchy.

This categorization of humanity, for Balibar, is tightly tied to the dominance of nationalism as the legitimate means for conceiving and organizing societies. For Balibar, racism and nationalism exist in what he calls a ‘relationship of reciprocal determination’ (Balibar 1991). For Alexander Ghedi Weheliye, slightly differently, race itself is ultimately the division of people into the categories of  ‘human, not-quite-human, and non-human’ (Weheliye 2014; for a full discussion of his book Habeas Viscus, see my post). But, in Weheliye’s scheme, it is not that these are natural categories; far from it. Rather the function of race is to make the division of humanity into human, not-quite-human and non-human appear natural through the mobilization of ‘an assemblage of forces that must continuously articulate nonwhite subjects as not-quite-human’ (ibid. 19).

Weheliye’s thought is grounded in Black studies, and the Black feminist writing of Sylvia Winter and Hortense Spillers in particular [for further understanding of Weheliye’s approach to the human, via Hortense Spillers, see this article by James Johnson]. He then wishes to problematise the way in which the human has been mobilized in European thought. He opens the book by writing that Black studies (and minority thought more generally) offer a way to think about ‘different genres of the human’ because they propose ‘a substantial critique of western modernity and a sizable archive of social, political, and cultural alternatives’ (ibid. 3). The concept of different genres of the human is an interesting one, because it is not that the centrality of race to the definition of the boundaries of the human/universal humanity, necessarily means that there is not more to be said about being human. Rather, we need to recuperate other ways of being human that stand outside the Eurocentric, racial-colonial interpretation. This chimes with Lewis Gordon’s comments on the idea of ‘Absolute Being’ which, as he puts it, ‘stood in the way of human being or a human way of being.’

Western ideas of humanity are summed up by the wholly racialised and gendered vision of the human as Man (with a capital ‘M’). This is the ideal everyone who is not white, male, heterosexual and cis-gendered is supposed to aspire to or against whom one’s viability in the world is assessed. As Weheliye puts it, the aim of Black studies should be to point the way towards the abolition of Man, advocating instead ‘the radical reconstruction and decolonization of what it means to be human’ (ibid. 4). What Weheliye calls ‘modern selfhood’ cannot be extricated from the ideal type, ‘Man’. Thus a further aim of reconsidering what it means to be human is to disentangle our ideas about humanity from ideas of the Self or the individual. For those of us in western societies, this means a complete reinterpretation of how we consider what it means to be human, based as it is on the primacy of self-actualization, and the correlated notions of achievement, success, competition, etc. which drive our societies. Here the work of First Nations scholars such as Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Audra Simpson, Irene Watson, and Eve Tuck, to name but a few. For further reflection on this, see the edited volume on Critical Indigenous Studies edited by Moreton-Robinson.

Weheliye returns to Hortense Spillers’ notion of ‘the flesh’ not only to explain how racialised bodies are transformed, during racial slavery for example, through ‘the calculated work of iron, whips, chains, knives, the canine patrol, the bullet and many other factors including courts of law’ (Weheliye 2014: 39). He also sees the emancipatory potential in ‘the flesh’ because he is attentive to how bodies reduced to flesh in situations of  ‘depravation and deprivation’ (ibid.), such as slavery plantations and Nazi concentration camps, nonetheless constantly work (sometimes in barely visible ways) towards their self-emancipation. Weheliye’s interest in what could be thought of as small acts towards freedom, observable among slaves and concentration camps inmates reduced to flesh (e.g. the so-called Muselmanner of the camps), is in how they provide an understanding of what it means to be human in its fullest (non-Eurocentric) sense. The problem with how ‘Man’ (the Human) has been conceived in European thought can be seen in the equation drawn between humanity and agency.

Wollheim Memorial ‘The Muselmanner’

Weheliye is motivated by the question, ‘Why are formations of the oppressed deemed liberators only if they resist hegemony and/or exhibit the full agency of the oppressed? What deformations of freedom become possible in the absence of resistance and agency?’ I read this as saying the European construction of the Human relies (as Balibar writes in relation to universalism) on a racialised division of the world into those destined to act and those destined to be acted upon (be passive). Thus, those subjected to racial and colonial domination can only be acted upon, and can only attain a semblance of humanity if their actions are interpreted as human in the eyes of Europeans. In Weheliye’s reading, small acts such as the Muselmanner’s dreaming of food, or the ‘looking back’ described by Simone Browne as acts in defiance of the white surveillance of slavery, overturn our understandings of agency and resistance as grand acts (see my blog about Simone Browne’s Dark Matters).

However, added to this, I think that the dehumanization of those deemed ‘not-quite-human’ or ‘non-human’ in Weheliye’s terms, also functions when what is being resisted and why stands in opposition to European/western interests. Hence, it is not surprising that in Australia we are not taught about the Frontier Wars during which white settlers massacred Aboriginal people, but which saw entrenched Aboriginal resistance to colonial invasion too.

Adding to this, we could think about the myriad ways in which Palestinian people resisting Israeli occupation have been delegitimised as less-than-human. While Israelis continue to portray themselves as legitimate defenders of a Homeland for a persecuted people without a home, Palestinians are routinely characterized as having an inhumane (or inhuman) relationship to the sanctity of life.

So, the idea of humanity itself – and the question of who is the keeper of humanity – is mobilized in the persistence of racial rule.  This can be seen in myriad examples, such as Australians’ purported right to secure their borders, in the interests of their comfort and safety, despite the resultant death of asylum seekers in detention centres either by murder or neglect. Weheliye’s example of the Muselmanner could easily be supplemented by the news today, that some children kept in the Australian detention centre on Nauru for over five years now have succumbed to ‘resignation syndrome’, which according to psychiatrist Professor Louise Newman is, ‘a very serious state of withdrawal that traumatised children can go through when they are “overwhelmed by stress”.’

There are many other questions these discussion raise (too long for engaging with here), but they include discussions by Paul Gilroy about the potential for recuperating what he sees as the radical humanism of Frantz Fanon, a topic Richard Pithouse has also engaged with extensively. It also encourages us to think more about how human rights have been mobilized by marginalized  groups of all kinds, including racialised groups and Indigenous peoples. Australia for example is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but it bears asking to what extent the tenets of the declaration are upheld in the state’s dealings with First Nations peoples.




Alana Lentin