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Talking about race and decolonisation with a genocide going on

I was asked to speak at the Structural Inequalities in the Clinical Neurosciences Course Conference, St George’s University of London on 3 November 2023. Here are my remarks.

I would like to thank Jeremy Isaacs, Catherine Doogan and the team of the MSc in Clinical Neuroscience Practice for inviting me to be part of your conversation. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jeremy and Catherine earlier this year and so I know a little about the plans you all have to engage with the effects of race and coloniality on neuroscientific knowledge and practice. And I thank you for your commitment and seriousness. This is truly vital work.

I’ve been asked today to speak as someone who has spent over two decades thinking, writing and taking action ‘with and against race’. I am on the record as saying that our societies have a serious lack of racial literacy and that we therefore lack the ability to parse how racial logics, embedded in public culture through law, policy, the criminal punishment system, education, and – of most relevance here – health and medicine, function and are reproduced, recalibrated over time and shaped by context. I make the case that we cannot be done thinking about race, because race – which I understand to be a technology of power for the management of human difference, the main goal of which is the production, reproduction and maintenance of white supremacy on both a local and a planetary scale – is not done with us. 

For many people, both well-meaning and those with an agenda to lash back at the upsurge of antiracist and decolonial protest of the last few years, we must move beyond race to arrive at a future where equality reigns. It is instructive to watch people such as Donald Trump or Douglas Murray invoke Dr Martin Luther King’s famous words, ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’ in order to vilify antiracists.  The reduction of race to the ‘colour of one’s skin’ is to wilfully misunderstand the purpose and usages of race and its role in the constitution of the modern-colonial world system. Turning the antiracist struggle on its head by casting those who fight to eradicate the effects of race as the ‘real racists’ – as bad faith actors like Trump, Murray and those they and others rally to their cause do – needs to be called out in no uncertain terms. But doing so is often made difficult because, even those of us who are concerned with racism, are unclear of what it is we are trying to do when saying, as the title of my last book does, that ‘race still matters’.

After all, aren’t we opposed to race? Do we not want to ensure that no one is treated unjustly as a result of how they have been racialized? Would it not be better not to invoke terminology that has been used to dehumanise people and even justify their annihilation? In response, I often return to a simple proposition: how can we undo a harm we refuse to talk about? Can we unravel gendered violence by refusing to talk about gender, even if we know that, as a system of oppression that is inextricably bound to race in many ways, gender is a harmful construct? I think most would agree that the answer is, no. This then begs the question, when we hear calls to ‘move beyond’ race, who does this moving beyond serve? When our critics say talking about race is unhelpful, my answer is, who is it unhelpful to? For many on the left, but also spuriously today on the right, the answer is to focus on class instead of race. All this talk of race, they say, is a project of elites, bent on taking the spotlight off the ‘left behind white working class’ (as the right would have it) or the real problem of capitalism (as we hear more often on the left). 

Both these responses can be cast aside. It is not possible on the one hand, to claim that we must go beyond race and then demand more attention to the ‘white working class’. This means, quite simply that you are talking about race, but that for you, race is synonymous with being Black, Muslim, Roma, or – in sum – not white. Look around at who the actually existing working class is and you will quickly find out that it is multiracial and, moreover, that the entire notion of class is impossible to disentangle from the way in which, historically, race has been used as a mechanism to assign different roles to differently racialised groups in the economy. 

This means that it is not enough either to beg us to focus on capitalism rather than race. In very simple terms, as the radical geographer and abolitionist activist, Ruth Wilson Gilmore tells us, ‘all capitalism is racial capitalism.’ But, going a bit deeper, it means that, at the root of capitalism, which began in Europe and spread via the mechanisms of colonialism and imperialism throughout the globe, we find what the late Black studies scholar, Cedric Robinson calls racialism. To understand racial capitalism, he wrote in Black Marxism, we have to understand that the ‘tendency of European civilization through capitalism was not homogenise but to differentiate – to exaggerate regional, subcultural, and dialectical differences into “racial” ones.’ 

What does he mean by this? Simply, for our purposes, race is not difference per se, but it is the practice of differentiation in the interests of domination and exploitation, both of which existed as practices prior to the development of capitalism, but which become essential for its expansion. This involved ascribing people a natural condition in life, for example, tying enslavement to a particular population (as slavery became a massified practice essential to the development of the industries that drove and cemented European-American power – sugar, cotton, minerals, etc., – slavery came to be seen as the natural conditions of Africans, although within Europe, various populations had previously been enslaved). 

It is through such mechanisms that, over time, race comes to be seen as a human attribute, as definitive of one’s identity, rather than being, as the Black radical intellectual, W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of it, a badge that one is compelled to wear. To quote him, in Dusk of Dawn, Du Bois wrote of race that, ‘the physical bond is least and the badge of colour relatively unimportant save as a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the South Seas.’

Here Du Bois, who by the second half of his long life, had become committed to analysing colonialism and imperialism as intrinsic to the domination of the West over the majority of the world, which he linked to the experiences of Black people living in the aftermath of slavery in the US, is telling us about what race does, rather than what it is. The effects of racial differentiation are to extend the ‘discrimination and insult’ and bind together all those whose existence became a counterpoint to the dominance of white European ‘man’, who needed this ‘Other’ to establish his superiority and legitimise colonial-racial rule. As Stuart Hall said in his famous 1997 lecture, Race, the Floating Signifier, ‘the masculine form is deliberate’: race is a ‘master concept that organises the great classificatory systems of difference that operate in human societies.’ Along similar lines to Du Bois, Robinson, and others in the Black radical and race critical tradition, Hall stresses that, while race has ‘horrendous human and historical consequences,’ it is nevertheless is a ‘system of meaning’ which continues to organise the world. In this sense, although Black theorists have always brought to the fore the irrationalist, depraved and chaotic forces at play in the deployment of racial rule, race cannot be disregarded as merelyirrational. The depravity at the core of the dehumanising logics of race and their attachment to the pursuit of domination by Euro-America over the earth, ‘forever and ever, amen’, as Du Bois put it, demands to be looked at squarely in the face. 

The demand to get beyond race, to be postracial, the refusal to study the effects of race, and even – as we are seeing – to ban critical race theory or books dealing with Black and Indigenous studies in the US and beyond, can thus all be seen as a refusal to look. This refusal belongs to the logic of race, which requires denial for full effect. Hiding the effects of race from view and packaging them as individual failure or exaggerated victimhood, or any other number of myths, furthers the racial regime; the ideological grounds with which racial rule constitutes itself. Our task as educators is to refuse to turn away because, ultimately, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes, racism is ‘the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.’

Stripping everything back, what any of us gathered here wants is to help avoid furthering this ‘vulnerability to premature death.’ But to achieve this, we must first understand the nature of what we are dealing with; the history and complexity of race, its capacity for adjustment and recalibration, using a host of often competing narratives, and appearing in various guises, and often – as we see in the higher echelons of British politics today – being wielded by those with different faces. We need to understand the attachment of race to other axises of domination: gender, sexuality, bodily ability and the structures of power¾capitalism, imperialism and colonialism – and the relationship between all of these.

But with understanding comes action. In light of the horror currently being unleashed on the people of Palestine, someone reminded me of the response of the Israelites at Mount Sinai upon receiving the Ten Commandments: ‘We will do, and we will hear.’ This has been interpreted in different ways, but we can take from it the lesson that action is inseparable from understanding. There is no point taking action unless we understand what we are acting for, and vice versa, it is useless merely to study the world without attempting to change it, to paraphrase Marx. 

Which brings me towards my conclusion. I had sat down to write this talk, and then a genocide began. The whole world stopped. I couldn’t write. I was driven only to action, my capacity for understanding deeply thwarted. Emerging from this stupor, together with the people all over the world who I am happy to call my friends and comrades, we began to think: what does it mean to advocate for the study of race and colonialism today? What does it mean to decolonise a curriculum while we are left powerless in the face of actually existing colonialism, which has never been absent of murderous destruction, though at a time we think of as safely in the past? As someone who lives on Aboriginal land in so-called Australia, I now gasp in amazement at our acknowledgements of country. We can safely acknowledge Indigenous lands because here, a genocide took place. We think of it as being far-off history, but the last documented massacres of Aboriginal people happened in the 1930s and 40s. This is without talking about the hundreds of people killed by police and in prisons to this day. 

When discussing the preparation for this talk, Jeremy mentioned the radical psychiatrist, intellectual, pan-Africanist and freedom fighter for the Algerian people, Frantz Fanon. Fanon’s 1963 book, The Wretched of the Earth is often referred to as something like ‘the manual of decolonization.’ In laying bare the practices of colonialism, Fanon spends a lot of time on the effects on the colonised, on the myriad processes of racialisation that are incurred by the experiences of being colonised, and how that affects the subjectivity of colonised peoples. This is why The Wretched of the Earth spoke, and continues to speak, to so many people across the world faced with racism and colonisation. The book does not shy away from the dilemmas and ambivalences of decolonisation, caused by the deep effect that the imposition of race upon people has on their own ontology, which cause racial logics to be reproduced in many unforetold ways. 

But the reason Jeremy wrote to me of Fanon was because, as his email stated, he ‘started out as a neuropsychiatrist.’ Be that as it may, in reading The Wretched of the Earth it is impossible to disentangle his commitment to the Algerian struggle for liberation, to pan-Africanism, antiracism and decolonization from his practice treating people ‘of the many, sometimes ineffaceable, wounds that the colonialist onslaught has inflicted on our people,’ as he wrote in the opening to the book’s 5th chapter, ‘Colonial War and Mental Disorders.’ In Fanon’s other most famous work, Black Skin, White Masks, he explains what he calls sociogeny, or what Sylvia Wynter later calls, the sociogenic principle. This refers to the fact that we cannot consider anything without considering how it is socially produced, or in this context, what is ‘the social background’ of what in Wretched of the Earth he calls ‘the colonial type.’ 

Today, it is common to talk about race – like gender – as social constructs, but recognising that something is socially, rather than naturally, produced is not enough; we have to explain how this happens. Fanon explains this in Chapter 5, ‘Colonial War and Mental Disorders,’ by recourse to his clinical practice in the hospital at Blida, in Algeria in the 1950s. Psychiatric disorders affecting colonised people, Fanon explains, cannot be analysed without understanding their sociogeny/social background. Colonialism is ‘a systematic negation of the other person and a furious determination to deny the other person all attributes of humanity.’ While, he goes on to say, during the German occupation of France in WW2 and vice versa, the Germans and the French stayed ‘men’ (human beings), by contrast, ‘the Algerians, the veiled women, the palm-trees and the camels make up the landscape, the natural background to the human presence of the French’ in Algeria: people, animals and vegetation on one level. 

This is what we mean by dehumanisation; a word that trips easily off the tongue in the day-to-day but which we are forced to confront squarely today as Palestinians are described as ‘human animals’, and worse, while whole families are wiped off the face of the earth, and while we are asked to be more ‘nuanced’.

In 2012, the Unangax̂ scholar, Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang wrote a paper whose title is repeated often, including by many who have never read it. It is called Decolonization is Not a Metaphor. They wrote simply, ‘Decolonization brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life; it is not a metaphor for other things we want to do to improve our societies and schools.’ This is a direct call to those of us striving with good will to improve the way we teach; to quite simply be more truthful, in the hope of overturning the injustice we know our institutions and or disciplines contribute to and which are coming into sharp relief today as speech on Palestine is policed and punished by our institutions. The decolonial psychoanalyst Lara Sheehi who wrote the book with Stephen SheehiPsychoanalysis Under Occupation about psychoanalysis in Palestine, said in an interview, ‘A decolonial practice involves disrupting coloniality at every turn. Disrupting coloniality means disrupting the structures that are shored up politically, relationally, economically, even after “colonialism” is done.’ 

Part of the reason we find it hard to put this into practice – beyond the fact that we are trying to work from within oppressive institutions that continue to perpetuate coloniality and that that can be scary – is precisely because of the dehumanising racialisation that drives colonialism. Chapter 5 of The Wretched of the Earth is very hard to read because it details painful cases of mental suffering. Towards the end, Fanon discusses the role of psychiatric education in perpetuating these dehumanising narratives in the French colonial higher education institutions. As Fanon writes, based on the maxim that these ‘facts’ have been ‘scientifically established,’ ‘Algerian doctors who are graduates of the faculty of Algiers are obliged to hear and learn that the Algerian is born a criminal…. He is a violent person… incapable of self-discipline…a congenital impulsive… largely aggressive and generally homicidal.’ In sum, ‘the Algerian is strongly marked by mental debility.’ 

While this ‘education’ remains in the realm of the psychological, neuroscience is not neglected by Fanon who reminds us of the conclusions of the World Health Organisation researcher, Dr Carothers, who wrote in 1954, that ‘the African makes very little use of his frontal lobes.’ Thus the Mau-Mau uprising, brutally crushed by the British in Kenya, was explained by Carothers as ‘the expression of an unconscious frustration complex whose re-occurrence could be scientifically avoided by spectacular psychological adaptations.’ So, as Fanon puts it, for these colonial psychiatrists and neuroscientists, whose conclusions are ‘taught as a subject in the universities,’ the reason for what is portrayed as the African’s ‘criminality’ can be found in ‘the lay-out of the cerebral structures.’ Rising up against colonial domination is theorised not even as a sickness, but as a mental deformity shared by all people in the group.

We can now clearly see that this is racial logic and so, it is also clear that this logic is a tool of domination, put to the service of crushing decolonisation. This should be at the forefront of our minds today lest we fall into the trap of metaphorising decolonisation or succumbing to the emptiness of liberal antiracism that falls back onto the platitudes of diversity, equity and inclusion which often sees the elevation of representational politics, even if those same representatives, as Fanon said of the native bourgeoisie, use ‘their class aggressiveness’ when they come to power.

Fanon’s challenge at the end of The Wretched of the Earth is a radical one, and one which has not been accomplished:

if we want humanity to advance a step further… for Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts.

Faced with the choice today to fall back on the tried and tested scripts of race to convince ‘us’ of our superior humanity, in the face of what we have couched as barbarism, we can choose to follow Fanon, not only for those we have cast as Other, but very much also, for ourselves. 

Alana Lentin