Last year, following the terrorist attack in Nice, I met a European friend and colleague at a conference in Milan. I asked him how his Palestinian boyfriend was, a lovely man I have grown to care about. My colleague visibly upset informed me that his boyfriend has had a series of mishaps: a few weeks ago he was racially attacked by skinheads and was hurt seriously enough to need hospitalization. While in hospital, he was watching the news on TV when he saw the Nice terrorist drive his truck through the crowd. He was so affected that he had a violent seizure.
Still feeling fragile and not fully together because of his racial bashing, the Nice event, beside its immediate awfulness, must have signified to him the prospects of more anti-Muslim bashings. This had a shattering effect on his psyche. This gives us an important window into something we should never lose sight of when discussing racial verbal or physical attacks. Racism is a centrifugal, shattering force.
We humans are always struggling to ‘pull ourselves together’. Our capacity to do so varies from individual to individual and some of us sometimes simply falter and we become ‘all over the place’ as it were. What is clear is that we are all traversed by both centrifugal and centripetal forces and we are continuously struggling to pull ourselves together. It is clearly an endless struggle. But just as clearly it is not just a matter of individual will. This is where racism comes into the equation. The structures of power and exploitation in our societies, our social position within them, and our social history, all play an important role in shaping both the nature of the centrifugal shattering forces that we have to deal with and the nature of the centripetal resources, psychological but also social, cultural and even economic, we have at our disposal to pull ourselves together as much as possible. Racism is one of the mechanisms for the distribution of these centripetal and centrifugal forces – there are other mechanisms, like class for example. It makes both the kind of injuries we have and the capacity to deal with them not only a matter of individual will but also a question of inheritance.
Let me offer another anecdotal moment that can help understand this question of inheritance of shattering forces. A Muslim man from Auburn in Sydney’s west related to me this story about himself. He told me how for a long time he could not understand why he would get very uptight and ‘all cramped up’ every time he crosses a white person when walking on the footpath. That was a lot of cramping up, and he could not fully understand why it happened to him. One day, however, he was walking up the street with his wife when two things happened. A white man passed him and he, sure enough, cramped up but at the same time his wife who was talking to him put her hand on his shoulder. Suddenly the mystery of the origin of his cramping up became clear: when he was a kid his mother used to walk along the footpath beside him with her hand on his shoulder and her hand used to cramp up on his shoulder every time she passed a white man. His cramping up was the bodily transmitted inheritance of his mother’s racial injuries (which after knowing her I found out were quite substantial). Racial wounds are more often than not historically inherited wounds. This is why it is wrong, indeed racist, to assume that we are all offended in the same way and with the same intensity, that we understand what the effect of an insult is by measuring this effect according to how it insults us: my white friend might be insulted if I called him an ape. But it is nothing short of racist to assume that my black friend will be insulted in the same way by the same insult. Being called an ape for a black person opens a wound that incorporates in it a historically accumulated inheritance of wounds made still alive by the very structures of society. The same insult has a far greater shattering effect on the psyche. Psychological fragility, sensitivity to taunts and insults, capacities to be humiliated are not equally distributed in our society and they are not just an individual matter. This brings us to the other distribution of centripetal forces that can actually help us ‘pull ourselves together’ mentioned above.
To say that racism is a shattering force does not mean that every time someone receives a racist insult they are shattered. To stay with the example above, being called an ape works on a historical wound and has a shattering effect but it does not mean that the person on hearing the racial insult actually shatters. It simply means that this person has to exert a far greater effort to ‘pull himself or herself together’ than a white person needs to or can ever experience. Likewise, an indigenous person who ends up with a good enough non-remarkable but satisfying job, is not someone who has not been subjected to shattering forces. She has. That is what makes her achievement quite remarkable. It is important to realise that any ‘normality’ achieved by racialized people is a form of heroism that is accomplished against a field of forces that is continuously pitted against them. But it is equally important to also note that the cost of this normality is far more enormous than non-racialized people can understand. To ‘pull yourself together’ reasonably successfully when you are subjected to a greater number, or more intense, shattering forces is an arduous task that requires a far greater expenditure of psychic energy and ends up being wearing. ‘Normal’ racialized people end up way more exhausted and even drained by the end of the day than other ‘normal’ people. This is a form of racial injury in itself. Still, it remains important to remember that society is not divided between people who are shattered, all over the place and who can’t pull themselves together and people who do. What is crucial is the difference in the degree of effort needed to keep yourself together given the inequality in the shattering forces you are subjected to. This depends on those centripetal forces that society makes available to us like anti-racist legislation. But these also vary individually and socially. It matters if we have grown in a loving family but it also matters what class background and how much educational capital we have. Differences in gender and sexuality are also clearly important.
Given all of the above, the sight of white parliamentarians debating and assuming themselves to know all about what is and what is not offensive, and how important the impact of an offense is, is in itself offensive. Racism often works by highlighting a person’s difference when it is irrelevant and when they ought to be treated just like any other person. But it also works by treating racialized subjects like just any other person when their difference clearly matters. This is at the heart of the perversity of racism: it makes people visible when they want to be and need to be invisible, and it makes them invisible precisely at the point where they need to be visible and when their experience matters. It is in such a context that making invisible by not taking seriously the specific intensity of the racial experience of what ‘an offense, an insult or a humiliation’ is, is nothing short of outright racism. Indeed, it is clear that those who are trying to modify the anti-racism of Australia’s Section 18C Racial Discrimination Act (1975) [‘18C’] today care more about what they purport to be a white experience than they care about non-white experience. It is telling that when 18C was conceived arguments for and against it were made using examples of what racialized people experience. The arguments were about whether or not it can help curb the negative effect of such an experience. Today, those who are trying to modify 18C are totally consumed by what they claim White people experience, in the form of ‘look what 18C did to poor old Bill Leak’.
White racism today has a nostalgic slave imaginary. That is, like all nostalgia it yearns for older times and like all nostalgia it imagines these older times as far less contradictory and way more perfect than they ever were. In this nostalgic slave imaginary, white racists ruled supreme, they controlled everything about the racialized, and the racialized knew their place, did what they were told and were thankful and grateful for little white mercies.
Because racialized people today are far from this ideal, White racism has become an increasingly anxious racism, a racism that is always facing the fear of its failure to achieve anything like its nostalgic fantasy. This anxiety is behind the ultra-right movements of ‘white restoration’ we are seeing around the world just as much as it behind the less dramatic but still important White attempts at watering anti-racist legislations anywhere it is possible.
So, for those Australians who continue to be racialized today, and/or who still bear the trace of their racialized mother squeezing their shoulder, the politics of white restoration that is at the heart of the attempt to dilute 18C is clear. In doing so this government is acting like a White supremacist ‘prince’ who thinks of anti-racist legislation as a kind donation they are making to racialized people. Someone in the prince’s entrourage has convinced them that this donation was ‘too much’ so they are proceeding to reduce it. Anyone who thinks that this is not part of the politics of ‘White Restoration’ that we have been going through since Howard is badly mistaken.
Needless to say, there are many white Australians opposed to this politics of restoration. Some are in parliament. Some are even in the Liberal party. Still, the continuity between the unsophisticated ravings of One Nation and Turnbull’s cosmopolitan grin and everything that falls in between cannot be ignored.
Ghassan Hage is Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne.