The Problem with “Innocent” Ignorance: Racism, Whiteness & the Working Class

One of the more interesting debates that has come out of Trump winning the US presidency has been about the role of the white working class in perpetuating racism. Although the white working class did not constitute the majority of white votes Trump received, they have been scapegoated by some as being the reason for why Trump won. This scapegoating, I believe, is wrong, particularly since in this particular case most of Trump’s support came from the white middle class. A class that has increasingly been confronted with the neoliberal reality of the “American Dream” and who have lost more and more as they have become deeply embroiled in a system of debt, credit, and precariousness. However, this class can’t only be analysed in pure class terms, since it is precisely the white middle class that voted for Trump in large numbers. Part of the story is also a backlash to Obama – the first Black president – as well as to the increasing focus on racism in public debates following the excruciatingly high rates at which Black men and women are being killed and imprisoned. As Christina Sharpe has argued in her new book “In the Wake: On Blackness and Being” the Atlantic slave trade is a living, breathing part of the United States; it is not the past nor a historical legacy; it is what has formed the US today; Black people are not left out of the system; Black exclusion is the system.

Despite all of this, I have seen a lot of people engage in the discourse of humanising the white working class American who voted for Trump (even if they are not in the majority). We have heard of many stories from white working class America, especially the Rust Belt: men and women who have been forgotten by their politicians, who suffer great economic difficulty, and who the system has failed. They voted for Trump because they wanted change; it is that simple. They did not vote for Trump because they are racist, or sexist, or want a white America. It was a protest vote, as simple as that.

Now obviously this is a very problematic reality. As some have pointed out, it shows the power the white working class still as due to its whiteness: the power to not care about issues of race; to still vote someone who will institute racist policies simply because he aligned with their views on other issues. In other words, Trump’s racism was not a deal-breaker for these voters because his racist policies – a matter of life and death for millions of Americans – did not affect them directly.

Obviously there is sympathy to be had with the white working class. The US is a settler colony founded on capitalism. It has always been brutal to anyone outside of a small elite who amass massive profits off of the exploitation of the rest. For many different reasons, the US ruling class has been able to create an ideology strong enough to maintain its hegemony for centuries: this ideology includes ideas about the American Dream, about working hard till you make it, about material wealth being the result of pure hard work, and so on. We all know it since it’s been exported everywhere. Coming to terms with the reality that this ideology is precisely that – an ideology – has been shattering for working classes across the West, who found this out a long time ago. In fact it’s been the middle classes that have been extremely slow to catch on. And so that is where sympathy lies: with the exploitation of workers by capital.

Now when you ask these people who engage in the discourse of understanding white workers as angry at the system, as opposed to racist, how the connection between the system and racism hasn’t yet been made, they often turn to the age-old response: white ignorance, or, more aptly I would say, white innocence. These voters voted for Trump for economic reasons, and so they cannot be called racist, even if Trump himself is racist and has a racist platform. They voted in their economic interests. But those interests hurt other people. Well, maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they are ignorant. I’ve heard this from people speaking about white working and middle class support for the far right in Europe as well: people are seeing their lives changing, everything is being taken away from them, and so they vote for parties who talk about change. They may be ignorant and so they blame immigrants, but what they *really* mean is that they want economic security.

However, where I think this discourse needs to go is to ask what role this ignorance, or white innocence, plays in perpetuating US imperialism inside and outside of the US, and what role this ignorance, or innocence, has played in allowing Europe to expand its empires everywhere. If, until now, the white working and middle classes have not realized the connections between capitalism and racism, then it is not a matter of innocent ignorance – it is a matter of willful ignorance. European and US capital remains unscathed; the blame has so easily fallen on people of colour and immigrants that they have not even had to justify themselves. When I found out that members of my Dutch family voted for right-wing extremist Geert Wilders, I found myself shocked. Even though they knew us? Even though we had grown up together? Why? Because they could see economic cuts being made around them; they could see that they would not live the life their parents had lived. Things were being taken away from them. Yes, I agree. But by who? Who is cutting the European welfare state? Not the people you think. But how can we excuse this type of innocent ignorance? How can we make excuses for it when we know the very real consequences it has?

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Panther Party developed an entire program that showed how US capitalism is racialized – the two cannot be separated. Before them, Black scholars and activists had made this same connection. The slave trade is emblematic of this coming together of capital and race; it could not have happened without the development of both of these systems. The spread of capital needed racism; the spread of racism needed capitalism. And so the Black Panthers realized something that still rings true: liberation meant that both had to go. The Black Panthers have been criticized for not reaching out to the white working class at the time, and for instead organizing along racial lines. Not only is this historically inaccurate, but it puts the blame on the Panthers for another instance of white innocence/ignorance. Now obviously the US state and ruling class played a big role in brutally crushing the US working class, the unions, the Left, as well as any collaborations between the white working class and the non-white working class. They knew that once that alliance was made, there would be a real threat to US capitalism, and no one has shown this better than Howard Zinn in “A People’s History of the United States.”

The point of this post is not to say that white people should be more aware, or to suggest that it is all about race and not about capitalism. In fact the Black Panthers clearly articulated the dangers of the rising Black middle class and how they had been co-opted by the US ruling class. This is something we see across the postcolonial world as well, and something Fanon talked about: the native class that imitates the Western elites. This class gets its power precisely from its class position: it is the class that opens up markets for transnational capital after colonial rule could no longer play that role. The point instead is to point at where the fissures between race and capital lie, and to show that we cannot understand the decision by the white working and middle classes today to vote based on their own economic interests as separate from a long history of them ignoring how their interests depend on the exploitation of others.

It is this white silence, and the history of this white silence, that is important not to excuse. Yes, the white working class and the white middle class are suffering, in both the US and Europe. Yes, neoliberalism has affected them greatly, and yes, they will not live the lives they thought they would. But that does not detract from the fact that in the hierarchy of these countries, they are still  – by virtue of their race – above many others. What Fanon has called the zone of being. Their innocent misunderstanding of how this zone is dependent on the zone of non-being has historically caused immense suffering and destruction. Their ignorance of how their position is dependent on the exploitation of others has allowed European and US imperialism to spread without much resistance. They are concerned with their lives, as we are all taught to be, like good individualistic subjects. They work to make a living, and they vote based on their economic interests. The point is that, not everyone has that privilege.

Historically there have been instances of massive solidarity with non-white struggles on the part of the white working class. Unions have often looked at racism and sexism and how they interact with class. There are enough historical precedents for us not to accept the excuse of white innocence today, and for us not to engage in the discourse of understanding the white working class as acting on economic motivations alone because they still do not see – or do not want to see – the ways in which these are tied to racism and imperialism. My Dutch family member who voted for Wilders is someone I can empathise with from an economic point of view; but her actions have broader consequences. She is able to ignore the effects of her actions and her views, just as I’m sure Dutch people – working class or not – decades ago were able to do when the Netherlands brutally colonised other countries. But the question is: who has the privilege of being ignorant? And who pays the price?

__________

* The idea of white innocence comes from Gloria Wekker’s book on the Netherlands, in which she explores a central paradox of Dutch culture: the passionate denial of racial discrimination and colonial violence coexisting alongside aggressive racism and xenophobia.

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On gender and hierarchies

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I think one of the first things I learned about feminism was an inherent contradiction that didn’t strike me as such when I first heard it: on the one hand, there are universal solutions to gender inequality, such as education, employment, sexual rights, and so on – these are not necessarily context-specific (the details can be) but need to happen everywhere in order for gender equality to become a reality. And yet on the other hand, there are very different levels of gender inequality across the world. This very difference  in the level of inequality could point to the need for different kinds of solutions, but this did not seem to be the case. Instead this difference functioned to create a very clear – even if rarely labelled such openly – hierarchy in terms of gender equality. At the top of this hierarchy we have the role model countries: Scandinavia, Western and Northern Europe, and sometimes Australia, the US and the UK. And then underneath we have a series of levels with different countries. Typically Egypt and other Arab and African countries come somewhere at the bottom.

While this may seem very simplistic, I would urge anyone reading to think of conversations they’ve had, conversations in the media, comments at events, readings they’ve covered to think of the common sense assumptions reproduced about where gender inequality is a big problem and where it continues to be a problem. The categorizing I did earlier seems simplistic precisely because it is. The idea that we can divide countries – and cultures and religions – into a hierarchy based on gender inequality is extremely simplistic. And yet it really is one of the most common sense ideas in the world today.

Many people have already critiqued this hierarchy and have pointed out that the assumptions used to create it are problematic. Take for example the gender gap index, which relies on very specific indicators to measure gender inequality. Aside from the fact that gender inequality cannot and should not be measured, there is also the fact that this ignores power relations in the world today that allow some countries to continue to be economically developed, while others continue to be exploited. This dynamic is relational – in other words, some countries are poor because others are rich, and some are rich because others are poor. It is not a coincidence nor is it the result of hard work and innovation or laziness and corruption. It is not accidental but dependent on specific historical political and economic processes – which is precisely why power matters.

What I have increasingly found interesting is that this hierarchy continues to be reproduced because of how central it is to the formation of the self-identity of specific countries. In this post I will focus on the Netherlands because I am familiar with it, although I do think it applies across Europe and also in the US. The understanding the modern Dutch citizen has of him or herself is very much intertwined with the understandings this citizen has of “the Other.” This Other is not only far away in Africa or Asia, but is now also inside the Netherlands: Surinamese, Moroccans, Turks, and so on. While we may agree that Dutch racism exists and that there are problematic views about non-white people in the Netherlands, the idea that these views are constitutive of Dutch identity is less acceptable. And yet this is strongly apparent. For us to be civilized, it means there are people who are uncivilized. For us to be modern, there must be places that are not modern. For us to be one of the most gender progressive countries, there must be countries that are not so progressive.

Here is the thing about hierarchies: they are dependent on a modern teleology of progress. A hierarchy exists and this suggests that whoever is at the bottom must be given the chance to get to the top. This ignores that if everyone was at the top, modern structures such as capitalism, patriarchy and racism would fall apart – something the very people calling for equality are against as it would mean they would lose their privileges. But it also means that entire industries are created in order to – supposedly – demolish this hierarchy, even as this serves to further strength and reproduce the hierarchy. Development is the most prominent example of such an industry. An entire apparatus is created whose aim is to lift whole countries out of poverty, to get rid of gender inequality, to promote freedom. Experts are created, who identify problems and solutions. These “problems” may or may not have existed before these experts identified them, and the solutions may also have or have not existed. That is not important. Development is not just about very material changes, such as funding or the building of dams, but it is also about the creation of new categories such as “poor people” or “third world women.” As Escobar has argued in Encountering Development, before the development industry emerged, the category “poor people” did not exist. No one used this label. It did not represent an actual category of people. But because development needed something to intervene in and improve, it needed poor people. And so the category was created, and now we have underdeveloped countries. But what happened here was also the co-creation of its opposite: developed countries.

This is precisely what has happened with gender. The “third world woman” Chandra Mohanty has identified constituted its opposite: a first world woman. What separates them is a hierarchy. Talking to feminists in the Netherlands and attending events on gender has made it very clear that the Dutch self-understanding and self-representation of the modern Dutch self as progressive on gender is directly dependent on the understanding and representation of the Other as regressive on gender. The two are not separate. And so when it comes to gender inequality, it is always somewhere else. You may hear a Dutch feminist say “we still have some work to do here” but this some is important. We have some work to do but you have much more.

As long as gender is not contextualized within other structures such as capitalism, racism, heterosexism and so on, it will continue to be understood as a hierarchy. A hierarchy needs to continually be reproduced to survive. On the one hand this is done by these very structures. But on the other hand it is done through discourse and representation. It is done through small comments such as “don’t worry, gender equality took a long time to happen here” or “what is it about culture over there makes life hard for women?” It is done through industries such as the media, development, and education. Through all of this, the idea that there is a hierarchy has become common sense: of course there is. How could we even imagine putting Sweden next to Egypt? The point is not that women in Egypt face the same problems as Sweden. Certainly life is more precarious for a woman in Egypt. But not only is this connected to global structures and histories, but the point is that we can make that point without comparisons that only serve to continue to reproduce a problematic hierarchy. Why do we need these comparisons? Why can’t we speak about gender inequality in Egypt or gender inequality with Sweden without comparing and ranking them? What are the political ramifications of these comparisons? Precisely that they reproduce this hierarchy and thus strengthen the categories we need to start deconstructing, namely those of “third world woman” and “first world woman” or “developed” and “underdeveloped.” Indeed what is ultimately ironic is that those who critique postcolonialists for reproducing an “us” and “them” and simplifying everything to “West” and “East” are the very same people who do this by reproducing this hierarchy.

Racialized in Europe

I am back in Europe for a month and this time around it struck me how the intersections of race, gender and class are becoming more and more clear in the European context(s) as the economic crisis deepens in some places and fades away in others. Being back in the Netherlands and seeing the major changes happening within my own institution as well as other Dutch universities vis-à-vis the continuing neoliberalization of education, where critical knowledge is being pushed out through early retirement schemes or more intense competition for funding, and where formerly critical departments are slowly being transformed into places where ‘responsible’ and ‘useful’ knowledge is produced. After spending one year in the US, it seems clear that the US model is something that not only spread to the UK but is now also becoming somewhat dominant in some European contexts, where the connection between knowledge and commodification is explicit. This is not to say that in these critical departments knowledge was ‘free’ or not tied to capital, but rather that in some European contexts knowledge production in these critical centers was tied to the social democratic project that is now being dismantled.

Going to Frankfurt for a few days made some of these changes even more clear. Frankfurt, the home of Critical Theory, is now also undergoing major changes in terms of critical academics being pushed out of the academy. Here, as in Holland, the gendered and racialized effects of this are clear. Whereas for a period gender and racial ‘minorities’ were permitted into these centers of knowledge production, it seems that they are now being pushed out. This is different, it seems to me, from the US context, where gender and racial ‘minorities’ are quickly co-opted, either by placing them in isolated departments such as Gender Studies or Area Studies (Middle East Studies is a clear example here) and then using the existence of these departments as proof of an academic institution being critical; or when gendered and racialized academics themselves become intellectually co-opted and therefore simply reproduce dominant narratives.

Another fascinating experience in Germany was hearing about the rise of Pegida and how once again these fascist and racist movements are designated as exceptional or a minority, even though the racist discourse they mobilize is extremely widespread in Europe. Similar moves are made in Holland when the PVV and Wilders are constructed by Dutch liberals or leftists as a tiny minority of “crazy people” who have nothing to do with “normal Dutch people.” Dutchness here of course refers to tolerance, liberalism and non-racism. And yet…the ways in which certain events are covered; the ways in which ‘migrant populations’ are referred to or spoken of; and the ways in which everyday racism functions demonstrates that in fact what distinguishes Pegida or the PVV from the mainstream public is perhaps its extremity and its fascism but certainly not its core belief that there is a subject—a European—that needs to be preserved. And there is no doubt that this subject is racialized. Indeed the ridiculous discussions and performances surrounding Charlie Hebdo should make this clear, and should also make clear the complex intersections between race, gender, class, nation and imperialism in European contexts today. It is the mechanisms by which a European self is produced and reproduced that are interesting and that rely on very old distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ even while those critiquing this racist view are accused of binary thinking. And yet…the “failure of multiculturalism” or the “limits of European tolerance” vis-à-vis the endlessly inassimilable migrant point to nothing except the desperate need on the part of many forces within Europe to maintain binaries even as they slowly slip away.

At a conference on ‘diversity’ and ‘intersectionality’ in Frankfurt the discussions revolved around these issues and around the ways in which diversity is being mobilized to completely depoliticize discrimination in Europe and to make it seem as though institutions are attempting to ‘be inclusive’ even while they become increasingly exclusive. Again this strikes me as something imported from the US context, where the narrative of a “melting pot” or this idea that diversity is good (read: profitable) is so strong, and where programs such as affirmative action are imagined to be radical interventions that are enough to fix the problem of representation. This is not to say that affirmative action is not needed, but that it is certainly not enough. And it will not be enough in the European context either.

Perhaps the only consolation here is that after spending on year in the US, it is clear that the gains made by European leftists that led to the institutionalization of social welfare policies can never be underestimated. America’s capitalism is explicit, brutal, suffocating. Europe’s capitalism—for now—is hidden behind walls of welfare and social democratic values and must navigate through leftist and labour movements that are still relatively strong. Although, that said, from the perspective of the Global South, this difference between US and European capitalism makes no difference; Europe’s social welfare policies benefit Europeans on the backs of non-Europeans, and even non-white Europeans must fight to be seen as deserving of welfare. In any case, the dismantling of the welfare state is well under way and we will probably not have one to speak of generations from now in places like the Netherlands.

This trip, and all my others to Europe, make me think about intersectionality from the perspective of a master category, because it seems to me that in the European context – especially among “migrants (a term used for anyone not white, even if they have been there for generations) – race is the underlying cause of multiple forms of exclusion. Not to say that class, gender and so on are not part of this or do not affect this, but in the Global North race continues to exert a tremendous influence on the ways in which the subaltern in these places are treated. Perhaps this also explains why so much of the intersectionality canon – created by activists and scholars mostly in Europe and America – focuses on race and on race in particular contexts, without looking at the globalized nature of racism or capitalism. As Spivak has mentioned, intersectionality is problematic because it often ignores the global division of labour. Again it shows that even when critical theories are developed, they can be Eurocentric and reproduce concerns found in specific locations while erasing others. Definitely more to think about here.

A special thanks to Vanessa Thompson for the inspiring conversations and the lovely Frankfurt trip mentioned in this post.

The Female Circumcision Cake

I’ve been traveling so I haven’t managed to sit down and write this post until now. On the way to Istanbul I saw a picture on my FB timeline of what looked like a black woman cake. I opened it and found this image:

At first I thought it was some kind of big joke. I mean how can a scene like this happen in 2012? Then I read the caption: Swedish minister at anti-female circumcision event, feeding cake of black woman who was just metaphorically circumcised to the head of the artist.

What?

The more I read & thought about it, the more crazy it seemed that this sh*t still happens today. The Swedish MINISTER OF CULTURE!

But then, how surprising is it, really? Living in the Netherlands has proven to me how racist discourses are still VERY strong, latent as they may be. Discourses such as the “white man’s burden” or “black culture oppressing Africans” or “we need to save them from themselves” are so prevalent that it isn’t actually *that* surprising to see an event like this happening in a country like Sweden.

And then defenders of the event & “art installation” bring up the fact that the artist is black, as though that makes everything okay.

The only good thing to come out of this disaster is the amount of brilliant, inspiring critiques from both Africans & Europeans (some at least). Just as with the Kony 2012 disaster, the outcry has been big. Since so many amazing critiques have already been written, I will just quote a few here, with whom I completely & utterly agree:

The event was launched with Swedish minister Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth cutting the first piece of cake from a dark, ruby red velvet filling with black icing, which we understand was created by the Afro-Swedish artist Makode Aj Linde, whose head forms that of the black woman,  and is seen with a blackened face screaming with pain each time a guest cuts a slice from the cake.

Rather disturbingly for many African women, the minister is pictured laughing as she cuts off the genital area (clitoris)from the metaphorical cake, as the  artist Makode screams distastefully.  The gaze of the predominantly white Swedish crowd is on Lijeroth who  is positioned  at the crotch end,  as they look on at their visibly ebullient culture minister with seemingly  nervous laughter as she becomes a part of the performance – a re-enactment of FGM  on a cake made in the image of a disembodied African woman.

The work is definitely not empowering or transformative for women who are victims of FGM  in any shape or form, and the racial overtones of this project re-inscribe the exploitation and dehumanisation of black African women, which clearly cannot be denied.

One does not need to be subjected to the epistemic violence  underpinning the grotesque reconstruction of FGM,  in the form of a black woman having her clitoris cut off to the sound of  a laughing crowd with a fixed gaze,  drinks in hand, to raise awareness of this very serious issue.

 Not one Black woman, not one Black person in the room, except the artist and his cake.

As such We/African Women/African-Americans and many women of the African Diaspora the world over view this as an assault on our foremothers, sisters and our selves who have worked tirelesslly in different historical and cultural contexts to rid society of the sexist/racist vernacular  and stereotypes of black women as  sluts, jezebel, hottentot, mammy, mule, sapphire; to build our own sense of selves and redefine what women who look like us represent.

We view it as a racialised slur and an attempt at erasure of all that we have struggled for historically in order to genuinely empower African women the world over.

No one, including the artist seems to have consulted Black African women at the forefront of the movement to end the practice of female genital cutting, often with little resources and in direct and dangerous conflict with their own communities.

What makes the cake episode so deeply offensive is the appropriation, by both artist and his audience, of African women’s bodies and experiences, while completely excluding real African women from the discourse. It is a pornography of violence.

You can read the rest of this stunning critique here.

On a lighter note:

DAKAR. Africans say they have little hope that Europe will ever become civilized, after a week in which Spain’s King Carlos went on an elephant-killing spree and the Swedish Culture Minister was entertained by a racially offensive cake. “You can take the European out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the European,” sighed one resident of Kinshasa.

Read the rest here.

Needless to say, this is yet another shameful event in Europe that shows how integral & definitive their colonial “past” continues to be in defining their present.

How different are states?

I just read an interesting article in the Guardian about the global protests. It quoted Gopal as saying:

Gopal says she was struck by the diffuseness and lack of direction in the recent British riots, contrasting it with protests in the Arab world, where “a focus and self-awareness that comes from those countries’ recent history of anti-colonial struggle has been transmitted from one generation to the next”.

This is a very interesting idea I hadn’t thought of before. Of course there is no doubt that Arabs are facing dictatorships that are willing to kill thousands to stay in power, whereas in the west people are facing democracies willing to kill thousands (often non-westerners) to stay in power. So there is a limit to what the British state can do, as opposed to Syria for example. But still – the protests have many commonalities, among them anti-capitalism and an end to police brutality and abuse.

Two common motifs run through this year’s rebellions. First has been the collapse in authority of traditional institutions; from Mubarak’s cult of personality to the seemingly incessant scandals engulfing Britain’s arbiters of political, financial and cultural control – bankers, MPs, and the Murdoch media empire. The crumpling is contagious, fuelling rebellions in the most of places.

In England, Cameron is has used social media (BBM, Twitter) to track down those “responsible” for the riots, as well as images from the thousands of hidden cameras around the country. The police are now going door to door in many of the poor estates arresting young Brits. More than 2000 are already in police custody and who knows what this number will be by the end of it. Many in the Arab world are laughing at the hypocrisy, and rightly so. Yesterday, I read this article on al-Jazeerawith the following headline:

California transit provider interrupted wireless mobile service to hamper protesters angry over police shooting.

Again, the hypocrisy is laughable. The “civilized” west that “would never block internet or use rubber bullets” has now done both in the span of one week. It reveals that states are not as different from one another as we think. When threatened, they will use any amount of violence necessary.  Arab states were more at risk because they knew they were illegitimate, whereas western states, hiding behind a veneer of democracy, knew they could get away with more.  But not anymore. The global economic crisis means that no government is safe, because the system behind them is crumbling. Whether its a democrat or a republican; a right-winger or a left-winger; an Islamist or a secularist – the system behind all of them, the neo-colonial, patriarchal, capitalist system – is still in place, and is currently being brought down by millions of amazing, brave youth around the world.

Back to Gopal’s quote: are the uprisings in the Arab world more focused because they are more aware of how corrupt the system is? And is this awareness due to their recent experiences with colonialism and anti-colonialism? Having grown up in Zambia, and then lived in Egypt, I became very aware of how the global system is screwing over countries in the South. And then having lived in the Netherlands, I became very aware of how most Dutch people are ignorant of this fact.

In Europe, citizens are taught (brainwashed) to accept authority, whether it be the media or the state. Most Dutch people I speak to trust the news and trust the government, especially on major issues, and especially on foreign-related issues (including immigrants).  This makes it very difficult for me to imagine a Dutch revolution, when the time comes (and it will – more and more cuts are being made, and the EU and Euro are falling apart).  I think people in England were at a different point than those in the Netherlands, because the social inequality was much higher.  Still, did the rioters/looters have a common aim, or set of aims? Did they know how to articulate the anger they were feeling? Or were they unsure of who to blame? Yes, there is police brutality: but who controls the police? The state. Yes, there are no jobs and rising prices; but who controls the economy? The state. And who controls the state? The capitalist system.

While I think the quote is interesting, I wouldn’t say this is the only reason. Many Egyptians are aware of neocolonialism, but many aren’t: otherwise how would neocolonialism work? Similarly, many people in England are aware that they need to target the state and capitalism, and in fact I would argue that they did by looting. More than 2 billion pounds in damage – in a way they are speaking to capitalism in the only language it understands: profits and losses.

West & Multiculturalism

I just wanted to share one of the best articles I’ve read recently, called “On the West’s Moral Panic Over Multiculturalism” by Gary Younge.

For certain groups the price for belonging and conditions for banishment have shifted dramatically in Western nations, particularly but by no means exclusively in Europe, in recent years. Citizenship is no longer enough. The clothes you wear, the language you speak, the way you worship, have all become grounds for dismissal or inclusion. These terms are not applied equally to all—they are not intended to be. The intention of this series of edicts (popular, political and judicial) is not to erase all differences but to act as a filter for certain people who are considered dangerously different.

To achieve this, certain groups and behaviors must first be pathologized so that they might then be more easily particularized.

Still cannot believe the racist speech in which Chirac said this:

Jacques Chirac, 1991: “How do you want a French worker who works with his wife, who earn together about 15,000 francs and who sees next to his council house a piled-up family with a father, three or four spouses and twenty children earning 50,000 francs via benefits naturally without working…If you add to that the noise and the smell, well, the French worker, he goes crazy.”

Even as the Catholic Church is embroiled in a global crisis over child sexual abuse and the Church of England is splintered in a row over gay priests, Islam and Muslims face particularly vehement demands to denounce homophobia.

The combined effect of these flawed distinctions and sweeping demonization is to unleash a series of moral panics.

And what I think his most important point was:

At a time of diminishing national sovereignty, particularly in Europe, such campaigns help the national imagination cohere around a fixed identity even as the ability of the nation-state to actually govern itself wanes. It is a curious and paradoxical fact that as national boundaries in Europe have started to fade, the electoral appeal of nationalism has increased; fascism, and its fellow travelers, is once again a mainstream ideology in Europe, regularly polling between 5 and 15 per cent in most countries.

I have yet to meet a Dutch liberal who has not done this:

Many who consider themselves on the left have given liberal cover to these assaults on religious and racial minorities, ostensibly acting in defense of democracy, Enlightenment values and equal rights—particularly relating to sexual orientation and gender.

And this:

The first is an elision between Western values and liberal values that ignores the fact that liberal values are not fully entrenched in the West and that other regions of the world also have liberal traditions.

And this:

The second is a desire to understand Western “values” in abstraction from Western practice.

And now, to multiculturalism:

Unable to come up with a single, coherent new term that both encapsulates the atmosphere of fear, threat, panic, disorientation, confusion, contradiction and paradoxes and unites both far right and liberals, the opponents of this diverse, hybrid reality resurrected an old foe—“multiculturalism.

The beauty of multiculturalism, for its opponents, is that it can mean whatever you want it to mean so long as you don’t like it.

Finally,

The nation-state is in crisis; neoliberal is in crisis; multiculturalism is simply in situ.

I would add that Europe is also in crisis.

Some thoughts

I’ve been in Cairo for a week and a bit now, and until today wordpress wouldn’t let me write a new blog post :S Looks like it’ll finally work today!

A few things I’ve been thinking about lately…

I wonder how affected designer brands and the luxury sector in general are doing during this recession. Walking through malls in Cairo makes it look like they are doing just fine. Is this because the rich haven’t really been affected by the crisis, and in fact have probably continued to make more and more money? Following the revolution in Egypt, where many shops got vandalized, Starbucks re-opened weeks afterwards. I wonder whether small, family-owned businesses were able to do the same, whether they could afford it? Feels like the sad reality is that our current economic system is killing the poor; making the middle class struggle to just survive, and continues to make the rich richer.

Finding out more about US presidential candidates made me realize how fast the American empire is crumbling.  The economic crisis was the beginning; the failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were another sign; but the sheer stupidity, racism, bigotry and homophobia found in the election campaigns are just ridiculous, and show why the US was never going to be an empire or superpower for long.  While large parts of the world are becoming more aware of neo-colonialism and societal problems, it seems like many Americans are becoming more and more racist, Islamophobic, and petty. Focusing on things like birth certificates and the building of mosques says a lot about current discourses in America.

Then again, Europe isn’t much better. On my plane ride from Amsterdam to Cairo there was a Dutch guy coming to “help Egyptians choose who to vote for.” In classic Orientalist style he was very worried about the “tension” between Muslims and Christians, and the “threat” of the Muslim Brotherhood. I was dying to ask him why he was even going to Egypt.  I would say Dutch people are in desperate need of help when it comes to “choosing who to vote for” – Wilders? Really?

Why does extreme poverty exist?

Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician, was recently taken to court for hate speech against Muslims. Today he was acquitted. Wilders is head of the PVV, the Dutch Freedom Party, which is currently the third most popular party in the Netherlands. Wilders is famous for his controversial statements about Islam, such as:

“Islam is not a religion, it’s an ideology, the ideology of a retarded culture. I have a problem with Islamic tradition, culture, ideology. Not with Muslim people.”

“Why are we afraid to say that muslims should adapt because our norms and values are of a higher, better, nicer and more humane level of civilisation? Not integration, assimilation! And if the headscarves will protest on the Malieveld, let them come. I’ll have them for breakfast.”

“If it ever may come to racial riots, which I really don’t want, then this doesn’t necessarily have to have a negative result.”

Just to remind you that this guy’s party is the 3rd most popular party in the Netherlands.

Athens

I just got back from a study trip to Athens, Greece, and it was definitely an interesting experience. Although my specialization is gender, the trip ended up being more about migration and race-relations in Greece.

Before we went there, we had no idea that Greece is having a huge immigration problem. Some things we found out from NGOs while we were there:

  • Mosques are not allowed to be built in Athens, which means that there are only informal mosques in basements (need to double check this).
  • Over the past few years, right-wing Greek people have trapped Muslims inside these informal mosques and then thrown petrol bombs inside, killing many.
  • The second day we were there, a Greek man was robbed and then killed by 3 “dark-looking people” who were assumed to be immigrants. Later that night, neo-Nazi TV channels (yes) and blogs called for Greek people to go out and attack and beat immigrants.
  • The next day over 17 immigrants ended up in the hospital after being stabbed.
  • There was also a clash between the left-wing and the police, who are overwhelmingly right-wing (surprise, surprise).
  • There is a huge back-log in terms of applications for legal status as a migrant, and some have to wait up to 20 years. Thus they can be arrested at any time, and they are kept in 2-by-2 cells with no toilets, little food, and no dignity.
  • There are reportedly 2 million undocumented migrants in Athens, who are now at risk of being attacked.
While Athens is certainly extreme, these discourses can be found all over Europe now, including the Netherlands. Anti-Islam rhetoric has become so widespread and acceptable, it is no surprise that in some countries, like Greece, it has led to violence.
Some feminists criticize porn because they say it leads to violence against women, since it objectifies and dehumanizes them. The same can be said about discourses on Islam in Europe today. By dehumanizing, stigmatizing, and insulting Muslims, violence is only a few steps away.
Uffff.
On a positive note, Greek men are very good-looking!

Islamophobia in Europe

"For more security" Used in an election campaign

There is little doubt that Islamopobia is rife in Europe, a continent that only 60 years ago was host to the worst genocide in human history, shocking in both scale and execution.  Today, one by one European countries are electing far-right parties into parliament and presidential office, and Muslims and other non-white Europeans are finding it harder to “fit into” European society.

I just read a brilliant article called “The success of Islamophobia in Europe” (here). There is no doubt that things in Europe are getting tense:

Immigrants are caricatured and scapegoated, whole ethnic groups are implied to have criminal personalities and to be anything but normal, moral and hard-working. Wilders, for example, speaks of Moroccan ‘street-terrorists’ while his party proposes replacing civil servants with street militias; the Sweden Democrats commissioned an advertisement showing a woman in a burqa harassing an elderly pensioner; the Danish president of the International Free Press Society, Lars Hedegaard, asserts that Muslim men routinely allow their daughters to be raped by family members, while the Scandinavian internet is awash in tales of ‘Islamic rape gangs’; and the head of Germany´s new Freedom Party, René Stadtkewitz argues that it is impossible to integrate (Turkish and Arab) Muslims into German society without doing fundamental damage to its Judeo-Christian culture.

Top: Zurich 2010; bottom: 20 years later

What is even more worrying is that so many Europeans seem to support anti-Islam rhetoric. In an election in the Netherlands in the summer of 2010, Wilders’ party received approx 2 million out of the 8 million votes that were cast. If that isn’t scary I don’t know what is.

The article brings up many good points.  One of these is the fact that Europe seems to be plagued by the Holocaust, yet not by its colonial past. Why so much guilt over the Holocaust but not the colonial empires so many European countries ruled over brutally?

While the Holocaust has increasingly been taken as the foundational trauma for the whole of western Europe – a shared inheritance enabling an overarching moral project – colonialism has been approached from the opposite perspective. Notwithstanding that at one point 85% of the world was under European control – affecting the economics, ideologies, politics, consumption, and cultures of all Europe and all non-Europe along the way – colonialism nonetheless has been seen as a matter of purely national significance, to be dealt with individually as each nation and state might occasionally see fit.

One major misleading effect is that non-western immigrants are now largely imagined to be encountering Europe for the first time and to be bringing with them a purely alien culture untouched by decades and centuries under European control and influence. It is as if Europe had never gone out into the world in any significant cultural fashion, but only economically and militarily, while its own cultures were somehow left magically untouched.

Another interesting point is that Islamophobia is not necessarily a resurgence of racism:

The critical innovation of these movements, particularly in northern Europe, is that they have managed – for their supporters – to delink Islamophobia from racism so that today it is quite possible to argue that one is both anti-Islam and anti-racist.

This could explain why the Dutch, for example, normally obsessed with political correctness, have no problem complaining about (at the least) or insulting (at the most) Islam. Stephen Gash, co-founder of Stop Islamisation of Europe, has taken as his tag-line:  “racism is the lowest form of human stupidity, but Islamophobia is the highest form of common sense.” This reminds me of how being anti-Islam has become acceptable in many parts of the world. It’s okay to complain about Islam, to generalize about Muslims, and to support anti-Islamic proposals/laws/wars. Muslims are the ultimate ‘Other’ and so any negative action/rhetoric used against them is completely understandable and therefore acceptable.

Across Europe there is legislation against hate speech, against racism and anti-Semitism, against the defamation of whole groups, minorities, and (if inconsistently) religions.

When Muslims appeal to such legislation, said legislation is suddenly accused of inflicting an unacceptable limitation on one’s freedom of speech – a misuse of anti-hate legislation that silences all criticism.

The author suggests 2 solutions to the problem. One: the formation of Islamic political parties in Europe (yeah right! there will be some kind of mass conflict before that happens); and two: remove all anti-hate speech legislation (so all groups can be targeted? isn’t it better to ensure that anti-Islam speech is punished, the way all other hate-speech is?)

Personally, I think the problem at this point can only be solved through socialization. No legal, economic, or political solution will work anymore. The problem is racism, Islamophobia, and the fact that Europeans just do not seem to like people different from them. The colonial past and the Holocaust are two events that make it clear that Europe has an issue with difference. This is not to say, of course, that ALL Europeans are like this; but from my personal experience, many are. This is especially the case with Muslims, who are seen as completely different and simply backwards. They are not modern, rational, and do not support human rights (what exactly are human rights? are they universal or western? when did non-white people agree to these universal human rights?)

In conclusion:

How rare it is for a national politician to claim Muslims as one of his or her own. The fundamental paradox is that while the established and progressive elite of continental Europe are fiercely against rhetorical and institutionalized discrimination – to the point that many consider this a deep violation of their most vital personal and national values – many are at the same time highly unwilling to stop considering Islam and immigrants as backward in one fashion or another.

Elite and populist alike agree on the Muslims´ otherness; they just differ on the question of what to do about it. And as long as they agree on this – through their actions even more than their words – we have nowhere to go but down.