Writing Anti-Racism

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the Fall 2014 Writer’s Workshop series.

(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Ghassan Hage as part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Ghassan is the Future Generation Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne. He is author of numerous books include White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society (Heibonsha Publishers, 2003), Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society (Pluto Press, 2006), Waiting (Melbourne University Press, 2009), and with Robyn Eckersley, Responsibility (Melbourne University Press, 2012). His most recent book is Writings in Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Racism (Australian Society of Authors, 2014) and forthcoming in February 2015 is Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology and the Radical Imagination (Melbourne University Press).

 To the people of the bus.

In my recent work on racism I have differentiated between the ‘racism of exploitation’ (e.g. towards slaves and migrant workers) and the ‘racism of exterminability’ (e.g. anti-Semitism). I argue that the latter is prevalent in the racist modes of classification of Muslims in/by the non-Muslim West.

Inspired by certain dimensions of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s multi-realism, and the teaching of a seminar around Mauss’ The Gift, I have tried to show that the racist experience of the other as exterminable involves the projection of complex layers of affective and existential angst that takes us beyond the dominant domesticating mode of existence in which we live, and where instrumental classification thrives. It invites us to perceive the experience as pertaining to a multiplicity of other realities or human modes of existence. The first is the reciprocal mode of existence classically explored in the work of Marcel Mauss on the gift. I read The Gift as pointing to a whole order of existence where people, animals, plants and objects stand as gifts towards each other. The second is what I will call, after Marshall Sahlins, the mutualist mode of existence. It highlights an order of existence where others are ‘in us’ rather than just outside of us. Central here is Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s work on ‘participation’: a mode of living and thinking where the life-force of the humans and the non-humans that surround us are felt each to be contributing to the life-force of the other.

Despite some facile claims to the contrary, neither Marcel Mauss nor Lévy-Bruhl claimed something as simplistic as ‘look at us we are modern, instrumentalist and rational, and look at those others who are so different from us living in a world of gift exchange, or a world of participation’. Both emphasised that the logic of the gift and the logic of participation were more pronounced in those societies than they were in our own, but they were not as foreign to us as we might first think. They continue to be present along with, sometimes in the shadows of, the dominant domesticating mode of existence. They exist as minor realities. Thus, everything in our environment that we relate to is always simultaneously for us (domestication), with us (gift exchange) and in us (mutuality) even if we are less conscious of our enmeshment in the last two of these forms of relationality. I might decide to cut a tree on my property because I need its wood or simply because it is in the way. In so doing I am letting instrumental exploitative reason prevail. But does that mean that this instrumentalist relation of domestication is the only relation I have with the tree? What Lévy-Bruhl and Mauss encourage us to think is that even when a relation of domestication has prevailed, other forms of relationality between us and the tree are still at work. I might still feel that the tree and I were in a relation of ‘gift-ness’ towards each other. I wake up in the morning and thank it for being there and I might even feel that the tree itself is happy to see me there too. I might even experience a mild relation of mutuality with the tree, feel that not only is it a gift but that it is actually enhancing my existence: something about the way it is growing and deploying itself in the world actually pumps life into me.

In my work, I have shown how important it is to see that the racism of exterminability is itself enmeshed in these three modes of existence. To classify someone as exterminable is not only to see them instrumentally as harmful and useless. It is also to want to have ‘nothing to do with them’, thus negating their ‘gift-ness’. It also involves a ‘negative participatory’ experience: rather than seeing in the other a life-enhancing force, the racist sees in them something that sucks their life away.

Since its articulation to this multiplicity of worlds is what makes racist exterminability what it is, anti-racism itself needs to work at this multi-realist level. Up till now anti-racism has been far too centred on combatting racism at the level of domestication by deploying rational arguments and statistical knowledge that try to show the empirical falseness of the racists’ assumptions. This is so despite a long history that shows how immune racists are to rational and empirical argumentation. Consequently, I argue that anti-racism, without vacating this empirical/rational ground, should also move to think of itself as affective, and even as magical, in ways that speak to the racist sentiments and affects generated in the realm of reciprocity and mutuality.

It is here that we come to the question of anti-racist writing. For what is true about anti-racist practices in general is also true of anti-racist writing. Writing is also enmeshed in a multiplicity of worlds with their corresponding forms of otherness. One can write ‘about’ the racialised, treating them as passive subjects of analysis. There is no doubt that such a form of anti-racist writing can be over-analytical, treating racism, racists and the racialised as objects of what amounts to analytical domestication. This is when all writing aims to do is to ‘capture’ reality, a concept with an impeccable domesticating pedigree. But this is not all that anti-racist writing does or can do. One’s writing can take the form of a gift to the racialised. There is a long tradition of sociological and anthropological writing reflecting on how to write ‘with’ rather than just ‘about’ one’s informants. This is particularly true of ethnographies of indigenous people, where anthropologists have an established history of being sensitive to questions of reciprocity. Anti-racist writers can learn a lot from these ethnographies. Finally, a piece of anti-racist writing can be in itself a form of life that participates in enhancing the being of the racialised aiming to speak to them in the sense of speaking into them and participating in their being. Sometimes this can be a question of style: it is hardly a revelation for anti-racist activists that one can write something like ‘1 in 3 African Americans will go to prison’ as either a mere ‘depressive’ confirmation of marginalisation or as an invigorating call to arms stressing the racialised’s agency and capacity for resistance. I think that the poetic/phenomenological tradition, such as what one finds in the work of Michael Jackson, can offer an inspiration for a more consciously mutualist writing in this domain.

The question then becomes: what does it mean to become more conscious of anti-racist writing as enmeshed in this plurality of modes of existence? I would like to think that, at the very least, such consciousness would widen the writer’s anti-racist strategic capacities and render anti-racist thought more efficient at combatting racism. This opening of the strategic horizon is crucial as anti-racist political forces face the lethal neo-liberal forms of exclusion meted out on the racialised today. For example, the ease with which asylum seekers are radically expelled and disallowed to set a footing in society appears at one level as a form of instrumental/rational/bureaucratic decision making, even if judged as extremely harsh. Yet such extremism is impossible without a culture of disposability and extrerminability in which this exclusion is grounded, and that is far from being entirely instrumental/rational/bureaucratic. It goes without saying that from a disciplinary perspective it is this culture that is by definition the appropriate domain of anthropological investigation and writing. It so happens that, politically and ethically, it is also the most important to address, understand and struggle to transform.

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I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

15 thoughts on “Writing Anti-Racism

  1. Ghassan, your distinction between ” the ‘racism of exploitation’ . . . .and the ‘racism of exterminability'” is a provocative and important one. I wonder if, following Simmel, you might want to add ‘racism of indifference’ to your list.

    My thought here is that, at least in academic circles, response to discussions of white privilege is more a matter of indifference, in Simmel’s sense the denial of a social relationship. I suspect that few who roll their eyes when this topic is raised do so out of any active desire to exploit or exterminate the Other in question. We (and, yes, I am often guilty here) simply don’t want to be bothered. Constantly bombarded with attempts to elicit liberal guilt, we direct our attention elsewhere.

    In the best of all worlds, we would all be engaged in what Martin Buber called ‘I and Thou’ relationships. We would all care about each other. The fact of the matter may be that we can care deeply about only a few others. Social Network Analysis makes this a premise, acknowledging that human bandwidth is limited and that maintaining any relationship involves what economists call transaction costs. Scholars who study formal organizations are familiar with the notion of limited span of control, which is to say that no one in an organization has the time or attention span to devote to more than a couple of handfuls of people.

    I raise these issues not to challenge the justice of what you say but rather in hope of provoking debate that includes questions of justice but also issues related to how racism can be overcome. Appealing to liberal guilt doesn’t seem to work very well.

  2. “I suspect that few who roll their eyes when this topic is raised do so out of any active desire to exploit or exterminate the Other in question. We (and, yes, I am often guilty here) simply don’t want to be bothered.”

    And that’s a big part of the problem. When it comes to many pervasive issues in academe (and outside of it), far too many simply don’t want to be bothered. I don’t see this post as an attempt to elicit “white guilt” at all–it’s one more attempt to address issues that have been around for far too long. Anthropologists tend to think of themselves as somehow automatically anti-racist, banking on the legacies of Boas and Montagu and all, but how well have we actually done? Look at the 2010 AAA report on minorities–or the 1973 report for that matter. The answer is that we talk a big game, but have fallen tremendously short when it comes to dealing with and challenging racism and discrimination–even within our own ranks. This is, in part, because a lot of people just don’t want to be bothered. The other side of the story, of course, is that many others don’t have the luxury to simply direct their attention elsewhere. The ability to ignore this issue is, in itself, a position of privilege.

  3. I am Anthropologist from Pakistan . I have been part of emergency response in major disasters in pakistan but currently I am working as legal anthropologist in pakistan courts. My interest to find and discover the images and ideas along with literature which is being used to promote racism at community level.

  4. “it’s one more attempt to address issues that have been around for far too long.”

    But why is that? Perhaps we should take a hint from the title of Republican pollster/strategist Frank Luntz book Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What They Hear. Overwhelming evidence indicates that critique which only “addresses” an issue is greeted by deafening silence. It is clearly no answer to Lenin’s question, “What is to be done?” I wonder what people hear should be done, if addressing the issue, however eloquently, fails to achieve its desired effect.*

    *I note that I patiently waited several days before responding to Ghassan’s post. Why was I the first responder?

  5. Hi John. I think that boiling this down to whether or not people are using the right words to appeal to listeners is taking the conversation in the wrong direction. It comes pretty damn close to blaming the victim for not speaking politely enough about discrimination, racism, and abuse. As if we should require the abused to literally say “Please, don’t beat me, sir” in order to be heard. Yes, there is deafening silence when it comes to racism–and yes many people simply don’t want to be bothered. I don’t think it’s a matter of semantics–as if someone just needs to frame the whole situation in a particularly appealing way so that folks finally take note and do what needs to be done. The issues are there. Some talk about them more politely (in reports for example), and others take the less polite route. Nobody seems to listen either way. Many people don’t pay attention because they don’t have to. The issues don’t affect them. This includes many anthros, which is why we haven’t seen much improvement in our supposedly enlightened discipline between 1973 and today. Four decades!

    What is to be done? Well, first, it would probably be good if people started listening to those among us who continually point out injustices, racism among them–because taking the time to listen is in fact doing something. And it’s a good first step toward doing more of what needs to be done in order to challenge and confront not only racism, but the deafening social silence that often comes with it.

  6. “What is to be done? Well, first, it would probably be good if people started listening to those among us who continually point out injustices, racism among them–because taking the time to listen is in fact doing something.”

    Must be nice to live in a dream world. Where is the evidence that telling people they have to listen will actually get them to listen? I am not saying that it’s good, or nice, or just, nor am I blaming the victim. I am pointing to a social fact, critique whose premise is that people should listen because it is right to listen has failed and continues to fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, folks like Martin Luther King who included everyone in “We shall overcome” and the Panthers and Black Power who scared a lot of people did make a difference. Something to be learned there?

  7. Nobody has to listen to anything, John. We live in a world full of willful, blatant ignorance. To bring this back to the main post, Dr Hage talks about writing anti-racism in terms of reciprocity (a continuous social process that involves give and take). Listening, as I see it, is an act of reciprocity as well–it is when people willingly take the time to consider what others have to say. Without listening, there is no dialogue. Listening is also a fundamental component of the anthropological project, which is about trying to understand the meanings, experiences, and truths of others.

    Year in and year out we teach undergrads about the importance of empathy, of taking the time to consider and yes, listen to, the perspectives of others. Ironically, while students are encouraged to seek out, learn about, and understand the “strange,” distant, or exotic practices of people all around the world. We encourage them to listen even when what they are hearing is different, uncomfortable, hard to understand, or outright disagreeable. This is our foundation. Yet we end up with curious blind spots here at home. Suddenly our tremendous capacity for listening and empathy runs dry–often when issues literally hit too close to home. This helps to explain those AAA reports about minorities, race, and racism in anthropology.

    As you say, many people just don’t want to be bothered. They aren’t affected by racism and discrimination so, therefore, it becomes a non issue. I think it’s interesting that you bring up MLK’s inclusion of everyone in his famous “I have a Dream” speech. Keep in mind that King also said “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Along similar lines, W.E.B. Dubois said that “Ignorance is a cure for nothing.”

    Listening is an act of reciprocity. I still think it’s a first step toward creating understanding and then making the changes that need to be made. It is fundamental to the whole idea of anthropology. You argue that you don’t like the terms in which people express themselves when it comes to white privilege, racism, and discrimination. This reminds me of a great quote from Vine Deloria’s Anthropologists and Other Friends: “Whites always expect Indians to be grateful according to the whites’ ideas of gratitude. Or else they expect ingratitude to be expressed in institutionalized behavior, as other members of society have been taught to do. When Indians do not respond in accustomed ways, because the way is irrelevant to Indian modes of expression, Indian response is attributed to the innate savagery of the Indian.”

    When we tell others that we will only listen to them if they speak to us in our terms, we effectively close all possibilities for meaningful understanding or, to put it in Hage’s terms, reciprocity. So it goes. And so racism persists, often through a strong-willed ignorance of the experiences, voices, and concerns of others.

  8. Ryan,

    When it comes to your ideals, we have no quarrel. But suppose you listen a bit more closely to what I have been saying. The ideals are great. The ways in which people are trying to implement them — by writing critique — isn’t working very well. What are the other options? Martin Luther King led a mass movement that was welcoming to everyone. The “We” in “We shall overcome” included people like me, who were inspired by the Declaration of Independence and universal human rights. The movement’s heroes and martyrs included white as well as black. That is why Martin Luther King Day is a federal holiday and Barack Obama is the first African-American president of the USA. Huey Newton, the Panthers, and Malcolm X took a different approach. They were paid attention to because people were afraid of them. At the end of the day, their contributions to the movement may have been negative, reinforcing the image of young black men as armed criminals. Authors like Richard Wright made more positive contributions, by humanizing the black “Other” and, like King, appealing to shared values. We can argue about the validity of any and all of these assertions. But one thing is for sure, all of these individuals had a real impact far beyond the classroom. Of how much academic “critique” can this be said?

    Ball in your court.

  9. Allow me to retract “Ball in your court.” This conversation isn’t, at least on my side, about who wins a game.

    So where am I coming from? The post from which this thread hangs is one of a series devoted to writing. Why a series devoted to writing? Two good reasons. First, writing is what scholars, including anthropologists, do for a living. Second, there is great dissatisfaction that most of what anthropologists write goes unread. Why this should be is an interesting question, to which Andrew Abbott offers a provocative answer in the book that Rex recently recommended, Digital Paper. The research that he uses as an example started from the question why scholars did not make more use of the research tools that libraries offered even before the Internet. The short form of the answer is that since roughly the 1950s-1960s golden age of social science, there has been too much stuff and it’s catalogued in ways that mean tracking down what is actually relevant to any research project an incredibly long process. So scholars at all levels turn to the obvious algorithm. Read the stuff that your teachers, friends and the handful of people with an interest in your particular topic read. . . . And given specialization, the topic of another Abbott Book Chaos of Disciplines, the people you interact with when you write academically becomes an ever smaller set for all but the extreme outliers whose work attracts the attention of people outside their discipline.

    Which brings me around to the question, how do you get people who aren’t you or the handful of people who care about the particular places and topics on which you do research to care about what you have written? I have no panacea to offer. What I can say is that this question is one that people in the advertising world, where I have worked for a number of years, confront every day. Nakahata Takahashi, one of Japan’s most successful copywriters and the author of numerous essays on the art of copywriting, observes in one of his earliest columns that an ad is always an unwelcome salesman, the person who knocks on your door, demands your attention and tries to sell you something you may not need or want at all. The art of selling consists first in not being obnoxious and thinking that you know better than the customer how they feel and what they want. Listen before you spiel. Another useful tip is to speak the customer’s language, signalling that you are someone whose concerns they can share. Nothing terribly remarkable here. It is pretty standard stuff now in books on sales technique.

    What, then, is the voice of “critique”? I’d call it the voice of the teacher whose students are forced to listen and, worst case, parrot back what they hear. It is heard as the voice of authority that knows it is right and is ready to punish anyone who disagrees. It’s a crap way to sell ideas. Or so it seems to me.

  10. Well, this isn’t a matter of “selling” ideas to clients and putting arguments in terms that appeal to listeners. Putting this discussion in those terms almost completely absolves some people from having to change a damn thing they are doing (or not doing, as the case may be). It also absolves people from the burden of having to truly think about what some people are saying when it comes to racism, privilege, and discrimination. My point was that we have a lot of people who, as you put it, just don’t want to be bothered. Arguing that this situation is somehow a result of proponents of anti-racism not framing their arguments in the right way seems, to me, to be a case of blaming the victim (at best). I understand that MLK often had an open and inclusive message, but keep in mind that he also talked about the “silence of our friends.” There’s a lot of silence out there. A lot of people who just don’t want to address or talk about these issues. In the academy. Outside of it.

    “The ideals are great. The ways in which people are trying to implement them — by writing critique — isn’t working very well.”

    Well, I didn’t argue that writing critique is the only game in town. Critique can be powerful–see the work of Vine Deloria, jr, for example. Or so many people in places like Ferguson who have seen enough and had enough. Critique comes in many forms–not just wordy academic treatises. Sure, critique can be a bunch of ivory tower pablum that sounds good but accomplishes nothing beyond making people feel like they are doing something. At worst it can be a way for people to lie to themselves and pretend they’re doing something when in fact they are not. Reading about power, injustice, and antiracism is not the same as actually doing something about these issues in real life. That’s the whole trap in academia. But in the case of racism, we have “critique” coming from all directions–in academia and far beyond it–and yet we still have a shocking amount of 1) silence and 2) unwillingness to address and confront these issues. We have a lot of people who either don’t give a damn or who don’t think this is a problem. So the silence marches on.

    I have some things in the works that will get into these issues here on SM. Apologies to Dr Hage for hijacking this thread.

  11. Ryan, can you remember being scolded by your parents? Were you always one of those sweet children whose response was, “Yes, mommy, I’m sorry”? All this talk of guilt and absolution is precisely why so much discussion of racism falls on deaf ears. That appears to be a social fact. I would welcome evidence to the contrary; but so far you haven’s presented any, just pressed on and on with what you think people should do. We may agree that, yes, they should. But I don’t see any reason in what you say to alter my opinion that telling people what they should do in the tone and manner now customary among activist anthropologists is going to change behavior.

    I agree completely when you write,

    But in the case of racism, we have “critique” coming from all directions–in academia and far beyond it–and yet we still have a shocking amount of 1) silence and 2) unwillingness to address and confront these issues. We have a lot of people who either don’t give a damn or who don’t think this is a problem. So the silence marches on.

    I would add that we also have a shockingly irresponsible attitude on the part of academics who can look at the situation you describe and not even consider changing the ways in which they address the issue. Why this preference for sour grapes? That is what I want to know.

  12. “All this talk of guilt and absolution is precisely why so much discussion of racism falls on deaf ears.”

    It often falls on deaf ears because people choose to look the other way. Or, as you put it, they don’t want to be bothered. It’s a CHOICE. Blaming this silence on the manner or tone in which people critique racism is ridiculous. As if simply changing the “tone” of the conversation would magically make structural racism disappear overnight. Ultimately, the whole argument about tone is complete nonsense–and an attempt to derail the conversation.

    “I would add that we also have a shockingly irresponsible attitude on the part of academics who can look at the situation you describe and not even consider changing the ways in which they address the issue. Why this preference for sour grapes?”

    Sour grapes? Go read Jason Antrosio, Dorothy Roberts, Sarah Kendzior, Faye Harrison etc etc etc and get back to me. How and why you would boil all of the varied and powerful academic critiques against racism to “sour grapes” is beyond me.

  13. Ryan, I have read them all. I like what they write. I like what Ghassan has written, too. But what I like or don’t like has nothing to do with what bothers me. When confronted with people who don’t give a damn, what is the anthropologist’s response? To say over and over again that they ought to be listening has been, given the evidence at hand, utterly ineffective. What do we propose to do about that? You and me, we seem to be stuck in an endless loop. So I’ll step away now. I do wonder what others are thinking, though.

  14. I really have a hard time with this.

    “The question then becomes: what does it mean to become more conscious of anti-racist writing as enmeshed in this plurality of modes of existence? I would like to think that, at the very least, such consciousness would widen the writer’s anti-racist strategic capacities and render anti-racist thought more efficient at combatting racism.”

    You can’t write anti-racism. Your anti-racism can only be judged by those who your supposed “anti-racism” is directed. No man has the right to call himself a feminist. It’s up to the women around him to say that he’s not a sexist. Short of that it’s just another record of some of someone saying “I’m a really nice guy!”, and how’s that sound? It’s never sounded good.

    What this means of course is that there’s not true proof of racism, of racist intent: we can’t read minds; there’s only the record of performance. So for example Danny Aiello and Spike Lee argued over whether Aiello’s character in Do the Right Thing was racist, while Murray Kempton in his review said that Lee’s racism was against blacks, that Lee demonstrated more than a bit of self-hatred in the characters he created. It’s the best review of the film I read. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1989/sep/28/the-pizza-is-burning/

    All of this goes to show the politics of intent, of rationality and reason is bogus. But it makes sense that this sort of philosophizing should originate in cultures that follow the inquisitorial rather than the adversarial system of justice. Arguments for “seeing the other in myself” pull less weight in the Anglo-American legal system where “the other” is another lawyer. Postmodern philosophy hasn’t been taken up by lawyers partly because our legal system is premodern so therefore already postmodern. Philosophers think of themselves as judges as central. No practicing lawyer in out system puts judges automatically in such high regard. They’re taken seriously as powerful, not wise.

    If you want to talk about the Western relation to Islam, you can’t do it without discussion of the Western relation to Jews.
    From anti-semitism to philosemitism it’s enough to make your head spin.
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/07/god-save-jews-from-philosemitism

    And Israeli itself… Here’s a veteran of the Palmach:

    “We were the beautiful generation, the strong, the muscular, the anti-diaspora, as opposed to the Arab, the primitive, the reactionary, the conservative. We were the essence of good, and they, nothing, human dust. And it was almost charity to fight them.”

    That doesn’t approximate Nazi language; it is Nazi language. And what are we to make of European defenses of Israel?

    The politics of intention are the politics of patting yourself on the back; the opposite of the politics of curiosity, and irony.
    “Irony is the glory of slaves.” Czeslaw Milosz Earnest liberators celebrate their own lack of it.

  15. Hallelujah. I agree with something Seth Edenbaum has written. “The politics of intention are the politics of patting yourself on the back; the opposite of the politics of curiosity, and irony.” That is a sentence worth stealing.

    Returning, however, to my own hobby horse in this debate: how our writing affects our influence. This morning Zite pointed me to an article on Salon.com about Cornell historian Edward E. Baptist’s new book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, which seems very relevant, indeed, to a discussion of racism and contemporary politics in America. I find myself asking why the historian Baptist’s book came to be reviewed in Salon and then the review achieved sufficient readership to be picked up by Zite, while none of the fine work by find anthropologists mentioned elsewhere in this thread are likely to achieve similar exposure. This is the writing question here. It is not a question answerable by the generic statement “People should pay attention.”

    Indifference is the fate of most attempts at communication in today’s world. How could it be otherwise, with thousands, millions, perhaps even billions of voices demanding attention. The successful writer’s art is breaking through that clutter and finding and growing an audience that wants to hear what that writer has to say. Preachers do it, politicians do it, advertisers do it, sometimes even scholars do it. Why not anthropologists?

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