Anna Curcio in conversation with Paul Gilroy
I would like to start by asking you to discuss the function of race and racism today in the neoliberal context, especially in Europe. I would be particularly interested to hear your views on the rise in Islamophobia, the war within the European borders in the postcolonial metropolis, internal tensions within Europe and the construction of a ‘refugee emergency’ – described in the media as an “invasion” by migrants.
All across Europe, in every polity, in every place, we see the emergence of a populist politics that is xenophobic, racist and ultra-nationalist. In some ways, this is a contradictory phenomenon because it articulates long standing popular grievances against governments and political parties. But these movements, wherever they are, articulate their purpose and utopia through the language of race, belonging, culture and nationality, and for me the racial element – though it is accented differently in each place – is a dominant part of the resulting discourse. In many ways it is the racial element that makes it possible to connect the hatred of strangers with the advocacy of a national identity and its certainties. It is really the presence of dangers represented by the racial Other that produces cohesion in this supposedly restorative political project. I know there are variations, but I think the racial element is always there. It is the key factor because it suggests this utopia is going, somehow, to be a pure place, a place which can be found through a notion of political time, from which alterity, otherness, foreignness, the figure of the xenos, have been expelled. Sometimes this means going back to find a place where the world was simpler and where there were no strangers. Sometimes it means a rebirth in the classic fascist way: the rebirth of a nation as a strong force, after a period in which the nation was weak, lost or disoriented. These are the motifs. They connect with the classic fascism of the twentieth-century type, but now the issue of race is more central. I know there are some versions of the new fascism where this is at the forefront and others where it is more mediated, but overall I'd say the racial element is prominent. This is partly an effect of the internet as a media ecology and partly to do with the emergence of the Muslim as a racial figure.
In some places in the world where whiteness did not exist as a fundamental category, people can now discover a generic variety of racial identity which is articulated as white. Similarly black people also have to reckon with the internet's mediation of their common identity. Online, they discover a generic identity often based in U.S. reality and in U.S. history and they grab this and inhabit it. Thus the world appears in a Manichaean shape. The same configuration that Fanon and others criticised in the middle of the twentieth century. These patterns are now everywhere in Europe: the hatred of the xenos, the quest for certainty and stability amidst all the flux and turbulence of a neoliberal transformation. This reaction is also culturalist in a deep way. That aspect is connected to the civilizational flavour that entered political discourse after 2001 at the launch of the endless global war. That global counter-insurgency does not implicate all countries in the same way, however through NATO and other military technologies, even countries that were not colonising states have now become enmeshed in postcolonial conflict that reaches across the world.
What is the narrative of race and racism today, in the so called “post-racial era”? We’d be particularly interested in your thoughts on Disney’s first black super-hero in the film Black Panther, which seems to be completely emptied of all radical elements and conflictual power. In the film, King T'Challa returns to Oakland to open a social-centre in the place that was previously inhabited by little Erik and his father. Erik died rejecting clemency, much like his ancestors, who say in the final lines of the film that they threw themselves into the sea because they preferred death to slavery. T’Challa is the social rights super-hero, and Erik, who wants to arm his people for social redemption, is the anti-hero.
I didn’t see the film, but I will watch it because I know it’s a historical phenomenon, but I don’t think our conversation should start from that film, from Disney entertainment. We talk about American military power, about American financial power, but do we talk enough about American cultural power? We have just been in a conference full of American academics talking in a very interesting way, but always universalizing their concepts, universalizing their paradigms, universalizing their history as if it could be applied everywhere, as if it is everywhere. Once, long ago, I went to a conference where visiting academics from the US were announcing that the situation in South Africa was exactly like it is in the United States. A very polite South African woman put up her hand and said “I think you’ll find the black people are in the majority here”. The white people in South Africa are at 13 per cent, the same number as black people in America. There is a mystification, and the United States has real academic power. Certainly in my world, if you want to be successful in academia you have to publish your books with an American publisher, you have to put your name in American journals and so on, because that is the gold standard of academia. I don’t accept that. To me this imperialistic thing is also a cultural and diplomatic project.
I don’t believe that blackness and the politics of race, everywhere in the world, can be deduced from what Beyoncé is wearing, from what Jay Z did, or from what Kanye West said about slavery. As I understand it, the Black Panther film belongs in a tradition which goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century at least, in which African Americans try to imagine Africa and fail. In 1903, Pauline Hopkins, an African American novelist, wrote a science-fiction style novel about a country in Africa that is closed off from the rest of the world, which has technological sophistication monitoring what is going on everywhere else etc. For me the film and the discussion about the film seems to suggest that there is a blockage in the ability of African Americans to imagine Africa, to see it, as Glissant would say, in relation to their own lives and circumstances. That blockage is also an effect of the generic racial identities which are now dispersed worldwide.
In this context, what does anti-racist struggle mean today? What should the battleground of contemporary anti-racist struggles be? What are our sharpest tools for fighting against what you call the Manichean approach to race, that is to say, how could we take back the idea and the discourse about race from the deathlike neoliberal embrace, which values differences in a capitalist form?
One thing that we have to do is to reveal the nature of the criminalization process as it is being applied to those who act in solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented people. The legal, military, geographical and historical mechanisms of the securitocracy must be brought into view.
There are two other things I would prioritise. One is a generational issue. A lot of the younger activists have no idea of the history of the movement. They drift to the internet to look for the history and they don’t find it there. So it never happened!!! I‘ll give you an example. When my friend Stuart Hall died two or three years ago now, the version of his life and his project as an intellectual which began to circulate didn’t even mention his involvement in antiracist struggles in a practical sense. The documents, the community legal inquiries, all of the street level projects that he contributed to, around policing, riots, deaths in custody and so on, were entirely absent. One thing he wrote was a document about the Southall police riot of 1979, explaining how the police had rioted showing an alternative model of justice that was a demotic justice and not the justice of the state. All of that hidden history needs to be recovered. It needs to be circulated and it needs to become central to intergenerational dialogue among activists. That way, young activists won’t always reach for generic American definitions, always go to the internet thinking that they can rely on the privately owned Google portal as a place to find the information they need. Of course there are many wonderful things about the internet, but analog information is often filtered out in the transition to a digital order.
The second thing I would want to prioritize is more contentious. It is to try to articulate in the name of an antiracist politics a new definition of what it is to be a human being. The premise of that ambition is a critique of racism and racial hierarchy. This dream goes back two or three hundred years, but we don’t usually see it as something that is still relevant. It appears and then disappears. I think we need a much more consistent understanding of that counter-history, of those ideas as they have developed. Not just in the struggles against slavery, but in the struggles against colonial power, in the struggles towards political rights for women who were often activists in anti-colonial struggles and in the struggles for emancipation and abolition and for the franchise. In the Atlantic world these things were entangled with each other. We need to be able to go back in a different spirit to the challenge of saying what it is to be human. The paranoid anti-humanism of our academic culture doesn’t always make this easy, because there is a tendency to dismiss that desire as sentimental, romantic or banal. I don’t know how you can have solidarity without sympathy. In Italian probably empathy and sympathy have their own etymological complexity. In English, sympathy is the much older word, empathy enters with the idea that you can have an identification with complete understanding of someone else's experience. Sympathy, on the other hand does not presuppose full understanding of the suffering of someone else. Think of an instrument with a sympathetic string. We learn to vibrate in relation to the suffering and pain of the other. We have to disentangle these questions and use that discussion to articulate a new understanding of what it means to be human in relation. Sylvia Winter called for a re-enchantment of humanism. She is a Fanonist. Fanon certainly aspired to a new humanism. So did Senghor, Du Bois, Césaire, Alain Locke, Baldwin, Jordan, Morrison and the rest. We can track this desire back in time and even try to take this genealogy back into the early modern period of Europe’s becoming.
Your reference to a new definition of what it is to be human could be very interesting and useful in the Italian anti-racist perspective. There is now humanitarian approach to anti-racism that is problematic because understanding race and migration simply as humanitarian does not grasp the materiality of race and racism. This is probably something very specific to Italy.
In Italy the debate around race and racism is behind that of the Anglo-Saxon world. There are historical and political reasons for that (the legacy of Nazi-fascism and the holocaust, the unsolved colonial issue, the poor colonial experience and the lack of post WWII diasporas, the migration processes only starting to really affect Italy towards the end of the 80s, and so on). At any rate to speak about race in the Italian antiracist debate, both in academia and within social movements, is something relatively new and difficult to do. As a result, racial hierarchies that materially shape our society remain hidden, veiled. Racism continues to be mostly perceived and considered as an ideological defect, with the loss of any reference to the material conditions that determine racism - and which racism helps to determine. Thus many people call themselves anti-racists, but actually they put race at work producing processes of subordination and hierarchy. For example, I work as a high school teacher, the majority of my colleagues call themselves anti-racists - and this is very common in a so-called ‘red city’ such as Bologna, which sees itself as having a gold medal for the process of liberation from Nazi-fascism - however, my anti-racist peers often forget to consider the different social and material conditions and cultural backgrounds of first and second generation migrant students when giving out grades, thus race is put to work in producing differences and hierarchies.
This taboo about race is one of the things that has created the context for a racist resurgence in our country, and it is of course unquestionably linked to the processes of impoverishment and social downgrading that affect our society. In this context we have seen the rise of what I would like to call a mirroring phenomenon, in the way both people on the left and the right deal with racism. So, on the one hand we are seeing the rise of what we have started to call an aggressive and violent “materialist racism” (that of course denies the human being) that blames migrants for the profound social inequalities in our society (that are mostly imputable - to generalise a bit - to neoliberal policies) and, on the other hand, we observe the rise of a sort of “humanitarian anti-racism” that takes the migrant issue simply as a humanitarian question, which doesn’t grasp the materiality of race and racism, as if the material conditions of existence aren’t important. The latter thus turns out to be a blunt weapon.
So I would like to ask you to consider humanitarism from another point of view – which is probably a specifically Italian point of view. In other words, I would like you to consider humanitarism today as a mystification in the Marxian sense, not as a lie but rather as the specific shape of the contemporary class orders of discourse. In other words, it could be assumed as a sort of veil that covers the materiality of social interests as well of class conflict, going hand in hand with the racist mystification of the right. While right-wing racist discourse and practice mystifies class relations, taking advantage of processes of impoverishment, the leftist affirmation of abstract equality through an empty reference to human rights also mystifies and veils an attempt to continue with unequal social policies that of course are at the core of racial hierarchy. Both left and right pretend to identify the real enemies, whiten the class relations (explicitly on the right, hypocritically on the left). I think that until we unveil this mystification both on the left and on the right, we will not be able to challenge the material relationship that produces exploitation and racial hierarchies. Maybe we should or must repoliticize the idea of the human. How could we do that?
At the moment, the pressure that I’m more concerned about is the attempt to reduce the struggle over racism to an interpersonal matter: to privatize it. So that whether you’re racist becomes a matter of you being a bad person who does something bad. Obviously arguments about structural, systematic and institutional forms of racism mean that governmental processes can produce inequality in health, housing, education without anyone actually being a bad person or an ideological racist. So first we have to win that idea: structures are important. This is an indifferent system. Secondly, you ask about how to struggle together. In response I can only say what we have done, and there are times we won and there are times we lost. To summon this alternative notion of a humanity across the lines of racial hierarchy and absolute division, one thing we’ve done is worked specifically on the impunity of police and state killers. We have looked at people who die following their contact with the police or prison authorities or in healthcare, people whose lives are taken as a result of the operations of racial hierarchy within the provision of health care and other things like that. And its out of those practical campaigns that a human face can be restored to the generic, faceless figure of the black.
I know that in Italy, African people have been attacked in the street and some have been killed. These are the decisive, immediate issues, but not because I think they are more important than the structural or institutional kinds of inequality and injustice. In our movement, we fought each other bitterly over whether we should focus on working against the neo-Nazis and the resurgent ultra-right or should give priority to the struggles against state racism. This was a debate in the seventies and the eighties, and it is still debated now. But I think there is no contradiction except the amount of resources you have. Those struggles can go hand in hand. They have to go hand in hand. A lot of people in the black movement felt the fascists weren’t relevant. I always disagreed with that, my partner was the editor of an antifascist magazine that monitored the activity of the ultra right that goes all the way back to Stefano Delle Chiaie and all of that stuff that happened here etc. So, we always felt that keeping an eye on the forces of the ultra-right, the ultra nationalist forces was not in contradiction with struggling over the systematic and structural forms of racism. For me, the police and criminal justice system was the place where these things met. In our case, the police and prison staff would sometimes have the fascist insignia behind the lapel of their uniform. They would show it to you when they were beating you out of sight in the van. So this is where these things have met historically and that culture of impunity becomes a decisive place where we begin to win our denied humanity back. It connects with the fight for a different idea of justice that comes from the recognition of the loss of life, and the suffering unequally distributed along the lines that racial hierarchy dictates.
I know there is also work to do in Italy because I try to follow what’s happening here around the deaths of people, and the way that the criminal justice system manages those deaths . . . People know full well that Soumaila Sacko, the young man who was shot about a month ago in Southern Italy, was a human being. That is a starting point to enter into and to look at what it is to be excluded from being recognised as a human being. And I cant give that up, because Heidegger is not going to help me, because he was a racist himself and his line “Nazism was a humanism” is a wicked mystification and a justification of his own political choices.
To import this into a leftist discourse was a huge mistake, a big, big mistake. How do we work together? It has to be a practical thing. Often it depends on how the city has been segregated, spatialised, what forms inequality takes in the material shape of the urban environment. One reason we left America and we went back home to live in London is because we value living in a very mixed place. That is not to say there is no conflict. There is conflict, but along with the conflict there are also resources to manage the conflicts that arise and get marked as racial. People become interdependent in very complicated ways. In the school-yard, in the prison cell, in the court. If you want your car repaired or your child cared for you get locked into webs of relation. For whatever you want, you have to enter into a complicated multilingual relationship of interdependency with people and you have to negotiate those differences as they unfold. You soon discover what is important and what is merely the narcissism of minor differences. Exactly one year ago, there was a terrorist attack in our neighbourhood in London and people assembled on the same evening to express their solidarity with families and friends who were grieving for the dead and the injured. Some of the young activists I know were standing behind me, they started saying thinks like, “There’s so much white guilt here”. I just turned to them and said, “Fuck you, what do you know about this place? You don’t live in this community, you have no knowledge of this history or this cultural ecology, why are you so dismissive of these honest, sympathetic gestures?”. People were standing there with banners which said things like, ‘Leave Our Muslim Neighbours Alone’. Why was that judged to be bad or dishonest? What do we want them to do? These are serious issues that involve the very possibility of community. I know that word is a very difficult word to use in a critical vocabulary. But there in front of us was an example of a living community, and to parachute in from the sky and start to impose a Manichaean reading of those forces was idiotic. It’s not serious, it’s trivial. I’m interested not in the banality of evil I’m interested in the banality of good. The banality of good is much more important. It’s everyday life. It’s a politics of everyday life. And I'm sure you can find these things here. They’re small but make them bigger. Look at the silent movement around the social, corporate murder of people in Grenfell Tower. You will see similar effects and conflicts there in the shadow of those horrors.
In that light, our political aim should be to expand and to give confidence in an analysis that does not rely on catastrophe to make common humanity visible. The habits of thinking we have now, the style of thought we have brought from the twentieth century will not serve us well as the water rises and the lights go out. In the everyday world of ordinary difference, things are more fluid, more sticky, there’s a becoming. We can’t legislate the world from our computer keyboards, unfortunately, especially not with concepts from somewhere else that are forty years out of date. Audre Lorde is not going to help us. I mention her because she is one of the goddesses of a young generation of militants who thrive on the idea that we always know in advance which tool is legitimate for acts of political dismantling and resignification. There were a lot of other black feminists from that generation who did fantastically interesting work with enduring value, but the way that that knowledge is now channelled and filtered online means that people don’t get to read them or even know their names. They don’t realise when they find her work, that there is more to her than soundbites and #hashtags. She says many things not just the caricatured version of intersectional analysis that coincides with today’s priorities. There is a larger conversation to be reconstructed around this. Think of someone else in Lorde's generation of black feminist politics, someone like June Jordan, her books aren't online, her poetry is little known, so we have to do some work if we want to have a serious intergenerational dialogue. We have to translate, we have to be generous to each other in the ways that we listen, and not dismissive in the internet style. In online discussion, people are very inclined to be more aggressive and harsh than they would be if they were talking face to face. So we have to struggle with the way our political habits and discourses are being organized for us through this technological environment.