Why does race still matter? An interview with Alana Lentin

ECOLOGIES | Books  }

Alana Lentin, Selim Nadi / October 16, 2021
Alana Lentin discusses her debt to Stuart Hall, the colonial constitution of racism, and fracturings of anti-racist solidarity. 5255 words / 21 min read

Image: “The Geographer” by Jan Vermeer.

This interview was originally published in French by QG Décolonial on 4th February, 2021. The translation is by Selim Nadi.

SNIn the introduction of your book, you define race as “a technology for the management of human difference, the main goal of which is the production, reproduction and maintenance of white supremacy on both a local and planetary scale”. However, the question remains about why it is important that non-white subjects are not considered fully human. How do you evaluate the concept of “white privilege” for example? Does it seem politically relevant to you?

ALIt seems to me that there are a few different things going on in this question. Perhaps it could be rephrased as, what is the relationship between race as a ‘technology of power’, whiteness, and the category of the Human? This will allow me to come to the question of ‘white privilege’. Throughout my work I have been led by a race critical approach which sees it as necessary to ground race historically and contextually while recognising its relational and interactive nature as David Goldberg puts it, and the fact that it is necessarily a travelling concept. Following this, while there is fruitful debate about when to locate race historically, there is general agreement that it comes into force as a function of modernity, and in particular the expansion of Europe within the context of colonial invasion and imperial domination. This does not discount the fact that, as Cedric Robinson and others have shown, it percolates within Europe and is fundamental to the development of early capitalism within Europe itself.

I have a few problems with the idea that the ideological construct of racism drives the ‘invention of race’. This view tends to confine race within the idea of a taxonomical hierarchy of groups within the human population usually on the basis of assumed biological or genetic difference. However, this rather later iteration of racial thinking, that really only came into its own in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, was preceded by forms of racial rule that did not rely on a systematised account of race as confined to the biological. The idea of heredity was there, certainly, and notions concerning the purity or impurity of blood and so on were intrinsic to major events in the history of race, most notably, the expulsion or forced conversion of Jews and Muslims in Spain. However, other practices of demarcation were also in place that mapped cultural and religious practices, gender and sexuality, as well as geographical location onto the body. So, because race is best described as what Alexander Weheliye calls a set of racializing assemblages – pulling in many different directions – it is not useful to confine it to the realm of the ideological/biological. Race is first and foremost a set of practices that develops and becomes instituted as a function of ‘being done’ in situ. Race is worked out in the contexts of colonial invasion, enslavement, the solidifying of nation-states and practices of bordering, etc., and regulated and instituted in law and policy over time; it does not come as a pre-packaged ideology that is then rolled out. That is not to say that race(ism) is not ideological, but just to say that it does not arrive in the contexts in which it is put to work, ‘ready to go’. This is why I prefer to talk about as a technology of rule or power, an idea I got from Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s important article ‘Race and/as Technology’.

Race, following Barnor Hesse, on the planetary scale, is really about the division of Europeanness and non-Europeanness as a way, not only of ordering the world, but of justifying the domination of the majority of the world by Europeans to this day. This is what he means by saying that race is ‘colonially constituted’. This division of the world for the purposes of racial-colonial governance draws on the theorisation of humanness as bound up with European man (and not in the first instance, woman). However, here too, I am hesitant to argue that these ideas about humanness and Europeanness as being synonymous predated the practices of racializing forms of domination, because the invasion of the Americas for example had already occurred before the development of Enlightenment ideas of universalism which constituted ‘Man’ as the opposite of ‘non-Man’; in other words the idea that it is impossible to say what the Human is without saying what it is not, without counterposing the exemplary model of Man – as the European – to what is seen as his opposite: the colonised Indigène and later the enslaved African. In fact, the development of ideas about what constituted universal humanity was a response to, or an extension of, earlier religious debates, that questioned the humanity of Indigenous people. This debate – are they human, and thus susceptible to Christian salvation, or beyond, in the realm of the non-human? – was a question about what level of exploitation was permissible at the level of ideas. However, what we know about what later unfolded is that land theft, enslavement, and the exploitation of resources and labour went on whether or the people who were subjected and exploited were considered assimilable into humanity, at the level of practice. Even after the formal emancipation of slavery, for example during the colonisation of Africa, exploitation persisted apace even when there was an official route for African colonised peoples to be integrated into colonial culture, institutions of governance, etc.

Race, on the planetary scale, is really about the division of Europeanness and non-Europeanness as a way, not only of ordering the world, but of justifying the domination of the majority of the world by Europeans to this day.

As race as a project of rule develops, Weheliye proposes that a hierarchical schema in which the world population is divided into ‘the human, the not-quite-human, and the non-human’ comes into force. This formulation contains the two sides of race – the slippages which it always contains, its ability to slide around, as Stuart Hall would have it, and also the immutability which race installs. So, race both holds out the possibility of internal movement – the unspoken accessibility of whiteness/higher racial status through assimilation/adaptation, etc. – and the finality and closure of what are presented as the outer limits of racial flexibility. For many Black scholars this is represented by blackness, which stands for the absolute opposite of whiteness/Europeanness/humanness and the place where race is final. Certainly, the US-American experience of slavery and its afterlives would seem to back up this view, and the total otherisation of Black people in other contexts also speaks to it. However, I think there may be room for talking about how all those who are negatively racialised in some way can be placed in the space of the non-human, meaning that there is also always a way out. The point is that this is at the pleasure of white racializing power, which is why I feel we need more relational thinking between differently raced positions, not more replication of the divisiveness that race itself puts in place.

So, it is possible to see, I think, that when I speak about whiteness, I am speaking about power. As many others have pointed out, whiteness is above all an institutional formation that is synonymous with the operationalisation of racializing power which, since the birth of capitalism which cannot be analysed without understanding its co-development with race, also means economic and political power. It is the way in which power is expressed in modernity which, following the decolonial school, is best understood as colonial-modernity. In these circumstances, the notion of white privilege confines race and white supremacy – this large, complex system of ideas and practices which has driven the world for the last 500 years – to the behaviour of individual white people. I don’t want to discount the fact that, in the everyday, what people see is white people getting away with all kinds of actions which are unacceptable on a purely human level; they are discriminatory, unfair, and oftentimes murderous. But, boiling down the operations of race to an easily digestible idea like white privilege implies that changes in white behaviour alone can bring about an end to racial rule. In contrast, I would say that behavioural change and even institutional changes are important, yes, but alone they do not change the basis of power. They can paradoxically give power back to individual white people to be the agents and arbiters of change, where what we should all be aiming for is a lessening of that power as it is expressed through local, national, and global institutions.

The notion of white privilege confines race and white supremacy—this large, complex system of ideas and practices which has driven the world for the last 500 years—to the behaviour of individual white people.

SNAn important reference in your work is Stuart Hall. What has he brought to the understanding of race to you?

ALAlthough I studied in the UK, I did not study anything to do with race in either my undergraduate degree (in Psychology at Manchester University), or in my masters (Political Sociology, LSE). I came to the study of race via antiracist activism, and so I am really self-taught. I didn’t have the opportunity of encountering Hall’s work, as many UK sociology undergraduates do in the normal course of their degree. And so, I was at the end of my PhD at the European University Institute, which was on antiracism in Europe, when Stuart Hall came to Florence to speak at a conference. He was already quite ill and walking with a stick. He gave a brilliant talk in which he evoked C.L.R. James’ comment that he was ‘in, but not of Europe’. I was so moved, not only by his talk, but also by the fact that after four years at a university where there were no professors working on race (my supervisor was a German social theorist) and only a handful of students, that here was someone speaking to my concerns and passions. I literally cried! So, Stuart Hall has always been close to my heart, and I would say I am still discovering his work, because it is so extensive, and he touched on so many areas.

Stuart Hall has always been close to my heart, and I would say I am still discovering his work, because it is so extensive, and he touched on so many areas.

There are four main ways Hall has been important for me. 1) He is very insistent on the fact that race does not start with the biological, and that it is only the latest iteration – the last of its formulations – and that to understand how race develops, we need to look much further back before the development of so-called racial science, eugenics and social Darwinism; 2) Race is an unstable object. It is what he calls a floating or a sliding signifier that attaches itself to many different processes and projects and is hard to pin down. That is why it can appear to have diminished in importance while in fact embedding itself ever more deeply in our social, political and economic structures. This understanding of race explains its appearance under many guises – for example, ‘cultural’ or ‘differentialist’ racism which appears to be less concerned with biology, and so goes under the radar to appear as mere ‘commonsense’, and what I describe in my book as ‘not racism’. However, going back to the first point shows us that race has always been like that – an assemblage, to return to Weheliye. Therefore, it is convenient only from the point of view of those in power to portray race as proceeding in stages, from the more severe to the more tame, into a supposedly ‘postracial era’; 3) Hall gifts us the idea of race as existing through articulation with other structures of dominance. He talks about race being ‘the modality through which class is lived’, thus putting paid to the white left notion that class is real while race is merely ideological, and thus somehow insignificant. His approach – which is very practical and uses many examples – fleshes out what someone like Weheliye means by racializing assemblages or what Goldberg means by the relational and interactive dimensions of race; 4) The greatest gift of Hall is his modesty. By this I mean not his personal modesty, which I think was also true according to those who knew him, but his belief that there are no final answers. This is expressed in his idea of a politics ‘without guarantees’. He meant this in two ways: one relates to the simple fact that we don’t know how things are going to turn out, but that we must try anyway. But the other meaning was to do with his ambivalence about organising on the basis of race or ethnicity. He suggested that we can’t say that something is good simply because it is produced by those who are like us, with whom we share an identity. This is an argument against allowing intra-ethnic solidarity to become racializing. At the same time, Hall avoids narrow arguments that deny the importance of identity politics. I see him as arguing for a politics of location and movement. In other words, one that truthfully traces the roots and routes, where we come from and where we go, who we meet along the way, the structures imposed on us, and seek a future of freedom from anything that essentialises and dominates us.

SNYou write that ideas of racial science are resurgent today. Why do you think the discourse about race as a social construct has failed?

ALIn the first chapter of Why Race Still Matters I depart from the fact that racial science is enjoying a newfound respectability in the form of so-called ‘race realism’. Arguments in favour of racist eugenics are finding their place within the argument that everything should be permitted in the interests of free speech and ‘viewpoint diversity’. The people who argue for this are very often among the most powerful in the realms of academia, politics and journalism but they trade on an image of themselves as silenced by a ‘hegemonic left-moralism’ as one of their number, the Professor of Political Science, Eric Kaufmann, puts it. I try to think through what this situation means for the sociology of race which has long been based on the principle at the core of critical race theory that race is a social construct. The anthropologist, Jason Antrosio, has called this idea a ‘conservative goldmine’ because it can easily be picked apart from a perspective which reduces arguments about race to debates in genetic science. He says that calling race a social construct has not managed to shift ‘underlying socioeconomic structural racism.’

Think about the current Covid-19 crisis: many critical race scholars and activists have pointed out that the pandemic is affecting Black people, Latinx people, Indigenous people, and undocumented migrants worse than the population in general. The only place where this isn’t true for Indigenous people in Australia where Aboriginal associations acted very quickly to protect their communities (for more on this, see my co-produced web series Race in Society. But how this was interpreted by many in the mainstream is that these racialised populations had a natural propensity to a higher rate of morbidity. This misses the point that, as I explain in the book, race is not biology, but can – as the American anthropologist, Clarence Gravlee shows, become biology. In other words, over time, the exposure of successive generations to poverty, stress, and the poor diet and housing associated with it can make people more sick. So, this is an example of how race is socially constructed. However, unless we show people all the steps – in other words unless we explain exactly how and under what circumstances race is socially constructed, we are left with the naturalised explanations that lock people into race as heredity and destiny. Social construction also remains vague without historical reconstruction. That is why I borrow from Hesse’s notion of colonial constitution to be very precise about the circumstances in which race develops and the reasons for its invention. I then use Patrick Wolfe’s tracing of the different yet interconnected forms of racialising practices that existed in different contexts, and affected Indigenous populations differently to enslaved Africans, and Jews in the context of European antisemitism.

SNHow would you characterise the role of the “not racism” argument in contemporary racism?

ALIn the second chapter, I develop an argument about what I call ‘not racism’. Not racism goes beyond the denial, or what Gavan Titley calls the ‘debatability’, of racism. It is the (re)definition of racism from a white perspective which deems racialised people as being incapable of defining racism because they lack objectivity. I call it a form of discursive racist violence. I think it is something that all racialised people experience and can identify with. We are witnessing ‘not racism’ on a grand scale today. I give many examples in the book of how racism is unable to be named, while at the same time the fiction of ‘anti-white’ racism has completely entered mainstream acceptability. But the point I want to make about this, is that, rather than see this as something new, it should be seen as immanent to the idea of racism itself. The invention of racism as a term to encapsulate the ideological dimension of race, which was used by both racists and antiracists only from the late 19th century, already sets the terms that make ‘not racism’ possible. I show, again following Barnor Hesse, that racism is above all a Eurocentric formulation that is above all else concerned with intra-European racism in the context of the rise of fascism and antisemitism. But the people who were worried about this in the 1920s and 1930s were often completely comfortable with the most basic racism in colonial contexts, and even participated in racial science experimentation on African people for example. For this I draw on Caroline Reynaud-Paligot’s study of the role of ‘antiracist’ race anthropologists in France, La République raciale. This gives way to the fact that we have very little public understanding of the relationship between race and racism which means that racism is disconnected from the colonial longue-durée of racial rule and can easily become a question of individual pathology or extremist aberration.

We can see the legacy of this for mainstream antiracism which trades on the idea that it is possible to shift individual attitudes and behaviours, leaving institutional practices untouched, creating a completely paradoxical situation in which racial-colonial states become the arbiters of what is and is not racist, and what an antiracist politics should look like, ignoring those who face racism themselves. This view opens the door – in fact makes utterly plausible – the idea of ‘reverse’ or ‘anti-white’ racism – because racism is seen as perennial and universal, detached from its historical specificity, and reduced to a set of behaviours that anyone can engage in. From this view, migrants coming to Europe are now threatening those who are construed as ‘indigenous’ with racism against ‘their culture’ and ‘way of life’.

When racism is seen as perennial and universal, detached from its historical specificity, and reduced to a set of behaviours that anyone can engage in the door is open to the idea of 'reverse' or 'anti-white' racism.

SNWhat do you think of today’s critics of “identity politics”? In your book, you discuss Asad Haider’s book Mistaken identity, which, in my opinion, made some valid points but seems to me to be very US-centered and not that much valid outside of the US, in France for example.

ALThe funniest thing about Asad Haider from the French perspective is, as I explain in the book, that he entirely misreads French Islamophobia. It is a good example of why a US perspective on race is sometimes utterly inappropriate for analysing other contexts, not only because the grammar of race is particular in each context, but also because there is a failure to engage with non-American activists and scholars. Partly, this is a problem of language, but I also feel that there is a certain arrogance in believing that it is possible to analyse something of which one has no experience or grounding. That aside, I believe that Haider is one of the more astute critics of race and class in the US and, in fact, has written several things that are much better than his book, Mistaken Identity since writing it in 2018.

Nevertheless, in the book he tries to mount a case for the limitations of identity politics from three perspectives, none of which work entirely for me. First, he extrapolates from a single experience that he had while involved in an occupation at his university and uses this to make a general statement about the association of class politics with white activists, and race politics with Black activists, with little ability for interplay between them. I do think that this is a generalisation based on a specific case at an elite university which cannot be used to say very much about antiracist activism in general, and certainly not outside the US. Secondly, he makes a curious association between what he sees as the cul-de-sac of organising on the basis of race and the school of Afropessimism within Black studies which he argues has been popularised via social media. More recently there have been some interesting discussions organised about Afropessimism, triggered by the publication of Frank Wilderson’s latest book on the subject, for example on the ‘Black as in Revolution’ YouTube channel hosted by Annie Olaloku-Teriba. The argument is that Afropessmism merits discussion from the point of view of those who disagree with its theoretical foundations because it has such a significant impact on activism. Again, much as I find these discussions interesting as a ‘race theory nerd’, I wonder about the extent that Afropessimism is influential outside certain student activist and social media circles. For example, is it relevant among communities mobilising in the neighbourhoods against police brutality or among the Sans papiers? Therefore, I found Afropessimism to be overdetermined in Haider’s book. I think he wanted to make a point about his frustration with identity politics, and Afropessimism was a vehicle for him to get there, because he also wanted to take a swipe at it. But I don’t think it’s possible to make the case that antiracist activism has been irreparably damaged by this small corner of Black studies. I found the argument rather insular.

The third issue I had was a certain tendency to romanticise Black radicalism of the 1960s which is counterposed to what is portrayed as the limitations of activism today, mired by the problems of identity politics and bad race thinking. I think that every moment in the history of activism has to be assessed against the context in which it took place: what were the global movements – for example, in the 50s and 60s, anticolonialism and the non-aligned movement, that local antiracism could gain inspiration from – and what are we confronted with today? When I see the terrain before us, I see a 40+ year onslaught against the autonomous antiracist, Black-led anticolonial movements in the Global North, the destruction sown by rampant neoliberalisation, the heightening of state securitisation and criminalisation, the dampening of radicality by state multiculturalism and ‘diversity’, and the break-down of intergenerational dialogue. All of this is confronting younger activists who are then accused of being too insular, divisive, and lacking in ‘radical universalist’ potential. I think it is amazing that younger people continue to act and invent despite everything that they are confronted with. Even today in the midst of a global pandemic, we have seen the energy brought forth by the Black Lives Matter movement. That should not be discounted.

I think it is amazing that younger people continue to act and invent despite everything that they are confronted with.

SNA few days ago, French writer Yann Moix accused the France insoumise MP Danièle Obono and the member of the Parti des Indigènes de la République, Houria Bouteldja of being antisemitic – something that is pretty “ironic” since he himself made some really antisemitic drawing when he was younger. How would you define contemporary antisemitism? What are its manifestations? Could you please come back on what you call “decolonizing Antisemitism”?

ALIn light of the recent resignation of Houria Bouteldja and most of the founders of the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic (PIR), I think that we should find the constant accusations of antisemitism that she has been faced with for years, abhorrent. Of course, those like Yann Moix who accused her and Danièle Obono are hypocritical, but this hardly matters from the perspective of those in power, mainstream society and the official Jewish community bodies. We have a situation where organisations like the British Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Chronicle newspaper regularly consort with people who express white supremacist ideas, especially against Muslims and migrants. Worse, in the United States, Stephen Miller, a Jew, whose own uncle has condemned him for fascism, was responsible for the separation of migrant children from their families under the Trump regime.

In my book, I try to theorise antisemitism as divided into two parts – good and bad – much as there are two types of Jews: good and bad. ‘Good Jews’ are in the service of what Bouteldja has called the ‘philosemitic’ state, while ‘bad Jews’ are antizionists, and antiracists, and the thorn in the side of the racial-colonial state. This is why we now have a situation in which non-Jewish supporters of Israel are able to accuse ‘bad Jews’, such as myself, of being antisemitic. The total collapse of antisemitism into anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism, because it forces all Jews to identify with a racist colonial regime. I argue that, although this is mainly a phenomenon of the Right, it also exists on the left. Quite often when I have said I am anti-Zionist I have been accused by people on the Left of lying, because they too make an association of all Jews with Zionism.

The total collapse of antisemitism into anti-Zionism is a form of antisemitism, because it forces all Jews to identify with a racist colonial regime.

So, bad antisemitism is made equivalent with antizionism. Only the worst among the extremists are called antisemites and they are put on a par with antizionists; the worse kind of genocidalists and Holocaust deniers are seen as no different to those who oppose racism and fascism! The people who are against ‘bad antisemitism’ are the same who came out in favour of a racist like Alain Finkielkraut when he accused the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) of antisemitism because they were pro-Palestinian.

On the other side, we have ‘good antisemitism’. This is the kind that allows people like me to be called ‘self-hating Jews’, and excuses attacks on leftist, anti-fascist and antizionist Jews because they are ‘Islamogauchistes’ (Islamist-leftists), etc.

The only solution for Jews, as I see it is to openly defy the lure of white supremacism, into which so many white Jews have been tricked through a process of drawing us closer to the seat of power to better control us and fracture antiracist solidarity. I was inspired by Santiago Slabodsky’s call for a decolonial Judaism which, he argued, means identifying with our ‘barbarian past’; in other words throwing our lot in with other people who are subjected by race. Decolonising antisemitism, then, means refusing to let it be manipulated in the service of a Eurocentric agenda which holds out the Holocaust as the primary crime of racism, against which all other forms of racism are judged and found lacking. Jews should deny the poisoned chalice of being ‘the best victims’ and we should do everything we can to situate antisemitism and the Holocaust within the long history of racial-colonial power. While we should resist analogising antisemitism with other forms of racism, which must be seen in the context of their own histories, we should nevertheless talk about the myriad ways in which various forms of racism are entangled and co-constitutive, in the aim of better confronting them together.

SNWhat is the current state of Racism and Antiracism in Australia?

ALAustralia is the epitome of a racial-colonial state. The expansiveness of racializing power in this country is too wide to explain in depth here. In a sense, Australia is a laboratory for the study of race, but it is considered too peripheral and it rarely gets on the agenda of race scholarship which is dominated by the US. The autonomous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander movement is very strong here. Recently, we saw this with the Black Lives Matter protests which were organised against the massive phenomenon of Aboriginal deaths in custody, which proportionally supersedes that of African Americans in the US. Australia imprisons children as young as 10, and every child in youth detention in the Northern Territory, for example, is Aboriginal. The practice of removing Aboriginal children from their families, often at birth, is more widespread than it was even during the so-called ‘stolen generations’. So, there is a lot to resist, and Aboriginal grassroots organisations, such as Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, are very strong. Having said that, there are schisms around issues such as constitutional recognition and treaties; some activists who foreground Aboriginal sovereignty argue that any recognition by the colonial state means a reciprocal recognition of its legitimacy, while those in favour argue for a more pragmatic approach that they feel will better people’s living conditions as well as improve political representation and ensure more rights.

On the other hand, anti-migrant politics in Australia are fast returning to the days of the White Australia Policy. Not only are asylum seekers who arrive by boat locked up in detention centres ‘offshore’ in formerly colonised island nations with which Australia retains a neocolonial relationship, but migrants on temporary visas of various kinds are exposed to more and more exploitative conditions which are worsened by Covid-19. This includes international students who have long been a ‘cash cow’ for the Australian economy. The so-called ‘refugee sector’ is broken; a true example of the not-for-profit industrial complex, whose organisers exist in a paternalistic relationship with their refugee and migrant ‘clients’. Associations such as Rise Refugee, an autonomous movement of formerly detained people in Melbourne, is one of the only examples of an organisation that exists outside of the official structures of the ‘refugee services’ industry. Around all of this has arisen a kind of ‘political economy of witnessing’ which I have observed, made up of filmmakers, writers, poets, academics, etc. who make work that speaks to the experience of migration and the crimes of the Australian border, but which relies on the continued subjugated position of refugees, which I find problematic.

On the local level, Indigenous and migrant struggles are being joined up as was seen during the Black Lives Matters protests, but this does not exist as a mass movement at a national level. In my view, the coming together of migrant and Aboriginal struggles would be the only thing to pose a definitive challenge to the racist state.

Alana Lentin’s Why Race Still Matters is published by Polity Books. New Socialist £5 and above subscribers can get a 20% discount.


Alana Lentin (@alanalentin)

Alana Lentin is Associate Professor in Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University.

Selim Nadi (@selimnadi)

Selim Nadi holds a PhD in History and is member of the editorial board of QG décolonial.