Challenges for a better anti racist-critic

Stig Marlon's illustration with glasses on paper

A self-study course

Background: The political attack on the 22nd of July on the Norwegian left wing by the radicalized right wing «crusader» Anders Behring Breivik has led politicians and commentators to call for self-examination and reflection. The "self-study course in queer-feminist anti-racist criticism" wants this pensiveness to result in a confrontation with the various racist exclusion mechanisms that have structured public life in Norway for decades. For this reason, the course will draw attention to queer feminist critics who have for some time warned against the effects of the growing culturally, as well as genetically, motivated racism that has (once again) bloomed in Europe and North America in recent years.

Motivation and focus: Spreading knowledge about queer feminist analyses of racism is important if we are to gain further understanding of the responsibilities that we and others have in the society in which we live. The aim of the course is to provide inspiration to reassess one’s own thought patterns, as well as strengthen one’s argumentation when confronted by those who promote violent racist ideologies under the guise of «legitimate» criticism in the name of freedom of speech. Three points are vital: 

1. White hegemony in Norwegian public life must be deconstructed. In the wake of the attack, countless newspaper articles have described the shock of the perpetrator being «one of us». The fact that people are surprised that a white man could do this to «Norway», says a great deal about who «we» Norwegians are, and who «we» view as «one of us» and who as «the other». As the anti-racist queer theorist Sara Ahmed writes in Strange Encounters, it is important to remember that our idea of «the other» seldom refers to what we do not know, but rather to what we have learnt to recognize as «other».

The verbal and physical attacks on non-white Norwegians in the hours after the terror attack clearly show the racialization of «the other» in a Norwegian context. During the last decades we have learned that «the other» has dark skin and wears Muslim symbols and dress. If we do not know who is hurting «us», we can always blame the «other» we already know. It is essential that we confront the racist structures that ensure that sections of the Norwegian population are recognized only as (potential) «others». In other words, we must stop fetishizing the «others» as those who bring «otherness» with them, and instead challenge the systems that include some bodies in the national «we» by excluding other (known) «others». The challenge is to work against racist monoculturalism in a way that does not reproduce an exclusive national «fellowship» in which the white hegemony continues in a «colourful» format. For this reason, we should be careful to celebrate liberal multiculturalism’s interest in «tolerating» or «including» (to be precise, assimilating) «the other», as long as the inclusion mechanisms themselves cast «us» as benevolent, broad-minded white subjects able to welcome «the others» -- non-whites -- to «our» country. Even though it is easy to agree with well-meaning voices currently encouraging us to tell «our citizens with Muslim faith that we love them and are proud to have them in our country» (Per Fugelli, Dagbladet, 5th aug. 2011), it is important to see that even these gestures (re)create a white Norwegian «we» through our sympathy for «our» others. Could one imagine the opposite scenario, non-white Norwegians saying they were proud to have white Christians in «our» country? As Ahmed points out, superficial understandings of multicultural inclusion fabricate « the white subject as the one who knows the difference, even if that difference is no longer seen as external to the self and community». Yes, everybody can be «other» in specific situations. The point is that some bodies are repeatedly classified as dangerous others -- a difference that frequently puts them at risk.

2. We must counteract the omnipresent non-racist politics in Norway, and fight to develop queer feminist anti-racist politics. In the article «You’re Calling Me a Racist? », feminist researcher Sarita Srivastava differentiates between «non-racist» and «anti-racist» work. Non-racist work refers to a liberal «colour-blind» ideal of equality that wants to bypass differences through ignoring them. A contrast to this is anti-racist work, which tries to change and counteract structures and political effects of unequal treatment based on race. In Norway, «race» has been a taboo word in political debate for some time -- a relic of Nazi racial hygiene. Norwegian politics have been influenced by a colour-blind ideal where the avoidance of questions of race has been linked to a desire for skin colour to be irrelevant. However, this type of «racial silence», as the adoption researcher Lene Myong calls it, does not create a suitable environment for anti-racist work. As Myong’s research shows, colour-blind language, despite its «good intentions», has the opposite effect as «experiences of racialization and marginalization, in relation to a white norm, is erased and denied through colour-blindness». If we want to counteract the white norm we must deal with the ways in which race functions as a mechanism of differentiation and exclusion in society. This is also true in the aftermath of the terror attack.

3. We must ensure that when we work though the terror attack, we do not blindly reproduce a rose-tinted image of «exceptional» Norway out-doing everyone with our excellence, whether it be in progress, equality, unity, openness and goodness. These kinds of romantic images further a nationalist-hierarchical structure that subordinates all other peoples below «us». Of course it is positive that rage and revenge have not been allowed to rule in Norway in the same way as in the US after 9/11. However, one may ask, as queer theorist Maja Bissenbakker has done, whether it really is so exceptional that love and caring have dominated the Norwegian debate. Who would be the object of hate and revenge after ABB’s attack? White Norwegian males? At the same time, why not? Could there be, as Bissenbakker points out, something healing about rage «if it is directed inwards through self-reflection instead of outwards as a demonizing projection? What if the nation had gathered in rage at its own racism, rather than forgiving and loving itself for racism’s violent progeny?»

It is essential that the reflections regarding Norwegian self-control after the attack do not contribute to what queer theorist Jasbir Puar in the important book Terrorist Assemblages calls «the ascendancy of whiteness». The stories of Norway «losing its innocence» after the terrorist attack are therefore -- disregarding the sexist undertones of the expression -- a way to overlook and rewrite the complex stories of how the dominance of whiteness has had, and continues to have, a structural significance in Norwegian political life. From the long-lasting dehumanizing treatment of the Sami through the Norwegian colonization of Sápmi, to the recent selective deportations of asylum seekers and refugees as a consequence of a tightening up of Norwegian immigration laws. The image of Norway as a previously «innocent» country, which has been «sullied» by terror, furthers a problematic connection between whiteness and moral values such as «pure», «good», «rational» -- values that serve as a contrast to the impure, dangerous, irrational «darkness». For this reason, it is important that the wish to «reclaim Norway» does not repair and reproduce the ideal of the «good» nation of Norway -- a nationalistic ideal of exceptionalism that Breivik fights for in an extreme variation.

Aim and method: The goal of the self-study course is to counteract what Srivastava calls the «emotional attachment to innocence» that influences the self-understanding of many white feminists -- as well as many white Norwegians. Hopefully, the course will result in increased awareness of one’s own complicity and responsibility for the world we are a part of. However, the aim is not limited to increasing the self-awareness of the participants. Although it is central for white queer feminists (including your course leader) among others to work on the life-long process of unlearning racial and gendered privilege, the goal is not that the reflection process should make us «feel better», but that we, as Srivastava put it, should «want to think and act in a better way».

The following reading list might help you on the road to becoming a better queer feminist anti-racist:

Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (New York & London: Routledge, 2000). An important and highly relevant book on how the racialization and fetishization of «the other» reproduces monocultural, nationalistic and violent political cultures. 

Sarita Srivastava, «‘You’re Calling Me a Racist?’ The Moral and Emotional Regulation of Antiracism and Feminism», Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society,Vol. 31, Nr. 1, 2005, s. 29-62. A central and useful text that shows the political effects of the connections between whiteness and virtue in a feminist – and wider political – debating culture. The text gives the reader useful tools for thinking and acting in a better way. 

Lene Myong, Adopteret – Fortællingerom transnational og racialiseret tilblivelse (Copenhagen: Danmarks Pædagogiske Universitetsskole Aarhus Universitet, 2009). Through interviews with transnational adoptees, Myong shows the effects of personally experiencing the colour-blind policies that dominate in public life in Scandinavia.

Jasbir Puar , Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham& London: Duke University Press ,2007). A core text for understanding white hegemony in its various forms, including in «well-meaning » feminist and queer projects. A book that shows how race, gender and sexuality are produced together, and why the fight against racism should be central to queer feminism today. 

Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem, «Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the ‘Waron Terror’» in Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality, ed. Esperanza Miyake and Adi Kuntsman (York: Raw Nerve Books, 2008), s. 71-95. An article that clearly states how white western feminist and LGBT organizations have contributed to the «industry of islamophobia». The text is a must, especially for white queer feminists who want to understand what it means to be an ally in the fight against racism. 

Editorial Comment


This article is given to us by the feminist magazine 

Translation: Anna Young

Danbolt works with queer theory, anti-racist politics, art history, activism and a PhD thesis on queer feminist political histories. Danbolt has been active in numerous magazines and publications, both as editor, administrator and writer. At present he is member of editorial board for Tidsskrift for kjønnsforskning (Journal of Gender Studies in Norway). He lives and works in Copenhagen.