Confrontational and profoundly uncomfortable: why anti-racism and decolonisation can be nothing less (a reading of Houria Bouteldja’s polemical essay, ‘Whites, Jews and Us’).

“We will be beggars so long as we accept as universal the political divisions that cut up the white world and through which they conceive of the social conflicts and struggles that these divisions will engender. We will be beggars so long as we remain prisoners of their philosophy, of their aesthetic and of their art. We will be beggars so long as we do not call into question their version of History. Lets accept rupture, discord, discordance. Lets ruin the landscape and announce a new era”. – Houria Bouteldja

The uncivilised

A nice white person once asked of me “can’t you be less antagonistic when challenging racism”? It was less a question, more a direction, imbued with all the faux-innocence and partitioning of ‘civilised rationality’ as a quality specific to whiteness, and therefore necessitating white people to preach the word. The imperative that justified colonisation as the bringing of civilisation to the barbarians, is now repeated by white liberals espousing ‘rational’ and ‘civilised’ debate in the face of racism and white supremacy.

But as Nazia Kazi asks in her essay reflecting on Houria Bouteldja’s, ‘Whites, Jews and Us’ (pdf here), “what are civility, vulgarity and manners in a world shaped enduringly by the brutality of empire”? They exist as categories of behaviour determined in relation to the expectations of white people to not be confronted with the racialised ‘other’ in ways that are outside their comfort zone. These categories are frequently weaponised to restore white comfort when any words, action or incursion of space call into question the pre-eminence of white behavioural norms or undermine its desired neutrality by revealing foundations of racism and colonisation. The nice ‘progressive’ who tried to pull me into line was not the one I had challenged about racism but was nevertheless providing a service in solidarity with white people everywhere by attempting to shame me into behaving more like a polite, white liberal.

While Bouteldja attempts to provide a path out of the swamp of racism and colonial relations through her conceptualisation of revolutionary love, the strength of her writing is initially as a radical, anti-colonial critique of white liberalism. In the preface, no less than Cornel West lays out the characteristic staging posts that outline the limits of this liberalism. He asks:

“does not the end of imperial innocence entail the rejection of social democracy or neoliberal politics – with their attendant ‘white good conscience’, top-down feminism, bourgeois multiculturalism and a refusal to target a vicious Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people”.

None of these tendencies will evade Bouteldja’s eviscerating critique as she lays down her vision for finding new paths towards creating a revolutionary, anti-colonial force.

A universal facade

Houria Bouteldja has been vehemently attacked, from the left and the right, because she dared to speak of a decolonisation that cannot countenance the discursive and material restrictions of liberalism. Her words are poetic, polemic, fiery and confrontational, but they also contain an offer – an offer of love. But before we even begin to approach being able to accept such an offer, we must accept the confrontation, the danger of all that makes us uncomfortable.

Amongst other things, Bouteldja is charged with homophobia. This is a result of a passage where she recounts the furore that occurs when Iran’s president Ahmadinejad takes centre-stage at New York’s prestigious leftist institution, Columbia University. Here, he makes the outrageous claim that “there are no homosexuals in Iran”. Bouteldja recognises that “these words are painful” and that “they are violent and of exquisite bad faith”. However, she’s also delights as “good conscience disintegrates” in the face of Ahmadinejad’s shameless lie. This delight is falsely accused of being something that it never was.

Why the delight? It might be the delight of seeing a façade pierced. That having laid claim to all the material, social, institutional privileges that result from centuries of colonisation, whiteness now mounts as its self-defence the ethics of progressivism and humanism. Under its umbrella lies all that is tolerant and accepting. As Bouteldja asserts (speaking to white people), “You all wear that face of Innocence. This is your ultimate victory. You succeeded in exonerating yourselves”. She is no supporter of Ahmadinejad, but within this particular context can’t help but seeing “an arrogant indigenous man” entering the “kingdom of the innocents” and countering one known lie (“there is no torture in Abu Ghraib”) with another.

I too, have felt delight in moments when that veil of innocence, that claim to transcendental humanism after the fact,has been ripped away by an unexpected confrontation or a contradictory set of positions. This occurred in Australia after the referendum on gay marriage when statistics were produced that indicated a number of migrant-heavy suburbs in Sydney voted ‘No’. The hand-wringing consternation! The outrage! Scrawled in a bathroom stall in a vegan restaurant in the heart of liberal, progressive inner-Sydney is the ultimatum ‘Vote yes or leave’.

Ah yes, we know this one, the insistent tantrum of innocence that reveals the coercive core of liberalism: you, the strange, exotic creature from somewhere else will be grateful for our welcome, you will behave in ways that we deem acceptable so that we can reassure ourselves of our own good nature and ‘tolerance’, you will not speak or refer to the underlying violence that assures the pre-eminence of our subject position. The same voice as the ‘nice white person’ that suggests I need be less antagonistic in confronting racism. Between the potentially homophobic (but most likely, just-couldn’t-give-a-shit) migrant and the demanding, ‘progressive’, white innocent, I also choose to delight in any rupture in the façade.

Again, this relates to the presumption of superiority and universalism that comes attached to secular, liberal individualism. Bouteldja describes the development of this position, of how the subjective, “Cartesian ‘I’ lay the philosophical ground for whiteness” and became an assumed universal within the same historical moment of colonisation, slavery and genocide. The hypocrisy of this reverberates through the very critiques that are unwilling to face the provocation that Bouteldja presents. Joelle Marelli takes up this tension in a thoughtful defence of her writing:

“Any endeavour to think about race, religion, and gender in terms that vary from the prescribed institutional frameworks (unquestioned brands of universalism and secularism, as well as intrumentalized versions of feminism or opposition to antisemitism; and an antiracism that is opposed to any input from racialized people, indeed more and more refusing the very category of racialized people) is an opportunity for abuse.”

Indigenous / Migrant

While initially much of her critique is directed as a challenge to white people, Bouteldja also proceeds to address her indigenous brothers and sisters. She is Algerian, but lives in France and admits her own culpability from within the heart of empire, as “a wretched of the interior”. She reclaims the French term ‘indigene’ – a colonialist pejorative – as a broad term for all peoples who have come from lands that have suffered the consequences of colonisation, even if geographically and generations removed. However, the English translation chooses to settle for ‘indigenous’, and while giving this broad meaning might be a political choice reflective of Fanon, it can’t be used in such a way within settler-colonial societies like Australia, where it has a necessarily specific social, historical and political meaning.

There are significant degrees of complication that creep in when we move from ‘the West’ as Europe, to settler-colonial societies such as North America and Australia. When Bouteldja asserts that “we rule over a political territory that we have conquered through infraction”, it is an undeniably great line in relation to the place of migrants in Europe. But it holds a different, less positively radical, resonance when applied to colonised lands such as Australia, where Aboriginal people are engaged in their own ongoing struggles for land, sovereignty and survival. Migrants can still take hold of the radical, political potential of our position here. However, this potential can only be truly anti-colonial if foregrounded in the struggles of Aboriginal people and how our position has been part of their dispossession from country. These are layers of complexity, but they needn’t be seen as only a negative, rather the challenge of settler-colonial societies is another potential ground for finding anti-colonial solidarity and love.  

In fact, the most shockingly problematic section of this essay is Bouteldja’s dismissive comments about the lives and resistance of Aboriginal people here. She partakes in invisibilising Aboriginal presence, reducing them to “ghosts” who are incapable of resisting their situation. She claims that her common experience as ‘indigenous’ allows her to see them, whereas in what she has written, it is clear that she has failed to see much and has not attempted to connect with the rich politics of struggle and culture that Aboriginal people continue to assert in the face of ongoing colonisation. It is unclear why she would include such an insubstantial, throwaway couple of paragraphs, but it casts an unfortunate shadow on her political choice to use the term ‘indigenous’ in the broad sense.

Moving forward, there is still a lot of depth to engage with despite the contradictions and flaws. The section, ‘We, Indigenous People’, sees Bouteldja speaking to other migrants from colonised countries who now reside in the West. While much of this draws on her experiences as an Algerian in France, she presents a set of positions that are generally relatable in any Western country. For her, we cannot simply reject that we have become too much a part of the west, that “whiteness is not a genetic question, it is a matter of power”, and as such, we now have a proximity to power that makes us somewhat complicit in the crimes being perpetrated upon the global South.

This issue of becoming hooked into the offerings and ideologies of whiteness is a challenge that Bouteldja poses throughout the essay. In the section where she addresses “we, indigenous women”, she compels her sisters to reject the offerings of liberal feminism. She asks, “what are the historical conditions that have enabled feminism?” – implicitly recognising a relationship to structures of slavery, colonisation and oppression, as well as a contemporary complicity with a politics of race that prescribes non-western cultures as particularly uncivilised and misogynist. Once again, the ‘progressivism’ of whiteness becomes infused with an assumed universality and atemporality after the fact of conquest. While she is scathing of non-white men, the “indigenous patriarchy”, who are “ugly because they abdicate their power only to please white people… because we are subjected to their violence”, she also identifies that the racism that upholds white innocence involves the constant positioning of brown/ black men as threatening and barbaric.

While speaking to the complexities of the double oppression that women of colour are faced with, Boutledja is determined to provoke a different path, something like a decolonial feminism (although she even expresses some discomfort at this term) into existence. She identifies how “white, racist patriarchy exacerbates gender relations in the indigenous milieu” and asserts that “a decolonial feminism must have as its imperative to radically refuse the discourses and practices that stigmatises our brothers and… exonerate white patriarchy”. This will be a complicated manoeuvre that involves reflection, confrontation, discussion and action, and she draws on a fantastic exchange between Audrey Lorde and James Baldwin to illustrate some of these complexities.

There is a danger in polemical writing like this of posing binaries or generalisations that are too simplistic, assuming a position of either assimilated and complicit or hostile and scornful. The position of the migrant in the West is surveilled and regulated, yet also unbounded, an entangled mesh of historical, cultural and social locations that holds the potential to challenge and destabilise some of the power, and assumed universality, of whiteness and colonialism. But first we must reject the inane, non-transformative promises of liberalism. Bouteldja recognises this, as she seeks to bring “immigration to political existence. And this political existence questions the Republic itself, which is constructed through the negation of indigenous political existence”. She understands no matter how much some of us assimilate to the expectations of the West, “that between white people and us, there is race”.

Will we ever get out of here alive…

The other great controversy that this essay has produced, has resulted from the section titled ‘You, the Jews’, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has led to accusations of anti-semitism. This is a reactive position borne of an unwillingness to face uncomfortable propositions or to view these propositions as an opening to finding common ground. To start with, Bouteldja is necessarily unsparing in declaring the illegitimacy of Israel and the colonising violence it perpetuates on Palestinian peoples. She sees the gift of Israel as a trade-off that allowed white Europe to expunge anti-semitism as a long-standing scourge on its social and historical record, and instead re-cast it as a phenomenon associated with those brown people of the middle-east.

Bouteldja wants “to repatriate anti-semitism”, as she asserts that of “the many conflicts between us… more often than not they are colonial”. This involves a historical and social contextualisation of the Nazi genocide, in contrast to the common depiction of its exceptional singularity. Of course, this contextualisation directly involves understanding “the colonial genes of national socialism” and recognising that “if the techniques of mass massacre revealed all their efficiency in the concentration camps, it is because they had been tested on us” (indigenous, colonised peoples).

This point is in no way disputing the brutality that Nazism unleashed on Jewish populations, nor is it attempting to undermine “the respect you (Jews) owe your martyrs”. However, it does ‘call out’ white Europe for how the commemoration of the exceptionalism of the Nazi genocide is now a “European civil religion” that has allowed both the historical and continuing violence of colonialism to be overshadowed. That is, no other violence can be so bad, because the Nazis.

Towards the end of his interesting essay reflecting on Bouteldja’s work, Joshua Duber presents a useful criticism of her engagement with Jewish people, arguing that she “plays up the facets of contemporary Judaism that she abhors”. While to some degree, this essentialising is an effect of her polemical style and is constant throughout, it nevertheless poses a problem in a world where anti-semitism is increasingly being revisited by white nationalists. There needs to be care taken to not simply ascribe binary positions that essentialise any group as ‘the Other’.

At the same time, falsifying commonality is not a strategy that Bouteldja is interested in employing – she is entirely committed to applying herself within the realm of contradictions, to posing difficult questions or attending to the complexities of different positions. As such, I’m not sure that Duber is correct that Bouteldja has focused mainly on the negatives of contemporary Judaism. While she talks about the colonisation of Palestine with the strength of certainty that it deserves, when reflecting on the position of Jewish people in Europe, she is much more circumspect, recognising multifaceted forces that condition the precarious position of Judaism across that continent. She finds some familiarities, but also strangeness: “familiar because of your insoluble non-whiteness within anti-semitic whiteness, but strange because you are whitened, integrated into a superior echelon of the racial hierarchy”.

Ultimately, this engagement with Jewish people is probably the most Euro-specific part of this essay. Despite this, there is much at stake in this chapter as it provides something of a map for how she intends to navigate a path of revolutionary love from these sites of interminable opposition. For, having resolutely laid out the sites of conflict, Bouteldja proceeds to write that “between us, everything is still possible” There are conditions on any such pact: that Jewish people rediscover their internationalism and cut ties from the offers of whiteness. Only in this way will “we potentially have a common political future”, one that “could be the deconstruction of the racial and Republican pact that is at the heart of the French nation”. Her intent is clear, whatever is uncomfortable and provocative lies in clear view and only from there lies the potential of revolutionary love and solidarity:

                                    “You are losing your historical friends.

                                      You are still in the ghetto,

                                      Why don’t we get out of there together?”

Herein lies the difficulty of the shifting racial hierarchies that have been shaped by ongoing processes of colonisation: we’ve all made certain pacts with whiteness and – even if not equally – we all have something to lose. But hopefully even more to gain.

A decolonial force / revolutionary love

And so, throughout all the insights and confrontations within this essay Bouteldja has threaded the potential of that offer: the promise of revolutionary love. While she attempts to give this some clarity in her closing section, it remains somewhat out-of-reach, a sketch that hints at possibilities to be grasped. Despite this ambiguity, we can begin to see within its form an answer to the problem a friend poses to me: have we lost sight of the conditions that may allow us to act together, in solidarity, and instead focus too much effort theorising the things that divide us?

But Bouteldja shatters any easy resolutions to such a question, instead determining that it is exactly at that point of division and conflict, a point which is completely unavoidable in any case, where we will find the conditions to act together. She lays down what is at stake directly, claiming that “the site of a real encounter can only happen at the crossroads of our mutual interests – the fear of civil war and chaos – the site where races could annihilate each other and where it is possible to imagine our equal dignity”. At this site where we acknowledge our most immutable, uncomfortable difference everything becomes possible.

But here we must also understand that amongst the everything that is possible is the possibility of a surge in white nationalisms. Of course, this is already occurring.  Boutledja refers to ‘the great replacement’ – that underlying theory of white racial paranoia – acutely aware of the faultiness that have been drawn in a way that is predictive of the sort of white nationalism we are seeing. She knows that any decolonising force that we assert will be, for the nationalists, “confirmation of their phantasms”. She recognises that we will have white allies (preferably accomplices?), but also that there will be a large section of the white political field that “surfing on fear and the vivacious and ever-ready colonial imaginary”, will seek to restrain any momentum and posit us as the equivalent danger as the nationalists. This is the liberal centre.  

Ultimately, Bouteldja emphasises the need to cut entirely against the grain, to reject the comfort of white liberalism, who’s ‘anti-racism’ was predicated on our (brown/ black people, migrants) integration into white modernity without offering any transformative change in racial power structures. Instead, she asks “what if we took advantage of racism to invent new political horizons? What if we took advantage of ‘the failure of integration’? Dare I say that we must even draw some satisfaction from it”? It becomes our role to turn the social and historical affinities of dislocation and migration that connect our place in the West, into a basis of political unity from which to overturn the racist and colonial structures from within.

The attachments we form will be forged as revolutionary love. They won’t be easy, innocent. Rather they will be complex and difficult. We will learn to love ourselves initially and our own histories, but we must reject doing this as simply a claim on identity, instead taking it up as one step towards a greater act of political upheaval. For Bouteldja, revolutionary love sits in stark contrast to the hopelessness of liberal individualism. Indeed, the adjuncts of liberalism are a mausoleum for all that is radically anti-colonial and anti-racist, reifying our being into an imaginary that will be used to perpetuate the inherent progressivism and ‘good-ness’ of the West.  

Her turn towards communalism against that individualism takes a challenging detour through religion. Although she rejects identifying herself as religious she posits the figure of God as a universal equaliser who puts all people in their (non-hierarchical) place “as only one element amongst all others” and in this way is a common force amongst many non-Western traditions. She lingers here as she draws towards her conclusion, but then moves away again, knowing that “groups seeking plenitude and absolute truth have this in common that they invent imaginary enemies for themselves”. These absolute truths and imaginary enemies can only be impediments to conceiving of the complexity that pervades societal systems and inter-relations.

Finally, it is the figure of Malcom X who allows us a way towards somewhat grasping the scope of this ephemeral ‘revolutionary love’. Malcolm X came to articulate that he did not hate white people because he loved his people too much to be reduced to that. But the flipside of this is not that he loved white people. Instead, Bouteldja posits: “Does he love white people? No, they don’t deserve his love, but he creates the condition of its possibility… He tried to lower everything that rises”. This is revolutionary love. It is not freely given, it bares no relation to the insipid ‘love everyone’ of liberal multiculturalism or new-age, hippie spirituality. It is a possibility, conditional on a great levelling, a tearing down. Bouteldja suggests that some white people might turn towards this because they too suffer within this destructive, individualistic society. But she emphasises that this love “will never be a politics of the heart”, it is not romantic love, with its attendant intensities and attachments. Any expectation of such affective feeling will be left disappointed, because revolutionary love might only be a love of indifference, an offer of distant peace, a recognition of the other, an embodiment of “that moment ‘right before hatred’ to push it back as much as possible… This will be the We of revolutionary love”.

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