Alana Lentin on 'racism in public or public racism'

Lentin, A., 2015. ‘Racism in public or public racism: doing anti-racism in “post-racial” times’. Ethnic and Racial Studies, pp.1-16.

In ‘Racism in Public or Public Racism’, Alana Lentin articulates a number of innovative concepts that are crucial in understanding what work race accomplishes in contemporary Australian (and, more broadly, Western) society: particularly the concepts of postracialism, ‘racism in public’ versus ‘public racism’, and racisms as simultaneously ‘frozen’ and ‘motile’. Beginning from the concept of postracialism (which is articulated most evocatively elsewhere by David Theo Goldberg), Lentin illustrates how the contemporary situation when it comes to race is characterised by an ardent ‘avoidance of its antediluvian taint’. To many, racism ‘belongs to a bygone era’ and any ‘remaining racist attitudes and behaviours are the preserve of unbalanced or uneducated individuals’ (2).

A product of this ardent postracialism, for Lentin, is the appearance of a dual move in which racism is ‘frozen’ in ‘reference to past events perceived as isolated’, whilst it continues to be simultaneously ‘motile’ and polyvalent, moving subtlyacross and within sociopolitical strata. The relationship between the two is as follows: frozen racism ‘serves its concomitant motility because, by freezing so-called ‘real racism’ in historical time… discrimination and abuse [is allowed] to continue polyvalently under the guise of purportedly postracial arguments about cultural incompatibility, secularism versus religion, or sovereignty and security’ (3). Thus, not only is ‘real racism’ fixed in historical events: any attempts at drawing out or excavating ‘racism’s (en)trails… what it has consumed to both fuel itself and conceal its routes’ (ibid.) must reckon with a postracial orthodoxy that simultaneously narrows and broadens understandings of what racism is. In being motile, racism is broadly conceived as an ‘experience that affects everyone equally and which can be perpetuated by anyone’ (4) (cf. ‘reverse racism’), yet it is narrowed to be explained only ‘in terms of its manifestation as a behaviour, action or attitude rather than as the expression of systemised racial logics with complex and multi-routed underpinnings’ (4).

It is at this juncture that the difference between ‘racism in public’ and ‘public racism’ is critical. What Lentin calls the ‘eventness’ or ‘public nature’ of outbursts of purportedly racist activity ‘permits the recognition of an act as racist, but also a distancing from it as external both to modes of ‘acceptable’ behaviour and thus isolated and containable’ (4). Anyone who engages in an act popularly conceived as ‘racist’ find themselves (rightly) scorned by society. And yet, this scorn rarely metastasises into collective reflection on how, in a country founded upon colonial genocide and actively incarcerating and punishing various threatening ‘Others’, race still structures the life-chances and experiences of people of colour. This facilitates a distancing of these ‘supposedly ‘real’, and thus extreme and uncommon’ racist events from the more subtle, insidious forms of ‘systemic’ racism that prevail in spite of the events of decolonisation, multiculturalism, and other historical markers frequently considered to have done away with racism’s worst excesses. Indeed, this emphasis on ‘racism in public’ does very little to ‘expose and tackle ‘public racism’, namely the ways in which states, institutions, private bodies and, increasingly the nexus between them, continue to re-enact race as a primary tool in the management of ‘unruly’ humanity.’ (5)

Through three case studies, Lentin traces out how incidents of ‘racism in public’ in fact, paradoxically, function to make race ‘disappear’. The first – an incident involving a middle-aged white woman and an Asian woman on a train in 2014 – did so by explaining the racist actions of the former as an aberrant, individualised problem. As Lentin points out, this denies the ‘political culture in which racism murderously becomes the ‘go to’ catharsis for daily annoyances. Even the condemnatory response of passengers surrounding, while commendable, becomes a part of the same process, as Lentin explains (6):

This script is rehearsed each time an incident of racism in public occurs. The narrative treads well-worn ground: the racism of the incident is admitted, the writer takes distance from the perpetrator and others like her, and in conclusion the exceptionalism of the event(s) is repeated and thus severed from the narrative of national(ist) fairness and tolerance.

In other words, the subtext of the script of ‘racism in public’ is that ‘we’ (read: mainstream/white Australia) have comprehensively rid ourselves of the ‘antediluvian taint’ of racism, which is now only the preserve of unbalanced, aberrant individuals.

Via two further case studies – an incident involving the racist hiring practices of a Darlinghurst cafe owner, and the death of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati on Manus Island – Lentin argues, following the work of Barnor Hesse, for a re-theorisation of race as ‘performative’, and a conceptual separation of race from racism. Here, it is worth quoting her at length (12):

Understanding race in this way would allow us to avoid circular debates about whether the idea of race is properly a biological or a cultural phenomenon, but would allow us to understand that it is significant in terms of what it does rather than in terms of what it is taken to be. Our focus should be on the function performed by the idea of race and how it continues to underpin institutions, laws, policies, and consequent attitudes.

Our outrage at events of public racism must not be satisfied with individualised explanations and recourse to nationalist mythologies of multicultural diversity and tolerance. Instead, such events must form cues for those concerned with rooting out racism to go about the much more taxing of work of identifying what race does ‘within racism’ (2, emphasis in original). In a country founded upon the genocidal destruction of Aboriginal nations, and well-ensconced in a domestic and global ‘War on Terror’, this fixation on the performativity of race is all the more crucial if we are to get anywhere near excavating how race is present in the very structures which govern our sociopolitical existence.