Booknotes: two new volumes on race and theory

The pieces collected in Race as Phenomena vary significantly in tone, character and in terms of their balance between description and analysis. (Emily S. Lee, editor, Race as Phenomena: between phenomenology and philosophy of race, Rowman and Littlefield International, London / New York, 2019, pp xvii and 233). But this unevenness is no weakness. It reflects the method and intentions of the authors and the editor, and is the basis of its value. In every chapter, there are stimulating and original insights which resource our understanding of how ‘race’ operates and is experienced.

Introducing the book, Lee notes that their variety and dynamism mean that ‘expressions of race and racism … defy … systematicity, consistency and predictability’. Because of this, ‘the phenomenological method’ is appropriate in order to understand the ‘contextually laden, ambiguous nuances’ of ‘racial meaning’. Lee summarises phenomenology as being based on the recognition that ‘experience of the world occurs as negotiations between the intentions of the subject and the givens of the world’, through interaction between the subjective and the objective.

The chapters explore issues in the relations between philosophy of race, which understands that race is a social construction, and phenomenological approaches which draw on varied examples of ‘the lived experience of blackness and whiteness’. In a stimulating critique of simplistic models of ‘racial bias’, Alex Madva argues that the ‘intentional contents’ of ‘unreflective racial attitudes’ are often ‘fundamentally indeterminate’: ‘when a white person experiences a “gut feeling” of discomfort during an interaction with a black person, there is a question about the meaning or nature of that discomfort’. They become determinate as a result of a range of ‘contextual features’ including relatively subjective features such as ‘character traits’ and ‘objective’ factors such as ‘structural power relations’.

Lee’s own chapter is an honest and personal consideration of her own feelings about some Asian-American members of her own extended family who are Trump supporters, and the issues that raises. Shaeeda A. Mensah’s chapter effectively deploys intersectional analysis to locate the specific ways that constructions and experiences of race, gender and criminality combine. Hourya Benthouhami’s chapter on ‘the veil, race and appearance’ focusses on France, and the complex but oppressive outlooks comprising current versions of laïcité, which interpret women wearing the Islamic headscarf as adopting ‘a stigma by which one denounces oneself as submissive, backward, uneducated, unable to think, and in the care of others’.

Stefanie C. Boulila’s book sets out clear arguments about the significance of race in European society and politics, providing systematic explorations of key debates as a context for detailed analyses of the ways that some categories of people have been racialised as ‘Other’ through calls for ‘strong borders’, ‘tough immigration rules’ and the ending of multiculturalism. (Race in Post-racial Europe: an intersectional analysis, Rowman and Littlefield International, London / New York, 2019, pp ix and 180). Throughout, Boulila shows how post-racial discourses are ‘inherently gendered and sexualised’.

Boulila’s succinct demolition of the myth that these are post-racial times is a model of critical writing. Starting from the apparently happy moment of Meghan and Harry’s wedding, she is soon evidencing ways that ‘post-racial discourses’ have been promoted ‘as a means to displace antiracist claims’ and to disavow ‘the significance of race’.

She makes explicit her ‘relational analytical’ and ‘race critical’ approaches, and draws on a number of thinkers including Alana Lentin so as to avoid adopting essentialising approaches in the task of combating the essentialisations of racism. Boulila insists that ‘race does not have a transhistorical character’, and that ‘race has been a historically instable discourse that has had various meanings across time and space’.

The first part of her book surveys the ways in which ‘race’ has been handled in European politics, from UNESCO’s determination after the Second World War to discredit ‘race’ as a ‘pseudo-scientific concept’ which ‘should be excluded from political discourse’. However positive the intent of the scholars and bureaucrats involved, these positions had a range of unhelpful consequences ‘whereby no framework or language has been available to analyse and contest the power of race’, with ‘debilitating effects … for antiracism’. Social policy has proceeded on the basis of attempts to deny the significance of race, which has meant that all-too-real oppressions have been denied or downplayed, at the same time as alternative official concepts of ‘culture’ and ‘ethnicity’ have failed either to achieve truly inclusive societies or to overcome racialised discrimination.

Three chapters making up the book’s second part offer detailed analyses of the ways that understandings of race and gender intersect for some post-feminist thinkers; of the sexualisation of women of colour; and of the ways that migrant women are constructed as security threats through policies and discourses linked to counterterrorism. A certain one-sidedness in Boulila’s arguments is evident here. It is entirely valid to critique the stereotyping involved in instances of government policy which, for example, position Muslim women as deserving of ‘pity’, and as ‘oppressed victims of their culture that need to be empowered’ so as to close down the space for ‘extremism’. It is also true that there have been irresponsible ‘moral panics’ around ‘jihadi brides’ which have caricatured Muslim young women as ‘particularly “vulnerable” to radicalisation’. But these points could have been complemented by a recognition that it is a proper duty of governments in Britain, France, Germany and elsewhere to accurately assess the factors and dynamics which have in fact led to some Muslim young people joining reactionary and horrific terrorist organisations, and to take action, including police action, in response: Islamic State is not, after all, simply a construct with the purpose of stigmatising Muslims in Europe.

The third part of Boulila’s book carefully assesses some ways in which liberal approaches to issues of oppression ‘are not essentially tied to transformative politics’ and how, by ‘glossing over’ power relations, they can provide excuses for or even reinforce sources of oppressive power. As part of this, she provides examples of how specific forms of the promotion of gay rights and opposition to homophobia can be articulated together with reactionary and nationalist politics, and how they can contribute to the demonisation of racialised Others.

Her chapter ‘But We Are All Different!’ summarises and develops a critique of liberal ‘diversity as an affirmative framework’, showing that this can undermine the radical potentials that could otherwise result from diverse social agents asserting their particular claims. This is a complex argument, but – as elsewhere in the book – Boulila explains and makes explicit each of its steps. She states that ‘at the core of my critique is the liberal diversity paradigm’s inability to differentiate between hegemonic positions and standpoints disenfranchised by inequalities’. This paradigm expresses itself through such arguments as that an attack on a racial minority is ‘an attack on us all’, or that discrimination is made up of individual acts which result from a kind of false consciousness. For Boulila, such arguments suggest the mistaken understandings ‘that inequalities do not have a structural dimension and that discrimination is a universal phenomenon that can affect anyone’. In these ways, the paradigm’s ‘universalising logic feigns an inclusive activism at the expense of depoliticising racial structures’.

One possible response to such rigorous arguments on the part of some readers could be exasperation: many liberals are working hard and coming in for real criticism for promoting inclusive social models and tolerant views, and here they are being criticised by Boulila for such efforts on the basis that they are not radical enough and are in fact indulging the structures of oppression !!

This response to Boulila would be unfair and inappropriate. She is as alert to the risks of her own arguments being taken in a one-sided way as she is to the ways in which progressive intentions can be warped into compromise with oppression. Her careful dissection of the differences and interrelationships between ‘diversity politics’ and ‘the politics of diversity’, in which she discusses Davina Cooper’s work, is a case in point. During this, she recognises and welcomes the fact that many people do not settle for a liberal interpretation of diversity and that they seek to go beyond it: ‘amongst those invested in diversity, there is genuine interest in striving towards transformation in both institutions and politics’.

Here, and in her closing chapter on ways in which some feminists have resisted the radical consequences of intersectional analysis, Boulila demonstrates a consistent commitment to oppose oppression. Her well-evidenced insistence that ‘critical engagements need to hold on to strong definitions of inequalities that account for power relations and histories of subjugation’, and her view that race remains a crucial analytical category, are amongst the reasons that this book deserves to be widely read.

Review by Mike Makin-Waite, published February 2020