Progressive Racism

In this post I want to do more than simply consider progressive racism as a specific genre of racism that we can document by documenting the form it takes. I want to do more than simply show how racism can be structuring in movements that understand themselves as progressive: the very idea that we need to show this or to convince anyone of this is more than politically naive; it is an instance of how progressive racism functions. In other words, it is progressive racism that makes progressive racism surprising. I want instead to discuss progressive racism as a way of identifying a mechanism that is central to how racism functions.

Racism is at one level conservative: racism already exists. The act of conserving racism is often predicated on a denial that racism exists. What you deem racism they call progress. I still remember one time having a politics lecturer challenge me during a faculty meeting for the implication in my  description for a new course, Gender, Race and Colonialism, that colonialism was “a bad thing” – an implication he heard in my use of the word “implication.” He embarked on a long winded speech about how colonialism represented progress for the colonized (referring to law, language, technology and industry). Others around me, seating at the table, nodded. I could hear them nod! I did not yet have the killjoy resources I needed to speak back to that collective nod. But it was good to be reminded that such views still exist, that they can be assembled at a meeting table at a university. Indeed it is these kinds of views that are much repeated in mainstream press and publications about the imperial past; it is how it remains possible to be proud of empire.

Progressive racism: how colonization and the theft of land, labour, people and resources is understood as being for others.

Critical race scholarship explores how all the fundamental terms that organise human life, including the human as one such fundamental term, are racialised terms. It is the denial of this raciality that allowed some forms of violence to be concealed: for example, empire becoming understandable as the gift of modernity or even as the invitation to others to become human as well to become modern. Empire as gift: becoming modern as the acquisition of debt.Note here that this gift/debt relation is also an active/passive relation. The colonized others become the ones who are indebted (even having land and resources or kin stolen is understood as the acquisition of debt) but also the ones who receive something.  I would argue that the racialisation of the active/passive distinction is central to all racism but acquires particular importance within progressive racism.

Racism is a conservation system that goes all the way down: it gets into the very grammar of sentences; how we creates subjects and objects. To conserve something is to reproduce something. Conservation is then never simply about the past; it is future orientated.  Reproducing racism is essentially how racism is conserved through or by institutions that bind their own conservation to the power of a “some” that, even when it does not appear racial, ends up being defined in racial terms.[1]  To conserve is thus an activity or a series; it is to accumulate or to progress.

Racism as a conservation system is thus also a progression system. Thus: progressive racism is central to the history of racism. After all, the empire itself was understood as progressive, as being about increasing civilization (often identified with happiness): to quote from a historian of the East India Company: The pace of civilisation would be quickened beyond all examples. The courts, the knowledge, and the manners of Europe would be brought to their doors, and forced by an irresistible moral pressure on their acceptance. The happiness of the human race would thus be prodigiously augmented” (cited in my 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness). That empire was justifiable using utilitarian logics (the greatest happiness of the greatest number) teaches us about those logics. Note here how the gift of empire is understood in terms of law, knowledge and ethics; a forced gift that allows civilization to become ours before theirs.

Racism progresses through institutions (courts, knowledge, manners) that are understood as progressive.

So racism is justified as progressive, although the word “racism” would never appear because of this justification (as if to say: it is not racism it is progress).

However much racism depends on the idea of progress, I want to suggest that progressive racism still needs to be identified as a genre before we can generalise from our understanding of how it works. I want to return to some of the findings I shared in my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), which was based on qualitative research into diversity and equality work within universities. Progressive racism might be another way of describing what I called in this book educated racism: the kind of racism that exists within educational institutions. This racism tends to be a polite or thoughtful or even critical racism. Many of the diversity practitioners I spoke to for this research came into the higher education sector from other sectors. And quite a few spoke of how they expected their work to be easier in universities: they expected to find people who shared their values because they were educators. They were surprised to find so much resistance to their work within universities. I think this is why the brick wall became a finding of the research. Many of my interviewees spoke of brick walls when describing their work, although it took me some time to recognise the repetition of “wall expressions” within the data. The wall also gave expression to a disappointment of an expectation: that diversity work would be more at home in organisations that have missions that are tied up with commitment to social progress. A genealogy of progressive racism is a genealogy of this expectation. It is the very expectation that diversity and equality are more at home in organisations that are assumed to be more progressive that enables racism to progress.

Organisations can then use equality and diversity as credentials: as if to say, how can we be racist when we are committed to equality and diversity? Let me refer to an article,“Anti-Racism initiatives by Universities are failing to have an effect off campus” to show how this question becomes an assertion. The article begins by reporting on Emma Thompson’s comments in the press about the treatment of her adopted son at Exeter University: “she said Nick Griffin from the BNP would ‘love it at Exeter because of the lack of racial diversity.’”  Her comments were “vehemently disputed by the university.” In the report the welfare officer responds: “Her comments were taken out of context and sensationalised by the media. We do a lot here to promote diversity both on campus and in the community. At Exeter we have just celebrated One World Week, which we tied in with Black History Month.” The response to a challenge of diversity of the University takes the form of a statement of how the university promotes diversity.  Indeed, diversity as a form of good practice (One World Week, Black History Month) is used as evidence that there is not a problem with a lack of diversity.

In the same article, two other representatives of the University are cited: “Overt racism is not a problem on campus, but it can be a problem off campus,” says the welfare officer. “We don’t have a problem with racism here,” says the head of communications for the university, “we take a much more holistic approach, working with the community. But we don’t come at it as a way of tackling racism.” Statements such as “don’t have a problem with racism” make those who report racism into the problem. Note also that the “holistic approach” of “working with the community” is explicitly linked to not coming at “it” as racism.  Racism is not spoken about by those who speak for the university.  When diversity is a viewing point, a way of picturing the organization, racism is unseen. Racism is heard as an accusation that threatens the organization’s reputation as diversity led.  Racism is heard as a potentially injurious to the organization, as what could damage and hurt the organization.  In other words, institutional racism becomes an institutional injury. When institutional racism is talked about as an “accusation” then it becomes personalised, as if the institution is “the one” who is suffering a blow to its reputation. Those who speak about racism thus become the blow, the cause of injury.

Progressive racism is how racism is enacted by being denied: how racism is heard as a blow to the reputation of an organisation as being progressive. We can detect the same mechanism happening in political movements: when anti-racism becomes part of an identity for progressive whites, racism is either re-located in a body over there (the racist) or understood as a blow to self-reputation of individuals for being progressive. This term “progressive whites” comes from Ruth Frankenberg important work on whiteness studies. She argues that focusing on whiteness purely in negative terms can  “leaves progressive whites apparently without any genealogy” (1993, 232).  Kincheloe and Steinberg in their work on whiteness studies write of “the necessity of creating a positive, proud, attractive antiracist white identity” (1998, 34). Indeed, the most astonishing aspect of this list of adjectives (positive, proud, attractive, antiracist) is that antiracism then becomes just another white attribute in a chain: indeed, anti-racism may even provide the conditions for a new discourse of white pride.

In a previous post, I discussed the case of Peter Tatchell. I would describe Tatchell’s work as progressive racism. Let me return to my arguments with this term “progressive racism” as a handle. As I noted earlier in 2005 a book Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality was published which included an article by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem entitled “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the War on Terror.” This chapter offered a critique of racism (in particular Islamaphobia) in gay politics, including as an example the work of Peter Tatchell and OutRage. The publishers received complaints about the chapter from Tatchell and his legal team. The chapter has been described by Peter Tatchell as “false and libelous.”  Before a proper discussion about these complaints with the editors or authors, the publisher issued a formal apology to Tatchell, based on a set of counter-assertions about Tatchell and OutRage! These counter-assertions included: that he has never “claimed the role of liberator and expert of Gay Muslims”; “that he is not Islamaphobic”; “that neither he nor Outrage are racist” and “that they have not engaged in racial politics,” and so on. As “counter-assertions” these assertions counter what are assumed to be the “assertions” of the chapter.

Progressive racism gives us a handle on what is going on here. A response to racism becomes a way of asserting one’s credentials as a progressive political subject. In other words progressiveness takes form as counter-assertion. These counter-assertions might also offer an assertion of a given person’s credentials. Counter-assertions are often stronger than countering the original assertion in the form of a negative claim (“I am not racist”); they often make additional assertions in the form of a positive claim (“I am anti-racist”). These responses fail to respond to the actual critique of racism as they take the form of self-recognition (“I don’t recognise myself in the critique of racism”; “I recognise myself as an anti-racist”). Progressive racism recentres on whiteness as a form of political heroism, as if whiteness is what allows us to progress beyond racism.

Progressive racism, I think, amps up whiteness as a way of occupying space. What do I mean by amping up? Progressive racism allows the increase of the power or force of whiteness. It allows a white subject to remain in the position of the one who is active/heroic/giving to the others. If the others do not receive this gift happily, they become ungrateful or mean. Progressive racism helps us to understand how white subjectivity is crafted as heroic in the first place.

Puff, puff; an ego becomes inflated.

Whiteness can then end up taking up even more space. Even anti-racism as a space ends up being occupied progressively by whiteness.

And then: racism becomes an injury to that individual’s reputation as being progressive. 

Progressive racism: how racism progresses through the self-perception of being progressive.

I am reminded of the film Dances With Wolves, which I wrote about in my 2000 book, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. This film could be described as progressive racism. What is progressive about it? Well it is an attempt to offer an alternative to the brutal racism of the classical Western. Here the natives are not presented as a homogeneous mass that threaten the white settler subjects – whose lives and happiness depend on their elimination. They are given names and faces. The film represents the unfolding of the frontier as a violent process of destruction. But the hero remains the white subject. We are encouraged to disidentify from the bad whites by identifying with the good white (the singularity of good whiteness matters here). It is his capacity to overcome his own whiteness, to “go native” as a gesture of sympathy, as being with, as being for, that is the progressive racism of the film.

Progressive whiteness: the power to unmake as well as make the border between self and other.

Progressive whiteness: whiteness unmaking whiteness, molar becomes molecular.

And then he disappears. Whiteness: often disappears. Here whiteness might appear all the more forceful by the narration of that disappearance as a gift.

In other words the white subject’s overcoming of his whiteness becomes a gift to the other. Oh how familiar. Whiteness is often at work through or as overcoming/becoming: the white subject gives by giving up their whiteness.

Progressive racism: how anti-racism becomes another white gift.

Whiteness is exercised in his narrative of self-overcoming; whiteness as gift, right down to the molecule.

And let’s be clear here: White heroism converts quickly into white injury: racism becomes an injury to whiteness.

I want to consider one final example, this time the work of an academic Slavoj Žižek. I have written about racism in Žižek’s work before and I am cautious about writing about it more. I want to treat Žižek words as expressive of a wider logic I am trying to identify – I will not be linking to the lectures or texts I cite as I have no wish to restrict my analysis to the question of whether Žižek is racist or not. I have no interest in that question; for me it is not the right question. One of the reasons I am referring to Žižek’s work is because he has explicitly called for “progressive racism” as a way of responding to racism. In a lecture he identifies progressive racism with making racist jokes (also described in the same lecture as “dirty jokes”) as such jokes can enable solidarity. I assume he means solidarity between those that racism sets apart; it is, of course, usual to think of jokes as a form of social bonding.

In this lecture Žižek contrasts what he calls “progressive racism” to “political correctness,” which he identifies with an institution: Santa Cruz. His discussion evokes the right wing critique of political correctness: that it functions as an imposition of moral norms on the freedom of others, political correctness as taking the fun out of jokes. In doing so he inflates the power of those who challenge speech by evoking political correctness as if it is the hegemony (just as he evokes “liberal multiculturalism” as if it is hegemony – despite the fact that multiculturalism has been sentenced to death by being associated with segregation, terrorism and indeed death by progressive European nations).

It is interesting how “racist jokes” slide into “dirty jokes.” That slide is an old borrowing: if race often works through rendering the other “dirty,” racism is articulated as freedom to be dirty. The desire to tell “dirty jokes” associate racism and sexism with pleasure and humor. To challenge racism  would be to deprive a body of both. The killjoy is a ghostly presence here.

Political correctness might describe the effort to find jokes that do not rest on stereotypes of others. So what makes telling racist jokes progressive? How would a progressive racist joke be different from any other racist jokes? The difference is not in the jokes; the difference is an account of what the jokes are doing. A progressive racist tells racist jokes as a way of challenging racism by enabling solidarity: being with by sharing the butt of the joke.

But, you see, we can all be the butt!

Perhaps a progressive racist joke is a joke told by somebody who is progressive: in the sense of someone whose political ends are progressive. And yet I would argue that not only is the joke the same joke (word for word), but the structure of address is pretty much the same structure of address: the progressive racist would expect the other to be willing to be the butt of the joke by receiving that joke as an expression of solidarity. The person who is not willing to be the butt, would then get in the way of political solidarity (as well as taking the fun out of the joke). Same old, same old. The problem is: inequality exists in the very structure of address; you cannot joke your way out of a structure.

We are not all “buts” in the same way.

This is allowing us to get closer to the mechanism I want to identify: how racism is repeated by becoming part of a progressive agenda. This a little bit like how ironic racism works: by being ironic you get to repeat racism as if the distance enables you not to be what you say. More recently Žižek has written two pieces that rest on what I would call run-of-the-mill racism, the kind of racism that those who think of themselves as progressive would not usually articulate. Although maybe not: given how Žižek assumes liberal multiculturalism as a hegemony, and political correctness as a form of moral hygiene, then racism can easily be articulated as radical and rebellious.

Before I refer to these pieces I want to talk about what I mean by run-of-the mill racism. This is a kind of racism that is not sophisticated, polite, educated or subtle. It is not a racism that is masked or screened by the appearance of being something other than itself. In other words this form of racism reveals itself in a gleeful manner. I am a racist, so! Ha ha! So there! Žižek prefaced a recent contribution by using such a speech act (“I am a racist”), reproduced with qualification (“but I hate my own race even more”). Self-declarations of racism do not mean masking does not occur (see my discussion of speech acts that admit to one’s own racism here).

Run-of-the-mill racism rests explicitly on ideas of superiority. Statements do not necessarily have to say: European culture is superior; we are superior because we are European or white. In other words, what is explicit about such statements is not necessarily that they refer to race. The “we” that is superior might be the left, or what’s left of the left, or what Žižek calls “the radical Western left.”

The “we” is the progressive we.

That left can then be associated with the universal (as that which is beyond race, minor detail!) as what we, if we are to progress,  must enter. The universal: as class, as a class. Don’t enter, don’t progress!

And indeed I would argue that run of the mill racism is often banal: it takes the form of casual background assumption of the superiority of a “we” to which a subject is progressively attached.

This is from a recent article:

The clearest expression of the “desire for the west” are immigrant refugees: their desire is not a revolutionary one, it is the desire to leave behind their devastated habitat and rejoin the promised land of the developed west….But since, for the large majority of pretenders, this desire cannot be satisfied, one of the remaining options is the nihilist reversal: frustration and envy get radicalised into a murderous and self-destructive hatred of the west, and people get engaged in violent revenge.

Racism operates here as an assumption of envy in the other, or even as a desire for the other to be envious: that to be an “immigrant refugee” is to want what the West has. Really? Think about it. Immigrant refugee: even in those two words are are implied narrative, a way of conflating immigration with asylum. Becoming a refugee, fleeing a situation of war and conflict, is understood as “desire for the West.” It is this racism that has structured how state racism works as a security system: that really behind a claim to asylum, a claim of persecution, is a “desire for the west.” It is this racism that allows the figure of the bogus asylum seeker to circulate, as the one who uses asylum as a screen for their true desires (for our jobs, our houses, our benefits, our women, and so on). It is this racism that implies: they want what we have; they lack what we have.

What is striking about Zizek’s comments on “immigrant refugees” is how close they are to the kinds of comments articulated by the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Žižek and Cameron sound quite alike even though some of Žižek’s terms are not used by Cameron who of course has no critique of the violence of global capitalism [2]. But that the racism can be sustained in the name of a critique of the violence of global capitalism is teaching us something; that even this kind of critique can reproduce violence by how it does not locate violence. Both Žižek and Cameron argue explicitly against “multiculturalism,” which they inflate with power (as a hegemony or consensus); they both identify political correctness and/fear of being branded racist as having prevented us from being critical of minority cultures (whilst being critical of minority cultures); they both say the problem is we have been too tolerant, that tolerance has weakened us (although this us is defined differently); they both call for some kind of universalism/ integration in response (entry to a we as the requirement to give up some particulars).

Zizek’s comment on “immigrant refugees” is not obviously a form of progressive racism. This is Zizek sounding a lot like the Tory government. Or maybe we can just keep identifying  how what appears on the right also appears on the left. It is racism that hears in the situation of refugees, those who have to flee their home due to persecution and war, a desire to have what the West has. It is racism that allows the figure of the terrorist to become stuck together with that of the “immigrant refugee.” It is racism that allows terrorism to be explained as a consequence of envy and resentment.

Then: the concern with racism, let’s even call it anti-racism, is identified by Zizek as a problem because it distracts from the universality of class struggle: “In the first half of 2015, Europe was preoccupied by radical emancipatory movements (Syriza and Podemos), while in the second half the attention shifted to the “humanitarian” topic of the refugees. Class struggle was literally repressed and replaced by the liberal-cultural topic of tolerance and solidarity. Zizek is the one naming concern with refugees “humanitarian,” even if he is using quote marks.  When we are talking about the topic of refugees we are talking about the state management of life and death: we are talking about death by policy; we are talking about the distribution of vulnerability to populations. All of this talk is dismissed as a “liberal-cultural topic of tolerance and solidarity.” Indeed talk about such matters becomes what is repressive. Literally; apparently.

To talk about refugees as posing a crisis is to talk about state racism (in other words, we are locating humanitarianism within a history of violence). We are talking about how some immigrants become dangerous; some bodies become foreign. Concern about immigration is usually a mask for racism (“it’s not racist to ask critical questions about immigration”). Even phrases like “anti-immigrant” can be used to mask racism: not all migrants are the object of our concern. The dismissal of concern about brown and black deaths as “liberal-cultural” is racism in action: it is a repetition of the violence that decides whose lives count and whose do not. If the solution is class struggle, then the solution might be the erasure of the facts of blackness, and brownness, a refusal to recognise how structural violence is directed toward those who do not pass into whiteness.

The radical Western left: passing into whiteness.

But we have more to say here. Because Zizek identifies the problem as: our inability to address sexual violence in minority cultures as a result of political correctness.

Mostly through generalization, many on the Left resorted to all possible strategies in order to blur facts. Exhibiting political correctness at its worst, in two Guardian articles the perpetrators were vaguely designated as “Asians.” Claims were made. This wasn’t about ethnicity and religion but rather about domination of man over women. Who are we with our church pedophilia and Jimmy Saville to adopt a high moral ground against a victimized minority? Can one imagine a more effective way to open up the field to UKIP and other anti-immigrant populists who exploit the worries of ordinary people?

What is not acknowledge is that such anti-racism is in effect a form of covert racism since it condescendingly treats Pakistanis as morally inferior beings who should not be held to normal human standards.

In fact, as feminists of colour have shown the racialisation of sexual violence is one of the key ways racism functions. Feminism of colour: dismissable as political correctness. Those who point out how racism is central to how sexual violence and sexual abuse are reported and represented are judged to create the very conditions for fascism. This is a round about way of saying: pointing out racism leads to racism.

Let me return to a previous post to explain what I mean. I noted there how the problem of violence against girls and women in Western countries is rarely denoted as a problem of culture. So if a white man attacks a woman, and if he is put on trial, his whiteness would be inessential or incidental, an irrelevant detail. He would not be vaguely identified as white in the reporting of this kind of case. If a brown man – he might be an immigrant, he might be a Muslim or a “vaguely designated Asian” attacks a woman, his brownness becomes essential: perhaps the violence is identified as originating with immigrants or Muslims or vaguely with Asians. Summary: some forms of violence are represented as intrinsic to some forms of culture (as a cultural problem or a problem with culture); other forms of violence get represented as extrinsic to others (as an individual problem or a problem with individuals). Racism increasingly operates through the idea of “culture” as being what minorities “have.”  Culture here becomes something fixed but only for some cultures (culture becomes their nature). Making violence into a problem of culture is thus a way of racializing violence. Much racism today operates as or through the racialisation of violence.  And as Sara Farris has recently noted “when sexism is racialised and depicted as the exclusive domain of the non-western or non-Christian Other, all women end up losing.”

Another comment:

They are well aware that what they are doing is foreign to our predominant culture, but they are doing it precisely to wound our sensitivities. The task is to change this stance of envy and revengeful aggressiveness, not to teach them what they already know very well.

In fact the idea that rape, sexual abuse and sexual violence is foreign to “our predominate culture,” is how rape, sexual abuse and sexual violence become part of our culture. The idea that rape is foreign is what allows the identification of the rapist as a foreigner. This is “stranger danger” in action, and stranger danger is, as feminists have shown, again and again, dangerous to women, as women are endangered most often at home, by men they know, by familiars not strangers. Progressive racism rests on progressive sexism because of how sexism is assumed to be foreign. Progressive racism: how violence is assumed to originate with outsiders. Progressive racism is intimately tied up with domestic violence.

And, of course, stranger danger is dangerous to those deemed strangers; strangers are endangered by being recognised as strangers. We have a word for this: racism.  There is nothing more dangerous than being perceived as dangerous.

Also note, this narrative that positions sexual abuse as foreign to our culture, also positions that abuse as an attack on our culture. Violence against girls and women, in other words, is positioned as an attack on an us, with this “us” evoking the subject with progressive values. This is a very traditional form of sexism: which understands sexual violence against women to be not really about power over women, or even not really about women. Her wounds are covered up and covered over as a “wound to our sensitivities,” as if violence against her is really directed at us. An us that is: white and male.

Indeed the fact that many progressive centers and movements have covered up and covered over sexual harassment and sexual violence is not coincidental. I know of women who have been told that if they complain about the violence directed against them by self-defined progressive men of the left that they would be betraying the cause. It would be the end of the party! This is why anti-feminism is so central to progressive politics: feminists become identified with the state, as bureaucracy, as a repressive apparatus, as imposing moral norms on those who would otherwise be free radicals. This is why feminism is so often dismissed as moralising. And this is what it means for equality to become understood as a progressive value: so  much abuse and harassment can take place because the assumption of equality enables the abuse of power to be masked (as if having sex with your students is a form of egalitarianism – yes I have even heard this claim).

When we are talking about progressive racism and sexism we are talking then about racism and sexism of the left. If you bring racism or sexism up, especially in progressive circles, you will be judged as suffering from political correctness, or as doing identity politics. You are melancholic: too attached to your own particulars, too attached to yourself. You become me; they we. I have called this melancholic universalism: the requirement to identify with the universal that repudiates you.

We have learnt then a little more about what is meant by repudiation. Although there is more to learn. You have not to talk about racism or sexism as if not talking about them  stops them from existing. If you talk about racism and sexism, then you are deemed as being divisive, ruining the party. You have not to talk about yourself as racialised or gendered subjects. That’s a promise! You have to pass over the details as if they only exist because you insist they exist. You are not supposed to talk about the harassment you routinely experience. Repudiation: what you have to do to progress. If you talk instead of repudiation as a requirement, you become the killjoy, again. You are depriving their bodies of their pleasures. You do not laugh at their dirty jokes. They are not funny; this is not fun.

You are refusing to be saved by white men.

You are ungrateful.

We should be ungrateful; there is nothing here to be grateful for.

[1] This “some” cannot be defined from the start as racial (as being white say) because the law prohibits it. So the “some” might be defined in terms of qualities – the best, the excellent and so on – that ends up being racialised. Racism: so often about how things end up by not appearing to start with racism.

[2] In fact we could easily place some of Žižek’s recent contributions alongside speeches made by David Cameron – the similarities are uncanny and instructive.


Frankenberg, Ruth (1993).  White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis.

Kincheloe, J.L and Steinberg, S.R (1998) “Addressing the Crisis of Whiteness: Reconfiguring White Identity in a Pedagogy of Whiteness,” in J. L. Kincheloe, S. R Steinberg,. N. M Rodriguez and R. E Chennault (eds) White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. New York: St. Martin’s Press. pp 3-29.


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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