Not that long ago I received a message. It was a relatively mild message compared to some I have received. As a lesbian feminist of colour from a Muslim background who writes on racism as well as other forms of power and oppression, albeit keeping my work as far away as I can from mainstream media, I know what I will receive is what I work on. But this message caught my attention. Before a long hate-filled preamble, it said “just because someone called you a P— in the 1980s.” Here a racist insult is repeated by saying that it was or had been said. The insult is firmly located in the past (that distant decade) and attributed to another (that someone) whilst being said, put into a message, put to a person, in the present.
Note the implication of the wording “just because” as if what you are doing now, the work you are doing now, perhaps the critiques you are offering now, are because “or just because” you did not get over what someone once said to you in the past. Note as well how what was said is not only located in the past but is made singular, as if what was said was said once.
So often when we talk about racism we are heard as talking about something slight.
Because, just because.
So much harm, so much history, can be turned into a slight. There is a history to this making light of history.
Racism: a word we use because we refuse to make light of this history.
When Black or Brown people refuse to make light of racism, we find ourselves turned into a ghostly figure, the melancholic migrant. The migrant is already a racialised figure: you can be Brown or Black and born here and told to go back to where you came from or to go home. To be a melancholic migrant is to say what I just said, or do what I just did, to use the languages of race, racialization or racism to make sense of who gets to reside here; who decides who resides here. The melancholic migrant, like any other killjoy, is a useful figure, locating soreness at a certain point. That melancholic migrant is exercised regularly, turning up whenever we bring racism up, as if to say, we talk about racism “just because” we have a chip on our shoulder, racism as how we instrumentalise, even weaponise, our individual or collective trauma.
Because? Just because.
Speaking of singularity, you just have to say the word racism and you are heard as always saying the word racism, as if you are a broken record, stuck on the same point, as if you can’t pause for breath, as if you can’t even punctuate your sentences with any other points.
We might keep saying it because they keep doing it (though we are the ones who will be heard as repeating ourselves). But, actually, we have many different points to make. You can make many different points and be heard as making the same point.
One woman of colour I interviewed for my project on diversity said, “they say you make everything about racism.”
About. What’s that, about?
Maybe its because when you say it, that is all they can hear. Or maybe its until you bring it up, they don’t have to hear it.
Then if we bring it up, they say you made it up, as if to bring it up is to bring it into existence.
And then: it is assumed it would go away if you just stopped going on about it.
No wonder we are heard as repeating ourselves.
I suspect mostly most of us want to get on with things. And most of the time, we put what makes it hard to do our work into the background, which does not mean it no longer exists. Sometimes you are busy, doing what you do. But then you are hit by it. I remember one meeting, an informal meeting at the house of a white feminist colleague. Another white feminist, a colleague of a colleague, well known for her work on cultural difference, suddenly peered over the table at me, as if to examine me more closely.
“Sara, I didn’t realise you were Oriental.”
Even when you are used to it, it can catch you. Casual comments, draped all over you.
Realisations cutting the atmosphere like a knife.
I wince, but don’t say anything.
Maybe when we wince, we are heard as sore, as shouting, because of what we are not receiving, the message, kindly meant, dear, how curious, dear, look at you, dear.
You can be deemed to be holding onto racism just by noticing what is going on.
Noticing can be a killjoy hammer.
I first reflected on the figure of the melancholic migrant by working through and working out what I found so problematic about the film Bend it Like Beckham that feel-good film that presented a happy view of British multiculturalism. The film tells the story of Jess, who wants to make her family happy, but also wants to play football because that is what makes her happy. Happiness is a crisis if what makes you happy does not make those you want to make happy, happy.
Racism comes up because Jess’s father brings it up as an explanation of why he does not want Jess to play football. He says: “I was a teenager in Nairobi, I was the best fast bowler in our school. Our team even won the East African cup. But when I came to this country, nothing. And these bloody gora in the club house made fun of my turban and sent me off packing.” The father says he does not want Jess to play because he does not want her to suffer like him. A memory of racism, it is implied, stopped him from playing, and could stop her from playing.
The father makes a second speech in which he announces a different decision: he wants her to play. He says, “When those bloody English cricket players threw me out of their club like a dog, I never complained. On the contrary, I vowed that I would never play again. Who suffered? Me. But I don’t want Jess to suffer. I don’t want her to make the same mistakes her father made, accepting life, accepting situations. I want her to fight. And I want her to win.” The second speech implies that the refusal to play the national game is the “truth” being the migrant’s suffering: you suffer because you do not play the game, where not playing is framed as a kind of self-exclusion (“I vowed I would never play again”). For Jess to be happy he lets her be included, narrated as a form of letting go. By implication, not only is he letting her go, he is also letting go of his own suffering, the unhappiness caused by accepting racism, as the “point” of his exclusion.
In these two contrasting speeches, we can hear an old diagnosis that is not invented but inherited. Racism is treated as a kind of false consciousness, as how some hold onto what is no longer relevant or real. Racism as an explanation of migrant suffering (“they made fun of my turban and sent me off packing”) is deemed to function to preserve an attachment to the very scene of suffering. The melancholic migrant holds on not simply to difference (such as the turban), nations can enjoy some differences, but to the unhappiness of difference as an historical itinerary (they “made fun of my turban”). In other words, racism is framed as what the melancholic migrant is attached to, as an attachment to injury that allows them to justify their refusal to participate in the national game (“the gora in their club house”). By implication, it is the story of injury which causes injury: the migrants exclude themselves if they insist on reading their exclusion as a sign of the ongoing nature of racism. The narrative implicit in the resolution of the father’s trauma is not that migrants invented racism to explain their loss, but that they preserve its power to govern social life by not getting over it.
The moral task is thus “to get over it,” as if when you are over it, it is gone.
Killjoy maxim: Don’t get over what is not over.
The task is not only to let go of the pain of racism but to let go of racism as a way of understanding that pain. Implicit to the task is also a warning: if you don’t stop talking about racism, then you will be stopped (from playing the game, from doing something, from getting somewhere). Perhaps we are required to tell that story happily, as if the only thing stopping us from playing the game is ourselves.
Why bring up the figure of the melancholic migrant now? Because the figure has come up again.
This figure appears in the Report recently published by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities set up by Government (March 31, 2021). The report reads like a reference for the Government. It reads like that because it is that. The report acknowledged (it “has to acknowledge”) that the “original trigger” for the setting up of the Commission was the Black Lives Matter protests that “engulfed the world.” Language is a lead. If the protests are treated as what could spread and engulf and enflame, the Commission (and the Report) is the effort to put the lid on it. It did what it was set up to do: deny the ongoing existence of institutional and structural racism. We know it was set up to do that because those who chose and were chosen to lead the Commission had already denied the existence of institutional and structural racism.
Brown and Black people who deny structural racism are far more likely to have a door opened to them by those who benefit from structural racism. In fact, my own research on complaint has taught me how denial can lead to promotion (or how promotion can be a reward for denial).
The more you deny the existence of structures, the more you are promoted by those same structures.
The Commission is another door slammed shut, evidence of what it says does not exist. It teaches us how some others are allowed in because of what they are willing to do or not do. You give them what they want: a happy story about diversity, a refusal to acknowledge racism, colonialism, that recent history, that present, occupying so many institutions.
Doors are opened to some of us on condition we show we are willing to shut the door on others. If you police the border, you get in. And then, the shut door is treated as a melancholic object, not in the world but in the minds of those who don’t get in. To evoke as the report does that old-worn-tired figure of the melancholic migrant is to shut the door whilst denying the door even exists. So, racism appears only by being located in the minds of those who are haunted by history: “For some groups historic experience of racism still haunts the present and there was a reluctance to acknowledge that the UK had become open and fairer.”
Racism is not only deposited in the past it is deemed to be what stops us from seeing the present.
If we are haunted it is because racism has not gone. If we are haunted it is because racism goes on.
What has not gone, goes on.
As killjoy critics, we have learnt to read the distribution of positives and negatives. In the report, being positive is treated as being objective and neutral and forward-thinking; being negative, as subjective and biased and stuck in the past. Indeed, the report uses positive and negative not only as attitudes that alone determine outcome for individuals, but as judgements made against different ethnic groups: “Those groups, particularly Indian and Chinese ethnic groups, who have the most success in British society tend to see fewer obstacles and less prejudice. And those groups that do less well, Black people and Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims, tend to see and experience more of both, though Black African people are considerably more positive than Black Caribbean people.” The implication here that when you see an obstacle, you are you are own obstacle. When I think of the grossly simplistic and frankly outrageous moral economy, I think of Audre Lorde, who taught us how “being positive” as an outlook is used to obscure so much. Lorde writes, “looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo” (1997: 76).
What is threatening is what you are supposed to overlook to do well.
The report even “see the positives” in slavery, “here is a new story about the Caribbean experience which speaks to the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves into a re-modelled African/Britain.” Yes: even slavery, which caused the death and dispossession of millions of African people, can be, has been, is being, turned into a positive story of cultural and self-empowerment.
Being positive is also turned into a teaching resource, which they contrast to “the negative calls for ‘decolonising’ the curriculum:” “Neither the banning of White authors or token expressions of Black achievement will help to broaden young minds. We have argued against bringing down statues, instead, we want all children to reclaim their British heritage. We want to create a teaching resource that looks at the influence of the UK, particularly during the Empire period. We want to see how Britishness influenced the Commonwealth and local communities, and how the Commonwealth and local communities influenced what we now know as modern Britain. One great example would be a dictionary or lexicon of well-known British words which are Indian in origin.” Here happy diversity, becomes happy hybridity, a story of mixing and mingling.
Just in case we need a reminder: the dominant way of telling the story of the British empire in Britain has been as a happy story, which was the same story that justified empire, of course, as a moral or civilizing project in the first place; empire as gift, empire as bringing railways and Shakespeare, empire as drinking tea with smiling natives, as bringing light to dark shores; the British imperialists as rather well-meaning gentlemen and even gentler women. That dominant happy view of empire is enforced through citizenship, by which I mean, to become a citizen is to learn that positive view and to be required to repeat it. The Home Office guide for citizenship tests Life in the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship first published in 2005, mentions empire a few times and always in positive or glowing terms, for example, empire as what brought “regular, acceptable and impartial systems of law and order” to “Indigenous peoples in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere.”
Gone the violence; the dispossession of people from land, from language, from culture, the dispossession of people from people.
Gone the violence: how the violence has not gone.
This happy story of empire is endlessly reproduced everywhere. The former head of the former Commission for Racial Equality once said, “And we can look at our own history to show that the British people are not by nature bigots. We created something called the empire where we mixed and mingled with people very different from those of these islands.” Invasion, enslavement, and servitude are rewritten as a party, as diversity, mixing and mingling with different people and even as a confirmation of not being bigoted. A former prime minister made a list of things make England great, and included in that list that we “took slavery off the high seas.”
Great Britain is remembered as the liberator of the slaves not as one of the main perpetrators and beneficiaries of the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Since the Black Lives Matter movement has travelled into the UK, following the paths of other anti-racist global movements, there has been more of a concerted effort not to keep telling the idealised story of empire. There has been more of an effort to remove statues of slave owners and to take the names of eugenicists off from buildings. This is not about censoring history but refusing the censoring of history, refusing not to deal with the violence that has not been dealt with.
Because that is what we are dealing with: what has not been dealt with. My research into complaint has taught me the racism experienced by many Black and Brown students and academics in universities in the UK is almost always met with by denial (see here, for a recent lecture on Complaint, Diversity and Hostile Environments). Universities can announce their commitments to Black Lives Matter whilst remaining hostile environments for Black people. We know can from do. Universities are not a special case: they are public institutions amongst other public institutions. Much racist speech is routinely justified as free speech or turned into an error message, as being inexpressive of what persons or institutions are really like (they didn’t mean it; it didn’t mean anything). I have learnt that even acts of physical violence are justified as forms of self-expression or as inexpressive and if not justifiable in this way are explained as caused by how others appear.
So much violence is dealt with by not being faced.
Denial is how institutions handle racism.
Denial of racism is how racism is reproduced.
Denial is how institutional racism works.
In denying the existence of institutional racism, the Report produced by the Commission is evidence of institutional racism. It is teaching us how institutional racism works.
Sadly, we don’t need to learn that lesson; the point of that lesson is we have already learned it.
The reassertion of positivity-as-duty is a concerted and deliberate attempt to close the door, to dampen the mood, to loosen the will, and to deny the truths, of those protesting the violence of racism, especially anti-Black racism, the violence of more violence, the violence that leaves so many people so much more vulnerable to violence, police violence, state violence, economic violence, inter-personal violence.
It will not work. We will keep doing the work.
Lorde, Audre (1997). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco.