On the opening page of Cameroonian philosopher, Achille Mbembe’s searing Critique of Black Reason, it reads, “Europe is no longer the center of gravity of the world. This is the significant event, the fundamental experience, of our era. And we are only just now beginning the work of measuring its implications and weighing its consequences.” Yet Emmanuel Macron proudly states that France and Nigeria are entering a “new future” framed by “post-colonial relations” but one in which the African state nonetheless continues to have a “civilizational” problem. There is Brexit. There is the rise of racist groups across Europe — in Hungary, Netherlands, Poland, Italy, France, Germany and the U.K. — all of which, in their own way, propose alternative futures for their respective European nations under siege by mass immigration and multiculture. There are new forms of exclusion and marginalisation, blemishes of alterity which require judgement and prohibition. Europe is no longer the centre of gravity of the world and it has not yet figured out what it wants to know about, or do with the ‘Other,’ however she is marked, classified, or defined.
We may well argue about the historical, political, social, and economic provenance of this challenge to ‘Eurocentricity’. But what is palpably evident on the contemporary European political scene is a widespread anxiety about what this gravitational change means for white Europe — and Eurocentrism with all its latent racism, fear, and division— what its implications might be for ‘us’, and how ‘we’ might suture the decline of Europe.
To be sure, who counts as part of the European ‘we’ is racialized to its core. It is Whitened. We must, then, talk of Whiteness.
Whiteness “is on a toggle switch between ‘bland nothingness’ and ‘racist hatred,’” Professor Nell Painter tells us. It is a “metaphor for power” in James Baldwin’s vocabulary. According to Kehinde Andrews, Whiteness is “a process rooted in the social structure, one that induces a form of psychosis.” Whiteness, Achille Mbembe explains, “became the mark of a certain mode of Western presence in the world, a certain figure of brutality and cruelty, a singular form of predation with an unequaled capacity for the subjection and exploitation of foreign peoples.” A fantasy — no more real than Blackness, we should add — later transformed into a kind of common (non)sense, Whiteness “involves a constellation of objects of desire and public signs of privilege that relate to body and image, language and wealth.” It created figments of the imagination, a fantastic Manicheanism separating White from Black, civilisation from barbarity, reason from unreason, subjects who held property from objects of absolute expenditure. Ultimately, of humanity from nonhumanity. Whatever it is, its appearance in discourses of what comprises “Europe,” and what it must be in an age of insecurity, neoliberal elites, wars on/of terror, migrant crises, the (un)deserving poor, and Brexit, is worth pausing over.
Difficulties have always arisen when the privileges of Whiteness provoke hatred and resistance, forcing its recipients to justify the intrinsic ugliness of their conquests and violence. The fantasy of Whiteness constitutes a political-ideological apparatus in a global structural defence against myriad challenges from Others. It is, as Houria Bouteldja calls it, the “white immune system.” And like the child who knowingly steals far too much ice cream but is nonetheless confused at feeling unwell, worries about the (racial/cultural/religious) health of Europe are self-generated. Mbembe’s work furnishes rich resources in locating the resurgence of fascistic politics with all its violent racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and fear, within a subjectivity that was always vulnerable, perpetually frightened to listen to what the stories of Others might reveal about itself.
Racist consciousness, we should remember, is but the most obvious formation that a deep investment in Whiteness takes. Naturally it has its (neo)liberal, Leftist, feminist, progressive analogues. At the same time, racist consciousness is also “the fact of getting used to racism,” of its normalisation, and its being made into a kind of common-sense. And, it is on the rise. The decentring of Europe is experienced and expressed as a singular loss; to the status of Europe but also, I think, to the power of Whiteness. The ‘decline’ of Europe/Whiteness sets up the question: “Why us?”
“Because of them” is often the reply.
This trite question borne of a perceived White victimhood is posed to a mirror on the wall, whose reply is always already the words of a subconscious thoroughly invested in – and thus blinded and deafened by – Whiteness and to the world. The coherence of the question rests on singular narratives, which are always dangerous. On the one hand, there is an assumed European/White centrality to history per se, and on the other, an impoverished, though seductively nostalgic narration of events. Of modernity without colonialism, Enlightenment without slavery, Industrial Revolution at home without the theft, pillage, rape, famine, and murder abroad.
Yet the vibrancy and indeed constructive conflict of multicultural environments, the everyday fact of negotiating difference and cohabitation in the cities and towns of former colonial powers is here to stay. It threatens governments in power and it will not be reversed. The decentring of Europe and the challenge to Whiteness makes the singular narrative absurd. At once we must confront the legacies of the dark underside of European history, while engaging with and being moved by stories of historical and contemporary worlds outside of Europe. If we are to live equitably on this fractured planet, with a commitment to responsibility and to justice, our senses and intellects cannot afford to be dulled by the allure of Whiteness. It blinds and deafens its investors to recognising a common humanity and the possibility of a shared world.
Enclosed in the narrative of decline
Nevertheless, the narrative of decline is a seductively ‘post-political’ one. At once it externalises the causes of degeneration — whether of our power or political clout, or cultural and indeed racial dilution — to abstract Others. And it initiates a search for identitarian authenticity within. Our climates of ambiguity, insecurity and change has emboldened voices who wax loud and lyrically about who ‘we’ are and how ‘we’ have lost our way. And predictably, given the entangled imperial histories of European powerhouses as Britain and France, race — and the signs of culture and religion which have come to stand in for it — has come to occupy centre stage in this unwieldy and increasingly violent search for national purity and lost cultural origins.
From the imperial fantasies so evident in Brexit discourse — putting the ‘great’ back into Great Britain — to discussions of the Africanity and Islamicity of the World Cup-winning French national team; from Meghan Markle’s entry into the whitest of all institutions, the royal family, as indicative of Britain’s progress to post-race status, to the insurgence of far-right and neo-Nazi groups across Europe; we continue to be haunted by the fiction of race. “Historically,” as Mbembe tells us, “race has always been a more or less coded way of dividing and organizing a multiplicity, of fixing and distributing it according to a hierarchy, of allocating it to more or less impermeable spaces according to a logic of enclosure.” He goes on, “the processes of racialization aim to mark population groups, to fix as precisely as possible the limits within which they can circulate, and to determine as exactly as possible which sites they can occupy.” In that sense, “race” intervenes in and encloses the relationships, actions and attitudes one has with those who have been “raced.”
This is quite literally the function it was meant to play. The white race after all was “invented to fulfil the needs of what would soon become (a white) bourgeois class, because any alliance between slaves who were not yet black and proles who were not yet white was becoming a threat,” as Houria Bouteldja reminds us. Investing in this fiction invented to justify the brutal extirpation, extraction and control of subordinated labour was always a Faustian bargain. A deal which delivered an “accursed share.”
Western (that is, White) consciousness of race has always constructed a narrative in which the appearance of the racial subject provokes certain questions: “Who is she?” “How does one recognize him?” “What differentiates him from us?” “Can she become like us?” “How should we govern them and to what end?” It is all too obvious that these questions are still here. Despite their historical and contemporary centrality, however, they reveal a fundamental anxiety. “Race,” writes Hannah Arendt, “was the emergency explanation of human beings whom no European or civilized man could understand and whose humanity so frightened and humiliated the immigrants that they no longer cared to belong to the same human species.” It was always a moral and intellectual deficiency which prompted those questions. A mixture of dread and deep ignorance, race as an “emergency explanation” obscured what we did not want to see and know about the countless millions enslaved, colonised, commodified and killed, for what it would reveal about ‘us’.
Locking racial(ized) Others into their supposed primordial origins within this logic of enclosure was/is always much easier than acknowledging a Europe founded on cupidity, violence and depravity. The narrative — of Black reason and, therefore, of Whiteness — seeks “to name a reality exterior to it and to situate that reality in relationship to an I considered to be the center of all meaning. From this perspective, anything that is not identical to that I is abnormal.” The shifting centre of gravity that concerns Mbembe makes the attempt to maintain white Europe as the centre of all meaning a volatile defence. The fact of Europe — and Eurocentrism — as a mere province of a much larger and more interesting world is being brought to the light of day.
The universal need for a sense of place and belonging has been perverted, instrumentalised, and its racial elements normalised within a political landscape where the contours separating mainstream and fringe are increasingly blurred. Yet for all the momentum and influence nativist actors are experiencing, for all the public presence of racist consciousness, there is a parallel dulling of the senses, a high degree of “baseness and stupidity” in the air. In their charismatic verbosity, pretensions of empathy for the “left-behind,” and prophetic access to simple, concrete solutions for the future, racist consciousness occludes from view, perhaps by design, the rich meanings of multicultural environments. Instead, the racist subject, invested as (s)he is in Whiteness, is utterly immobilised, perpetually on edge, left unable to see, hear, or speak anything other than figments of his/her own imagination.
‘Europe is literally the creation of the Third World’
The entanglements of race, racism and the idea of Europe should be all too well-known by now. That this is not the case is an indictment of the institutionally, systemically amnesiac core of contemporary European societies, all frightened to learn otherwise. The modern invention of races (beginning with “Blackness” in 1670) and its attendant forms of ‘infralife’ — a carceral spectrum of humanity — was paradigmatic to the formation of European power, especially British and French. I do not think it controversial to say that Whiteness as a category of power — that is, white superiority — and the modern idea of Europe mutually constituted one another. The myriad legacies of the colonial period which continue to have a present are, then, results of the deeply consequential fantasising of modernity and the so-called Enlightenment. In that sense, it was the Whites of Europe who created human beings with whom we could have no relation other than violence, slavery, rape, murder, theft, pillage, and death. It was the Whites of Europe who required the enslaved and the colonised in order to define themselves.
“Europe is literally the creation of the Third World,” Frantz Fanon writes in his Wretched of the Earth. It was as much polemical as a statement of fact. He says, “Latin America, China, and Africa. From all these continents, under whose eyes Europe today raises up her tower of opulence, there has flowed out for centuries towards that same Europe diamonds and oil, silk and cotton, wood and exotic products.” European modernity and Industrial Revolution were bought and paid for by obscene racial subsidies — by Indian shipbuilding, tea and cotton; colonial banking in West Africa; sugar in the Caribbean; and, of course, the Atlantic slave trade — trading, trafficking and profiting in men, women and children racialized, made nonhuman, and thus converted into merchandise. The Empires defended and later rebuilt by subject-citizens of former colonies were reconstructed into, or reimagined as immigrants. Strangers at the door.
Fanon’s “Europe” also had a figurative aspect. Enlightened Europe was a living contradiction. At once an idyllic space of legal reciprocity, where the “rights of the people” reigned in the face of tyranny, and a metaphor for a dark underside, a figure of unequalled brutality and predation. It was from the latter, the nocturnal world as Mbembe speaks of it, that Europe was born. Regardless, Europe as the birthplace of reason must surely not be — the philosophers, statesmen, and novelists alike maintained — what the colonies are. By virtue of their radical difference, they have nothing to contribute to the world, little to give to the universal other than their lives.
The utter hypocrisy, therefore, of today’s callous disdain for racial others — whether in the figure of the migrant fleeing war and suffering; the Muslim woman as the target for Islamophobic verbal and physical abuse on the street; or unexplained deaths in police custody — is lost on the racist subject. Senses dulled, the racist knows only what he/she is not. It is a hollow, impoverished identity, the contents of which are comprised of anxiety, of jealousy, and ultimately, of projections onto racialized Others. The calls for authenticity from wise monkeys Farage, Johnson, Le Pen, Wilders and their kin, are blind, deaf, and dumb to a reality to which they could belong. Difference — whether racial, cultural, religious — in multicultural societies may be discomforting, but reveal only the narrowness of our own being. Difference urges us to be more, as opposed to constituting personal threats to an imperilled ‘I’ who knows nothing other than what an abstract ‘I’ supposedly is not.
Whiteness manifests on the level of the senses. The mutual imbrication of race and (national) identities today uncovers worrying psychosomatic trends. Racist consciousness precludes a vision of the world in which differences exist on their own terms. Which is to say nothing more to Whiteness than, not everything is about you. Historically, as today, Whiteness draws its power from the protective enclosure, the narcissistic system of self-referentiality that it created for itself. The inferiority — cultural, artistic, linguistic, in sum, civilisational — of the racial Other must mean our superiority. In the stark calculus of imperial engagement, ‘their’ lack of our conception of private property meant that all the resources of life of the colonised were fair game. The unreason of the Black Man and later the Native, disqualifies them from full humanity and, therefore, any claims to self-determination. The world is hostile, a state of nature to our civil and political society.
However, in a world of the postcolony and neo-colonialism, with practices of war, extraction and accumulation, and juridical forms of marginalisation reproducing colonial practices, the work of race in the life of former colonial powers has come home. Race on the domestic scene mirrors what was once the luxury of projecting and institutionalising it ‘out there,’ in the Orient or the Dark Continent. Nevertheless, the assumed normative perspective remains constituted out of Whiteness and bleeds into everyday discourses of identity, nation, democracy and more. This reveals little other than a kind of blindness based on a set of disturbing anxieties about a world that is having conversations and creating symbolic worlds that don’t involve them, in languages that they don’t understand. The work of Whiteness, Eurocentricity, and racist consciousness is redundant.
So what to think when Nigel Farage claims that parts of Britain are “like a foreign land” or frets that “in scores of our cities and market towns,” Britain “has frankly become unrecognisable” because “in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken anymore.” Or when Richard Dawkins fawns over the “lovely bells of Winchester” over the “aggressive-sounding Allahu-Akhbar?”
The “I want my country back” slogan that they and their like bray so proudly in their free-speech crusades, is at core a worry about their own illiteracy. It is not that ‘their’ country is lost, but that it has grown so far beyond the banality of their provincialism that they are left twisting in the wind. Ultimately, their Europe is the same Europe as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s best-seller Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race; as Paul Pogba’s French-Africanity/African-Frenchness; as Riz Ahmed’s Omar and In These Sour Times; as the inspiring community-led response to the monstrous crime of the Grenfell blaze; as Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s This is not a Humanising Poem and Benjamin Zephaniah’s Dear White Fella; as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. If only they would wake from their nativist slumber.
The decentring force of multiculturalism (as distinct from tepid state policies of the same name) makes evident what many others have known for centuries: Europe is but a small province of the planet. And the shifting cartographies of power, flows of people and ideas make this much more difficult to ignore. Racism is, then, the doubling-down of an identity perturbed by its own irrelevance, unable to imagine a world where it is no longer the centre of orbit. In truth, it has long been this way — Others have always found ways of being, speaking, writing in the world that does not revolve around the nexus of Blackness-Whiteness, or of race altogether. It is, nonetheless, as Mbembe tells us, “the unacknowledged and often denied foundation, what we might call the nuclear power plant, from which the modern project of knowledge — and of governance — has been deployed.”
This inability to hear and listen is a symptom of the closing off of the mind to reality. It is a consequence of the “structure of the imagination” that is race, which attempts, albeit unsuccessfully, to inoculate itself from having its carceral worldview of warring essences destabilised by the wor(l)ds of Others. Whiteness is, “in many ways, a fantasy produced by the European imagination, one that the West has worked hard to naturalize and universalize.” It is a protective enclosure that comforts and reconstructs as much as denudes and desiccates.
The creative protest and critique of Others is reconstructed into nonsense, white noise that can be discarded because their claim to a universal humanity has been disqualified. Because “their speech is always indecipherable, or at least inarticulate. Someone else must speak in their name and in their place so that what they say makes complete sense in our language.” It did not matter that the residents of Grenfell warned the authorities of dangerous living conditions; it falls on deaf ears that Muslim women say their daily reality on the streets is a backdrop of racist, sexist street harassment and violent attacks — a climate emboldened by official state policy and government sanction; it goes overlooked that racism, Mbembe says, is a way of “substituting what is with something else, with another reality.” This figment of imagination has nothing to do with the reality of Europe, Hamid Dabashi reminds us. A Europe “fragmented along race, gender, and class; some welcoming, many resentful of the new immigrants and refugees.”
At the same time, however, racist consciousness perpetuates those same historical anxieties of no longer being the centre of gravity, of no longer being the dominators but the risk of becoming the dominated. This is the “malaise of whiteness” as Houria Bouteldja writes. “The mind suppresses but the heart races. It recognises in any non-white face, be it in the factory, at school, or in the street, a survivor of the colonial enterprise, at the same time as it recognises the possibility of vengeance.”
This is the undefinable fear. Racist consciousness is fearful but will not relinquish the comforts and privileges of colonial domination. Yet it will remain afraid, with resentment and violence nearby, until it ceases to utterly deprive itself of the beauty and value, the deeply constructive power of exchange between human difference. This makes for a more robust, a more just rather than fractured society.
What remains of Europe?
Racist consciousness conceives of desirable identity as a form of social or cultural taxidermy, where the Other is visible but silent. If she speaks then it can only confirm either our suspicions about her or the image we have of ourselves. As Mbembe writes, in the tradition of Fanon and before him W. E. B. Du Bois, “the person dispossessed of the faculty to speak is constrained always to think of himself, if not as an ‘intruder,’ then at least as someone who can only ever appear in the social world as a ‘problem.’” It is a problem that ‘we’ have far too much immigration and therefore, we must create a “hostile environment.” It is a problem that Muslim women “choose to go around looking like letter boxes” and so racialized surveillance is the answer.
Absolutely not. The violent treatment of the silenced and racialized — or silenced because racialized — Other supports a singular narrative which upholds a fragile and failing (white) ‘I’.
An idea of the world constituted of races, nations, cultures siloed off from one another, a world of “insurmountable difference” and absolute separation, is a world denuded of its rich pluriversality. That is, the possibility of an encounter with, and contribution to, what Édouard Glissant called the Tout-Monde or the All-World, is lost. Ultimately, more open affiliations beyond race and nation, which perpetually confound the narrow confines of racist consciousness, must be found. An understanding of one’s place in and with the world where seeing faces of many complexions, hearing languages from faraway lands does not distract us from our essential similarity.
The existential need that Whiteness has for self-referentiality and centricity in order to convince itself that it has an identity to call its own that is based on something other than absence — a fundamental nonsimilarity to the racial Other — is all but spent. The decentring of Europe should not be a call to build fortresses, but to exit the certainty of pathologizing, philosophising and, ultimately, measuring the Other for the self, and instead re-enter history. The exaggerated self-understanding which draws mythical power from what Mbembe calls the gregarious phase of Western thinking — the Atlantic period when Europe gained control over the rest of the world — must be placed into the dustbin of history. We cannot pretend that slavery or colonialism didn’t happen and have not left us with a ghastly inheritance today, playing out so often in the everyday practices of (often gendered) Islamophobia. It should be all too obvious by now that history must be taken seriously for history judges us all.
At the same time, however, there comes a point when the critique of racism and its offshoots — Whiteness and Eurocentrism — becomes banal. It empowers the very structure it seeks to dismantle. Racist consciousness has nothing to give, if it ever did, other than division, violence and war. The question now is what do we have to offer those invested in Whiteness in exchange for their ‘decline’, for the “salary of Whiteness” as Houria Bouteldja calls it? When a weakening “white immune system” is no longer nourished by stolen privilege, what will be the new status quo? How might those devoted to Whiteness move past their self-imposed nightmares of no longer being talked to or about? How do we centre all the critical, creative, inspiring work done to imagine worlds beyond race and racism, instead of responding to the racists whose ideology was always already a sign of a sick civilisation? What will remain of a Europe decentred and provincialised?
It is, as Mbembe reminds us, a “project of a world that is coming, a world before us, one whose destination is universal, a world freed from the burden of race, from resentment, and from the desire for vengeance that all racism calls into being.” It will mean “abandoning the certitude and comfort of speaking from the centre” and “having to learn new language games”, as Salman Sayyid says. We cannot afford to be figments of each other’s imagination on this precarious planet any longer. We cannot abdicate the obligations we have to one another in a splintering but common world. Those trapped within racist consciousness, with fruitless investments in Whiteness quickly need to realise that it’s not about them. And it probably never was.