This article is based on a seminar on ‘Nationalist Populism and Postcolonial Responses’ with Sivamohan Valluvan chaired by Gurminder Bhambra at the BSA Postcolonial and Decolonial Transformations Study Group that took place on 18 February 2021.
Dominant multidisciplinary discursive frameworks, at this historical conjuncture, are structured by postcolonial common sense modes of thought that have been sculpted out of colonial and postcolonial nationalisms. Postcolonial common sense can be defined by a ‘grid of intelligibility’ (Macey 1978, 365) composed of ideas of separate communities with specific histories and cultural trajectories, distinct diasporas and regions, universal, transhistorical ethnic and religious categories and different forms of racism (Mamdani 2012; Stoler 2008). Academic narratives that reproduce postcolonial common sense do not demand explanation. They are not uncontested but they are understood by all. This can be illuminated by the need to carefully explain and defend interpretations which do not utilise common sense concepts and the taxonomies that they lead to.
As socially committed and Spain-based researchers, we have long been amazed by the rhetorical power of the integration discourse (in this case, immigrant integration). This discourse has charmed and brought together people with different political orientations, even seducing numerous activists who usually adopt radically critical stances towards existing social oppressions (for example, capitalism).
However, such criticism does not frequently focus on integration. On the contrary, integration measures are often thought of as useful 'recipes' against racism, or even as its opposite. Hence, the 'benign' concepts associated to integration such as 'diversity', 'participation', 'active citizenship', 'interculturality', etc. have been often uncritically appropriated by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and leftist movements, with allegedly inclusive or even anti-racist aims.
The aim of our Identities article, ‘Elective affinities between racism and immigrant integration policies: a dialogue between two studies carried out across the European Union and Spain’, is to deconstruct such optimistic rhetoric, showing that racism and integration are closely embedded, and thus questioning the transformative potential of integration policies. With this aim, we have put into dialogue our PhD research pieces (one is complete, the other is being finalised), which respectively focus on the 'soft law' European Union framework for the integration of third-country nationals and Spanish/Andalusian immigrant integration policies.
In my Identities article, ‘Automatic transmission: ethnicity, racialization and the car’, I discussed how various types of racism can be transmitted through cars and roads, and feed into driver behaviour. While this can result in racial discrimination operating in formal and legal contexts, such as policing, racialisation through cars has a much broader, and at times, arguably banal, normative and taken for granted presence and reach.
In ethnically diverse towns and cities in the UK, when expensive cars are driven by young non-white males, what appears to be ordinary (driving and cars) becomes subject to racialised logic – that certain behaviours are tied to what become normative expectations of the ethnic group in question. In part, this happens because of what cars do and do not signify, but also, of course, this hinges on existing codes, stereotypes and ways of perceiving and explaining the idea of race, and all that flows from it.
Earlier in 2020, we learnt that a number of prominent Black Britons, including MP Dawn Butler, had experienced, and subsequently spoke out about, racist policing. As distressing as such events are they are not particularly unusual; every day, black bodies are subject to similar, and worse, attention from law enforcement. In some cases, of course, the police may well have legitimate grounds to pull over a suspect, but often, it is the marker of race that helps prompt or even provoke the intervention.
Sheku Bayoh died shortly after he was arrested by up to nine police officers in the early hours of 3 May 2015 on a quiet street in Kirkcaldy, a small town on the east coast of Scotland. Sheku’s mother had encouraged him to move to Scotland to be near his sister because she thought a young black man would be safer in Scotland than in London. CCTV footage has shown that Sheku was on the ground and restrained within less than a minute of police officers arriving, yet the postmortem revealed he had 32 injuries to his body. The Lord Advocate of Scotland announced in November 2019 that no police officer would be charged for Sheku’s death, four and a half years after Sheku died.
I wrote my Identities article, 'Containment, state racism and activism: the Sheku Bayoh justice campaign', not only to shed light on the circumstances of how Sheku died after he was arrested but to attempt to explain why deaths in police custody happen, why they are disproportionately of black people, and to develop an understanding of why the families who have lost loved ones find it so hard to get justice or even an adequate explanation from the police of why.
I argue that the state has an interest in containing working class struggles and that state racism is used as part of the containment strategy that explains black deaths in police custody. I use a historical and theoretical analysis of how racism has been deployed by the state in immigration legislation where the black presence was problematised. The problematic black presence discourse has historically been a key feature of the policing of black communities – although this has evolved in several ways it nevertheless continues to produce a racial criminalisation of black people.
My Identities article, ‘The capital, state and the production of differentiated social value in Nigeria’, problematises the Nigerian oil-dependent capitalist economy through the perspective of the Black radical tradition. Using Cedric Robinson’s concept of race, I analyse the racialism inherent in the Nigerian capitalist economic relations and the accompanying contradictions. Capitalism is a very powerful historical force that has influenced and still influences diverse social, political and economic landscapes. The state is an agency through which the association of individuals are entrusted with the administration of the affairs of a given society. Both the capital and state are essential agencies in the entrepreneurial model of the capitalist mode of production.
Marxist scholars present capitalism as an unfair system that engages in unequal distribution of the social wealth generated by the society. Marx argues that the capitalist society is divided along class line and the economic factor remains the most decisive determining factor in shaping capitalist dynamics and its contradictions, while culture and other human pre-occupations play a role but not the decisive one. The working class, Marx maintains, is the revolutionary class that will eventually transform the capitalist economy.
Death is often thought to hold a special place in Irish culture, or even, for some anthropologists, to be indicative of a morbid fixation on the part of Irish people more generally. One academic has even stated that ‘the Irish death fixation… is a cultural fact that cannot be ignored’. Of course, we can easily dismiss such attempts to cast an entire people as possessing some essential, psychic quality as a heavy-handed failure to appreciate the diversity of attitudes and experience within a nation.
Nevertheless, death remains a feature of Irish political, social and cultural life even if it is not the primitive atavism that some might claim. The mobilisation of death in political ways is explored in my Identities article, ‘Racial capitalism, hauntology and the politics of death in Ireland’.
One example of the politicisation of death can be seen in the document that proclaimed the birth of an independent republic in 1916. It stated that it was from ‘the dead generations’ that Ireland ‘receives her old tradition of nationhood’. The dead are mobilised in pursuit of an archetypically modern political project – the establishment of a democratic nation-state.
'There are no Asians in Asia, only people with national identities, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese and Filipino. But on this side of the Pacific, there are Asian Americans', wrote the historian Ronald Takaki. This quote juxtaposes the diversity and heterogeneity of individuals in Asia with the American reality of their pan-ethnic conflation.
In my recently published Identities article, 'There are no Asians in China: the racialization of Chinese international students in the United States', I explore this idea empirically with a longitudinal study of Chinese international students and their racialisation in the United States. I argue that it is through a process of racialisation – a process that involves learning about the concept of 'race' and one’s own social categorisation under such a paradigm – that those arriving from a country like China or Japan could eventually come to identify as 'Asian' or 'Asian American'.
My study draws on two-stage interviews with 15 Chinese international students. The first interviews were conducted within two weeks of their arrival in the United States. I did so in order to capture the Chinese students’ initial understandings of race and their racial identities, before much acculturation processes could take place. I found, not surprisingly, that most Chinese students at this stage identified strongly with their national identity as Chinese and dismissed the category 'Asian' as a label of little significance to them.
Henri Lefebvre and C.L.R. James were quintessential twentieth-century intellectuals. They were born within six months of each other in 1901. Both lived to within sight of the century’s end: James died in 1989 and Lefebvre in 1991. And, as I argue in my Identities article, 'Passing through difference: C.L.R. James and Henry Lefebvre', their grappling with the times in which they lived led them to articulate a comparable politics.
What kind of politics? One which valued human flourishing more than formal equality. One which considered creative freedom more significant than technological progress. And one which found hope in the way in which ordinary people fought against constraint in their day-to-day lives.
On April 15, 2013, two pressure-cooker bombs exploded at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon, killing five and injuring 264. In the absence of information about who the bombers were, Salon.com published liberal commentator David Sirota’s piece 'Let’s Hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American'. Sirota argued that if the bombers turned out to be white, Muslims would be protected from an inevitable anti-Muslim backlash. A few days later, the bombers’ identities were revealed as brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, children of Chechen refugees who came to the United States when they were 16 and 8 years old, respectively. Interestingly, the brothers were phenotypically white and, as conservative commentators online were fond of saying, quite literally Caucasian (i.e. from the Caucuses). They were also, however, Muslims.
Sirota’s article provoked a firestorm across conservative media, and Sirota was accused of being race obsessed and blind to the threat of Jihadist terrorism. In our Identities article, '‘Let’s hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American’: racialising Muslims and the politics of white identity', we analysed conservative responses to Sirota’s article, as well as the ensuing debate about whether the Tsarnaevs were, in fact, the white Americans Sirota had hoped for.
How much should biology matter to our identities? When it comes to race and ethnicity, many people believe there are biological differences between groups. Actually, despite what many think, geneticists have proven that all humans are more than 99% genetically similar regardless of race. Even though these discoveries made in 2000 were widely reported in the news and in academic settings, most people (including academics!) continue to use assumptions that biology is relevant to determining who we are and to what groups we belong.
In today’s society, many people believe they are 'colourblind' and that we are 'post-race' — in other words, they think race shouldn’t matter anymore, that racism is a thing of the past, and that everyone has an equal chance at succeeding in society. Another part of 'colourblind' thinking is that we have changed the way we talk about race. Today it is far more common to use code words such as 'illegals', 'inner-city', or even to talk about culture as a stand-in for talking about racial groups.
'First, I'll need tenure. And a big research grant. Also access to a lab and five graduate students — at least three of them Chinese.'
- Professor Ogden Wernstrom, Physicist
Those are Professor Ogden Wernstrom’s demands when asked to save the Earth from a giant garbage ball approaching through space in the Futurama episode, A Big Piece of Garbage. Portrayed as an obvious antagonist, Wernstrom seems greedy and exclusively concerned with his own career advancement. He also seemingly regards grad students as just another commodity to further his own goals, with Chinese students as particularly valuable or useful assets.
This specific view on Chinese researchers as not much more than pricey pieces of high-tech equipment was provided by a cartoon villain 20 years ago, but it arguably still falls into the questionable category of 'it’s funny because it’s true': it indeed resonates with prejudices that extend beyond the Futurama universe and into real-world academic discourse.
If national security is in danger, the state can declare a state of emergency. This step will suspend normal legal procedures that allow the authorities to regain order and control.
What if politicians allege that the culture and identity of migrants and refugees are threatening the cultural cohesion and economic welfare of the nation-state? What if political leaders declare a national security emergency in order to get political support and funding for a wall?
In my Identities article, 'Denmark’s blond vision and the fractal logics of a nation in danger', I show a new way to understand neo-nationalism, which is the kind that occurs within established nation-states, through the notion of a ‘nation in danger’, in relation to racialisation. The notion of the nation in danger is a specific logic that motivates a large ‘white’ majority of Danes in their perception and treatment of migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and Danes of colour. It also separates for them who belongs to Denmark and who does not on the basis of racial, cultural and ethnic features