Seeing and being the visualised 'other': humanitarian representations and hybridity in African diaspora identities
If we are to assume the Shakespearean platitude that 'the eyes are the windows of the soul', then it is not beyond our comprehension that visual images used by NGOs (non-governmental organisations) in their advertisements are carefully curated ideas over who or what is ‘seen’, and more importantly ‘how’ it is seen, and for whom. In today’s progressively changing and competitive media and communications environment, humanitarianism is now a profitable enterprise in our visual-as-currency economy.
On our television screens, in our social media applications and unsolicited pop-up email advertisements, and even among the rumpled pile of outdated magazines in the doctor’s waiting room, the public faces of the international aid and relief industry are seldom out of sight. Whether it is malnourished pot-bellied toddlers wearing western football memorabilia of seasons past, a despondent refugee mother in a displacement camp, or a vast horde of shaven-headed, undifferentiated Black and Brown masses in conflict zones, these images are the aesthetic currencies of commercialised suffering employed by humanitarian organisations to brand themselves and their strategic ambitions, and imbue western audiences with a philanthropic disposition.
Visual representations are central to – and orbit around – the phenomenon and work of humanitarianism. When we think of humanitarian work, we often visualise much of the non-western, Black and Brown world. As image producers and disseminators, these organisations set the visual tone within which certain people and places are defined and comprehended – indeed, who (and what) they ‘are’, ‘aren’t’ and ‘ought to be’.
Much critical and mainstream international development literature has critiqued the different ways in which NGO representations affect audience’ perceptions, knowledge and dispositions of distant ‘others’. Yet, much of this literature presents white hegemonic interpretations of British audiences of NGO representations, including visions of a singular community of people who are assumed self-evidently white, and seemingly devoid of racial differentiation. These studies further assume audiences interpret and are impacted by such images in largely undifferentiated ways, i.e. audiences do not understand the perspectives of Black African audiences and how they interpret these images. What is it like for those who are ‘seeing’, while also ‘being’, the visualised ‘other’?
Using Nigerians as a case study, my research, as discussed in my Identities article, 'Seeing and Being the Visualised 'Other': Humanitarian Representations and hybridity in African Diaspora identities', reveals how Nigerian subject-making is relative to humanitarian representations. This is most pronounced in the paradoxical relationships that Nigerians have with these images, by their simultaneous resentment for and identification with humanitarian representations. These oxymoronic, 'harmoniously-conflicting' relationships are managed by Nigerians adopting and (re)appropriating new, alternative and preferential racialised identities, or ‘personae’, such as the ‘taking up’ of Afro-Caribbean identities that ‘downplay’ their Nigerian and/or African-ness. Others acquire ‘ambassadorial’ and self-celebratory identities, such as 'unapologetically Black' or 'fiercely Nigerian,' to emphasise their ethno-racial subjectivities.
These Nigerian self-iterations are strategically mobilised in their attempt to make ‘meaning’ legible amid racially-stereotyped and problematic portrayals of Africa(ns) that are mediated by white supremacy. These identities are also class-based: adopted to access and mimic the optics of middle-class statuses, while attempting to disassociate themselves from imagery of ‘the Black African poor’. Not only does this ventriloquise ideologies of whiteness, by appropriating its 'them/us' binary oppositions used to subjugate the non-white, but it also fuels anti-Black racialised sentiments and hierarchical divisions among Nigerians that are undergirded by whiteness.
Blog post by Edward Ademolu, The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK
Read the full article: Ademolu, Edward. Seeing and Being the Visualised 'Other': Humanitarian Representations and hybridity in African Diaspora identities. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1686878
2019 marks 25 years since Nelson Mandela was elected as the first black president of South Africa. Finally, apartheid, the system of racial segregation institutionalised by the Afrikaans-led Nationalist Party in 1948, was a chapter closed. Since that time, South Africans of all backgrounds have been debating the extent to which the post-apartheid vision of ‘a rainbow nation’ -- a multicultural unity of people of many different nations -- is being realised.
This question is not only of interest and importance within South Africa. Against a context of rising populism and white nationalism across the Global North, are white people in South Africa really rejecting the privileges of white supremacism which they have enjoyed for so long?
My Identities article, 'Reimagining racism: understanding the whiteness and nationhood strategies of British-born South Africans', examines this question by looking at one group of South African Whites: those who were born in Britain and migrated to South Africa. Many did so in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, through a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ scheme which offered them cheap passage, good jobs and comfortable accommodation on arrival. Whereas, at home in Britain, there was rising rejection of the apartheid system in South Africa, this group chose to up sticks and move to a deeply segregated society. How do they explain this, to others and themselves? And how do they now talk about the situation in South Africa today?
Research on racism more generally reveals that ‘denial’ is a common white strategy. Studies across Australia, the Netherlands, Scotland and New Zealand show that, when white people talk about race, denial of racism is a pervasive tactic to avoid charges of being racist (van Dijk 1992; Augoustinos & Every 2007). My Identities article builds on this research but argues that the history of South Africa brings an additional, but significant, context. The overt segregation institutionalised through the apartheid system established a legacy of racism that means that outright denial is not an option open to white South Africans. However, through close examination of the talk of people I interviewed, I show how racialised systems, both past and present, may be reimagined, such that their forms and meanings are recast into alternative narratives.
I found four ‘discourses’, or ways of reimagining, are commonly used. First is temporal reimagination, which holds that racism in the past was not as bad as it was made out to be, in the British press in particular. As a result, in the present, a return to the ‘good old days’ is desired by both Blacks and Whites in South Africa. For example, Moira, in her 60s, explained:
'In some ways [the South African Government] were too good at communicating, because I don’t think that racialism was any worse here, but the mistake was giving it a name: ‘apartheid’. Rather than trying to shovel it under the carpet and say, 'Oh no, it doesn’t exist’, they were honest about it, upfront about it and said, ‘Yes it exists, we know it exists, we’re going to support it and we’re going to give it a name!'
Susan, now in her 70s, agreed, telling me that her helpers:
'Elijah and Christmas say they were a lot better off under the Brittos, the white guys, because then -- well there was law and order then you see. They knew where they stood.'
Second, boundary reimagination maintains that South African politics is ‘nothing to do with me, as I am British’. The racism of other groups (e.g. Afrikaners) was worse, and ongoing racialised systems are a consequence of their beliefs, not ours (the British). For example, Neil, an engineer in his 40s, told me over a beer:
'There’s a lot of corruption because there isn’t the money or resources to give to people. One time I was pulled over by a metro cop and he says 'I’m thinking I’m gonna have some beers tonight — do you have any money?', and it was like … police begging. When I go to the UK and I see the police pull someone over, I feel like that is how it should be done, you know, not like what you see in this country.'
Third, is open acceptance: Yes, racial segregation existed, and still exists. However, this is both accepted and acceptable as it delivers privileges to Whites. Richard, now in his 80s, whom I met at an exclusive country club in a leafy white neighbourhood in Johannesburg, admits:
'Let's be honest about it, I'm not one of those people who will shrink form that part of South Africa's history, it was brilliant! If you come to a country where you've got blue skies and you've got sea and you've got beaches and you've got a wonderful way of life with a maid and everything is quite a zillion times cheaper than the UK, you think this is paradise!!'
Finally, social reimagination holds that social change is both possible and desirable, and new opportunities are opening to white people. Laura, a young British teacher in her 30s was inspired by the following:
'There’s a sense that everybody’s invited to join in the history -- you’re very close to history being made here because it’s in the making. You can taste it in your -- that edge of meeting people. Everybody’s making an effort and moving forwards -- it’s an opportunity -- everyone says the opportunity is here to be grabbed and you’re quite close to the people who are trying to grab the opportunities.'
These different reimaginings of racism demonstrate diversity within British-born South Africans and it is important to recognise the plurality of white positions. However at the same time, a common feature was the lack of any real attempt to reimagine whiteness, and its privileges, and what it might mean to be a citizen of the ‘rainbow nation’.
Augoustinos, M. & D. Every. 2007. The language of ‘race’ and prejudice: a discourse of denial, reason, and liberal-practical politics. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 26: 123-141.
Van Dijk, T. 1992. Discourse and the denial of racism. Discourse and Society 3: 87-118.
Blog post by Pauline Leonard, University of Southampton, UK
Read the full article: Leonard, Pauline. Reimagining racism: understanding the whiteness and nationhood strategies of British-born South Africans. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1637624
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.
Given the widely held view that the brothers were phenotypically white, we were surprised to find that this question was shrouded in ambiguity. On the one hand, conservatives referred to the brothers’ whiteness to affirm a distinction between race and Islam, and to argue that the latter was a dangerous political ideology that people choose to believe in regardless of their race. On the other hand, however, and despite this apparently non-racial criticism of Islam, conservative responses to Sirota were permeated by accusations of anti-white racism, race treachery, white guilt, and even discussions of race suicide. We sought to explain this contradiction between intense expressions of racialised threat with avowed commitments to a non-racial critique of Islam.
We argue that reactions to Sirota’s article, as well as the liberal position he is considered to represent, reflect a deeply engrained view that there is a racial war between American whites and Muslims. The accommodation of Islam by white liberals is therefore cast as a direct threat to the United States, which white Americans are deemed responsible to protect. In other words, participating and agreeing to the terms of Muslim racialisation is central to the performance of a hegemonic white racial identity. Failure to perform this combativeness is deemed tantamount to race treachery and facilitating a form of racial suicide. Our critical contribution is that while previous scholarship on Islamophobia has focused on the cultural or phenotypical characteristics of Muslims that mark them as ‘other’, our argument shows that the racialisation of Muslims also occurs through a contested process of white racial formation.
Moreover, we identify a critical weakness in popular liberal critiques of Islamophobia. The critique deployed by Sirota, as well as other liberal commentators in the debate, hinged on a racial distinction between Muslims and whiteness. It was only through this (racialising) distinction that liberals were able to make operative the view that anti-Muslim sentiments after terrorist attacks reflect a form of racism. Liberals struggled to articulate a coherent critique in the face of the strategic use conservatives made of the Tsarnaevs’ ambiguous racial identity, emphasising the need for political counter-discourses to the white supremacist Islamophobia described in our Identities article. Alongside a more refined concept of racism attuned to relational racial formation processes, a primary goal must be disentangling whiteness from American citizenship -- a struggle with stark dimensions in the current moment.
Blog post by Jake Watson, Boston University, USA; Saher Selod, Simmons College, USA; and Nazli Kibria, Boston University, USA
Read the full article: Watson, Jake; Selod, Saher & Kibria, Nazli. ‘Let’s hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American’: racialising Muslims and the politics of white identity. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2017.1397964
The narratives presented in British public debates around terrorism have been long rooted in notions of increased presence of Islam in the public square as intuitively resulting in greater risk to the public. The most significant question this raises is who the ‘public’ refers to when discussing issues around securitisation. The recent horror of Christchurch represents something of an inverted scenario with the positioning, and following it we saw a series of Islamophobic attacks on mosques in Birmingham.
The connection between global and local events is significant because it explicitly requires us to engage in a process which, we argue in our Identities article, 'Securing whiteness?: Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the securitization of Muslims in education', is often absent. Our purpose in the article was to explore some of the ways in which Muslim communities are racialised and instrumentalised, rather than protected. Getting to grips with how Muslims have been located as stakeholders in national security in Britain is revealing.
A large part of the Prevent counter-terror strategy relies on partnerships with Muslim communities. So in many senses British Muslims are the key stakeholder group in the securitisation process -- so how does it play out for them? How are their interests reflected in exchange for engaging in these partnerships with the state?
The answers to these questions are explored in depth in our article, and are centred around a series of processes of racialisation that have disproportionately impacted on communities across nearly all sectors of social life.
An alliance of political debates and media narratives has forged a reality where it seems like common sense to commandeer Muslim organisations in securitisation strategies as a way of negating ‘risk’ by regulating Islamic influence in the public space. However, thinking about Muslims as stakeholders in any part of this process has been made to seem like a counter-intuitive position.
When we consider that the notion of ‘Fundamental British Values’ first appears in Prevent guidelines as a counter-point for identifying extremism, the overlooking of Muslim interests becomes absorbed into a bigger picture within which white British interests hold a far higher value than those of British Muslim citizens.
It is within this problematic scenario where we see a disparity in how voices are responded to -- and this occurs across racialised lines. The emphasis on Fundamental British Values clearly connects these disparities to wider issues around national identity and what is meant by Britishness and Englishness.
Security is presented as an impartial process which is about the protection of citizens. But for British Muslims the experience is very different. It seems that for them security is less about being protected and more about being instrumentalised.
The question to ask amidst all of this is how far securitisation strategies are ‘securing whiteness’, at the expense of British Muslims as stakeholders in security themselves?
Blog post by Damian Breen, Birmingham City University, UK and Nasar Meer, University of Edinburgh, UK
Read the full article: Breen, Damian & Meer, Nasar. Securing whiteness?: Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the securitization of Muslims in education. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1589981
When you see images of French daily life or French people in magazines, films, or other media, what do you see?
Usually, it’s white people, with perhaps a few visibly non-white people depicted. But this is odd for multiple reasons.
One, France has a long history of immigration, primarily from its overseas territories and former colonies. Due to years of colonialism, colonial slavery, and subsequent migration, ethnic minorities, or 'visible minorities' in French academic parlance, have long been part of French society.
Secondly, France does not acknowledge or measure race as a separate identity category. So while France is a multicultural society, it does not, as a facet of law, distinguish between these different cultures. One is either French or not. This is France’s Republican model.
Yet representations in popular culture or government reveal how this ideology does not quite play out this way as representations of Frenchness, whether it’d be French people, French identity, or French culture, are usually white, in terms of positions in government or images in French cinema and television.
In my Identities article, 'Are French people white?: Towards an understanding of whiteness in Republican France', I discuss how middle-class adult children of North African immigrants – individuals who were born in France and are descendants of France’s colonial empire in the Maghreb – navigate a French society that is supposedly colorblind where whiteness is the default.
How do they wrestle with definitions of French identity as white and full belonging in French society as centered on whiteness?
One way to understand this is as part of a racial project (Omi & Winant 1994) in which distinctions among individuals are marked without explicit categories.
David Theo Goldberg (2006) argues that our ideas of Europeans and European identity more generally are also based on whiteness as default. Just as French Republicanism denies the existence of race and racism, I argue that it simultaneously denies the existence of whiteness and white supremacy.
Part of France’s racial project is the continued production and reproduction of white as normal or default.
This is one reason why France is a fascinating place to examine white supremacy and everyday racism.
Goldberg, D. T. 2006. Racial Europeanization. Ethnic and Racial Studies 29: 331–364.
Omi, M. & H. Winant. 1994. Racial formation in the United States: from the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge.
Blog post by Jean Beaman, Purdue University, USA
Read the full article: Beaman, Jean. Are French people white?: Towards an understanding of whiteness in Republican France. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1543831