Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan asks a very important question about our activism, ‘Can we be something more honest than “woke”?’
I’ve been thinking a lot about the performativity of all our politics recently. I am worried.
An MP describes people as ‘a funny tinge’ and to be a “good” person you have to perform outrage/ridicule, though I’m sure many of us funny-tinged people feel nothing deeper than an eye-roll. It’s not that deep. And by not that deep I don’t mean it doesn’t matter, or it’s not problematic, I just mean that it’s not surprising. The “outrage” performance is premised on a “surprise” reaction, which, to me, just feels false and arbitrary.
A lot of the apparent ‘racist gaffes’ that the media pick up on are nothing but logical outcomes of everybody’s socialisation into racialised thinking which prioritises whiteness and functions to other, stereotype, dehumanise and thus violate and structurally and materially exclude and oppress people of colour. But our constant focus on these individuals and these ‘gaffes’ really limits our capacity for systemic thinking.
I’m bored of the same media and politicians which daily dehumanises black people, people of colour, people from the global south, Muslims, queer people of colour, disabled people and women (and everybody who experiences multiple of those positionalities) making a big fanfare around ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, or other “gaffes”. What even is a “gaffe”? Definition: an embarrassing blunder. And that really gets to the point, right?
The performativity of anti-racism assumes that being found to participate in racist logics puts you in a moral position of “badness”, guilt and shame. It is not the logics themselves, the system of racism, racial power dynamics or institutional violence and expulsion which are brought attention to, instead the spotlight is put on an individual whose primary fault is being caught off guard in this system which asks them to both reproduce its racist logics/outcomes and simultaneously deny responsibility or complicity in them.
The individualising of systemic power dynamics is absolutely useless. Even the word “racist” is pointless. What benefit is there to describing an individual as “a racist”? It does nothing but help the one who performs that act of labelling to distance themselves from the label. “You are this thing so that I do not have to be it”.
I recently ran some workshops with second-year University students around abolitionist visions of the future (a future post prisons, policing and criminalisation). The question of sexual violence came up and a male student began to loudly disavow rape. He said “if I ever find out someone is a rapist I punch them in the face.” I found the comment so intriguing and revealing. In the act of making rape the problem of “a rapist” he managed to displace it from his capacity, and remove himself from any complicity in such a “heinous act”. To punch the rapist is to perform “the anti-misogyny man” and to therefore place himself into the morally “good” category of “good men”. That whole performance is steeped in anxiety. The anxiety that comes with even for a moment suggesting sexual violence may not be an individual “crime”/innate to “the rapist”, but a social consequence of historic, political and institutional structures of thinking about, acting upon and using femme bodies as objects to be dominated and violated to perform masculinity. If we understand sexual violence in such a way then one cannot simply wash their hands of it by virtue of not “committing it” – the capacity to be sexually violent is so blatantly obvious and logical in the society that we live in that “punching a rapist” becomes the only way to assure oneself that one’s own masculinity is morally “correct” and distant from that “bad” individual. Further, in wanting to “punch a rapist in the face” the wellbeing of the sexually violated person is entirely removed from the picture – the condemnation is not about them or their safety at all, it is entirely about the condemner and how they are able to understand themselves.
If you can see what I am saying the same is true for racism, no? Recently in a radio interview I was asked about Liam Neeson’s comments about looking to go out to kill a black man. What I tried to direct the interviewer to was the blatant irony that in the media’s entire debate/disavowal, I had only seen individual black commentators drawing attention to the fact that Neeson’s rhetoric was a reproduction of murderous lynching logics that are historically embedded in the social consciousness already.
I reminded the interviewer that to try to make this a debate about whether Neeson is or isn’t “a racist” was to disingenuously avoid the question of how racism operates altogether. Of course his comments were racist, that’s besides the point, they’re also reflective of the social consciousness and context which makes it possible for him to say them.
In merely condemning Neeson we suggest his crime is the crime of being caught out being viscerally anti-black– “good people” don’t do that, hence we must show ourselves to be “good” and him to be “bad”, not by disrupting and divesting from anti-blackness, but by aggressively displacing the problem of the dehumanisation of black people onto an individual. The performance of condemning Neeson, especially as a non-black person, is therefore most likely to become a performance of excusing one of one’s own complicity in the dehumanisation of and systemic violence against black people.
Until our resistance politics can go beyond exceptionalising individuals and subsequently condemning them, we won’t be understanding the oppressions that people face as systemic and historical. What is the purpose of condemning MPs for “racist gaffes”, or celebrities of “racist controversies” if it is not the first step towards dealing with the visceral and present racism that structures the world? What is the purpose of disavowing those who sexually assault and rape if it does not lead to the transformation of the society and political structures which enable them to do so?
I am not saying that raising the question of interpersonal violence or calling people out for the violations they commit is worthless. I don’t believe that. It is the first step to acknowledging and thus resisting injustice. But if that is where our anti-racist/feminist politics ends, it is shallow. Shallow in the sense that such a strategy will not lead to a transformation of society, and shallow in the sense that the victim is entirely lost in the narrative. On both those counts this type of politics is merely performance. In twenty years time we could very well still be having these conversations around blunders/gaffes and “political correctness” if we make the problem the individual who is “caught” operating through the logics they internalise through every element of society. And I am worried that this is the place many of our anti-racist politics does end.
I recently sat with a group of first-year University students who were freshly eager to share their passion for transforming society. I commend and respect them and drew much strength for them. However, one caution I had was around the way that “wokeness” was this reified, objective performance of politics that they seemed to imagine and aspire to. “Wokeness” was an amalgamation of behaviours and traits that made one morally “good” and credible, that incorporated understanding oppression in linear identitarian ways. I have suspicion of anything imagined to be concrete and I felt alarm bells ringing when I witnessed the aspiration for “wokeness” as a “thing” literally verbalised in our conversations.
If a politics of resistance takes its first step as achieving moral “goodness” and with it, credibility and social capital, it will be nothing but superficial. I am, of course, cautioning myself above all in this thinking out loud. How often do I let my politics become a badge of honour? How often do I use words and phrases to be recognised by others I deem to be politically-conscious in an aspirant way? How often do I overlook those I profess to stand in solidarity with due to their lack of the “correct” language or performance to describe their experiences and needs?
I am troubled. The neoliberalising tendency to think of ourselves foremostly as individuals whose liberation lies in our consumptive choices seems to have informed our understanding of political systems and structures as external to us and things we can “choose” to opt in or out of. Politics becomes just another layer of identity to buy into, wear and perform. The reality is much messier and more complex. We are all socialised into this web of violent historical ideas and systems of power that materially and ideologically oppress, exclude and make disposable different people based on the positions we give them in society. To misunderstand this is the crucial first step to losing sight of our goals.
Are we looking for transformation or are we looking to be “right”? If we really believe another world is possible we have to believe healing and transformation – individual and social – is possible. If we really want to imagine beyond injustice and towards liberation we have to prioritise the notion that whilst autonomous, individuals are also largely shaped by their circumstances. When we feel the desire to condemn an individual let us consider what it is in their behaviour that has actually led to an anxiety about our own? How much of our condemnations are simply projections of fear to distance ourselves from having to confront our own capacities to harm and violate one another?
Rather than performing our moral goodness by avoiding this confrontation and earning badges of “ally”, “woke queen” or etc, how would it instead bolster our resistance to confront our complicity, be open to looking beyond moral goodness/badness and towards systems and histories, and seeking transformation and abolition rather than criminalisation and exclusion of those we seek to distance from ourselves? In striving to always be “right”, and “good”, I fear we will fall very far from being honest, just, or liberated.