The west’s non-white Europeans will never accept supervision by angelic, loving white people, let alone evil, sleazy, racist ones
“I got the ‘where are you from?’ treatment last night,” one of my PhD students said, speaking about a recent outing with other students to a bar in Melbourne.
My students from non-white European ancestry invariably hate being asked this question even though they recognise that, more often than not, the person asking it means no harm and is simply and genuinely – or thinks it’s polite to be – interested in where they are from.
We’ve often reflected together about this and about what bothers us about the question. We agree it would be different if the relationship between the questioner and the questioned was not as structured by racial relations of power to the extent that it was: more often than not the questioner is of white European ancestry and the questioned is of non-white European ancestry. And because of this, the question necessarily, and regardless of the intent, ends up carrying in it the power and entitlement of the questioner.
The simple question “where are you from?” becomes, again, regardless of the intent of the questioner, a declaration: “I am entitled, because of my white European-ness, to ask you where are you from.” The pathology becomes most apparent when the person being asked the question is Indigenous. Because of the sense of entitlement that oozes out of it – and that is what is often hard, but not impossible, for others to understand – the question becomes threatening: a person of non-white European ancestry can immediately discern in the power to ask “where do you come from?” the residual power to say: “go back to where you came from”.
It is in the very nature of this residual power to have a potential for “nastiness” (such as with “go back to where you came from”) at the very moment when it’s exhibiting “niceness” (such as with “where are you from”). This fact was at the heart of the radical critique of multiculturalism as it was formulated more than 20 years ago. It was at the core of my own critique of the discourse of tolerance. To have such a discourse circulating amid structural conditions of racial domination meant two things.
Firstly, it meant that it was always people of white European ancestry who ended up feeling entitled to do the tolerating, while the tolerated were always people of non-white European ancestry – what I called at the time “third-world-looking people”.
Secondly, and more important for our purpose here, when people experience themselves as entitled to be tolerant, they retain the residual power to be intolerant and deploy it when necessary. It went the same way for the multicultural discourse of “appreciating” ethnic cultures, which allowed white people to maintain the residual power to “not appreciate” ethnic cultures.
It is this residual power that was the prime target of the radical critique of multiculturalism. This aimed for a state of affairs where the status of the national belonging of people of non-white European ancestry would not be subjected to and affected by how people of white European ancestry felt about them. This was a state where it was no longer acceptable to give public space for people of white European ancestry who fantasised that it was up to them to judge who loved Australia, England or France enough and who didn’t, and who was American, Canadian or New Zealander enough and who wasn’t.
The critique was animated by a realisation that while multiculturalism dented a sense of white supremacy among some people, it did not dent it enough. And while it was clear that one could not help it if some white people felt they were entitled to decide who was and was not a good Australian, American, etc, the radical critique of multiculturalism aimed to further the process of white symbolic disempowerment that had already begun with the rise of multiculturalism. It hoped to see white entitlement become increasingly expunged from social and cultural institutions and be made politically irrelevant.
But, needless to say, things moved in the opposite direction. A constellation of cultural and political but chiefly economic interests aligned to support what became full-fledged politics of white restoration. Certain capitalist investors saw in the white supremacist refusal of the welfare state and any social, cultural or ecological thought a politics that was more conducive to the type of unchecked capital accumulation they hoped for.
And here we are today with such people not only having a public outlet but actually occupying the highest positions of power in various parts of the western world. And here we also are hearing the kind of things that we thought we would never hear again being openly proclaimed. And, sure enough, here we are having the president of the United States openly deploying the gutter racism of the “go back to where you came from”-type against his opponents.
What the politics of white restoration needs to make us ask is: how can the progressive social and cultural gains of the “liberal” era be rolled back so easily? If there is a failure of liberal multicultural politics here, it surely has to do with this. Small “l” liberals dismissed the radical critique of multiculturalism 20 years ago for all kinds of facile reasons.
However, this radical critique offered whites and non-whites the basis of a political future that highlighted the disempowerment of whiteness as a necessary accompaniment of multicultural politics. This would have at the very least made the descent into the kind of toxic racist politics we are seeing today more difficult. This radical critique could offer such a path precisely because it traced a politics centred on the removal of the above-mentioned residual power of white entitlement. At least that was and is one of its key objectives. And by all means, let’s all go back to where we came from in this regard, and restart that argument.
Even if the politics of white restoration is succeeding, a new politics is needed to replace it to mend some white people’s belief in their entitlement to rule. For this white resurgence has all the hallmarks of a last hurrah. On one hand, it is far from being the case that the majority of young generations of people of white European ancestry are seeking this type of entitlement. On the other hand, people from non-white European ancestry, especially the young, are fundamentally unwilling to accept the legitimacy of white entitlement.
Indeed, it is certain today, and as “the Squad” makes it clear, that the vast majority of people from non-white European ancestry inhabiting the west are too much at home here to ever accept a mode of belonging that involves white supervision. They don’t believe they need to be supervised and they don’t grant the self-appointed whites the right to supervise them. They will never accept a mode of belonging that involves being supervised by angelic, loving white people, let alone by evil, sleazy, racist ones.
• Ghassan Hage is a professor of anthropology and social theory at the University of Melbourne