White Innocence and the Barbarisation of the Racialised : letting the sleeping monster lie
Translated by Ben Ratskoff
[This is text is an edited version of a talk given first at the New School for Social Research, New York City (March 11, 2019), then at Brown University, Providence (March 12, 2019), at Rutgers University, Brunswick (March 14, 2019), and finally at the University of Naples (March 17, 2019).]
“There’s never been any doubt in my mind that Mumia Abu-Jamal shot and killed Officer Faulkner.” -Seth Williams, District Attorney of Philadelphia
To start, as we are going to engage together in a discussion over the notion of innocence, and as this discussion is taking place in New York—the United States, the heart of empire—I must introduce myself as I properly am: a decolonial activist, certainly; a political activist, certainly; but a “citizen,” especially, a resident of the global North, of France, which founds its power on its colonial past and present. The term “citizen,” however, seems to me more a fig leaf, concealing who I truly am, for the asymmetrical power relations between the global North and South, of which I objectively take advantage, are in fact a dressed-up crime. Consequently, I must introduce myself as who I am in reality: a criminal. There is no question of overcoming my guilt (which would only be a sort of loop-hole) but one of refusing the temptation to whiten myself in some form or other, which in my understanding would only constrain political action.
Thus, I am not innocent. And if I seem anxious to admit it, it is because this confession renders me responsible; it is the sine qua non for turning me into a decolonial activist. It allows me to identify my principal enemy: racist, imperialist, capitalist modernity. If, for political reasons, I would like to throw off this suffocating innocence, others, for reasons just as political, would like to cling to it.
This is what I tried to express in Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love (2016), where I wrote, addressing white people:
“You are the greatest antiracists. Haven’t you, time and time again, celebrated the struggle of Martin Luther King against segregation? You are the most appalled by antisemitism. Haven’t you sacrificed Céline, Barbie, and so many others a million times over on the pyres of the public square? …You are the most involved in humanitarian causes. Didn’t you sing for Africa? You are the greatest feminists. Didn’t you devote your attention to the fate of Afghan women and promise to save them from the Taliban’s claws?…How could we possibly climb to your level? We are gnomes, you are giants.”
I like to think if James Baldwin was alive he would have added, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
All state ideologies in modern democracies more or less claim this innocence, for the claim is made in the name of the fundamental guilt of others: democratic deficit, lack of human rights, persecution of women and gays, all of which are pretexts for war and imperial interference. White power monopolizes ethics while divesting the rest of humanity of it.
At the same time, the monopolization of ethics produces civilization on one side and barbarism on the other. The production of white innocence implies the production of barbarians. This naturalization of civilization and barbarism is, of course, a pure fantasy. But, supported by colonial power, this fantasy in turn produces a performative effect with real consequences on the social life, perception, and treatment of brown and Black men and women. It is what I call barbarisation, a phenomenon inseparable from the civilizing process imposed on postcolonial subjects during their integration into the white world. I have long defended this thesis but, as we are structured by an ideology that deprives the victims of racism of their social complexity and historic depth, I remain poorly understood. Moral antiracism, which confines us to the role of “protected victims,” shamelessly turns us over today to the neo-conservative prosecution, which is delighted to retort to yesterday’s great protectors, “Here is where your idealism has led. You thought you were dealing with angels, but these are demons. We warned you.” Therefore, I would like to expand upon this idea of barbarisation here, approaching it as a process and dismantling both the positions of a moral antiracism in decline (e.g. the natives as eternal victims) and the assumptions of a neo-conservatism on the rise (e.g. the natives as veritable barbarians)—two faces of white power. I will concentrate here on France and its different variations of this same phenomenon, starting with a general picture of the situation:
Since the beginning of the 20th century and certainly after so-called decolonization in the 1960s, France, “land of the Rights of Man,” of the Revolution, of the Enlightenment and of universalism, has practiced an extremely sophisticated state racism against the populations from former colonies—from the Maghreb, Black Africa, or the Antilles. France also practices a specific racism against Romani peoples, with deep historic roots. And I will add that, in France, any political mobilization of non-whites is suspected of what is called “communitarianism”—a euphemism for “anti-white racism”—henceforth opposed by those in power. Furthermore, social anger finds no public expression since movements of resistance are systematically fractured or corrupted. And to complete the picture, we have in France a white left incapable of adapting its political program to the question of race and insistent on seeing in the postcolonial subject only a creature to save and/or integrate, rarely a political subject. Forgive me for this caricatured image of the left and far left, for we have also numerous leftist allies and the development of our movement has engendered an ongoing antiracist restructuring. I merely paint in broad strokes their most salient aspects.
I suggested earlier that the coloniality of power produces a performative effect and that the postcolonial subject has to contend constantly with the barbarisation imposed by the production of white innocence. This dialectic transforms him. Fanon said the Manicheanism of the colonizer produces the Manicheanism of the colonized. Independence not yet complete, the postcolonial subjects of the global South and North continue to transform according to the progress made by either the colonial counter-revolution or resistance to it. And when anger and humiliation perpetuate, when they do not find a political outlet, they turn into either resignation, self-destruction, or an explosive pressure cooker. This is what we lived in France during the 2015 and 2016 attacks.
Some months before the September 2014 attack against Charlie Hebdo, I found myself at the Festival of Humanity, an annual event organized by the leftist newspaper L’Humanité. The Communist Party had just lost many working-class suburbs to the right, with the active help of many non-whites usually loyal to the left. This was a true trauma for the Communist Party, which, having assumed that the brown and Black vote was naturally theirs, lamented the disloyalty. I reminded one party functionary that they had justly merited this debacle, and that in the future they would have to prove they deserve our vote. I added, “It is possible that in the months or years to come, there will be attacks. These will probably be perpetrated by persons of color like me, Muslims like me, children of working-class immigrants like me. On this day, we will weigh your political courage. Will you be with us in refusing the generalizations and in explaining that these phenomena are the product, externally, of Western intervention (notably the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq) and competition between the great international and regional powers, and are the product, internally, of the effects of racism in general and Islamophobia in particular? Or, will you commune with power and reactionary forces to work against the Muslims?” Some months later, the attack against Charlie Hebdo occurred, perpetrated by young men from the same community and from the same history as me. The Communist Party rallied with French power, NATO, Netanyahu, and the full neoconservative spectrum of Europe. They were all Charlie. They were all white. They were all innocent.
We were all guilty.
Unfortunately, this was not completely false. Some months later came the attacks at the Bataclan concert venue, which left a hundred dead. The murderers were Muslims. In 2012, a young, Maghrebi man opened fire on a Jewish school, murdering Jewish children. The barbarisation of a portion of us is evident.
And this barbarisation takes many forms.
I referred here to extreme but rare examples. It goes without saying that these paroxysms of violence are spectacular but few and far between. In comparison, the Interior Minister reports a range of 100-140 femicides a year, which comes to around 2000 deceased since September 11, the key date introducing the terrorism/antiterrorism fault line. Whereas one finds, nonetheless deplorable, about 400 victims of terrorism on French soil in this same period.
Our tendency towards barbarisation is more complex and much less sensational, and it is the other side of the movement that reproduces figures of the “civilized native.” But it is nonetheless a real degradation.
When the barbarised is an Arab-Muslim, barbarisation concerns primarily the relation to Jews, women, men, sexual minorities, and Blacks; when the barbarised is without distinction, it concerns primarily the relation to Romanis. Allow me to review the different facets of this barbarisation, which, you will see, always have a historicity and are always situated in time.
-The Jews: this barbarisation is expressed by a growing anti-Jewishness that did not exist in the same form in the precolonial past. It can be explained by three distinct phenomena: first, the Crémieux Decree of 1870—which bestowed French nationality on a large portion of Algerian Jews (the Jews in the northern Sahara excluded), who subsequently passed from under the colonial statutes governing the natives (i.e. l’indigènat) to those governing the French—created a cleavage in the social body of the colonized, making Algerian Jews, in spite of themselves, accomplices to colonialism. Second, the state of Israel collapses all Jews into Zionism, making them, in spite of themselves, accomplices to Israeli crimes. Third, the manner in which the French state encourages competition between non-white communities (I consider the category “Jew” in France as a non-white category) by favoring the Jew in comparison to other postcolonial subjects. For me, these three points explain, from a materialist point of view, this first form of our tendency towards barbarisation.
-Gender relations: In order to understand the barbarisation of gender relations and the forms of modern violence in which it manifests, one must first acknowledge that gender relations are neither stable nor fixed in time and space as one is accustomed to believe. The pre-colonial social orders of gender amaze us with their diversity and originality if only one dares to decenter one’s gaze. No, women were not always confined to domestic roles and, no, men were not always programmed for war. It is also worth making a detour into colonial history to understand first how colonialism destroyed the timeworn social structures and dynamics of colonized societies, and then how, through a process of hierarchisation, normalisation, and marginalisation, white masculine power imposed its domination as much on non-white men as on non-white women. The error of the hegemonic form of feminism is to believe that all men benefit from the returns of the patriarchal order. To the contrary, brown and Black men are subjected in full force to the white patriarchal order and pay a high price for it in poverty, sometimes extreme, as well as in police repression, mass incarceration, the security state, and armed conflict. What results are societies with extreme, endemic violence. Thus, the white patriarchal order assigns the non-white man to the role of executioner, confining him, if he wishes to preserve his own life, to the destiny of a eunuch. And, at the same time, it assigns non-white women the role of accomplices in the disciplinary treatment of these men presumed dangerous. The result of these processes is a general tendency towards the barbarisation of gender relations between brown and Black men and women in Europe.
-Gays: Some years ago, we struggled to explain to white allies that by trying to “civilize” non-white sexuality, the progressives would create the conditions for a new form of community violence against gays. We did not think we would arrive at that point so quickly. In effect, as postcolonial subjects, we passed from a relative indifference toward gays to a disapproval more and more visible, and sometimes to violence. In the dispossessed, brown and Black neighborhoods, homophobic remarks are evidently widespread and gay lifestyles very much denigrated, however the latter is mostly seen as a form of Westernisaton, and especially so since the West, like with the sexual “liberation” of women, very much encourages the sexual “liberation” of non-whites. I need only remind you of the concept of homonationalism and of the fact that the politicization of sexuality is presented as a sign of progress in the great liberal democracies, in the light of which they judge the progress of peoples in the global South and their “extension” into the global North. Since postcolonial communities, of which homosexuals make up a part, are generally resistant to this kind of exposure, the pressure from public institutions and the self-righteous is even stronger. They attribute this resistance to an ancestral homophobia, even though it is above all reactive and contemporary. And if homophobia does exist, one must at the very minimum understand its mechanics. I am not returning here to the introduction, at the beginning of the 20th century, of homophobic laws in the penal code of colonized countries, laws that continue to be authoritative today. Tunisia and Kenya are two good examples. I am talking of the present in France. In the injunction made to Black and Muslim homosexuals to politicize their sexuality, there is a dimension at once racist and homophobic. White power, seeking by any means necessary to dominate the non-white men with which it feels in competition, does not only attempt to remove a husband from his wife but also from his masculine attributes. This of course requires a homophobic reading of masculinity. (For make no mistake: white power pretends to be gay-friendly even though it is in fact homophobic. This pretense is the homophilic twin of philosemitism.) Only homophobes could make the following equation: homosexual = sissy, or lesser man.
In calling on homosexuals to “come out” and in assuming its role as their protector, white power tries to neutralize a rival masculinity that threatens the white social order. This message is perfectly understood by the men in our neighborhoods and has one result: the reinforcement of masculinists and reactive homophobes—a barbarisation that gives face to the advancing disciplinary politics of forced “civilization.” In other words, the more they are forced to “civilize” themselves, the more the forms of barbarisationradicalize. From this point of view, the young Bilal Hassani, LGBT icon of Moroccan heritage who represented France in the 2019 Eurovision contest in Israel, is a textbook case. Even though cross-dressing is an integral part of Moroccan cultural heritage, and Moroccan homosexuals and/or cross-dressers appeared in concerts in Casablanca without provoking the least animosity, Bilal Hassani is showered with insults and receives a multitude of threats from his coreligionists. This paradox appears not to be one at all if we decode the racist subtext accompanying the artist’s promotion. The rage he provokes among the brown and Black dispossessed is inversely proportional to the enthusiasm he arouses among the progressives, which today is emulated even in the ranks of the far right. Let all who do not find this suspicious raise their hand.
-Non-white anti-Blackness: Since the advent of modern racism, the hierarchisation of humanity positions whites at the top of the racial latter and Blacks at the bottom. I will not elaborate all the details of this hierarchisation, historically linked to the transatlantic slave trade as well as the role played by different nations on the global chessboard of colonial modernity, but one can affirm that although Arab-Muslims and Asians are effectively reduced to the rank of an inferior race they are nonetheless ranked at a superior level to Blacks, which creates a privilege that the non-Black subject exploits to his advantage. Thus, while Arab-Muslims in France have, strictly speaking, no political power, it is in their power to distinguish themselves and maintain a distance from Blacks. The bourgeois Arab-Muslims do as the whites: flee the neighborhoods where “a lot” of Blacks (or Romanis) live. One can witness as well a growing contempt for the “beurettes à khels.” Certain Arab men view competition from Black men as an offense to their own masculinity. One can add as well the fact that certain countries in the Gulf region exploit Black Africans, or the fact that Europe bankrolls states in the Maghreb to suppress Black migration through the Sahara Desert, forcing these migrants back into the desert to face an atrocious death. The Arab-Muslim Maghreb becomes the police force of Europe. This imperialist sub-contracting maintains and reinforces Maghrebi anti-Blackness and creates a profound resentment among Black Africans confronted not by white Europe but by the Arab-Muslim Maghreb. Here one can recognize one expression of colonial counter-revolution. From its entrails is born the postcolonial racist.
How can one resist this barbarisation?
First of all, do not deny it.
If you were to ask me—I, who is not innocent—if I am cleared of all these charges, I would respond: No.
Why am I incapable of responding with a triumphant and self-assured “yes?” Because, as the author of The Wretched of the Earth taught us, “a society is racist or is not.” Modern France being one of the ideological pillars of structural racism worldwide, I could not avoid being penetrated by racism in its judeophobic or judeophilic, negrophobic or negrophilic forms; just as I could not avoid being penetrated by sexism and homophobia, for one knows well how the imposition of heterosexual norms accompanied the colonial project as part of the formation of nation-states. That which constitutes the social system determines and constitutes us.
But if barbarisation is linked to racial oppression and not to some natural state, one must be able to halt it. Aimé Césaire wrote that the bourgeois European has a little Hitler inside of him. We could extend this remark to ourselves. If this is the case, and I do believe it is, one must be able to expel this little Hitler and save the postcolonial subject from his programmed barbarisation. To clarify:
Our barbarisation is merely the mirror of white barbarisation. In the modern era, the first barbarised were the whites. It was they who committed genocide against the natives of the Americas and the Caribbean, they who organized the transatlantic slave trade, they who gave birth to Nazi Germany, which exterminated the Jews, Romanis, and gays. It is Western modernity, represented by the Nation-State, that invented this new heterosexist, masculinist, racist, imperialist Man. If, in the end, we are barbarised, it is not so much due to a lack of whiteness as to an excess of it.
What follows this acknowledgement? Or, to answer James Baldwin’s question, which presents the barbarisation of his own people in the following sublime phrase: what will become of this beauty?
It is difficult to answer when the institutional and moral apparatus of power, as well as the progressive left flanked by its Enlightened and very liberal brown and Black allies, imposes its formulas and prevents any sort of political marronage.
Indeed, they were maliciously racist, antisemitic, sexist, and homophobic during the entire period preceding the German surrender and so-called decolonization. They only discovered this disgrace after the concentration camps. They invented antibodies to eradicate this “monster.” And they have apparently succeeded to the extent that today it is only against the brown and Black world and the most reactionary fringes of the white world that they plan to fight this fight. Just apply the liberal formula.
I assert that progressive, neoliberal morality, dependent on a linear vision of history stripped of any form of political materialism, only serves to resolve the contradictions of class, gender, and sexuality among whites, to reinforce their unity at the expense of non-whites, and to protect the fundamental capitalist and imperialist structures of Western societies. Class struggle, which had at first the principal objective of establishing a society without classes, progressively transformed into a social movement for integration into the capitalist order—just as feminist and LGBT movements did—as if the sole ambition of its advocates was to rise to the level of the white, bourgeois man. For, at the end of the day, to whom does one aspire to be equal if not this man? Consequently, how can one be surprised that power recuperates these struggles, claiming them in a liberal fashion, for all its forces are concentrated on one ultimate goal: to consecrate the supremacy of the white man, stunningly incarnated in the figure of Donald Trump?
Only a decolonial project is capable of challenging this creation. We all know that Trump represents the essence of barbaric capitalism, imperialism, racism, antisemitism, and heterosexism. Concentrated in him are all the accumulated deficiencies of 500 years of white domination. And we are all a part of him as much as we stay connected to the same software. There is, however, a simple question: Why must one become the equal of this man?
To ask this question is already one step towards a decolonial solution.
Let’s review the points I made above, leaving behind the path of liberal progressivism and taking the path of our “de-barbarisation”:
-Because postcolonial antisemitism exists, one must be at the forefront of the fight against this specific form of antisemitism. If the philosemitism of the state represents in fact a mere metamorphosis of the old antisemitism—a compromise between the far right’s radical racism and the preservation of the white nation-state, which serves above all to perpetuate white supremacy over Jews and others by putting them in competition—then one must include the fight against the state’s philosemitism in any subsequent anti-racist agenda. If this philosemitism only camouflages a real antisemitism, then it becomes urgent to make evident the tricks of white supremacy and to stand in opposition to those who are content to denounce the far right or the new forms of antisemitism among non-whites while sparing the state, its media, and its elites. It is urgent that we take this path while the forces pressing for our “integration by antisemitism” mobilize more and more. If we do not take care of our “beauty,” it is most probable that we will continue to witness helplessly the “Zemmour-isation” of those among us, whom white society, having located its ideal culprits, will end up deploying as progressive scapegoats.
-Because the violence of non-white men toward women and gays is no mere racist fantasy but in fact a reality, inscribed within a context in which these non-white men are dominated, it is time to consider subaltern masculinities as political struggles in their own right, refusing to consider them dependent on, or offshoots of, Black, Islamic, intersectional, or even decolonial feminisms. As Black intellectual Tommy Curry states, there is a theoretical void on the question of Black masculinities, as if they were indeed violent, dangerous, and irreparable by nature, as if their only hope for redemption resided in a reformulation of their masculinity through a Black feminist ethic, negating the intrinsic value of these men. We think in the decolonial movement that the simple fact of constituting the privileged target of police brutality and mass incarceration suffices to make these men a worthy cause, without subordinating them to decolonial feminism (of which we have attempted a theoretical approach in many texts). It is a matter of filling the void and answering the question, “Are the interests of postcolonial men defensible in themselves?” The answer is yes if one understands the singularity of postcolonial masculinity. Non-white men are not simply oppressed as Blacks, Arabs, or Romani but also as men. I caution against the facile amalgamations of white masculinity, a profound rejection of feminism whose public expressions are well-known (see Zemmour, Houellebecg, Soral…), and those who progress to violence. There is a basic difference between a masculinity nostalgic for real and absolute patriarchal domination and a subaltern masculine reaction of which the potential violent and criminal dimensions are rendered ambivalent by legitimate resistance, and even more ambivalent because the white world disproportionately fantasizes about them. The fabrication of the non-white man’s guilt gives rise to the white man’s innocence. To read the reactions of brown and Black men through the prism of white masculinity thus reveals either an analytical error, intellectual laziness, or malign will. Furthermore, if there is no unified masculine camp just as there is no unified feminine camp (we have for a long time shown that white women naturally align themselves with white men over non-white women), then the cause of non-white men is just as legitimate as that of non-white feminisms—both of which find their articulation through a decolonial orientation. The condition of women or gays here becomes a paradox: there will be no solution for these two groups as long as the specific oppression of the non-white heterosexual man is unaddressed, for in his fall just as in his rehabilitation he inevitably drags others along with him. Addressing his oppression is therefore one of the conditions for our collective de-barbarisation.
-Because intercommunal racism, in spite of its instrumentalization by racists, is indeed a tangible reality, one must hope for and consent to the development of power among dominated groups. One must hope for the emergence of a true “Black Power,” which imposes itself first on whites but equally on the Arab-Muslim “minority” that, as Sadri Khiari underscores, “will cease despising Blacks the day it ceases to believe itself white.” The “Black question” cannot be dissolved into the Arab and Muslim questions, which themselves cannot be dissolved into the Roma question. Each racism being specific and singular, each becomes autonomous. This is true for anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, anti-Romanism, and antisemitism. One can only consider an alliance between us global Southerners in the global North once these autonomous forces have been established according to each’s own program. This is the idea we attempted to outline last year at the North Bandung conference in the frame of a decolonial Internationale with representatives from each group.
These are some ideas that could trace a path towards a decolonial dénouement. We are indeed permitted to dream, for our postcolonial memory holds the stories of societies without fascism, without racism, without rape, without intercommunal or religious hate. And there is yet another reason to follow this path: let the jubilee with which the media and public intellectuals wave any proof of our primitive barbarism convince us. Observe the sadistic delight and pleasure with which they feast on our degradation: assault against a transwoman at place de la République, death threats against Bilal Hassani, antisemitic insults by someone with a “Muslim appearance,” the hurtful and racist language of Mehdi Meklat (alias Marcellin Deschamps), the homophobic slurs of Patrice Evra, Dieudonné’s apprenticeship under Faurisson, hatred and violence against the Romani, anti-Black remarks by such and such Youtuber, violent behavior by Yacine Bellatar… the list is long and promises to get even longer.
For our barbarisation works to activate white sublimation. The more we are ugly, the more they are beautiful. The more we err, the more they can smugly confirm their accusations. We are their evil twins, and they need our corrupted selves to maintain their innocence. On the other hand, the more we realize our beauty, the more their ugliness becomes visible in contrast. Then, they will have only one choice: to reform themselves and follow the path of revolutionary love, or to burn the witches. At this stage of reflection, there remains one last question: is there white beauty? I am convinced that our political existence can help our white allies answer. But I think that having swept past our door, it is up to them to accomplish this task.
Houria Bouteldja, Member of the Parti des Indigènes de la République
 Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love, trans. Rachel Valinsky (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2016), 43-44.
 James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage International, 1993), 6.
 Translator’s note: An informal expression, combining words from French slang verlan and Arabic, to describe pejoratively Arab women who couple with Black men.
 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008), 66.
 “Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in details, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon.” Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000), 36.
 Translator’s note: Éric Zemmour, a French Jew of Algerian origin, has been recently described by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) as the “Ann Coulter of France.” https://www.jta.org/2019/10/30/global/the-ann-coulter-of-france-is-a-jew-of-algerian-heritage
 I would like to clarify here that these remarks are neither naïve nor idealist. It goes without saying that the West did not invent barbarism or crime and that all pre-colonial societies experienced one form or other of violence, exploitation, even mass crime. I speak here uniquely about new forms of violence attributable to modern phenomena and identified as fascism, racism, nationalism, or neoliberal globalization.