Alana Lentin April 2018
Australia is a country obsessed with its racism. A spate of television shows and newspaper articles ask, ‘Is Australia Racist?’ While many acknowledge that the country has a racist past, they object to the implication that the country is still failing to deal with its colonial legacy: the dispossession of the First Nations and the state’s foundation on exclusive white citizenship, The White Australia Policy (1901-1966).
Much liberal discussion of Australia’s harsh detention policy for asylum seekers focuses on the question, ‘what have we become’, largely failing to place Australia’s role as the first country to introduce mandatory detention for asylum seekers in 1992 into the context of Australian white protectionism and Apartheid-like policies towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. On the right, the very use of the word racism is contested at every turn. Indeed, it is notable that using the word racism is portrayed as inaccurate and insulting. This is part of a more universal trend of ‘not racism’ and the framing of racism in moral terms, which I have discussed elsewhere. In this article, I am going to focus on the recent case of Australian Senator Jim Molan as an example of the dominance of ‘not racism’ as a form of discursive racist violence, or how the denial of racism is itself a key form of racist violence.
Jim Molan’s defence of his sharing on Facebook of Islamophobic videos put out by the far-right Britain First party is straight out of what I have started calling the Not Racist™ playbook. When the former major general and architect of Australia’s ‘stop the boats’ policy was sworn in as a new Senator in early February, the videos, many of which have been exposed as fake, were offered as evidence of Molan’s stoking of racism by the Australian Labor Party and the Islamophobia Register.
Activists have been pointing out Molan’s complicity in Australia’s deliberately cruel border regime since his assignment as a special envoy to Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013 under Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The hypocrisy of Labor’s concern for Molan’s ‘bigotry’ has not been missed. The party was the instigator of mandatory detention for asylum seekers in 1992, and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s reinstatement of the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ led to the reopening of the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru. This is a policy they continue to support. Labor’s apparent concern with Molan’s racism is evidence of the extent to which racism is little understood.
Molan joins a long line of racists who are shocked and appalled by the suggestion that they are actually racist. Take for example, Darren Osborne, jailed for life early this year in London for the murder of Makram Ali and the attempted murders of other people when he ran them over outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in June 2017. Despite stating, ‘I’m going to kill all Muslims – I did my bit’, Osborne’s sister described him as ‘not racist’. His actions, it was claimed, were not motivated by hate. He was a ‘lone wolf’ who was ‘complex’. It seems therefore that racist actions can be made not racist by their denial.
Molan rejected claims of his racism in two ways. In an interview with ABC, he said ‘I’ve put my life on the line for Islamic countries … for people to say this is racist I find deeply offensive.’ As Sara Ahmed has noted, to accuse someone of racism is seen as a greater offence than racism itself. Molan is offended by the suggestion but unmoved by the fact that, by sharing Britain First videos, he condones the belief system of a virulently Islamophobic group. In fact, Britain First itself denies its own racism, claiming on its website that ‘the word “racism” was invented by a communist mass murderer to silence European opposition to “multi-culturalism”, so we do not recognise its validity.’ By couching its objections to multiculturalism and focusing singularly on Muslims, Britain First, in fact, aligns itself with large swathes of the political mainstream by claiming that it is not racist, but rather rational, to object to Muslims who are portrayed as a violent monolith.
Molan’s second objection to being called out for his racism aligns with this pattern. ‘Anyone who thinks I am anti-Islamic or racist is stark raving mad — I am not either,’ he said. It is common to think of racism as irrational and its purveyors as fringe dwellers on the political extremes, the ignorant, or the mentally ill. This pathological and moralist view of racism works to obscure the pernicious and persistent effects of race as a regime of power. Rather than being irrational, racism, as David Golderg explains, has often been quite rational because, historically, ‘racially discriminatory laws and practices have enabled the profit ratio to be maintained or increased.’ In other words, particularly in white settler colonial societies such as Australia or in the case of the US legacy of slavery, distinguishing oneself from those at the bottom of the racial heap has often been fundamental to increasing one’s social stature. Poor white convicts gained power through violence against the Aboriginal people; the Irish in the US through violence against African Americans.
Not Racism™ has itself become a form of racist violence. White denials of racism shut down much-needed conversations about race led by those really on the receiving end of racism. Instead these conversations become dominated by ‘white fragility’, disabling any way forward by centering on the outrage of the accused, rather than the harm caused to the victim of racism.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s claim that calling Jim Molan a racist was ‘disgusting’ and ‘deplorable’ because ‘he defended Australians’ values in the battle against Islamist terrorism in the Middle East’ is clear evidence of the dangerous separation between what we believe racism to be and what it actually is. Molan’s alleged use of illegal methods against the civilian population of Fallujah is diminished in contrast to the crime of labelling his racism. Both Australia’s actions in the Iraq War and its brutal offshore detention policy are excluded from the acceptable definition of racism, which in turn becomes ever more fuzzy, and detached from what sociologist Miri Song calls its ‘historical basis, severity and power.’ The ahistorical redefinition of racism by those in power is becoming a daily occurrence. The effects this has on challenging it are significant. Until we engage in a deep and widespread project of racial literacy, racism will continue to be understood as an accusation rather than a description of policies, actions, words, and belief systems rooted in a precise history and with real, and often murderous, effects.
 See the work of Prof. David Roetiger, Prof. Noel Ignatiev, among others, on violence and whiteness in the US.
Alana Lentin is Associate Professor in Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University, Australia. She is the author, with Wulf D. Hund, of Racism and Sociology (Lit Verlag, 2014). Visit www.alanalentin.net