The Golden Barley School

an anarchist, a communist & a feminist walk into a bar…

Discomfort, non-violence and race

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Context for this post.

At a recent fundraiser in Sydney, an Aboriginal man heavily involved in indigenous struggle and performing at the fundraiser, was attacked by another man from the crowd. The attacker was ejected from the venue, however there were numerous issues with how this occurred. A couple of particular things that were said on the night have given reason to think a bit more critically about the meaning of anti-racist solidarity and the organisation of spaces/events such as fundraisers. What we want to think about here are about two aspects of the racial politics that emerged during the response to the attack, but that give an insight into broader problems in anti-racist solidarity: that there is a racialised politics to space and comfort, and that this is connected to a fetishized conception of non-violent direct action (NVDA).

Comfort and safety.

In our efforts to make spaces in which people feel safer and more comfortable we need to constantly ask ourselves to what degree do we succeed in challenging and transforming hierarchical social relations, and to what degree do we fail at this? More specifically, we need to constantly question why it is that certain bodies and people get to feel most comfortable, and how do they get to be comfortable. It makes sense that we would desire spaces of safety and comfort and indeed, a significant amount of political organising and language has been framed in such terms. For example, safer spaces are often framed as aiming at the eradication of dangerous forms of behaviour from the spaces and worlds we create. Or at least, given that this is in itself actually impossible, safer spaces are characterised as a measure to better prepare us for dealing with the shit that animates our lives. In this sense safer spaces are not about the eradication of conflict, but the better organisation of it.

However, while we can see why comfort appears to be a desirable response to a conflicted world, it is also necessary to question how comfort works. We think that there is a politics to comfort that can be framed in terms of who gets to be comfortable, when and how. When we think about comfort and safety, we ought to think about on whose terms is comfort established? What are the racialised norms that underpin our understandings of comfort? And what happens when these norms become unsettled and challenged? We also think, and this comes back to the incident at the fundraiser, that when norms become unsettled and when those who have felt most entitled to comfort feel themselves out of place, that the desire for comfort can be a reactionary impulse. It is reactionary because it emerges as a result of having to experience a discomfort that could previously be taken for granted specifically because the individual is, in this case, white. In this way, the spaces we create and the modes of comfort that characterise them are not removed from the social conditions from which they are produced. As a result, if our impulse in the moment of discomfort is to do anything to re-establish the existing mode of comfort, then we risk complicity with reproducing the subtle but no less felt politics of racialised comfort.

Non-violence and the traumatised ‘other’.

The incident at the fundraiser was an everyday example of what can happen when assumptions about comfort become destabilised, and also gives reason to return to a broader criticism of NVDA politics. This is the criticism that highlights NVDA as typically a liberal, middle-class and white (despite the obligatory and very problematic references to Gandhi) ideology with significant racial implications. To call it these things isn’t to say that working-class or non-white folk would never adhere to its principles or that it is not tactically advantageous in given scenarios, but that its overall framework tends to be portrayed as the without question morally advanced and mature political choice. This tends to go hand-in-hand with a colonialist vision of the traumatised, irrational other unable to justify their choice and forms of struggle with the necessary liberal-democratic rhetoric. As Gertrude and Fuschia wrote way back in 2006 in response to some of the left’s outrage at the anti-police violence that occurred at a G20 summit in Melbourne:

“A false dichotomy is set up between the role of the “disciplined”, politically mature protestor and the inarticulate other. The other is positioned as a person or a group too worn out by oppression to resist tactically. This other is protested for, or on behalf of, but we must never indulge in their tactics.”

Proponents of NVDA may accept that an oppressed group in a distant place may turn to violent resistance as a desperate response to their condition, but never want it to come too close to the comfort of spaces that they inhabit. The events on Friday – in the calls for ‘non-violence’ and the crowds’ focus on the anger of the person who was attacked rather than the white attacker – revealed the ways in which, when something unsettling occurs amidst our spaces, the desire to return as quickly as possible to a level of comfort can lead to reactionary decisions. On this occasion it was a series of reactionary decisions that failed to account for the racial politics in the scenario that was unfolding. Non-white bodies present in white-claimed spaces – even ‘progressive’ spaces – are regularly a cause of discomfort to the extent of possibly being seen as dangerous intruders, a perception that can very much lead to that person’s safety being thrown into jeopardy. This specifically happened at the fundraiser. It also happens generally at street demos where situations involving police are regularly defined by a white experience of the state which cannot account for the specific anger or anxiety of a non-white person facing-off the police.

Anti-racist solidarity.

We don’t think this is simply an abstract argument with no relevance to the practice of anti-colonial, anti-racist solidarity. What occurred at the fundraiser on Friday exposed the latent assumptions about what ‘proper’ behaviour is in radical scenes – and that extends from these smaller moments to the larger campaigns that white activists choose to participate in as proof of their anti-racist practice. It also relates to short-sighted understandings of solidarity, specifically when solidarity is conflated with or reduced to sympathy. The idea that solidarity can be expressed in a phrase from a white person such as ‘I hate being white’ and ‘I wish I was black’ – as occurred on Friday – indicates how shallow (indeed racist) the idea of solidarity can become. These words express a disavowal of any need for a critical consideration of how we might meaningfully participate in challenging and organising against racism. Instead, this phrase attempts to establish equivalence between a person of colour’s experience of racism and a white person’s desire to have the person of colour recognise their emotional distress at feeling awkward about being white. Instead of having any interest in why a black person might be telling them that they couldn’t possibly understand where they were coming from in terms of their life experience, there is a request to hear white guilt, and in doing so placate the situation and return it a condition of comfort in which questions of race can continue to be ignored.

The solidarity we need to build requires a certain distance from an expectation of comfort. Not because of some guilt-based ‘giving up’ of privilege – guilt-based politics never lead anywhere useful and privilege doesn’t work like that in any case – but because outside our expectations of comfort are where bonds of common struggle are forged, and where we might learn to undermine the hierarchies of solidarity that so often occur in leftist attempts at anti-racist solidarity. Whether it is about asylum seekers, indigenous solidarity and sovereignty or West Papuan independence, white activist campaigns that involve solidarity with non-white folk in struggle nearly always involve a pigeon-holing and recuperation of the racial politics involved. Even with the best intentions, this recuperation nearly always involves the re-framing of struggle into forms that are comfortable and typical of white-activist scenes in Australia, while also often positioning the white activist acting in solidarity as the key component of the struggle. To repeat, all this is underpinned by the racist implication that more oppressed groups are too ‘traumatised’ to choose ‘mature’ forms of political response or struggle. They need to be pointed in the right direction by white activists. This recuperation should be recognised even where symbolic non-white voices are used to give credence to the role of such activism. Is this all too far from the moment that occurred at the fundraiser? Nah. What we saw there was all these assumptions and forms of behaviour playing out in a totally unique situation, where hopefully it became obvious to people just how problematic some of these types of ‘anti-racism’ are. And if it wasn’t obvious, well that’s why we’re writing this now.


written by a couple people from golden barley school

Author: @furiousaffects

wayward wobbly commie

One thought on “Discomfort, non-violence and race

  1. Sara Ahmed’s blog posts ‘becoming unsympathetic’ and ‘institutional habits’ on helped think some of this.

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