A short note on racism

by Sam Kriss

The other night, millions of TV viewers were treated to the grand spectacle of a woman being racist on camera. The woman was former Ukip councillor Rozanne Duncan, and the programme itself, Meet the Ukippers, was the usual paternalistic BBC fare – one long sneer at those dreadful tacky ukips, with their mobility scooters and their purple ties and their collections of almost two thousand porcelain clowns (although, to be fair, they do have a collection of almost two thousand porcelain clowns). I live in Seaside Ukipville myself: a damp, ugly trough of barely drained bog and shoddy housing hemmed in by barren bag-strewn hills, a geological latrine that curves out from the less fashionable end of Brighton; I know how it goes. My neighbour flies a huge British flag in his back garden, visible above the low roofline, the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a Third World border town; behind my house there’s a tattered cross of St George, and across the street someone’s decked out the front of their home in both English and British flags. The local shop sells tabloids and tinned peas, all the cheese comes in individually wrapped slices, the aisles are filled with hoarse grandmothers roaring impotent fury at kids with sticky fingers and feral, darting eyes, and you simply can’t get decent bruschetta or even a bottle of wine that didn’t roll flat-bottomed off a conglomerate assembly line somewhere south of the Equator. The whole area was purpose-built after the First World War as part of the Homes for Heroes programme, but these are less homes than filing cabinets for human beings. These places are easy to hate because, well, they’re utterly hateable: dismal, depressing, and shot through with a kind of existential meanness, in both senses – the miserliness of low ceilings and crumbling plaster, the general atmospheric sense of a total hostility to human life. The one thing they have going for them is that they tend to be cheap. That’s why, up to a point, it’s generally best to blame the hideousness of these places on the landlords, the speculators, the ones who left people with no other choice, rather than the people who actually live there.

Up to a point. That point was nicely identified by Ms Duncan, who delivered a long racist rant in front of a clearly horrified Ukip press officer (aghast, no doubt, that someone was actually saying what everyone’s thinking) and – unbelievably – an entire BBC camera team. She ticked just about every box: not just ominously referring to people with Negroid features but directly and openly voicing a specific, personal, visceral dislike for such people, and even recounting an instance in which she had discriminated against them (by pushing for Negro children to be excluded from sheltered housing). And she just kept on going, a bubbling sewer-sluice of the stuff, idiocy after idiocy. What’s strange is that she also insisted, and continues to insist, that she is not a racist. In an interview filmed after she had been fired from Ukip, she seemed to believe that her offence wasn’t a clearly voiced animus towards black people, but the anachronistic use of the word Negro. It’s a description, not an insult, she said. Like how Jews have bent noses. (Mine, I should add, is beaky and protruding but ramrod-straight.) But of course she didn’t think she was saying anything wrong – otherwise she wouldn’t have said it in front of a BBC camera crew, all of them surely trying to stifle their grins and hoping the word paydirt wasn’t visibly flashing across the whites of their eyes.

It’s strange. For a long time anti-racists have been trying to show that racism isn’t just an overt expression of hatred towards one racialised group or another, that it’s an unvoiced hierarchy structurally embedded in the fabric of society, that the construction of race itself is mutually inextricable from racism – and yet after all that, when someone performs the most basic, crude, open expression of racism, she’s unable to recognise it as such. In a way we’re the victims of our own success. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a slightly more literate racist-apologist defence of Ms Duncan: of course, what she said was unacceptable, but it wasn’t really racist; after all, racism is a structural relation, and what’s one person’s simple prejudice next to the large-scale bigotry of an impersonal system?

Where does this chiasmic structure come from? What Duncan’s insistence on her non-racism demonstrates is that the word ‘racism’ has been emptied of all content. The formation I’m not racist but… is rightly mocked, but it needs to be taken very seriously: it’s the master-signifier of modern racial discourse. After decades of work we’ve finally hammered in the message that Racism Is Bad to the extent that almost nobody will now admit to actually being a racist (with the exception of Chelsea fans abroad); in fact, the word racist has come to mean nothing more than the thing that one is not. There are no longer any racist signifiers; racism exists only on the level of the signified, and when the signifier is entirely overdetermined, something like racism becomes a strange, scuttling, hermit-crab thing. It’s a nomad language, a subterraneous seepage that gloops beneath the solid structures of words and concepts. Like the wet rot that plagues houses in my malarial pit of a neighbourhood, it seeps up into a phrase from beneath and carries out its work beneath paint and plaster. Even the most egregious examples of racism – the string of police killings of unarmed black people in the United States, for instance, or the exclusionary jeering of European secularists – never allow themselves to appear as such, and any attempt to properly fumigate them leaves itself open to the perverse accusation of racialisation.

Some anti-racists seem to be labouring under a strange illusion, the idea that once you identify something as being racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or ableist, or transphobic, or otherwise oppressive) you’ve in some way done away with it. In a way this is true: overt racism really isn’t allowed in the general discourse any more. But racism stubbornly continues to exist; in fact, we seem to be doing more work correctly identifying it than ever. It’s the same with Ukip: the party is routinely mocked on social and traditional media; it’s become a handy byword for stuffy, ugly incompetence; it’s been so utterly annihilated by every stand-up comedian on the circuit that by now there surely shouldn’t be anything left – but for some reason they just keep winning elections. The problem is that simply identifying something or someone as racist, however correctly, has become semantically empty. What’s being said is that the thing is that which it is impossible for anything to be, an obvious nonsense. If the subject is embedded in a discourse of the signifier, and racist is an absolute negation, then it’s structurally impossible for anyone to actually be a racist. (In a way racist is the perfect signifier; it does all the things that Saussure and Derrida and so on say such things should – defining itself negatively, relating to signs rather than things – while most other words still operate according to some kind of magical thinking.) A funhouse mirror version of Hegel’s was wirklich ist, das ist vernünftig: what is real is not racist.

What can be done? It’s always possible to invent new words, but while logodaedaly is generally a good in and of itself it’s always very hard to put a slithering oizytic evil back in the box. I don’t have too much objection to the idea of really engaging with the meat of the matter, the intercranial signified, with fists if necessary. But in the end what might be most needed is the continued insistence on a simple truth, as trite as it might seem: racist ideas aren’t wrong because they’re racist; they’re wrong because they’re wrong.

(This is probably a separate discussion, but the fact that Duncan appeared to believe that her racism is a punishment for misdeeds in a past life, and that it could possibly be cured by regression therapy, merits further analysis. The Nazis had grand and stupid alternate cosmologies; their shitty contemporary iteration appears to have an appropriately banalised myth-structure. When Ukip inevitably enter into a governing coalition with Labour this year, will drowning asylum seekers be told that they’re the reincarnations of ungrateful Englishmen? Will Farage claim the quiddity of King Arthur? The future is a terrible place.)