Reply: to Kendra Briken on Cologne

Monday, 28 March 2016 – Francois Bonnet

Today we feature Francois’ response to Kendra Briken’s rejoinder on his podcast

The Monday Morning Meetings on Migration (4M) organizers have asked me to provide a short written commentary on Kendra Briken’s podcast, “Room for a Feminist Anti-racism after Cologne? A rejoinder to Francois Bonnet”. At start, thank you Kendra for such an engaging talk!

Darshan introduced the discussion by saying that I argued that “Cologne was a major blow to the Feminist left in Europe”. I was actually referring to the multiculturalist left (this is an observation, not something I am happy about). I said that the Cologne attacks had triggered a debate between feminists like Anne Wizorek, who argue that violence against women is universal, and feminists like Alice Schwarzer, who argue that there is a specific problem of gender backwardness in the Arab-Muslim world. The least we can make of this debate is that it doesn’t make sense to talk of “the Feminist left”, as if there was a single united feminist movement or theory. What is interesting is that different strands of feminism claim to be “the real feminists”. In other words, the struggle for the definition of feminism (“real feminism”) is ongoing.

Now, I am interested in the struggle for the definition, not of feminism, but of racism. For most people, racism intuitively mean something like “irrational hostility”. In this conception, racism is about the prejudice that people privately harbor. Social scientists like Kendra, Darshan and me find this definition too narrow and define racism more broadly, thanks to concepts like “institutional racism”.

The problem is that our definition is not hegemonic. Outside a small circle of academics and activists, most people don’t know about institutional racism and equate “racism” to “irrational hostility”.

Police institutional racism matters. The premise of my article describing French police officers performing non-racism is that France is the country with chronic racial rioting following incidents of police brutality towards minority youths. In fact, I introduced the concept of “performance of non-racism” precisely to imply that a performance may, or may not, be sincere. Police perform non-racism to avoid accusations of racism, not because they are not racist. I am glad Kendra reiterated this point.

The difference between Kendra and me is that Kendra seems to believe that racism has one worthy definition (institutional racism), while I make no claim about the worthiness of the different definitions that are in competition. On the contrary, I am interested in competing definitions of racism, and in how different actors try to redefine the folk definition of racism.

Why should we care? Because today, nobody claims to be racist. A few decades ago, it was perfectly ok to publicly argue that some races were inferior and had to be exterminated. Nowadays, there is wide normative consensus to condemn racism. As I have said in the podcast, even far-right political parties, whose electoral appeal rests on racial resentment, vehemently object to being racist. So far, consensually repellent racism centers on a lay definition of racism-as-irrational-hostility, not institutional racism—to the chagrin of people like Kendra, Darshan and me.



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