Gavan Titley, Maynooth University
6 March 2018
Racism, in public culture, is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. The very mention of race serves as an invitation to disprove its salience, the mention of racism as an invitation to refute its relevance. In the contemporary political context, to speak publicly about racism is to be immediately integrated into an intensive process of delineation, deflection and denial, a contest over who gets to define racism, when ‘everyone’ gets to speak about it.
In the postcolonial, migration nations of western Europe and North America, this contestation centres on the dominant imaginary of these societies as ‘post-racial’, socio-political spaces in which, the story goes, the divisive ‘idea of race’ no longer matters, and the violence of racism has been largely transcended. The public cultures of these societies are also shaped by dense transnational networks of media flow and communicative connectivity that provide unprecedented possibilities to both extend and challenge racializing discourses, images, frameworks and information.
The overlap between the two produces what this talk terms the debatability of racism. It argues that if the meaning of racism is historical and contingent, and shifting under changing social relations and through new political conditions and conflicts, then the persistent communicative work which is invested in the attention as to what counts as racism does more than say something of analytical value about the cultural production of contemporary racisms. It must also be approached as a generative political dimension of how racism functions in a putatively ‘post-racial’ conjuncture.
In other words, in contexts where official narratives and dominant public discourses assume the ‘end of racism’ even as people who experience racism attest to its renewed formations and exclusionary and humiliating force, these everyday communicative concentrations on the status, nature and extent of racism are politically consequential – postracialism functions not only through ‘muting’ and silencing, but through noise. The talk suggests that this debatability, this incessant, recursive attention as to what counts as racism and who gets to define it, has political consequences for practices of antiracism – practices that want to name racism publicly, the better to mobilize to confront it.
Gavan Titley is Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Maynooth University, and a Docent in the Swedish School of Social Science, Helsinki University. His research includes The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age (with Alana Lentin, 2011, Zed Books), and After Charlie Hebdo: Terror, Racism and Free Speech (ed. 2017, Zed Books). This talk draws on his forthcoming book Racism and Media (2018, Sage Publications).