‘… but then as a coloured anti-British libtard of course you would not like one of the greatest ENGLISHMEN of all time.’
This was just one of many responses to a comment piece that - following the decision to depict Winston Churchill on the new £5 note - I was invited to write for The Independent back in 2016. In the piece, amongst other examples of his immorality, I pointed to Chruchill’s role in the Bengal Famine of 1943, his advocation of brutal violence in Greece and Afghanistan, his sloganizing ‘Keep Britain White’, and his calls for the forced sterilisation of 100,000 Britons.
‘We can do better than the racist, repugnant, chemical weapon-supporting Churchill on our £5 notes’.
Whilst my claims were historically verifiable and had been made by others, the piece provoked strong reactions in the article’s comments section and on social media. Although there was some support for my argument, responses were often hateful, personally abusive and demonstrative of an abject unwillingness to engage with the arguments I put forward. This unwillingness is perhaps symptomatic of what Robin DiAngelo refers to as ‘white fragility’: the defensiveness and evasiveness many white people experience when encountering the realities of systemic white supremacy.
The reaction wasn’t particular to me or the article, but is a defensiveness that surrounds anti-racism generally, and the memorialisation of Winston Churchill specifically. In fact, the furore surrounding Churchill resurfaced recently. After the astronaut Scott Kelly quoted Churchill, critics sought, like I had, to draw attention to the aspects of Churchill’s life that are often forgotten. In between being shouted over by Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain, Professor Kehinde Andrews asserted that "[Churchill] was someone who believed the white race was superior, the natives didn't have any right to their lands in the Americas, the Indians were a ghastly people and was just a general imperialist racist". Predictably, his appearance evoked a vehement backlash, and amidst the explicit racism, again, demonstrated a widespread unwillingness/inability to listen to anti-racist critiques.
Notwithstanding justifiable concerns about giving explicit racism too much credit/attention, it seems to me that the backlash that anti-racist scholars and activists face in cases like these might be of interest to those of us concerned with understanding the racial conditions in which we live. This understanding, I would argue, is of fundamental importance to those of us engaged in anti-racist scholarship and praxis. It is this that led me to engage in a close reading of the comments on my Independent article in order to develop an academic paper. The paper, ‘Does anybody really care what a racist says?’ Anti-racism in ‘post-racial’ times, was recently published in the Sociological Review journal.
In the paper I draw upon ‘post-racial’ theory to argue that the hegemonic belief that society has moved beyond its racist past presents a particular set of challenges for anti-racist actors. For this belief to endure, I show that that the racist past must always be already sanitised. Put another way - and to perhaps make plain the (anti-racist) intentions of my comment piece - if the realities of historical racism were to be truly excavated, the idea that society had overcome racism would be near inconceivable.
Therefore, I argue, contemporary white supremacy is not only dependent upon the ‘post-racial’, but also its coalescence with what Barnor Hesse calls white amnesia: a historical forgetfulness or denial about the histories of race and Empire. My Independent article posed a threat to this white amnesia, and, in so doing, threatened to disrupt the ‘post-racial’ mythologies upon which contemporary white supremacy endures. This, I argue, offers an explanation (although not a justification) for the veracity of the backlash I received.
In order to make this argument, I draw upon a theorisation of cognitive dissonance. As Fanon explains,
‘[s]ometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.’
In the paper I show that, in order to reconcile any cognitive dissonance that anti-racist counter-narratives can produce, readers develop a range of alternative explanatory frameworks. These frameworks, of course, are compatible with ‘post-racial’ white supremacy.
In the analysis of comments on my article, I found two broad avenues for response. Firstly, there were comments that chose not to engage directly with the article but reproduced hegemonic readings of Churchill’s life, and secondly, there were comments that pathologised me as the comment piece’s author. Whilst both avenues act to invalidate my critique of Churchill and (in so doing) maintain the conditions of ‘post-racial’ white supremacy, in my analysis I am particularly interested in the latter group, those that pathologise me, as the author. These comments fit loosely into three sub-groups: those that position me as ‘a racist’, those that attribute the article to my pathological mixed-race identity, and those that question my intelligence and qualifications. Although slightly different in their routes, I ultimately argue that ‘[e]ach of these explanations nullifies anti-racist work, protects, and reinforces the logic of ‘post-racial’ white supremacy.
Whilst I don’t have the answers for how we overcome these challenges, I do contend that - for anti-racist scholars and activists, and particularly for Public Sociologists – understanding these conditions will be key to our success.
Remi Joseph-Salisbury is a Presidential Fellow in Sociology at the University of Manchester. He is the author of Black Mixed-Race Men (Emerald, 2018) and co-editor of The Fire Now (Zed, 2018). He is also a trustee and organiser with the Racial Justice Network, part of the Northern Police Monitoring Project steering group, and the Race and Resistance columnist at Red Pepper Magazine. He tweets at @RemiJS90