Racism and Welfare Conference

The Rasism och Välfärd (Racism and Welfare) conference, organised by CEMFOR (Centrum för mångvetenskaplig forskning om rasism) at Uppsala University, took place between 11-12 October.

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The first keynote, by Philomena Essed, was entitled “Inclusive Beyond Race: Racism, Dehumanization and the Pursuit of Dignity.” The main thread that Essed developed in her talk was thinking beyond the notion of race. She began by describing her earlier work on the notion of everyday racism. She then raised the issues of gender and class and how attempts to grapple with these intersections somehow seem to center one or the other. She dwelt in particular on how the notion of diversity has become valorized in a spirit of inclusivity that nevertheless often reinscribes norms, as a form of cultural cloning. In an effort to combat this tokenized inclusion of others which reproduces the dominant, Essed argues for the need to think more seriously about dignity, which she stressed was not the same as equal human worth. Here she mentioned Nussbaum’s work on capabilities, and her own reflections on what dignity might mean in practical terms, not only the ways in which dignity is infringed upon, or how dignity is violated but also what we might aspire to in pursuit of dignity.

A particular panel that was of interest to me was on Anti-Muslim Racism. The first paper in this panel was entitled “Serving the Norwegian people with Islamophobia”. The speaker, Sindre Bangstad, examined Norwegian figures who were described as “brokers, translating [Islamophobic] ideas and tropes to a Norwegian context,” focusing in particular on Hege Storhaug.

The second paper, presented by Therese Bjornaas, continued in the same context, focusing more closely on femonationalism and Muslim women as agency-less “objects of protection.” The speaker mentioned the term snikislamisering, a parallel to the creeping Shariah notion, and something I first heard about, oddly, sometime in the late 2000s through an Allah Made Me Funny skit. The vague term “the veil” was as usual the symbol of this process — I’ve always found this an interesting tension, between the very visual, obvious nature of the hijab or niqab and the underhanded sneakily “creeping” expansion of Muslimness.

Side note related to the representation of Muslim women: I was a little disappointed that no Muslim women writers or scholars or activists were cited. Deconstructing the idea of Muslim women as objects of protection would surely be furthered by presenting them/us as subjects rather than objects of analysis? I’ve always seen this as the aspirational goal of Muslimah Media Watch — and the Muslim Girl model has this idea in their “Muslim women talk back” tag line — though we’re a long way from reaching this goal at the moment.

In the third and final paper on this panel, Nazita Lajevardi presented an interesting study on Muslim  American representation and exclusion by state legislators. The background to the study is the shift post-9/11 of the perception of Americans who are Muslim, away from national prejudices towards a focus on religion, though they clearly overlap. One example of this overlap I came across recently is the HarvardProject Implicit test, which  conflates Arab and Muslim, this conflation itself reflecting a common assumption by those who might test their own prejudices about either/both groups. The description for the IAT is that it “requires the ability to distinguish names that are likely to belong to Arab-Muslims versus people of other nationalities or religions.” This was the very issue brought up in the questions about Lajevardi’s study — where does national prejudice end and religious prejudice begin and how do you test for these?

In elucidating the background to the shift to religious categories, the history of the census counting MENA peoples as “white” was mentioned in passing — more recently, there’s been an effort to change this through the “Check it right” campaign, which has been ongoing for at least 7 years.

 

Another panel, on migration and policing, examined issues of immigration checks and ethnic profiling in Finland. The first speaker, Markus Himanen, discussed internal immigration controls by the police forces, presenting data based on interviews with police and how they rationalise police stops, part of a larger project called Stopped – spaces, meanings and practices of ethnic profiling”  which is led by Suvi Koskinen.  A particular example that captured media attention was the handcuffing of two women who happened to be the mother and sister of rapper Musta Barbaari.

 

The second speaker, Minna Seikkula, discussed the nexus of race/racism and migration in the agendas of antiracism activists. She began by examining the scope of the term racism, in relation to the work of Barnor Hesse and David Goldberg as well as Alana Lentin on the notion of Eventness. Seikkula then discussed her work in progress, analysing data based on interviews with activists, who define themselves either as anti-racist/anti-fascist, as engaging with migrant rights or solidarity action, or activists focused on Black/Brown/Muslim identities. The analysis in various ways investigates how activists respond to the notion that “Europe’s migration regimes articulate and are articulated by racialization and coloniality” (Erel et al 2016).

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The conference had a few panels and talks on the role of academia and academics, including a roundtable entitled Racialised Academia. This began with a talk by  Paula Mählck on the globalization of international education, examining both the “potential risk of cultural homogenisation  through donor driven research training” and the “weakening of academic values in favor of work relations based on economic concerns.” Alireza Behtoui then spoke about “The ‘stranger’ among Swedish ‘homo academics'”. This was part of a project on the other among Swedish elites, including high income, political sectors and academic of society. In the academia sector, Behtoui analysed things such as the likelihood of getting a job after the Phd, and income differences.

Fataneh Farahani and Suruchi Thapar Björkert discussed “Racializing Knowledge Production,” including “the construction of academic knowing subjects, the distribution of academic assignments and dates, patterns and norms regarding choice of course literature, and the politics of citation.” A particular focus was on discrediting academic work, and the political views and writing of minored groups, as experiential.  The presentation looked also at the so-called ceiling accent and the problem of being positioned as a privileged racialised academic, where your positionality seems to disprove the racism.

Tobias Hubinette continued the discussion of foreign-background academics in Sweden, focusing in particular on social sciences and the humanities. Hubinette showed that there is a seeming high number of foreign-background academics in Sweden (30%) but while this number looks good, in fact it is inflated by incoming new researchers who do not remain for a long time. Some particularly striking statistics were shown regarding the total number of teachers and researches with a Phd within  the humanities employed within Swedish higher education. For example: there are, in total, eight people from Africa employed in the humanities in Swedish higher education. Eight!

Finally, Farahani and Anna Lundberg discussed “transversal dialogue” as a method, initially used by women’s peace movement in Palestine/Israel, and how it might be used to problematise the discussion of radicalised academia and to call for “epistemological pluralism”. One of the examples of an epistemological disconnect cited was the movie Yes (2004). In another example, Farahani and Lundberg ask “Who has the privilege of becoming an expert?” referencing Reza Aslan’s infamous interview with Fox News, where his Muslimness outweighs his scholarly credentials to write on theology. They also raised the issue of epistemological ignorance, asking which academics are allowed to be ignorant of particular regions or backgrounds, and which academics are expected to explain their own backgrounds. Then there is the ways in which academic propgate the power structures — for example, (racialised) students switching groups to attend lectures given by (white, male) academic stars in order to obtain a reference letter which will open doors for their own careers.

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Another keynote speaker, David Theo Goldberg, spoke on race and the politics of dread. “Dread has become a driving affect of our moment,” Goldberg stated, and part of that dread is that we are losing the ability even to name precisely what is happening. Goldberg discussed the ways in which attacks on welfarism accelerate in parallel with increasing ambivalence or hostility about the heterogenization of society.  As white populations understand they may become a minority, they increasingly oppose diversity, supporting the  shift from welfarism to neoliberalism. For example, justifications of police shootings that cite the police fearing for their life are on the face of it often ludicrous — Michael D’Antuono’s “A Tale of Two Hoodies,” discussed in the talk, captures the imbalance of the power dynamics here  — yet these jusitifcations are part of this overpowering dread of becoming a minority.

newblackAt the same time as there is a renewed focus on race as the secularization of the theological, as a source of identity, there is a sense that we have moved beyond race. Goldberg began with an image an image of a white man wearing a sweatshirt with “The New Black” written on it, noting that this image captures the erasure of race, or the notion of being postracial, and how it gives way to a proliferation of racism, where you, if you object, become the problem.

The conference concluded today with a presentation of a project by Antirasistiska Akademin (ARA) on how research work might be made more accessible to the wider public, in particular those who might not be engaged in critical discussions around racism. The focus was on making  discussions on anti-racism accessible through audiovisial means.. The project involves a series of long form, hour-long interview series with themes such as Afrophobia, right to work, social mobilising, intersectionality, terrorism and securitization, solidarity, Nazism, and the importance of a political movement. These interviews will eventually be made available through the ARA website and this youtube channel.

 

Other speakers who presented on migration, structural racism and reimagining the nation included Lynn Al Khatib, Laid Bouakaz, Seynab Haji, Roya Hakimnia and many, many others. The full conference program can be found here. 

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