Unmaking Colonial History

The White Saviour or Racism Without Race

Oct 6th, 2020
Françoise Vergès

Abstract

In this contribution, Françoise Vergès argues that as long as Europe resists considering the role and place of slavery in the making of Europe as an idea and a project, the understanding of why there is “continuous systemic racist violence and exploitation” and a “struggle over the writing of memory and history” will remain wanting. The marginalisation of some antiracist acts and the obliteration of subaltern voices are tied to the dominant European narrative on slavery and its abolition. We must turn to Aimé Césaire’s notion of a ‘boomerang effect’, analyse how slavery and colonialism deeply penetrated not only the visual/textual regimes of whiteness and Blackness but also how the products of slavery (sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton) transformed the cultural and social life of Europe and informed how modernity was conceived. European abolitionism constructed a gaze though which Europeans understood anti-Black violence and imagined themselves as white saviours and these images, despite their evolution, have marked European public conversation about race, colonial history and the (post)colonial present to this very day.

Tearing down the veil of coloniality

On May 22, 2020, young black Martinicans in the group Mawon pulled down two statues of Victor Schoelcher in Fort de France, Martinique.[1] Two young black women went online that day to tell the police, the judge, and the State that no investigation was needed since they publicly claimed responsibility for the act. “Schoelcher is not our saviour,” they declared. They had chosen May 22 because on that day in 1848, a slave named Romain beat the drum to call the enslaved to end slavery without waiting for the Paris decree to arrive on the island. The French president, MPs and intellectuals in France and Martinique severely condemned the act and historians debated the legitimacy of honouring only the slaves, as young Martinicans were requesting, because, they argued, Schoelcher also played a role in the abolition of slavery.[2] But there was also support for the act. In the view of Martinican sociologist Isis Labeau-Caberia, the negative reactions were "symptomatic of two evils that plague Martinican society: on the one hand, its inertia in the face of a long-lived and still living colonial heritage; on the other hand, the growing gap between an aging and gentrified society and its youth demanding social change"[3]. According to historian Fola Gadet, the young people were shaking off a deadly respectability: "They point to the stars and you look at their finger. They show you the architects of their history, and you watch the falling statues. They clearly say what they want without hiding. You don't see their courage”[4].

The fall of the white saviour

Rather than the act of tearing down the statute of slave trader Edward Colson on June 6 in Bristol which the media, scholars and activists view as the beginning of the global movement to decolonise the public space, I see the pulling down of statues of Victor Schoelcher as an act with more meaning for a conversation on the “continuous systemic racist violence and exploitation and the struggle over the writing of memory and history” as the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung has written. Indeed, Schoelcher was neither a slave trader nor a slave owner; he was a 19th century French republican who wrote anti-slavery books and fought for the abolition of slavery and was behind the decree making the abolition of slavery in the French colonies final and definitive in 1848.[5] Targeting Schoelcher brings together past, present and future in the rewriting of European history from a decolonial antiracist position. He represents a past that, on the one had, offered absolutely no remedy for the crimes, damages and wounds of slavery and, on the other hand, facilitated and justified post-slavery colonisation, a present day which is still organised by race, inhabited by the colonial past, a present day of racism without race, of black lives that still do not matter, and of the rewriting of harsh, dangerous, and formidable anti-slavery struggles as a generous gesture by white philanthropists. He announces a future in which racial capitalism in its neoliberal clothes would preserve its hegemony. The act cuts deep into the history of European abolitionism and the ideology of white saviourism, which still dominate European perceptions of itself, of its civilising mission and of Anti-Blackness. It brings to light what Philomena Essed has brilliantly called “everyday racism,” the recurrent, systematic, and familiar practices rather than the exceptional incidents of racism.[6] By pulling down Schoelcher, young Martinicans are tearing away the veil of the politics of deadly respectability and assimilation and their false promises of equality in a world structured by racism, inequalities and injustices. Pressuring antiracists to remain polite, soft-spoken and deferential is a norm of deadly respectability. Yet, young black Martinicans know very well where respectability has led their country: greater dependency, paternalistic relations and poverty. Indeed, in Martinique, like other French overseas territories, these remnants of the first colonial empire built upon slavery or post-slavery colonisation, health and education are neglected, the rate of unemployment has been high for decades, their environment is polluted, and the message of successive French governments has been, “the future is elsewhere,” and joining the European Community has brought new problems.

Subaltern voices being silenced

Then why is it that the media, intellectuals and scholars, even among some antiracist movements, view the act of pulling down the statute of Colson as the beginning of the global movement to decolonise the public space rather than the pulling down of Schoelcher’s statute? Is it because what happens in Europe is naturally being written as historical? What gets written as a political/historical antiracist act must occur in Europe or in the United States rather than in what is seen as the periphery. In an effort to draft a counter-history of Europe in which slavery, colonialism, imperialism, and the migrations they produce create a multi-dimensional, multi-spatial and multi-temporal text, the geographical borders of Europe, the frame of its national narratives, must be constantly questioned. To do so, it is not enough to accept the frames of European history and add some forgotten chapters but to imagine new frames and new ways of writing that account for the erasures, silences, gaps and diverse subjectivities while also unearthing the processes of creolisation, the routes of solidarity, the escapes from the norms and the creation of alternative emancipatory spaces. It means overcoming the simplistic bipolar antagonisms that pervade even narratives of liberation, as Frantz Fanon has shown.

I would argue that the marginalisation of some antiracist acts and the obliteration of subaltern voices are tied to the dominant European narrative on slavery and its abolition, to the ways in which the “(non-)effects of images capturing anti-black violence on camera/paper, in the US and elsewhere, from the times of slavery passing through the video of the Rodney King beating (of which next year will be the 30th anniversary), to arrive at the killing of George Floyd and the recent violence during BLM protests” are fabricated.[7] Slavery as a regime of laws, practices and representations has remained marginal in the understanding of the making of Europe. What Aimé Césaire called the “boomerang effect” of slavery and colonialism deeply penetrated not only the visual/textual regimes of whiteness and Blackness but also of abolitionism and emancipation, which are still ignored in their lasting effect.[8] European abolitionism constructed a gaze though which Europeans understood anti-Black violence and imagined themselves as white saviours and these images, despite their evolution, have marked European public conversation about race, colonial history and the (post)colonial present to this very day.

European abolitionism and racism for the post-slavery moment

European abolitionism built its anti-slavery visual regime on images of Black passivity, never of agency. When it represented agency, whether in text or images as in the case of the Haitian revolution, it was through the tropes of barbarism, savagery and incapacity to enact freedom except through excess and wastefulness. Black Africans were defined by their captivity; they possessed agency insofar as they pleaded for salvation.[9] White supremacy and philanthropy framed the visual and textual rhetoric. European powers abolished slavery to maintain un-freedom and abolition rendered Europe innocent of slave trade and slavery. Post-slavery colonialism could start and consent to anti-Blackness was reconfigured through scientific racist discourse, and soon, with the tools of photography, cinema, colonial exhibitions and human zoos. Since then, decolonisation, the arrival of people from former colonies in Europe to work in low-paid jobs, the emergence of neoliberalism and xenophobic governments, the commodification of blackness, the development of Afro-European and antiracist movements, Islamophobia and the critique of racism in white bourgeois feminism and the European Left have led to a new terrain for antiracist struggle. The latter has also to fight against the discourse of rigid cultural differences that displaced the discourse of rigid racial biological differences, though the latter has not entirely disappeared, as can be seen with the notion of the ‘great replacement’.[10]

However, the trope of the white philanthropic saviour has not disappeared. Barca Nostra by the artist Christoph Büchel for the 2019 Venice Biennale showed how and why victimisation is still consumed and reproduced rather than challenged.[11] The ‘hostile environment’ to non-white European citizens or non-citizens remains strong. To Eleanor Paynter and Nicole Miller, what was “critical in this story — and in accounts of precarious migration more broadly — is how the men, women, and children trapped in the boat navigated the borders of invisibility. The boat is a material trace of the limbo migrants negotiate as they flee violence, persecution, and poverty to seek protection. As a nexus of shifting transfers that alter its status across a series of geopolitical and cultural borders, the boat enjoys forms of recognition and mobility denied to its passengers.”[12] What was missing to the public was the afterlives of Europe’s colonial past, the devolution of policing to countries of the South so that Europe can wash its hands of the worst while closing its borders, the racial politics in Europe (Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, anti-Romani sentiment) and the criminalisation of solidarity. What we see being acted out is what Aimé Césaire identified as the ensauvagement of Europe, because, quite simply “at the end of the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled in the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds towards savagery (ensauvagement).”[13]

Decolonising Europe, political antiracism

Protests against the processes of ensauvagement in Europe are standing on the shoulders of past struggles. They are linking the multiple temporalities produced by racism – past, present and a future as the past – in order to break the linear narrative of infinite progress that denies freedom and humanity to non-whites. Political antiracism – which sees racism as structural, systemic, expressed in many ways and thus does not frame racism as a moral flaw — seeks to reimagine what is to be human in the world. The decolonisation of Europe means confronting the long history of race, of exploitation of non-white peoples, of the separation between lives that matter and lives that do not matter. It means rejecting the rigid borders of ethno-nationalism. It means revitalising the practices of strong radical solidarity.

About the author

Françoise Vergès is a writer, a public educator and an antiracist feminist activist. Growing up in an intellectual anticolonial and feminist family in Reunion Island, a French postcolony, she has lived in Algeria, France, Mexico, the United States and the UK. After earning her PhD in Political Theory (1995) from the University of California at Berkeley, she taught in the UK. She has worked on the idea of a decolonial museum in Reunion Island, was president of the French National Committee for the Memory and History of Slavery (2008-2012), a project advisor for Documenta 11, and organised a programme entitled The Slave in Le Louvre. An Invisible Humanity for the 2012 Paris Triennial. She has worked with filmmakers and artists and is currently a member of the Decolonize the Arts collective (Paris). Recent publications include Capitalocene, Waste, Race and Gender (2019), Un féminisme décolonial (2019), The Women’s Womb. Capitalism, Race, Feminism (2020) and Resolutely Black, Conversations with Aimé Césaire (2020).

References

[1]  https://www.facebook.com/MawonTV/. See also: Peggy Pinel-Fereol, La destruction de statues de Victor Schoelcher justifiée par des militants mais condamnée par des figures martiniquaises, France.info, 23/05/2020, https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/martinique/destruction-statues-victor-schoelcher-est-justifiee-militants-condamnee-certaines-figures-martiniquaises-835524.html

[2] Aude Loriaux Pourquoi des militants ont détruit des statues de Victor Schoelcher (et est-ce justifié?), 20mn, https://www.20minutes.fr/arts-stars/culture/2788147-20200529-pourquoi-militants-detruit-statues-victor-schlcher-justifie, 29/06/2020, consulted 16/09/2020; Deux statues de Victor Schœlcher brisées par des manifestants en Martinique.Des manifestants anti-héritage colonial ont fait tomber des sculptures de l’homme qui a décrété l’abolition de l’esclavage. Emmanuel Macron a condamné ces actes «avec fermeté. Le Monde.fr, 23/05/2020, https://www.lemonde.fr/societe/article/2020/05/23/deux-statues-de-victor-sch-lcher-brisees-par-des-manifestants-en-martinique_6040559_3224.html; Bruno Sat, Statues de Schœlcher brisées en Martinique : réflexion avec deux spécialistes de l’esclavage, Franceinfo, 31/05/2020, https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/statues-schoelcher-brisees-martinique-reflexion-deux-specialistes-esclavage-838076.html.

[3] Isis Labeau-Caderia, La Martinique, malade de sa colonialité et de sa structure gérontocratique, France Antilles Martinique, 28 mai 2020, https://www.martinique.franceantilles.fr/opinions/debats-la-martinique-malade-de-sa-colonialite-et-de-sa-structure-gerontocratique-554981.php

[4] Fola Gadet, Le débat ce n’est pas ça !, 24 mai 2020, France Antilles, https://www.martinique.franceantilles.fr/opinions/debats-le-debat-ce-n-est-pas-ca-554821.php

[5]     France is the only European country which had to abolish slavery in all its colonies twice. The first abolition in all colonies was in February 1794 (though slavery was abolished only in Guadeloupe). Slavery was restored by Napoleon in May 1802. On April 27, 1848, slavery was finally abolished in all French colonies.

[6]     Philomena Essed, Understanding Everyday Racism. An Interdisciplinary Theory. Sage Publications, 1991.

[7]  From the invitation by Forensic Oceanography in preparation to their roundtable Imagini alla deriva for the Short Theatre Festival in Rome (September 7, 2020), with Camilla Hawthorne, Annalisa Camilli, Angelica Pesarini, Elsa Dorlin, Lorenzzo Pezzani and myself.

[8]  Aimé Césaire, Discourse on colonialism. Translated by Joan Pinkham, Monthly Review Press, 1972, p.3. (Présence africaine, 1955)

[9]  There is such a vast literature by black scholars and intellectuals on the visual regime of European abolitionism and anti-Blackness, that I cannot do justice to them all here. However, see: Marcus Wood, Blind Memory. Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865, Manchester University Press, 2000 and The Horrible Gift of Freedom: Atlantic Slavery and the Representation of Emancipation, University of Georgia Press, 2010; Neil MacMaster, Blackness without Blacks, in Sander L. Gilman, On Blackness Without Blacks: Essays on the Image of the Black in Western Popular Culture, G. K. Hall, 1982; Viviane Saleh-Hanna, Black Feminist Hauntology. Rememory the Ghosts of Abolition? Champ pénal/Penal field [Online], Vol. XII | 2015, Online since 17 February 2016, connection on 17 September 2020. Françoise Vergès, Abolir l’esclavage, une utopie colonial. Les ambiguities d’une politique humanitaire, Albin Michel, 2001. 

[10] A white nationalist conspiracy theory developed by French author Renaud Camus in his book Le grand remplacement (2011) which argues that white Europe will be soon replaced by non-European peoples, especially by Arabs and sub Saharan Muslim populations. The concept has now entered the public debate.

[11] The fishing boat in which 700 to 1000 sub-Africans were packed and which sank in 2015 between the Libyan coast and the city of Augusta, Sicily, leaving only 28 survivors , was recovered from the seabed in 2016 and brought to a NATO base in Sicily, where a team of forensic scientists worked to identify the hundreds of bodies still imprisoned within its hull. It was installed by Swiss-Icelandic artist Christoph Büchel as “a collective monument and memorial to contemporary migration,” (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-white-readymade-and-the-black-mediterranean-authoring-barca-nostra/).

[12]  Eleanor Paynter and Nicole Miller, The White Readymade and the Black Mediterranean” Los Angeles Review of Books, 22/09/2019, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-white-readymade-and-the-black-mediterranean-authoring-barca-nostra/.

[13] Césaire, op.cit., p.3.