For the billionth time, having ethnic or black friends does not stop you from being a racist.
That sentence was lifted from an article in the Huffington Post by Zeba Bay, the senior culture writer for that magazine. In that article, she specifies that for the umpteenth time, please stop using the presence of black friends in your life to ‘prove’ your anti-racism. Bay was referring to the American context, and in particular to the conduct of Michael Cohen, a personal attorney of US President Trump.
Cohen posted pictures of himself alongside his African American friends to provide seeming evidence that he is a fair-minded, non-racist person. We will get back to this later in the article, but for now, let us focus on an issue of racism in Australia.
Citing your black friends as purported evidence of anti-racism is a technique that has a counterpart in Australia. We have witnessed this tactic yet again in the racism controversy surrounding the treatment of former Australian Football League (AFL) player Heritier Lumumba. Going by the anglicised name of Harry O’Brien, Lumumba has detailed how, in the course of his long-playing career, he was routinely racially abused by his teammates and coaching staff. Lumumba, of mixed Brazilian-Congolese heritage, has detailed how, for instance, he was derided as a “chimp” by his colleagues during training sessions.
This is not just an instance of some innocent joking around, of harmless name-calling or sledging as Australians like to say. He was constantly ridiculed because of his ethnic background.
It is not our purpose to go into the entire controversy in this article. You may read about Lumumba’s viewpoint and subsequent criticism of the AFL management here. Other AFL players have come to Lumumba’s support, and this issue of racism in sport is gaining long-overdue attention. You may also read a summary of the racism row here, in New Matilda magazine.
What is noteworthy about this controversy is not the dispute about racism in the AFL. What is interesting is the criticism that Lumumba has faced since he raised his voice against what he viewed as racism in the league. Numerous commentators, with access to computers and social media, have unleashed a torrent of abuse and vitriol against Lumumba.
The main defence is that Lumumba is just an idiot or crybaby, and that there is no racism in the AFL sport. For instance, one commentator remarked that the club for which Lumumba played for the majority of his career is Collingwood. The latter club cannot possibly be racist. Why? Because the colours of the club jersey are black and white.
This is an Australian variation on the tired and preposterous theme of ‘I’m not racist because my friends are Black/ Indigenous/ Chinese/ Muslim/ Jewish.’ We have heard various permutations of this assertion over the decades – I can’t be racist because I have Indigenous friends; I can’t be racist because I like Chinese food; I can’t be racist because I do karate on weekends.
It is commendable to have connections and friendships with people from all different ethnic backgrounds. The lines of communication between different racial and ethnic groups should always be open and honest. Having a relationship with a person from another ethnic background may be one factor in reducing prejudicial beliefs. However, let us be clear – having friendships with people from ethnic backgrounds, or from the first nations of Australians, is irrelevant to the issue of racism and white supremacy. To illustrate using a parallel example – a straight misogynist man can still have relationships and marriages with women, and still sustain his prejudicial attitudes.
Let us make no mistake – a person with prejudicial attitudes can have a relationship with a person of another racial or ethnic background, and still maintain those destructive prejudicial beliefs. Let us take the most obvious example at present – US President Donald Trump has multiple African American friends and business partners, and his numerous wives (past and present) are immigrants.
That has not stopped his administration from enacting racist legislation, or expressing racist beliefs about migrant communities. Throughout his election campaign, he and his Republican rivals, launched vicious attacks against the Latino, African American and Islamic communities.
The deliberate portrayal of immigrant communities, and in particular Latin American and Muslim immigrants and refugees, as an existential threat to the ‘American way of life’ is solidly based in the outlook and institutions of white supremacy. Such a campaign found a receptive audience in the more openly fascistic strands in American society. The Trump presidency has been a lightning rod, attracting various ultra-rightist, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups and providing their agenda with respectability. But do not worry, Trump has many black and Jewish friends.
The Trump presidency, while being avowedly pro-Zionist and pro-Israel, has encouraged the most viciously anti-semitic and racist forces in American society. Since Trump’s ascendancy, there has been a steep increase in anti-semitic attacks and vandalism across the country. In fact, it is not unusual for anti-semitic groups and persons to be vociferously pro-Israel. Trump’s election victory in 2016 was greeted with anguish and disgust across the world, but in one country, his victory was warmly welcomed – in Israel. The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ecstatically happy that he had gained a new friend in the White House. The anti-semitism of the newly resurgent ultra-right, and the outburst of anti-Jewish hatred at Charlottesville, was of no consequence to Netanyahu and his political allies.
The ugly events at Charlottesville have brought the issue of white supremacy back into the spotlight. It is not our intention to go into great details about the racially-motivated protest and killings at that event here. That subject is for a future article. Suffice it to say that Charlottesville was not a peaceful expression of lawful dissent. It was an organised race riot by white supremacist and neo-Confederate groups, emboldened by an American administration that provides wide latitude for their actions and philosophy.
At Charlottesville there was, among others, a typical example of the problem we are attempting to identify here – a Puerto Rican white supremacist. That may seem rather jarring at first – how can a Latin American, after hearing the vitriolic denunciations of Mexicans and Latin American nationalities by the Trump campaign, end up supporting white supremacy? The example above, regarding Puerto Rican white supremacist Alex Ramos, typifies what the late revolutionary writer and activist Franz Fanon called the colonised mind.
Listen to the words of Rosa Clemente, the author of the above article on Puerto Rican white supremacy:
Fanon was a Martinique-born psychiatrist, philosopher, and revolutionary. In his seminal work Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon psychoanalyzes what he calls “the oppressed Black person who perceives themselves to have to be a lesser creature in the white world that they live in and navigate the world through a performance of whiteness.”
When Michael Cohen, about whom we spoke at the beginning of this article, shares pictures of himself with his black friends on Twitter or Facebook, he may be proving that he has excellent social skills. He may be proving that he is a nice guy. But he is not providing any evidence of anti-racism.
When confronted by the malaise of racism, whether in sport or politics, do not circulate stories about how your multiple friendships with persons of different ethnic backgrounds makes you a good person. It is more constructive to ask how we can work together to confront the scourge of racism. Charlottesville is glaring evidence that the cancer of white supremacy, built into the very structures of American (and Australian) capitalism, requires clear-thinking and multi-ethnic cooperation to be defeated.