Unsettling Feminism and the Politics of the Prison Break: Ash Sarkar In Conversation with Alana Lentin

by Ash Sarkar

9 March 2017


For the Novara Media week-long Women’s Strike focus, I knew there was only one person I wanted to interview: Alana Lentin. Currently Hans Speier Visiting Professor of Sociology at the New School in New York, her work theorising race, migration and multiculturalism has been formative in the development of my own politics. Her publications include Racism and Anti-Racism in Europe (2004), Racism and Ethnic Discrimination (2011), and The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age (2011), co-authored with Gavan Titley. She edited the 2014 volume Racism and Sociology. What was intended to be a short interview on racialised exclusions from femininity turned into a wide ranging and breakneck conversation on strategies for unsettling the existing social order.

Ash Sarkar: In the last few months with the Global Women’s March and the International Women’s Strike, we’ve seen a resurgence of feminist organising of a scale and scope that we haven’t seen, at least in the Global North, for a very long time – I suppose we have the symbolism of the Trump presidency to thank for that.

And yet simultaneously there’s been a kind of symmetry between securitising the borders of the nation state, and an exclusionary contraction around the boundaries of femininity. I’m thinking here of the ‘debates’ on the place of trans, Muslim, black and migrant women in the feminist movement or indeed the public sphere more generally. So I’d like to ask you – how are we to make sense of these exclusionary discourses? Is there hope for a different kind of feminism?

Alana Lentin: I think you need to take a step back from it – there was a clue in what you asked, when you said ‘at least in the Global North’. We know very well that all of these fights and struggles have been going on not only in the Global South, but also led by black and migrant women here. There was never a gap. It never stopped. It was always happening as grassroots organising within communities.

There was never a time when women weren’t mobilising for their own emancipation, and for their communities in general – I’m thinking particularly around issues of police violence, Islamophobia after 9/11. You might be aware of the March for Dignity that’s happening in Paris on 19 March which is led by women, autonomously organised by women, but is explicitly about police violence. It’s not being branded as a ‘feminist’ march, because they want to make it explicit that women are the ones who have always been holding together the pieces after the destruction of police violence and daily institutionalised systemic racism.

In a sense the Women’s March, and the Women’s Strike this week, and the post-Trump organising and so on, are playing a game of catch up. It’s always within this crisis which is perceived of as an event. Trump is framed as an event, rather than as symbolic of a continuity under which these women, who I’ve been describing, have been living. So to come to your question, you’ve got to ask yourself – what’s the utility of the banner of feminism? How long will this be useful after the sense of crisis is perceived to have passed?

What’s going to happen is that migrant women, black women, women of the Global South are going to continue organising! They may or may not be calling themselves feminists, but the aims will continue to be the same. Maybe I’m being pessimistic but for those white women at the vanguard now, I think we’re going to go back to those debates about whether or not feminism is really useful, are we post-feminist etc. The sense of crisis will pass when those women realise that they themselves are not at the pointy-end of Trump’s policies.

AS: Let’s pick up this thread of being at ‘the pointy-end’ of politics. At the heart of most feminist discourses is this sense of being viscerally, intimately affected by oppression. It makes me think of that famous slogan ‘the personal is political’ – which, for me, prompts the question of what do we do about those subjectivities that are excluded from feminist politics? The classes of women who are invisibilised, instrumentalised or rendered two-dimensional and mobilised as symbols?

AL: When we talk to students in their late teens and early twenties – I’m thinking of my students here at the New School in particular but I’ve met people like this all over – there’s a sense that young white women and men are listening. They’re learning from students of colour, and the activist networks that they’re a part of. I know I started on a note of pessimism, but that’s incredibly encouraging! In certain, restricted milieu, we’re past angst-ridden debates about if we’re talking about ‘you’ as an individual white person sitting opposite me when we’re talking about whiteness. It’s a minoritarian phenomenon but it does exist.

But the women who were seen as representative of the Women’s March (there were of course women of colour and Muslim women who were leading the march in Washington), white liberal women who were suddenly reawakened in the dawn of Trump, I don’t think they’re necessarily listening. I think you’re right to say that for them it remains at the level of the symbolic: they’ll say ‘yes of course we need to put women of colour’s struggle first’, but that doesn’t translate into ‘and now, let me take a seat.’ The rush to action within a context of crisis means the lessons you’ve learned at a slower time are not being put into practice.

So the question is how to build on that minoritarian phenomenon I’ve been talking about. I think you do that by precisely demonstrating the linkages between different forms of oppression. Taking a strong stance against the TERF [trans-exclusionary radical feminist] position is incredibly important; so is taking a strong stand on Black Lives Matter and Islamophobic state violence, and showing how these things are not separate from a feminist struggle. All of these struggles are intrinsically gendered.

I don’t know how you do that in all societies. I’m looking around New York, where I am now, and in the United States it is so atomised at the level of the neighbourhood. The possibilities of organising in small community spaces – schools, university classrooms, neighbourhoods – are not available to the majority of people. People don’t really want to cloud their vision with what might be unsettling in those kinds of dialogues. The process of gentrification wreaks an incredible violence against such possibilities! I’m looking out of my window, and people are literally living on this street in a Caribbean neighbourhood and sending their children to school an hour away across the city, because they won’t send them to the local school.

How do you have a dialogue with your neighbour about police violence in the neighbourhood? Or about the struggle of the refugee woman in the burqa, whose kid goes to school with mine, who doesn’t speak English and who I might not see next week because of the uncertainties of the current immigration situation?

AS: There’s a similar vibe in London. We see some hints of hope in younger demographics, especially with students: those who are relatively insulated from precarity, those who have time to play with ideas in a way that people with two kids and three part-time jobs simply don’t – but it’s limited. At the level of the neighbourhood however, they tend not to live in the same place for more than six or twelve months at a time. They organise where they study, they don’t identify necessarily with the neighbourhood they live in. Intellectual labour, for these students, takes place elsewhere. They might live in a former local authority block, but not even meet the neighbours until they throw a party and someone tells them off because the tunes are too loud!

So, while they might have a ‘woke’ social analysis, their actual daily social interactions aren’t being transformed by the place where they live. I’m a big believer in looking to the neighbourhood, looking to the endz, as the meaningful political formation. Going back to the slogan I mentioned earlier, what I want to ask you is: how do we get around these political challenges that are embodied in our personal praxis?

AL: It’s incredibly difficult, and something better is only going to come from people themselves, in and of places and have longevity there, who are themselves involved in struggles. I’m thinking of Aboriginal activists in Australia, who work at a very high intellectual level, and who are working in their communities, who have always done that work. They’re not parachuted in to explain what intersectionality is or whatever. There’s a deep mistrust of outsiders who want to impose their learning on structures that [Aboriginal communities] are already aware of. They don’t need high theory to tell them this is a settler colonial nation that’s built on the violent dispossession of Aboriginal people, because they live with that every day.

I was interested in a status update by Houria Bouteldja, spokesperson of the Party of the Indigenous of the Republic in France. She’s been leading this movement of mostly black, North African and Muslim people who’ve been around since 2005, and formed a party about five years ago. They’re very involved in that March for Dignity I mentioned earlier. So in the status update she said: “This is the second year running we’ve been organising this march, with all these different groups and organizations. And I know that there are some purists among you who won’t be happy with every group’s positions on particular issues, like their stance on Islamophobia or homophobia or women’s rights. But the point is that, unlike in the past when we were asked by trade unionists to join them in marching, we are now at the front. For the second year in a row, they are forced to march behind us.”

She was asking the purists: what exactly do you want? Do you not want to build alliances with anybody? Because if that’s your position, you’re going to lose. You can’t agree 100% on everything, but the important thing is who’s leading – under whose rubric are you organising. I found it particularly interesting because people in France who despise her paint her as a sectarian, as someone who is unwilling to compromise. But it’s precisely because the women who autonomously called the march are setting the terms of participation, that solidarity and alliance-building can take place also on their terms. That’s the important thing I want to signal.

AS: So here’s an important word that’s often considered old-fashioned, or a bit earnest: solidarity!

AL: I prefer that to ‘allyship’ in all honesty. Maybe that’s just a sign of my age?

AS: I find ‘allyship’ a bit… I dunno, I don’t know how to explain this without slang. I think it’s a bit moist.

AL: Exactly! It’s just so ‘nice’.

AS: Thinking about solidarity for a minute: in a lot of the anti-racist organising spaces that I’m a part of there’s often an undercurrent of mistrust regarding solidarity. While I don’t think it’s always justified, it does stem from a recognition that there can be a reproduction of hierarchies and exploitative dynamics under the auspices of solidarity. My question for you is: how do we de-centre, or better yet dismantle, whiteness in projects of feminist solidarity? How do we do this practically in activist settings on the one hand, and how do we relocate the epistemic centre, the paradigmatic experience, away from the occident in feminist thinking?

AL: On solidarity, when I did my PhD which formed the basis of my first book Racism and Anti-Racism in Europe I had a very big critique of solidarity. This was very much based on the British experience, which ties in with what you’ve been saying: that solidarity was a word used to patronise and tokenise people from black and migrant communities. But in France it’s been used in a totally different way, and they don’t refer to ‘allyship’ at all.

The word that you use is relatively unimportant. It’s the practice that’s of real significance. So the question is how do you de-centre whiteness within these practices? Part of the problem, without wishing to point the finger, is in how identity has become a major framework for doing politics. When I say this it does not mean I have a problem with ‘identity politics’, because as soon as you say that you’re taking a particular political position of ‘I’m not interested in race. I’m not interested in gender.’

However we can have an internal critique of the way in which identity has become hegemonic if we think about it in terms of institutional constraints. If we take it back to the history of multiculturalism and its institutional development in places like the UK, and we think about what that does to autonomous black organising, we see that there is an imposition of a ‘correct’ or ‘legitimate’ way of doing politics. I think we’ve seen that this is insufficient, at least since the 1990s, and there’s been a constant tension between a politics primarily framed around community and identity, and a more systemic analysis. I don’t think that the two should be kept separate, but there are insidious political reasons for why they have been. In movement building there needs to be more thinking done on why it serves The Powers That Be to keep identity on one side and systemic analysis on the other.

When we do our thinking about what race is, what gender is, we need to return to basics. We need to do things like read about whiteness-as-property. Yesterday in class we were talking about settler colonialism and indigenous dispossession as the precursor to real estate: a political economy approach that really helps you to identify continuity. What I always say to my students is: ‘What am I doing this work for? Why is race still a problem, despite an almost complete agreement – even from people like Richard Spencer! – that racism is bad?’ Which is why I prefer to speak about race rather than racism. Because as soon as you speak about racism, you get yourself stuck down the alley of attitudes, pathologies and aberrations – not about systems or technologies of governance.

And when you talk about that, all the stuff about ‘oh, I can’t speak! Oh, you’re targeting me as a white person!’ starts to wither away. It’s not about you. Of course you reproduce these practices, of course you want to change them and not just accept it, but here the first step is a more useful analysis.

AS: Perhaps that phrase ‘the personal is political’ isn’t simply an assertive reiteration of subjectivity or interiority in that case, but a version of what Gayatri Spivak says – that the emergence of the autonomous, speaking Western female subject is a product of imperialism. A celebration of white agony, of white guilt –

AL: Spare me!

AS: – it’s completely counter-productive! Maybe what we’re asking for is an annihilation of the self, in certain spaces.

AL: I think that’s exactly right. You may have seen an article ‘Decolonization is not a Metaphor’? It should be mandatory reading! They show that even in what appears to be the pinnacle of radical critique you have a re-enactment of white exceptionalism. The ‘decolonize [this place]’ meme reinscribes indigenous dispossession because it turns into metaphor something that is, for indigenous people, a material problem – that you came here, you stole all the land, you enriched yourselves, and we are living in abject poverty.

It’s not just apparent in settler colonial contexts, but also in contexts of postcolonial migration. I like this idea of migration-as-reparations, you find it argued in Violent Borders by Reece Jones.

AS: I think it gets rid of the more insipid liberal takes which insist that migrants aren’t a threat to the West, that Muslim women aren’t a threat to your way of life. No, actually, we are! The demand for the recognition of our humanity argues for a total upending of the epistemic, political, social and economic foundations of Europe.

AL: Absolutely. I think until you start to unsettle – deeply! – nothing is going to change. The moment at which things become unsettling for white people are the moments at which there is violence. I am a Fanonian in that sense. When you have uprisings (or so-called ‘riots’) you have the moment at which people understand the depth of the threat. It’s not the usual fear of being mugged, or your house being robbed, which also has a lot to do with the construction of ‘security’. It’s not violence that they’re scared of: it’s organisation.

I remember when I was living in Italy and I was involved in an organisation called the Committee of Immigrants in Italy. There was a fight with the people who were involved in the European Social Forum, mostly white people who were working on migration. They wanted to do things their way, and the migrant organisers were like ‘Screw you! We’re not going to be told how politics should be done.’ Contrary to these white guys who couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery, these migrant organisers could literally get 10,000 out on the street in half an hour – and this was before smartphones!

And that’s what threatens people. Organisation. Which links back to what I said before about the power of being deeply involved in community and neighbourhood, knowing how to collectivise with others. When you’re talking about gentrification, school segregation and so in, it’s precisely this that they want to break up. There’s the macro sense of impoverishing people, making them beholden to capitalism, but the main thing is breaking up solidarity.

That’s what multiculturalism was all about – Paul Gilroy wrote about this in 1987, asking why does the UK government suddenly want to give money to ethnic minority communities? It’s because they could see that black people were doing that kind of deeply unsettling organising! You had Swamp ‘81, you had the riots in ‘85, then you had ‘fuck it, here have some multiculturalism!’ That’s what the Scarman Report advocates – that the problem is black British families don’t have culture, they don’t have what we took away from them, so let’s give it back.

AS: Looping back to what you were saying about decolonization not merely being a metaphor, I’ve got to ask you – how do we decolonize feminism? And what would a decolonial feminism look like, one that embraces violent rupture and that ‘programme of total disorder’ that Fanon describes?

AL: I’m more optimistic when we talk about feminism, because apart from some white women writing op-eds and books that quite frankly I wouldn’t want to read, where you find feminism being done is with black women, Muslim women, migrant women, trans women and in the negotiations of what kind of future they want to have together. They’re in the ascendant: and that’s what happens in the absence of ‘race-blind’ white women.

Looking at the kinds of conversations that unfold on social media, we see that unlike before, a lot of the discussions around the orientation of movement politics are happening in a very public way. Black women, Muslim women, migrant women and trans women are, I think, winning the arguments here. White women want to get with that and (evoking the March for Dignity) stand in the back and accept the fact you haven’t got all of the answers. I think of W.E.B. Du Bois, that this is where you need your double consciousness. Or, as bell hooks says, triple consciousness. As a white woman, you just don’t have it. Which is why your vision of feminism is going to fail.

But I think where you have the most opposition to a centring of race in your analysis is in the male dominated white left.

AS: I totally agree. I think they’ve never really challenged what Sartre calls the consistent racist humanism of Europe, or what we might term a consistent racist leftism. Let’s not romanticise leftist history as a happy internationalism.

I want to draw all these things together, to think about the power of political storytelling. For me the greatest storyteller is Fanon – potentially because of his focus on the psychiatric method – and certainly insisting that I read Black Skin, White Masks at the age of 13 was the greatest gift my mother gave me. But he does gender decolonial violence as male, he genders the agents of political transformation as male. So I ask you now – is it possible to recover a feminist Fanon?

AL: I think a big problem with Fanon has been his obsession as a theorist with black sexuality. This has led us down the path of the domestication of his work in postcolonial literary theory, but also let’s not ignore that many parts of Black Skin, White Masks are incredibly sexist. He writes that we mustn’t question his right to marry a white woman, but what are black women doing with white men? There’s an incredible contradiction there. What happens when you focus on those aspects is you take away from the revolutionary potential of the text. He does these micro-analyses of specific issues in the chapters, but he then tries to connect them to a whole – and that’s where you find the political utility.

Having said that, we shouldn’t take any author, particularly one who reproduces sexism in his work, and hold them up as perfect. We should see Fanon as a product of patriarchy, whilst at the same time taking from his work that which is useful for the present conjuncture. I would say the same thing applies to the Black Panthers – we know about the sexist behaviours of many individuals of that movement. But you read about their descriptions of internal colonialism written 50 years ago, and you could literally be talking about today. In fact, if you take school segregation, it’s only gotten worse.

I’m not sure I would go for asking ‘can we have a feminist Fanonism?’ because that’s not what we need to be doing with his work. We can take him warts and all. But this whole project in philosophy to recuperate European or Eurocentric political thought, like peace in Kant for instance, misses the point. It’s not about obsessing over this or that racist passage in Kant, but showing how his entire thinking was involved in the reproduction and indeed institutionalisation of particular racial frameworks. He’s endowed us with a whole system of political thinking that we are still suffering the legacies of. You can’t compare a Kant with a Fanon!

AS: I think it’s got a lot to do with proximity to power. It’s striking that we’ve been using so much spatial language in this interview, because it’s a useful way to think about power – proximity to the institutions that confer social life, and conversely, those of social death.

The Black Panthers were very good at breaking into the institutions of social death, both in terms of political organising and intellectual contributions. I’m thinking of their work both in and on prisons, centring the experience of incarceration in radical epistemology. Today I think we must extend this to include work around immigration detention centres, by Movement For Justice for example, or where migrants land at Lampedusa or Lesvos. It’s not just about a passive reception of information, like simply knowing what happens at Nauru, but dismantling these structures. It’s a prison break project!

AL: This is why I think the most productive forms of organising are from people in conditions of incarceration – current detainees, former detainees, or people from communities with high levels of incarceration. You were talking about reception at Lampedusa – a lot of it gets reinscribed as a politics of benevolence. It becomes a form of narcissism. We see this in the photos people share on social media of themselves with a sea of migrants behind them; obviously we need people on the ground helping, but these images become a statement of ‘look at me, I’m doing something so important that you’re not doing!’.

Ultimately this comes back to the problem of racism being perceived as a crisis or an event, and not as systemic. What would actually be sustainable over time is a form of politics that looks at what people who find themselves in situations of migration and detention want for themselves, and responding to that. For example, because you mentioned Nauru, I’m thinking of the Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani incarcerated at Manus Island. His dispatches from Manus have a very high level of political analysis of the predicament he has found himself in, they’re not merely descriptive.

This breeds a completely different form of politics. He can say what people should be doing, and they can respond to him. So one of the most important things people can do in Australia, such a tiny thing really, is to buy phone credit for migrants in detention centres. It’s so simple – without that we have no access to detainees, to their experiences. We would have no idea of what was going on at these centres.

AS: So really, this is a practical way of relocating the epistemic centre of our politics! It’s no longer just a project of liberal humanitarianism.

AL: Compare buying phone credit to buying blankets. At the height of the so-called refugee crisis in Germany, relief centres were overwhelmed with people’s old junk. They were using it as an opportunity for a garage clear out! The people running these centres were having to say ‘Stop, we don’t want your old crap! We don’t want your stained baby clothes! You think that these refugees aren’t human beings, that they’ll want your junk?’ The crisis was an opportunity to be seen to be doing something, which created problems rather than solved them.

AS: It seems totally coterminous with the logic of Victorian philanthropy. I mean, charity isn’t antithetical to whiteness, in fact, charity reproduces whiteness.

AL: Absolutely. It’s how whiteness comforts itself and quells its anxieties. There are obviously practical things, good things, that people can do. But I know somebody (who shall remain nameless) who housed some asylum seekers. It started out as something he was doing for political reasons, but they very quickly became his servants. They were living with him in his big country house, they didn’t have to pay for food and accommodation, but their unpaid labour looked a lot like indentured servitude. Maybe it’s just an outlying case, but that slippage – ‘I’m sheltering you so you owe me’ – is not migration as reparations!

AS: We see this on a macro-scale! People in refugee camps are not economically inactive, they’re a class of exploited labour. So how do we talk about exploited migrant labour, how do we prison break this discourse open on sweatshops or forced sex work, without reproducing the logic of border enforcement?

AL: I think you’ve mentioned this on the radio show before, that whenever you talk about open borders you get someone saying that it’s a neoliberal capitalist agenda. Ultimately we do exist under the system of capitalism, where exploitation is ongoing. It doesn’t matter how much Trump talks about building a wall, the point is that finance doesn’t require walls. It destroys people’s lives, but it doesn’t do anything to stop the onslaught of capitalism; these political performances happen, but exploitation goes on unhindered.

I think autonomy is key. If I am sitting here in a comfortable Western country, and I’ve never been to a sweatshop or spoken to union organisers there, it is not up to me to propose solutions – it’s up to them! It’s for us to use our networks to make this work visible, but not to impose a macro-political analysis as is so favoured by the white left. It comes back to what I was saying at the beginning of the conversation: listening to people, talking to people about their own strategies for their own emancipation.

So let’s end on a note of optimism. Black and migrant women, women of the Global South, women in detention are leading the resistance. On Nauru, where families are detained, people have been protesting every single day for the last two years. In the conditions of abject hopelessness and complete uncertainty, in the harsh material conditions of heat and disease, in the conditions of what you can only call a concentration camp, people are mustering the strength to stand in protest and vigil every single day.

This is why I have a problem with the notion, to get a bit theoretical, of ‘bare life’. People don’t just bend over backwards and capitulate to their position; they are always struggling for their own liberation. What is important is not such much the theorisation of the concept of social death, but the recognition that it was something that was never fully accepted. The drive to create family and community remains despite every effort to kill it. That’s what we can draw inspiration from.

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