Andrew Bolt is someone who has a lot of trouble with race. Whilst he is happy to go around proclaiming ‘It’s OK to be White’ he doesn’t seem to have a clue what whiteness is really all about: hence all the time he has been known to spend leveraging damaging and just straight up wrong accusations of whiteness against Indigenous people.
Thankfully, Bolt’s latest article in the Herald Sun gives us a perfect micro-lesson on what whiteness in Australia actually looks like (hint: it’s not just pale skin). Here I explore 3 ways we can guess that Bolt is white from his response to Abdel-Fattah.
First, a disclaimer. When I say whiteness I am not referring simply to the biological quality of having white skin. I am talking about a location within structural power. Race is about power and race is historical. White people colonised Australia through the dispossession and attempted genocide of Indigenous peoples, then denied (and continue to deny) these origins through a society built around the exclusion of Indigenous peoples and subsequent exclusion of other people of colour who came to these shores (see Aileen Moreton-Robinson for more on this). Today, whiteness is not only a set of privileges one is handed by virtue of one’s skin colour, or the histories and legacies (and stuff) we as white people continue to inherit; although it is also each of these things. Whiteness is a way of moving through the world, a way of relating to the nation and the national space, and a mode of (not) understanding- what philosopher Charles Mills calls an ‘epistemology of ignorance’- which allows us to inhabit a position of power whilst denying that we do.
What this means is that you might consider yourself to be more of a garden variety white person like myself than an outright Andrew Bolt (read: overt white supremacist) and yet still recognise yourself in some or all of the following.
Three assumptions Andrew Bolt makes in his response to Randa Abdel-Fattah that show us there is more to his whiteness than chalky cheeks:
1) All bodies are equal and everything is hypothetical
Bolt gives himself away as probably white right at the beginning of this piece when he unproblematically compares himself to Abdel-Fattah, questioning her experience because it does not match up with his own: ‘Really? I condemn the terrorism, yet feel my basic humanity not stripped but affirmed’. BAM. He’s one of us.
The only body that can afford not to know it is raced is a white body, which poses as universal (my experience is everyone’s!) in order to deny the many ways in which race is already at work. Ever wondered how 95% of leadership positions are still occupied by white folk in today’s Australia; a supposed oasis of colourblind liberalism? It’s the colourblindness that does the job. Just as the seemingly innocent slogan ‘All Lives Matter’ works to erase the reality that black lives are systematically treated as if they do not, so Bolt’s ‘I can condemn terrorism’ erases the very particular and specific context in which Abdel-Fattah is refusing to do so. Erasing the context of race in this manner is very convenient for white folk because it erases the actual issues at stake, making the person naming the issue seem like they themselves are the problem. If all lives matter, why can’t those black people pipe down?! If Bolt can condemn terrorism, why can’t Abdel-Fattah?!’
Here’s the catch. Whilst for Bolt, being asked to condemn a ‘terrorist’ attack is hypothetical- ‘I condemn terrorism’ he says, by which we can assume he means to say ‘if someone asked me to condemn a terrorist attack I would’ (spoiler: no one did), for Abdel-Fattah it is not. When she states that ‘I, an Australian Muslim, refuse to condemn the violence’ and ‘to ask me to condemn is to strip me of my humanity’ she is refusing to do something that she is being asked to do, as an Australian Muslim. Not only is she being asked to condemn the violence of this particular incident, but, as she explains in her article, she has been required to personally condemn, apologise for, and distance herself and her religion from every act of violence committed by a person claiming to be Muslim since 9/11. Context is everything.
Clue 1= Erasing the specific context at play so that the racialised person themselves appears to be the problem.
2) There is an ‘Us’, and it is ideological.
Bolt’s unconscious delineation of an ‘us’ and his positioning of himself right in the centre of that ‘us’ (and others outside of it) is unmistakably white. Bolt does not explicitly say ‘Muslims are not Australian’ but he may as well. Take a closer look here: ‘many fear that not enough Muslims do condemn terrorism, and that many share the terrorist’s loathing for us and our society, even while rejecting the terrorists’ actions.’
Here Bolt is talking about Muslims who ‘reject the terrorists’ actions’ and yet supposedly still ‘share the terrorists’ loathing for us and our society’. If ‘us and our society’ were simply referring to the Australian population then it would include those same Muslims, so we can assume that here he is referring to a different kind of ‘us’.
Who is this ‘us’ that he so effortlessly calls upon? An ‘us’ that is diametrically opposed to ‘them’: the ‘terrorists’? Here Bolt’s claims echo literal centuries of white supremacist rhetoric pitting white Christianity against ‘Oriental’ Islam in the infamous ‘clash of civilisations’ denoted by Samuel Huntington. Here, the act of ‘terrorism’ (read: violence committed by any person associated with Islam in the white imaginary) immediately propels the ‘terrorist’ body outside of the national ‘we’. In fact, the label ‘terrorist’ reveals this body as antithetical to the very meaning of that ‘we’, a contagion of the otherwise pure (white) national self. In the act of expulsion, the ‘terrorist’ body is severed from any connection or relation to this self- thus to question how the violence of the state may relate to individual acts of violence within its borders becomes to question the purity of the (white) nation.
Such a rhetoric of contagion ensures that anyone associated with a ‘them’ in the white imaginary (whichever racist bogeyman this ‘them’ happens to be) is considered a non-threat conditional upon consistently performing their adherence to the ‘we’ for those sitting comfortably at the centre. This is what Abdel-Fattah (who has done her fair share of performing this loyalty) is now refusing to do.
Clue 2: Referring to an ideological ‘us’ and ‘them’, and awarding yourself the right to determine who sits inside and outside of these categories.
3) Racism is Naturalised by Hiding Structural Violence
If you are looking for whiteness you would do well to begin by looking for what it naturalises; for what it assumes to be normal, reasonable, and fair.
Bolt claims ‘this is exactly the kind of piece that leads many to fear that not enough Muslims do condemn terrorism’, and ‘I suspect her article will feed the islamophobia it denounces.’
Here Bolt frames Islamophobia as a reaction to a Muslim presence, inferring that Abdel-Fattah’s failure to perform her condemnation will naturally result in Islamophobic backlash. In making this equation, Bolt naturalises the demand that Abdel-Fattah perform her loyalty for a white gaze. It is only to be expected, he argues, that her failure to do so will result in racism against her.
If this is a chicken or egg scenario, it is an important one.
What Bolt refuses to see here is that racism rendering the Muslim body a site of suspicion and contagion already underpins the demand that Abdel-Fattah condemn the attack. Through drawing attention to the structural violence of the state – ‘Our defence deals with Saudi Arabia and our complicity in the destruction of Yemen, our defence forces training Myanmar’s genocidal armed forces, our explicit support for Israel’s illegal occupation and oppression of Palestinians’ – Abdel-Fattah is pointing to the obscenity of a structure founded on violence, steeped in violence, perpetrating violence globally, and yet acting as if an individual act of violence is an existential threat against it, antithetical to the very nature of the ‘we’ (see Scott Morrison’s speech in response to the attack). It is not violence that threatens ‘Australia’ then, nor is it violence for which Abdel-Fattah must answer; it is the presence of the Muslim figure in the (white) national space. This is not a new concept, but one that has been analysed for over a decade now by (brilliant) local scholar Dr. Yassir Morsi.
When Bolt claims that there is no need to choose between denouncing such examples of structural violence and condemning the attack, he hides the relationship between the two, one (individual acts labelled ‘terrorist’) which is used repeatedly to justify the other (state violence and policing against Muslim countries and people). Ultimately, through erasing the complexity of the context in which Abdel-Fattah is forced to offer her condemnation Bolt naturalises the demand that she does so. This allows him to posture as wide-eyed and innocent (Really?!) in the face of her refusal, whilst decrying her article as ‘hate-filled’ and ‘inflammatory’ for refusing to play into white demands.
Clue 3: Normalising structural violence in order to make the person naming racism appear as the problem.
Andrew Bolt is definitely white.
But it doesn’t end there. Believe it or not, I did not write this post in order to drag Andrew Bolt; I wrote it because in his response I recognised something of myself.
The way in which he considers the question at hand as a mere hypothetical, his own body removed from the equation; the way in which he unthinkingly universalises his experience. His comfortable sense of a national ‘us’, and his own positioning at the centre of that ‘us’. His (mis)understanding of racism as reactive (and therefore fundamentally rational), rather than productive: his erasure of structural violence in favour of individual, violent acts. At various times, and in various ways, I can relate to each and to all of these things.
In dismissing Abdel-Fattah’s concerns, Bolt demonstrates himself to be thoroughly invested in white narratives. But he is not the only one. Until we can begin to unpack the ways in which whiteness works through a set of assumptions that go largely unchallenged in Australian public discourse: assumptions that are only possible for certain bodies in the world; we will fail to see the connections between someone like Bolt and the broader structures that privilege him. Rather than railing against the Bolts of this world (although that, too, will sometimes be necessary) we white folk need to begin to do the difficult work of unpacking what we might have in common with him. In so doing we will begin to understand that racism is not a stain on our democracy: it shapes our democracy. Racism does not only surface in the moment of harm: it defines how we read harm. Racism is not simply a reaction: it is productive of our deepest selves and understandings.
Only in this way- through an understanding of whiteness as more than skin deep- will we be able to engage in an anti-racism of similar depth.