The debatability of racism. Networked participative media and postracialism

Gavan Titley

Every now and then, I get into an argument online about racism. I should know better. But once I did it on a larger scale, as a project, when I cooperated with The Guardian on a series called Racism in the Digital Age. The series developed from an editorial concern with the sheer level of abuse aimed at writers of colour ‘below the line’. But while abuse could be moderated, there was also sense that whenever a writer of minority background wrote in any way about their experience, or with a lens trained on the racial dimension of social and political issues, they were frequently greeted with hostility, hostility expressed in the refrain, ‘why are you bringing race into it?’ The first wave of articles in the series, then, was to examine changing understandings of racism in the UK, and also to invite writers who had experienced this abuse or latent hostility to write about their experience of writing about race and racism in an interactive media environment.

My frequent co-writer, Alana Lentin, and I contributed an article about the denial of racism, called “Racism is still very much with us. So why don’t we recognize it?’

Here are the first two comments.Titley_1We will never know what compliment mombser2 intended to pay us, or our parents. But there were a lot of comments, and I will discuss some aspects of them subsequently. But a key dimension of the response can be summed up by describing a wider dynamic. Racism, in public culture, is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. The very mention of race serves as an invitation to disprove its salience, the mention of racism as an invitation to refute its relevance. In the contemporary political context, to speak publicly about racism is to be immediately integrated into an intensive process of delineation, deflection and denial, a contest over who gets to define racism, when ‘everyone’ gets to speak about it.

It is this contest, and how it is animated by the politics of postracialism, and amplified and extended by connective media and the dynamics of the hybrid media system, that I want to discuss in terms of the debatability of racism. Let me be clear about what this does not mean: I do not mean that the experience of racism is open to debate, or the racially structured dimensions of social and political life are radically open to question. Rather, I intend this concept as a way of thinking about how the experience of racism and the operations of structural racism can be denied not only through silencing, but through noise, not just through a lack of attention to racism, but through an excess of particular kinds of attention. And I want to suggest that this debatability, this incessant, recursive attention as to what counts as racism and who gets to define it, has political consequences for practices of antiracism – practices that want to name racism publicly, the better to mobilize to confront it.

This dynamic, this debatability, is of course also a consequence of racism’s complexity and the complexity of racisms across time and space. But it is not only complex, it is political. As scholars who witness and experience the general marginalization of thinking about race and racism within the social sciences, we are, I think, acutely aware that the process of conceptualizing racism is intensely political, because racism is political, and its recognition entails political consequences. Yet, despite disciplinary awareness of the political nature of definition and conceptualization, these contests and negotiations as to ‘what counts as racism’ in public culture are arguably under-examined. Indeed, they are sometimes treated, in academic reflections, as misunderstandings that need little more than the steering hand of an agreed concept. Let me take two examples.

In a recent essay on racism and what many US commentators hailed, at least prior to Ferguson, as the ‘post-racial’ achievement of the Obama presidency, Edward Bonilla-Silva argues that “…one reason why Americans have not been able to interpret properly the Obama phenomenon is because they are still stuck in an outdated and limited conceptual understanding of ‘racism’”. In an important sense this is correct, and it is this contrast between understandings of racism as the overt violence and legal segregation overcome since the Civil Rights era, and the persistence of racial inequality that informs such important discussions as Bonilla’s idea of racism without racists[1], or Dana-Ain Davis’ notion of muted racism; contemporary anti-Black racism descending from a political agenda of ‘color-blindness’ that, regardless of the historical legacies and contemporary structures that maintain racialized inequalities, ‘forces claims of racism into silence’ even as it ‘implies race without direct reference to it’[2].

This contrast is not limited to the US context. A dimension of the ‘post-racial problematic’ everywhere is the tension between racism marked out as an ideology or property of regimes that are now of the past, and racisms understood as shifting in social and historical circumstances. Barnor Hesse describes this narrative of overcoming:

 Since the ending of the US civil rights movement, the Cold War and the apartheid regime in South Africa, political discussion of the meaning of racism seems to be over in the West. Its sociality is overwhelmingly conceived as a problem that has largely been overcome. What remains is seen as residuum, consigned to pathology, a profound moral deviation from the western liberal and democratic ethos and ethnos[3].

And while Hesse broadens the narrative from the US to the not-quite-postcolonial world, we could broaden it still further, because of course there are national contexts where it is regarded as not even of the past, a layered fiction explored in interesting work on Nordic whiteness, or Dutch innocence (and now being played out in the strategic rhetoric of some eastern and central European political leaders, justifying their treatment of refugees as an honest protectionism unhindered by the postcolonial guilt of the western European countries criticizing them).

Yet, while noting this ‘conceptual misunderstanding’, we need to examine how it is reproduced socially, politically, or in and through media and communications. In an expansive essay, Miri Song takes on this question of reproduction. Rather than point to ‘conceptual understanding’, she points to ‘conceptual inflation’, arguing that the frequent, commonplace and contradictory ‘assertions of racism in the public sphere’ are a consequence of an era where “our awareness of racial identity, and of the dangers of committing racial indiscretions, at least publicly, is very high…we also live at a time when our understandings and conceptualizations of racism are highly imprecise, broad, and readily used to describe a wide range of racialized phenomena”[4]. As a consequence media interactions often betray an implicit assumption that ‘any racial attribution’, regardless of context and actors, constitutes racism. In the UK, she argues, what has developed is a ‘culture of racial equivalence’ that strips the idea of racism of its critical possibilities, and also facilitates the easy assertion of ‘reverse racism’ for any insult or even criticism aimed at a white person. For Song, the political consequences of this are serious – the idea of racism is stripped of its ‘historical basis, severity and power’, and in the production of equivalence, racialized experiences are relativized, silenced, and erased.

Miri Song is interested in explaining the production of this conceptual inflation, and she draws her examples of equivalence from social media exchanges such as Twitter storms, arguing that ‘central to the growth of this culture of racial equivalence are assertions of both racism and reverse racism via new(ish) communication and media technologies which have instant reach to a huge audience’. The problem, she argues, is that no kind of clarity can emerge through these media formats, they are not conducive to elaborating arguments and explanations backing up the charge of racism and reverse racism, and thus interlocutors get little sense of why particular instances constitute racism as such.

This focus on social media is welcome, but it is arguably an overly deliberative one, treating the question of how racism is discussed publicly primarily as a conceptual issue. It certainly has conceptual dimensions, but it is also a political process – with ideological and affective investments – and it is also a communicative process, shaped and enabled by media forms and dynamics. It also treats social media as discrete, rather than working in and through a media system. But this is not about the failure of sociology to deal adequately with media; as media and communication studies has displayed relatively little interest in race and racism, and much of the work on social media is focused on hate speech, or on the networked communications of extremist groups.

Thinking about debatability, I want to argue, moves away from a focus on the life of concepts to the dynamics of contestation; to examining how this contestation is shaped both by contemporary socio-political conditions and conflicts, and by the integration of complex, transnational media connectivity to the spaces of social action in which these conflicts are lived and played out. I use this term to move away from the idea of debate – both as a normative dimension of the liberal public sphere, and the sense in political rhetoric, of ‘calling for an open debate’ on immigration, which is never less than an invitation to evaluate the lives of those who migrate.

At stake here is the tension captured by David Theo Goldberg in his new book, Are we all Postracial? where he observes that ‘race today is supposed to be a thing of the past. But all we do, seemingly, is talk about it’[5]. I can only do very limited justice to this observation in this talk. But I want to propose for discussion, through some examples, four overlapping domains of talking about racism in and through connective, participative and interactive media. And I want to suggest that the ways in which the incessant, recursive attention to what counts as racism and who gets to define it are important because they are politically generative.


The sedimentation of denial


The denial of racism is crucial to the operation of racism. This is theoretically central to much writing on racism, and it is also well-known – the widely parodied phrase “I’m not racist, but”, Sam Kriss has argued, needs to be taken seriously as ‘the master signifier of modern racial discourse’. This denial is not just formative of the narrative of post-racial overcoming that Barnor Hesse recounts. In his historical sociology, there is no modern racism without its deniability, a state he refers to as racism’s ‘conceptual double bind’. Modernity, Hesse argues, is racial: ‘Whiteness, Christian, the West, Europeanness comprise a series of racial tropes’. Yet, in the modern understanding of racism, at least in the post WW2 period, the hegemonic association of racism with the Shoah and nationalism, and the marginalising of subaltern critiques of western imperialism, entails that the international conception of racism is doubly bound into revealing its imprints in nationalism and concealing its anchorage in liberalism; or recognizing extremist ideology while denying routine governmentality”[6]. (We could note here as an aside, that what is truly unsettling about the European border crisis, and may well mark the Paris aftermath, is that a racial Europe is being re-secured through an intensive mobilization and fusion of both nationalism and liberalism, of both extremist ideology and the re-composition of governmentality).

At the same time, denial is central to studies of racism on a different scale, focusing, after Philomena Essed’s seminal insistence on the importance of social interaction and ‘everyday racism’, and on how talking about the experience of racism is silenced and deflected, that confronting the dynamics of denial also exacts a personal cost[7]. There is an important gap, Sara Ahmed has argued, between the ‘official prohibition’ of racism in European societies, and how “…those who talk about racism are heard as creating rather than describing a problem…when you use the language of racism you are heard as ‘going on about it’, as ‘not letting go’. It is as if talking about racism is what keeps it going”. Racism, she argues, “…is very difficult to talk about as racism can operate to censor the very evidence of its existence”[8].

With this in mind, I want to return briefly to the comments below our Guardian article. One of the common complaints was that this series was ‘the Guardian trolling its readership’, who were already ‘over race’. That is, many commentators imagined the comment section as a white dominant discursive space, where, to use Ahmed’s phrase, writers of colour were ‘just not letting go’. Racism is over, they need to stop going on about it. But, here denial did something else. The simple mention of racism in the article’s title was a trigger for streams of comments, the vast majority denying the existence and the salience of racism. And not just denying, but asking why there was no one to write about reverse racism, or sharing stories of the preferential treatment given to minorities, or anger at how their experiences were not being represented, or expressing forms of cultural loss. In the affective politics of white resentment and anxiety, denial for the denier is not silencing, it is amplifying. Racism must be continually recognized, endlessly talked about, and debated – yes racism exists but it’s not that, it’s not quite this, not really here, but maybe it’s over there.

In keeping with Miri Song’s observation, the idea of ‘reverse racism’ was widely expressed. As we know from the literature on ‘new racism’ and ‘white backlash’, ‘reverse racism’ is a product of the hegemonic designs of the new right in Europe, and the post ‘southern strategy’ right in the US The discourse of reverse racism aimed to frame immigration and state multiculturalism in public discourse as a zero-sum game, where every putative gain for them is a loss for us. And, here, decades later, in these comment threads, for many an article ‘by them’ can only be read a lost one about us.

I have not analyzed this in a structured way, so this is an impressionistic point. But what is notable here is the extent to which these hegemonic language games had become routinized as cultural scripts, a sedimented set of ways, accumulated over decades, for ‘debating’ racism. Certainly, this has happened in a political context where state anti-racism is in retreat and, instead, a phantasmic multiculturalism has been blamed for everything from terrorism to the neglect of something called ‘the white working class’. But, as cultural scripts, they also have a communicative logic. Because they are structured as arguing back against an imagined dominant consensus of multiculturalism and anti-racism, they are easily reproduced in media forms that are responsive – commenting on an article, tweeting back at a person of colour, responding to an article about refugees posted on Facebook, and so forth.

And people invest real time, and real labour, in reproducing these scripts as rituals of response, contributions that are not open to deliberation or disproving. They render racism not only deniable, but debatable in terms that need constant work to be secured.


The everyday politics of representation


Of course, communicative affordances and dynamics also facilitate emerging forms of antiracist contention. I’ll draw on an example that might be familiar to open this out. In March 2014, The US President Barack Obama travelled to Brussels for a NATO summit. To mark his visit, the Flemish-language Belgian newspaper De Morgen published in its ‘The Daily Herald’ – a weekly satirical page – a ‘special article’ jokingly presented as having been sent to the newspaper by the Russian president Vladimir Putin.


The images were quickly screen-grabbed and circulated on Twitter and began to gain English language news coverage later on the day of publication when the Nigerian-born writer Chika Unigwe, who lived in Belgium for many years, tweeted “so photo of the Obamas as chimps in De Morgen of today is the paper’s attempt at satire. I forgot to laugh #racist”. Stung by the appalled response on social media, and the critical coverage in international media, De Morgen apologized on Twitter and published an editorial response a few days later. In this text, they noted that the joke was in ‘bad taste’ and that “we wrongly assumed that racism is no longer acceptable and that in this way it could be the subject of a joke”.

For the paper, this simianising photoshop, and cultural racist stereotype, seemed valid for humorous use because given the assumed unacceptability of racism, the images have been stripped of their racializing power. For Chika Unigwe, it is precisely the free-floating assumption that society is ‘after racism’ that grounds the images’ racializing charge, and the assumption that everyone experiences society in this way. This assumption remains consistent in De Morgen’s apology, which recognizes that in fact such primate imagery is regularly used to de-humanise the Obamas in the US; that while such overt racism is of the past in Belgium, it is relevant in the US, and they under-estimated this.

However, in Chika Unigwe’s tweeted critique, what is significant about the image is precisely the postracial assumption expressed in the apology. They didn’t expect a backlash, she argued, because they didn’t consider a black reading population as part of their imagined readership. That this was a satire for an assumed audience that no longer accepted racism illustrated that it was simultaneously an imagined audience that no longer experienced racism, and that were also simply absent from this imagined Belgium – ‘black people have no political voice, no economic voice, so in a way society forgets that we exist’.

In the often polarized debates about the political possibilities of social media and digital media participation, those that rightly critique the surveillance and commodification of private social media platforms usually regard such interactions as not properly political. Investing in media participation in ‘democracies that speak without listening’, to use Jodi Dean’s phrase, neglects how such messages have little use value, but mainly exchange value in endless circuits of drive.

There is a truth to this, but it is partial because it neglects contingencies. Unigwe’s intervention is part of an everyday politics of representation that uses the connective properties of social media to find ways not just of critiquing representations qua representations, but of forcing the issue of racism in society, of marking out the contours of the muted racism that is so difficult to name and address. Her tweets are ephemeral and opportunistic, but in using an image ‘about Obama and America’ to draw out the postracial licence and presumption of the ‘satire’, she found a way to talk about racism and the denial of racism in Belgium.

In the necessary critique of social media boosterism and optimism there is often an assumption that unless media participation contributes concretely to a given movement or some scaled-up version of the political real that it is just symbolic politics.

But the awesome response to the Paris attacks reminds us that the symbolic dimension of politics is critical. And racism has always been opposed in and through cultural work that unsettles the symbolic, relates meanings to structures of power. What Unigwe demonstrates is that drawing out processes of post-racial exclusion and elision requires an intensive politics of everyday deconstruction. In this everyday productivity, people use the linking properties and intertextual possibilities of connective media to survey, confront, parody, and subvert media artefacts laden with coded racism, or denial and postracial assumption. We need to take this creativity more seriously, I want to argue, and not just because Media Studies needs to grapple with how people are using its critical tools in creative ways. It is also in these practices that people are building informal networks of antiracist thinking and learning and sharing, and working through ways of naming racisms that are motile and difficult to name. It is debatability seeking to secure the very terms on which to speak and be heard, but also to collaborate.


The hybrid media system and racism as content


Ultimately, this became a fleeting international story not because of a well-timed Twitter intervention but because it was made into a story by Al Jazeera and Huffington Post. The increasing integration of social media material into expansive digital spaces of news production and comment opens these possibilities within what Andrew Chadwick terms the ‘hybrid media system’, which transcends the often totalizing debate about power between old and new media to focus on how:

“Power in the hybrid media system is exercised by those who are successfully able to create, tap, or steer information flows in ways that suit their goals and in ways that modify, enable, or disable others’ agency across and between a range of older and newer media settings.”[9].

Unigwe’s intervention momentarily steers this flow in the direction of unsettling the presumption of postracialism, and does so in a media context where debatability also has a political economic dimension – driving debate on racism drives participation – comment, sharing, spreading. This media fascination with racism as a driver of spectacle, controversy and comment is evidently ambivalent. I do not have time to go into this in depth, but take for example the emergence of new genres of ‘revealing’ racism that emerge from the integration of user generated content into news flow.


The trend towards curation, particular in US-based sites, has led to the development of a genre of meta-commentary – how: This viral video shows how racism in real in Australia’; ‘This tweet exemplifies how white feminism doesn’t get racism’; “The hashtag that led to the response to online racism”. Similarly, a genre of ‘racism on the bus/train/metro’ videos, captured, uploaded and then framed, are used to witness the deniable existence of racism, but in a framework which is ambivalent. Obvious examples of racism made public, Angela Davis argues, are frequently framed as aberrations, particularly when they have a class dimension, and become products of bad attitudes and ignorance, ‘anachronistic expressions’[10]. They are circulated as drivers of debatability – what does this say about the state of racism – an anachronistic expression that confirms the post-racial, or a digital object that allow the denial of racism to be opened up?


Scavenging in the transnational media terrain


Finally, I want to address the construction of racism in and through interactive digital media. Again, a heuristic example, and again one that stems from ‘mainstream’ media’s interest in social media racism, this time, fascination with the social media habits of radical right politicians – a fascination they have been very good at exploiting.

In early July 2015 the Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported that the True Finns MP Laura Huhtasaari was a member of a Facebook group “The racist background of rapists that hide in bushes”. Under a banner montage of photos of unnamed men of what appear to be Somali and north African heritage, the group description outlines how it is dedicated to proving how ‘Muslim immigration’ had increased instances of rape in Finland and other northern European countries. But as well as featuring endless entreaties to ‘defend our culture’, the report drew attention to several instances of overt anti-black racism. Given this unwelcome media attention, Huhtasaari sought to distance herself from it publicly, first contending that a rogue algorithm had ‘liked’ the page for her, and then arguing, in an exquisite remix of I’m not racist, but, that “I’m not racist. Maybe I could define myself for myself?”


No you can’t, but the question remains: why should we pay attention to a Facebook group of 740 members, minus one? European racism, Nicholas De Genova has argued, involves posing and answer the question, ‘what do we do with them?’[11]. Groups such as this are spaces in which this question is posed and answered, but not within a discrete community, but within a transnational digital space of exchange, where stories, facts, images and events that prove what the problem is, and what the problem demands, can be assembled. And one of the ways in which these assemblages cohere is through constantly marking their distance from racism. They are, in effect, discourse laboratories.

Take the name of the group – the racist background of bush rapists. As the group description makes clear, in raping Nordic women, these migrants are also targeting the native population. On this historically suggestive fear of the sexualised, primitive Other, a range of other racialising discourses are layered.

Firstly, there is a border politics, because Nordic women, but also a national way of life characterized by its love for universal values of freedom and equality, are threatened by non-western men irresponsibly allowed into the country. But the borders are not just of the nation, because, secondly, there is a civilizational politics also: the threat is not just those racialized as black and as African who cannot help their primitive urges, but they are also Muslims, mandated by their religion to rape infidels. So, when this national way of life and civilizational good is threatened with violation, how can a defence of this good be racism, something that everybody nowadays accepts is bad? Or, in the phrase deployed by many the internet-mobilized ‘anti-Islam’ groups, “Racism is the lowest form of stupidity! Islamophobia is the height of common sense!”

Moreover, the aim of the Facebook group is to expose the ‘racist background’ of the ‘bush-hiding rapists’ – its explicit public claim is that of anti-racism, as the violence of rape is also an expression of racism. It draws not only on the trope of ‘reverse racism’ discussed earlier, but it is situated and shaped by a transnational flow of racializing ideas and discourses that have been intensively produced and circulated in the post 9/11 era (though obviously they precede this political threshold). A range of theorists, including Sherene H. Razack and Jasbir Puar, have noted the cumulative articulation of the need to police national and civilizational boundaries to protect sexual freedom and gender equality, ‘characteristics’ that supposedly define ‘us’ against ‘them’. [12]

Moreover, the campaigning rubric of the group, that immigrant men are responsible for rape epidemics in the Nordic countries, is a resistant internet truth, one that has become, in Michel de Certeau’s phrase a ‘recited truth’, accruing truth through its sociality and circulation, and one ‘backed up’ in these spaces by forms of proof – suppressed government statistics, for example – that become more truth-ful the more they are dismissed.

However much anti-Muslim racism is now associated with street movements, populists and internet extremists, it must always be recalled as a racism politically produced by the political centre in the post Cold War era[13]. But within this context of suspicion, surveillance, integrationist prescription and prohibition, the racism assembled in these spaces is not just a reflection of these conditions. Racism, as John Solomos and Les Back put it, is a scavenger ideology, and the terrain on which these assemblages emerge is transnational and eclectic, marking its distance from racism but accumulating evidence, from here, there and everywhere, of the problem[14]. And, we cannot sift through this eclecticism, through the accumulation of posts and memes and links to locate a foundational racism that renders this bricolage coherent. This bricolage is the racism, the colonial primitive, the migrant as social enemy, the Muslim as invader, the facts of what they do and what they cause – these stereotypes and recited truths produce and sustain each other dynamically. And as we can see more broadly, because this is a racism that is not about race and has declared its defence of the universal and good, it is assertive and unapologetic, correcting the naïve mistakes of multiculturalism, and therefore resistant to a critique on multiculturalist and anti-racist terms.




Just like a Facebook group, this talk has been eclectic, but with, hopefully, a clear purpose. The contest over what counts as racism, and who gets to define it, and in what contexts with what political consequences, is being played out in ‘social media’ – integrated into the hybrid media system – but in ways, I want to argue, that are politically generative. These snapshots are not just intended to flag research directions that I and others may be departing on, but also to draw attention to how, antiracist scholars, in a context now of conflict and markedly racializing politics, have to examine the ways in which the public denial and deflection of racism is being secured not just through silencing, but through debatability.


This is the text of a keynote lecture given at the conference The porous walls of Fortress Europe at Erasmus University in Rotterdam 19 November 2015, and at the Raster seminar ‘The politics of (anti)racism: perspectives on research and teaching’ at the University of Helsinki, 15 October 2015.



[1] Bonilla-Silva, E (2003) Racism without Racists: Color-Blind racism and racial Inequality in Contemporary America. New York; Rowman & Littlefield./ (2015) “Getting over the Obama hope hangover: the new racism in ‘post-racial’ America, in Murji, K. & J. Solomos (ed.) Theories of race and Ethnicity: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives. Cambridge: CUP.

[2] Davis, Dana-Ain (2007) ‘Narrating the Mute: Racializing and Racism in a Neoliberal Moment, Souls 9: 4 p.349

[3] Hesse, B. (2004) Im/plausible deniability: racism’s conceptual double bind’, Social Identities, 10:1. p.10

[4] Song, M. (2013) “Challenging a culture of racial equivalence”. MIM Working Papers Series 13:5. p.3

[5] Goldberg, D.T. (2015) Are We All Postracial Yet? Cambridge: Polity Press, p.1

[6] Hesse op.cit. p.9

[7] Essed, P. (1991) Understanding Everyday Racism. London: Sage.

[8] Ahmed S. (2010) “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects), The Scholar and Feminist Online, 8:3.

[9] Chadwick, A. (2013) The Hybrid Media System. Oxford: OUP.

[10] Davis, A (2008) Davis, A. (2008). ‘Recognizing Racism in the Neoliberal Era’, Vice Chancellor’s Oration at Murdoch University.

[11] De Genova N (2010) ‘Migration and race in Europe: the Trans-Atlantic Metastases of a Post-Colonial Cancer’ European Journal of Social Theory 13 (3) p. 411.

[12] Razack, S.H. (2004) “Imperilled Muslim Women, Dangerous Muslim Men and Civilized Europeans: Legal and Social Responses to Forced Marraiges, Feminist Legal Studies 12, 129-174 / Puar, J.K. (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Durham; Duke University Press.

[13] See Lentin, A & G. Titley (2011) The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age. London: Zed Books.

[14] Solomos J. & L. Back (1996) Racism and Society, p. 18-19. Basingstoke: Palgrave.