The Cologne Attacks And The Big White Elephant In The Room


Randa Abdel-Fattah weighs in on the racism that has pervaded discussions about the new year’s eve attacks on women in Germany.

Since the mass assaults of women in Cologne, earlier this year, two articles in particular caught my attention because of the particular manner in which their plea for us to talk about these crimes in a particular frame reinforced the very ‘racism’ they sought so hard to disavow.

The first was Michael Bradley’s call on the ABC Drum last week for us to ‘discuss the shocking events’ before the events could be hijacked by the far-right and Islamophobes. The second was Rabbi Zalman Kastel’s suggestion in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday that ‘migrants learn Australia’s moral codes’ and ‘the expectations that come with migration’.

So we need to talk about the attacks on women in Cologne? Let’s do that then. But only if we can talk about some other things first.

Let’s start first with white liberal ‘concern’. It’s not clear to me. Is the concern about sexual assault against women, or sexual assault against women when the perpetrators are brown men? It’s fascinating, this distinction, because it affectively structures the white response to sex and violence, producing a reaction that is shaped not by a moral or ethical posture, but a racial one.

I don’t doubt that Bradley, Kastel and the people they feel they are speaking on behalf of and to, are genuinely concerned about what happened in Cologne. But I’m confused about why they aren’t moved to concern about the hordes of white men in the CBD nightlight of Western cities who grope, slut-shame, accost, harass, assault and rape women.

Or have I got it wrong?

They are of course just as concerned about such acts of sexual violence, and devote pages of op eds to the hyper-sexualised, criminal deviant white male, but the difference is that the situation in Cologne is exceptional. The perpetrators there were another category of human; a species with an inferior set of moral codes and values, far down on the Enlightenment ladder and therefore needing discipline and education in our civilised ways. We have here the category of ‘migrant’.

So let’s talk then about the migrant, a category which, by the racial ideologies mobilized in the media and political narrative, is now represented by the group of perpetrators in Cologne. The migrant – that category of sub-human formed of millions of men, women and children fleeing countries we have helped bomb into oblivion – has been allocated ambassadorial representation by brown men who are the perpetrators of sexual violence.

The visceral force of this racial narrative of the migrant is so strong that for commentators like Kastel the face of Bilal Skaf or Taj Hilaly sticks to the face of every (brown) migrant. The way to unstick these associations is not to interrogate the racist presumptions that sort, judge, discipline and inferiorise racialised bodies but, we are told, we must ‘make clear to migrants the legitimate expectations that come with migration’.

I presume that this kind of pedagogical task will conveniently erase our history of interracial rape that formed part of what constituted us as a settler-colony.

I also assume it will gloss over the culture of rape and misogyny in Australia’s official and most sacred religious institution (football). It will ignore our culture of sexual violence and misogyny in the armed forces (the same forces that contribute to the campaigns that create the situations that create the sub-human migrant and refugee).

It will obscure the culture of sexual harassment in our police forces. And when, finally, the migrant is schooled in our civilized feminist ways, we will forget to mention that tiny matter of women dying every week in this country by their largely non-migrant, non-brown civilized male partners.

Let’s also talk about such grand abstractions as moral codes, civilization and values. It’s intriguing, this moral high ground, this triumphalist posture that forgets, denies, perhaps even justifies, the sexual torture Western governments have practiced with great skill and ingenuity (ask the Kenyans seeking independence in the 1950s about the British tools made for the express purpose of crushing testicles and cutting off women’s breasts; or the Yemenis about the prisoners in Britain’s torture centre in Aden in the 60s, who were forced to sit on poles until the weight of their bodies forced the pole into their anus). Why go back to recent history? Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo Bay. Why do we maintain an embarrassed silence about such ongoing atrocities? Is it because the victims there are brown men?

Next, ‘fear’. The way our world is structured means that fear of those who are members of the dominant racial group in the world is to be privileged. We are to accept as part of a friendly intellectual contest of ideas and ‘discussion’, what boils down to a fear of brown men (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s classic analysis of the colonising relationship as defined as ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ resounds strongly here).

We are to soothe that fear, even though it is brown bodies that are threatened because of White fear. It is the civil liberties, safety, mental health and security of brown people that are sacrificed to placate white racist fears. The privileging of white fear means that comments that follow these kinds of articles and which invoke the vilest of racist insults and threats against Muslims and migrants must be endured because white fear about brown migrants is real and must be respected.

Let’s talk last about the apparent ‘embarrassed silence’ and ‘collective paralysis’ in ‘the face of the unspeakable’. The silence is due, according to Bradley’s analysis, because those on the left do not want to inflame the racists and xenophobes who will exploit the events in Cologne for their own xenophobic and racist purposes.

What is so disconcerting about such a diagnosis is the veneer of liberal anxiety about ‘extreme’ racism that it comes wrapped in. The unintended effect is to disavow the racist logic that underwrites the singling out as ‘a seriously inconvenient truth’, the racial identity of the attackers.

This, apparently, is a ‘confronting reality’ for those who sit on the left, disgusted by extreme racism, but anxious about the race of the perpetrators. To accept a racialised narrative to understand crime is to subscribe to the view that the crimes were committed because it is somehow intrinsic to Middle Eastern or North African ‘culture/masculinity.’ That is the unavoidable reading. Which brings us to the most sobering point for final discussion.

And that is that such self-righteous, moral pontificating is offered by people who I have no doubt must genuinely feel that their concern comes from a well-meaning, noble and post-racial place. But what, in the end, is the difference between saying race has everything to do with these crimes, and race has something to do with these crimes?

The sobering answer is that there is none. They would do well to pay heed to black British feminist theorists Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar who said: “Any talk of male violence that does not emphatically reject the idea that race or colour is relevant automatically reinforces those racist images.”

So by all means, let’s talk about the attacks on women in Cologne. But not until we talk about a whole lot of other things first.

Randa Abdel-Fattah is a third year doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at Macquarie University researching Islamophobia and everyday life from the point of view of the perpetrators. Randa practiced as a lawyer until 2012 and is also an award-winning author of ten novels. While conducting her PhD research, Randa was inspired to write a novel on the side, enabling her to translate some of the theories and academic themes she was researching into a fictional work for a young adult audience. The novel is due for release in 2016. Randa is also working on the film adaptation of her first novel, Does My Head Look Big in This? and is keen to use her intervention into popular culture to reshape dominant narratives around racism and multiculturalism.