Think Before You Act: An Interview with Sherene Razack

Sharmeen Khan and Natalie Kouri-Towe

Sherene Razack is a professor in the department of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Her research and teaching interests lie in the area of race and gender issues in the law. Her most recent research investigates the deaths of Aboriginal people held in police custody in Canada. Her books include Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims From Western Law and Politics (2008), Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping and the New Imperialism (2004), an edited collection Race, Space and the Law: Unmapping A White Settler Society (2002), Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms (1998) and Canadian Feminism and the Law: The Women’s Legal and Education Fund and the Pursuit of Equality (1991). This interview is based on two seperate conversations Sharmeen Khan and Natalie Kouri-Towe had with Razack between September 2008 and July 2009 for Upping the Anti.

In your book Casting Out you made reference to some of the contemporary theoretical discussions about sovereignty and the state of exception. How might we situate Canadian sovereignty in relation to conditions of exception such as the one found in Gaza, and how might this inform our anti-racist and anti-imperialist practice?

In Casting Out, I draw upon the work of Giorgio Agamben and others who have pointed out how sovereign power finds its first expression in the extra-legal constitution of the law itself. In the process of constituting themselves as legal entities, sovereign states operate within an extra-legal realm defined by violence. Likewise, when sovereign states are threatened, they are able to return to this realm by legally suspending the law. Through this process, people are evicted from legal and political community. In Casting Out, I describe how our current moment is marked by a “culture of exception.” In this moment, states are increasingly exercising their sovereign right to exclude whole groups of people in the interests of governance.

In a world such as ours, where large numbers of people are evicted from the law, this kind of theory has become very attractive. There is no point talking about “discrimination” when people are excluded from the right to have rights. Whole groups of people no longer have the right to habeas corpus or the right to a trial. In Palestine, we find a whole people without rights. This is where theorizing the state of exception is useful for getting people to consider the ways that lawlessness becomes the norm with respect to certain groups of people – the poor, migrant workers, Muslims, and Arabs.

These groups of people are not able to access the laws of a democracy. The removal of habeas corpus rights – that you can be arrested and never see the evidence against you, as became the case in the United States by Presidential decree on November 13, 2001, and as was reaffirmed with the passage of the Military Commissions Act in 2006 – is pretty frightening. But it’s indicative of something much more widespread. Large numbers of workers, such as those working in Alberta on tar sands projects under the Temporary Foreign Worker program, now have no labour rights. That’s an eviction from political community. When countries constitute themselves as a particular kind of state, they do it by drawing boundaries defining who is in and who is out. Who’s in the legal community and who’s not? Who’s in the political community and who’s not? People get evicted.

In 2008, Esmin Green died in an emergency room at King’s County Hospital in New York. She sat there for 24 hours and was dead for another eight before anyone did anything about it. Security cameras captured security guards, nurses, and doctors poking her feet. This was a human being who died because her life was of so little worth and because she had so few rights that it was possible to watch her die. She belongs to a group that has been abandoned and that is not even entitled to die with dignity.

It’s important to connect this story with what happens to the people of Gaza. In both cases, people become the living dead. As a society, we’ve agreed that it’s okay to have certain groups of people exist on the edge of life, where their death will mean nothing. The means by which Esmin Green became part of this group while living in one of the richest countries in the world is the same as the means by which it’s accomplished in Gaza for a person facing endless bombing. In both cases, we encounter the same perception of what constitutes a life worthy of being lived and the same eviction from legal community.

How are people evicted?

My current work is on Aboriginal people who die in police custody. In our democracy, it begins with a group of people who are dying on the street, in prison cells, in ambulances, and so on. Why do we tolerate this? When you try to answer this question, you confront what it would mean to have these people actually live. What would we have to give up for them to actually live? For starters, we would have to give up the land that we took from them. We would also have to provide safe drinking water and think about the terrible violence that occurred – and is still occurring – and that caused this situation. All of these things would have to be done in order to keep these people inside of our political community instead of evicting them into the realm of the living dead. In contrast, when they are the living dead, they allow the rest of us to walk around saying “we’re managing life quite well, not dying on the streets.” We get to construct ourselves as particular kinds of subjects – not only as a symbolic process going on in our heads, but materially. We can’t do what we do without their land. When confronting the living dead, we need to understand what they do for those that are constituted as being among the living. It takes an awful lot of violence to keep modern states going.

Power is not abstract. It’s expressed on bodies. That’s easy to see when we drop a bomb on someone. But how is power expressed on an Aboriginal body today? You could start with clean drinking water. In some of the places where I’m doing my research, the town has drinking water. But as soon as you step outside the limits, nine kilometers out of town, there is no drinking water. That division is produced and sustained. It’s an expression of power that manifests itself in the form of sick kids on the reserve. Power is expressed in a multitude of ways. There was no doctor for Esmin Green, and her very body became marked by that message. In fact, her body was bearing the message of power long before she got to the hospital room. I like the word “imprinted” because, in so many of the cases I’m looking at, the bodies are actually marked – like boot prints on a man’s chest. But there are invisible ways of imprinting your power that are not so obvious. Like water, for example.

When you spend a lot of time at inquests, looking at how people describe their engagement with these bodies, you realize what enables them to do what they do. According to their logic, the body they are considering is not the same kind of body as their own, that this life is not worth the same as mine. And so a cop will drop you out of town to freeze to death or a doctor will tell you that you don’t need a particular kind of drug or that what you have is not treatable.

The system of dividing lives worth living from those not worthy of being lived is bureaucratized. You could participate without ever being very conscious of it even though you’re engaging in a whole set of inhumane, racist practices. But what enabled you to believe that a dying alcoholic Aboriginal man who has come into the hospital doesn’t need to have his family informed? This isn’t something you would think if someone like you was in that situation, but in the case of the life expelled from law and political community, you’re able to think that it’s reasonable and not racist. The explanations that enable these courses of action are what interest me. They are the everyday beliefs of the liberal state.

The objective is not to look for villains but to see how we ourselves are produced as modern subjects. Colonialism is both devastating and complex, and even contradictory in its workings. People argue that there are lots of good things in colonialism. It brought women education! But which women? When? Where? I’m currently writing about wildness and national parks, and who could be against them? But then you unpack it and see that these wonderful parks are founded on massive evictions. That’s the way colonialism works.

Can you explain why, in Casting Out, you used the category Muslim and not Arab or Iraqi? How did Muslim become a racialized category?

To some extent, I’m a bit sloppy about the category Muslim. However, the categories you listed are collapsed in the public imagination and my concern is with how the public thinks about the category and not how Muslims exist in reality. When I say Muslim, I could specify Muslim-Arab or Iraqi-Muslim. But the fact remains that all Arab people are presumed to be Muslim, and that all Muslim people are presumed to be Arab. Anyone who is seen to embody the category is automatically put in this container. That’s how I have used the category Muslim. For the public, what makes the Muslim recognizable is that he or she is Arab and brown-looking. One rarely thinks of a white person when imagining a Muslim, even though there are many white Muslims.

Did your earlier studies about Aboriginal court cases and the Somalia affair shape your understanding of Muslim as a racialized category?

My work on the Somalia affair and on Aboriginal people generally considered the way that violence disappears in the law. When violence is committed against a racialized group, there’s no accountability for it. Notions of violence disappear. In the Somalia affair, we had pictures of the torture and eventual killing of Shidane Arone by Canadian Forces. It was our Abu Ghraib. Similarly, although there’s a tremendous amount of violence against Aboriginal peoples, we never seem to formally acknowledge that this violence is happening. Nor do we get close to acknowledging that this violence has anything to do with race, that it’s racialized violence.

When I began to look at racialized violence against Muslims, I drew upon the work I did in 1997 for Looking White People In the Eye. My interest in what was happening to racialized women predated September 11, 2001. However, since then, I have continued to see how the Orientalized Muslim woman and the violence against her are used as reasons to mark the Muslim community as subordinate. Because those relationships have continued, I have continued to be interested in understanding them.

When extreme acts of violence began to occur during the Iraqi occupation, Abu Ghraib highlighted the significant connection between what was happening in Iraq and the events covered in Dark Threats and White Knights, my book on the Somali affair. Coincidently, the pictures of Abu Ghraib emerged in the media the very month my book on Somalia was released. It was absolutely clear to me that I had just been through all of this – the photos, the denials, and the standard excuses that the perpetrators were poorly trained, that the troops were stressed, or the blaming of bad leaders. It was the exact same thing as in Somalia.

The Somalia affair made clear that geopolitics profoundly shapes the conditions under which racial violence occurs. These conditions and this violence also define what “peacekeeping” is all about: it’s about countries from the North going to the South and feeling superior about themselves. Peacekeeping in Somalia enabled Canada to position itself as a middle power that was pulling its weight and thus deserved to enjoy the benefits that come with being a member of the family of white nations.

Canada enters the geopolitical field as an innocent nation and as a middle power, and I’ve sometimes found myself laughing at the recognizable postures that middle power countries assume when participating in empire. As somebody who studies Canada, it’s been very easy to understand how this mythology is used by other middle powers.

A middle power white nation like Norway deploys the same mythologies as Canada. Like us, they are innocent and humanitarian. The strategy that Canada has employed is similar to what other middle power nations do. We say we’re the world’s peacekeeper and Norwegians say that they’re the world’s humanitarians. In both cases, the claim is used to disavow the nation’s acts of exclusion and violence. Like Canada, Norway participates in colonial activities indirectly. It benefits from trade arrangements and the labour of people from the South, and enjoys the things that come with being in the club of nations from the North.

How do claims about “democracy” and “human rights” produce race in a contemporary context?

Race talk is always decontextualized talk. When you say these people are superior and these people are inferior, you are never talking about history or about specifics. Democracy becomes race talk precisely because it’s talked about as if it was a quality a person possessed. That’s racist territory. We need to talk about democracy not as an innate characteristic or point of development but as a political process. Then we have to ask: “what has impeded it?” There won’t be people born with a missing gene that makes democracy incomprehensible. The Taliban isn’t a strange race of men that descended from the mountains of Afghanistan that innately loves beards and oppressing women and hates democracy. That’s magical talk! Where did the Taliban come from? What is its socialization? What is its history? That’s reasonable talk. Race talk is really unsophisticated talk. It is about genetics, innate qualities, and things like that.

You’ve drawn attention to some of the racist assumptions underlying prevailing ideas of “the modern.” How do you think activists should take up your call to question “the modern” as an explicitly racial process?

The things that get called “modern” – democracy, human rights, individualism, and equality – don’t sound like they are about race at all. However, it’s terribly important to understand that this is how race talk happens. It’s not very different from how, in the 18th century, Montesquieu argued in his Spirit of the Laws that people who live in warm climates are not able to be democratic or rational. That’s exactly what “pre-modern” and “modern” talk is about. We understand Montesquieu to be racist – he took a whole category of people and said because these people are hot all the time they are never going to be democratic. However, the same thing happens today. People say that there are groups of people that are never going to make it to the modern stage. Guess what? It’s the same groups of people that Montesquieu had in mind.

Because race talk is organized around notions of democracy, secularism, and so on, it means that activists are in a terrible bind. We can’t be against democracy! Nevertheless, it’s necessary to name the colour line and the race talk present in concepts to which we are otherwise committed. The only thing we can do as activists is insist on historicizing and contextualizing, which is really difficult in a world of sound bites. What the reporter’s going to hear is that you don’t like democracy and that you think it’s fine to stone a woman. It will take you three paragraphs to contextualize what race is doing in the context of concepts like democracy and secularism. In a way, the dilemma of the activist and the scholar is the same. Both are put in the position of needing to say: “well, it’s not exactly because I’m religious that I’m against secularism.” At first, it appears to be a nonsensical statement and you have to explain it to get beyond the dualisms.

Activists often establish a very clear line between what’s good and what’s bad and it’s hard to mobilize people around nuances. How do you think activists could do this better?

Activists and scholars sometimes have no choice but to engage in debates on terms that have already been set. You might say “yes, democracy is exactly what I’m committed to” and then try to get a word in edgewise about what that “democracy” might look like. Trouble arises when you’re on terrain that takes longer to explain. Secularism is an example of that, and it’s further complicated by our own unease. If you’ve spent your whole life being against organized religion, it’s really difficult to stand up and say “secularism does some bad things.” It doesn’t sit well, but war makes for extreme bedfellows. You can end up standing with people with whom you wouldn’t last two minutes – strongly religious or conservative people.

So how do you have a reasonable argument with someone about the veil as a feminist? Your bottom line will be something about patriarchy. But the analysis of patriarchy shouldn’t prevent you from defending a person’s right to wear the veil, nor should it prevent you from seeing that banning the veil is a particular kind of racist or colonial strategy. Nevertheless, if you personally think that the veil is a patriarchal practice, there will always be that little moment of unease when you think: “this is what I’m defending?” Personal feelings will coexist alongside your absolute conviction that no one has the right to impose either wearing or not wearing the veil. Both impositions are patriarchal and imperialist in that they colonize women’s bodies.

Once you edge into self-righteousness, that’s a bad thing. It’s good to be challenged and every struggle is full of these tensions. I used to work at the Human Rights Commission and one of the things we joked about was that human rights complainants – the very people that we were going to the wall for – were sometimes not very nice people. Most often, they were damaged by all the things that brought them to the Commission in the first place. We got these complainants who were not charming, and it was really a challenge because we would spend long hours writing on behalf of people that we didn’t actually like. I think that’s often the case. And it’s difficult. But why do we think we are entitled to uncomplicated lives? What do you want in a rape case, virgins who have never had sex? It’s an unreasonable demand.

Activists have sometimes used Canadian law as a resource in their fight against oppression and expulsion. What are the possibilities and dangers of using law to address the oppression of Muslims and other racialized communities?

Aboriginal scholar Robert Williams said that “if you are denied a seat on the bus then you don’t really have a choice but to fight for a seat.” This doesn’t mean that we should fight only in law. If we do that, we will fail. The results we want to see will come about because there’s some kind of noise outside the courtroom. A legal strategy is never a legal strategy all by itself – it’s always connected to what’s happening outside.

Communities have to figure out ways to survive and to resist, and this may be more urgent than thinking about legal briefs. However, when your rights are denied, or when you’re indefinitely detained without trial, it’s not the time to say “I don’t feel like it’s a good idea to deal with the law.” You have no choice.

People can consider lawlessness. They can go around the city doing graffiti. You do what you are best positioned to do. When Tamil protestors recently occupied the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, it was brilliant and it made me smile. It wasn’t a legal strategy but it seemed to have been the only way they could shake people up and say “excuse me, our people are getting massacred.” It was brilliant, and no legal strategy worth its salt exists without other things going on.

When democracy doesn’t work for you, you need to figure out a different way to do it. What are you going to do when everything is closed to you? When you don’t have access to the law or the media, you have nothing. We have to calculate moments like that in a democracy and make all sorts of choices. Would you make the same choices under George Bush as you would now under Barack Obama? Perhaps not. Perhaps the political calculations are slightly different. Maybe now we can do things we couldn’t do before.

You’ve talked about how certain strands of feminism have perpetuated imperialist occupation. Can feminism also be useful in mobilizing against imperialism?

There are definitely different feminist groups fighting against imperialism. But what is truly alarming is how feminists everywhere can easily fall into analytical frameworks that I feel are deeply imperial. I’m preoccupied with how, when feminists begin to confront sexual violence, we begin to seem vulnerable to frameworks that implicitly reiterate the colour line, where the North is more advanced than the South in its treatment of women. There are some political movements that critique this binary, but it continues to remain prominent in the mainstream. We need to begin to ask what oppresses, understanding that systems of oppression operate through each other. The freedom of women of the North to wear what they like and to work outside the home are freedoms that are inextricably linked to women of the South forced to leave their own children and to come to the North to work as nannies. It is also linked to exploitative economies where our freedom to consume depends on their lack of freedom. An easy comparison of rights is inevitably misleading, even while we can all see that the situation for women is much worse in countries where they cannot get redress when they have been raped than in those where they can exercise their right to be free from sexual violence.

Modern nation states have often used “woman” as an ideal around which to build social cohesion. These efforts have been particularly acute in moments when the state feels threatened by an enemy. How can anti-racist feminists respond adequately to this situation?

The nation is always made on the body of women, and I’m struggling with the apparent fact that the violence against women that accompanies wars and occupation is greater than when there isn’t an occupation. And I’m also struggling with how this violence is distinctive in character. Recently, I was in a workshop with Iraqi women from Basra where a large number of women had been killed – and killed by their own, killed in ways that feminists have long recognized. Women would be killed and mutilated and a message would be put on their bodies. The message would be a warning for women, a form of social control: if you do this, this will happen to you. The challenge is to determine what kind of violence this is. What are the sources of this violence and how should we respond to it? What analysis will serve you well in a case like this?

I’ve felt completely unequal to the task because you need to know a lot about Iraqi society before you can say how it’s changed. I know very little about how sectarian violence has increased since the occupation. It’s superficial to say that conservative or political or fundamentalist Islam is responsible. That tells me nothing about how this society was once a place where women weren’t murdered so frequently, so badly, or murdered in those kinds of ways. I don’t know if I want to put all the blame on ultra religious or fundamentalist groups. What allowed those groups to thrive and what happened to the other Iraq? We need to ask questions about the specific context. What are the conditions under which violence against women is thriving?

There has been such a terrible amount of death and, like me, the participants in the workshop were really at a loss to figure out what could be done. Initially, the organization sponsoring the workshop asked what the women thought they needed. The women thought that maybe they needed shelter and the organization bought a house for them. But no woman can go to the shelter; to do so endangers her life. That’s not going to work as a strategy.

Are there any examples of activist organizing against imperialism, colonialism, and Islamophobia that you think are effective? Are there practices that you think are completely counter productive?

My classrooms are filled with activists. My pet peeve is the activist who romanticizes the street, direct action, and going to a demonstration while, at the same time, demonizing intellectual work. I feel like screaming: do you think you would get anywhere with these strategies without sound intellectual work? I have a vested interest in telling students to stay home and write their papers. I have little patience for the person who thinks that intellectual work is not activism. At the same time, I really admire people who put their money where their mouth is and put their bodies where they need to be. I understand why activists gravitate toward the street, but I hate the anti-intellectualism that romanticizes so-called action and that insists that saying things “simply” is best. It isn’t always. As Edward Said famously told a heckler when he came to speak at York University in the 1990s, “there is such a thing as a jargon of simplicity.”

In her research on immigrant service workers, Jane Ku highlighted this incredible tension between these workers and women academics of colour. Some of the envy was “you have a nice job with a pension and I’m a community worker on the front line.” There’s a material basis to this tension: yes, you get a pension if you have a tenure track job. But the other part of it was around this idea that the academic’s life must be easier than mine. This irks me to no end (for perhaps obvious reasons). People are justified in wanting the material benefits that come with academic positions. But the idea that academic work is just a rarefied activity for elites – and, as such, is disconnected from struggle – ignores the fact that you have to think before you can act.

What suggestions would you offer to activists who are invested in resisting Islamophobia while not slipping into the romanticization of Islam?

Every time you speak, you have to be historically specific. When you’re relentlessly put down and silenced, you have to look somewhere to make a claim. People turn to religion to make those claims. As somebody who doesn’t really operate in religious circles, it’s easy for me to say, don’t go there. But people derive strength and comfort from finding religious solutions to practical problems. It’s a strategy – it’s a counter strategy. For many people, it’s worked to help them feel that they’re fighting a collective problem with a collective solution. Because large numbers of people find meaning in them, I think that it would be the height of elitism to say we don’t need to pursue those kinds of solutions.

Really, though, I’m as confused as you are as to what personally I should use as a strategy. Recently, I was invited to give a talk at an event honouring the contributions of Muslim women. It made me very uneasy. We’re not in a climate where I want to make any kind of statement like “I’m not really a Muslim” or “I’m kind of secular.” I don’t want to say those things because of how they will get taken up.

At the same time, I really felt like I had to decline because I would have felt like a fraud if I had participated. In the early 1990s, I would have said “I’m not a practicing Muslim.” I no longer say that. I liken it to the Second World War, when people said “if Jews have to wear a yellow star to identify them for the purpose of persecution, then everyone should wear a yellow star.” If being a Muslim is a really bad thing, then there is no choice about it. No amount of disclaiming will save you, despite what people think. Saying “I’m not like the Taliban” is not going to save you. If they want to expel you from law and political community, they’re not even going to ask.