A Note On The Visual Cultures of Racism

Racist speech does not function as an invitation to conversation. It does not offer reasons or arguments with which its audience can engage; and the visceral hostility it expresses effectively forecloses, rather than opens, the opportunity for further discussion.

Caroline West, ‘Words That Silence? Freedom of expression and racist hate speech’, 2012.

“We express ourselves openly and with robust civility about all kinds of human difference.” So, apparently, runs the ‘free speech principle no. 5’ outlined in a new monograph by Timothy Garton Ash.

For what it’s worth, we may easily conclude, even without having yet had access to said book, that the aging liberal Oxford don has once more been spending all too much time in cloistered university seminar rooms and altogether too little time on social media lately.

For if any ‘free speech principle’ is flouted with great gusto each and every hour every day of the year, and provides us with an easily falsifiable idea on Popperian grounds, it is this one. In Norway for example, we have had another week, another debate about freedom of expression in which middle-aged white Norwegian males take it upon themselves to define the parameters of acceptable expression about Muslims in contemporary Scandinavia. At stake this time, whether we should all consider it acceptable that a group of middle-aged white males of ostensibly artistic and libertarian inclinations, but in actual fact by and large supportive of the agendas of the current Norwegian government when it comes to immigration, integration and the ‘Muslim question’, should find it appropriate to draw Swedish minority politicians and survivors from the right-wing extremist terrorist attack at Utøya in Norway on July 22 2011 as monkeys. You read that correctly: in one of the richest and most educated countries on earth, we have dedicated an entire week to debating this burning and important issue 24/7 across social and public media. The University of Oslo-educated sociologist and syndicated columnist at the liberal tabloid newspaper Dagbladet Kjetil Rolness, along with the University of Stavanger historian Professor Nils Rune Langeland, the cartoonist Per Elvestuen, the Progress parliamentary advisor Hårek Hansen, the writer Torgrim Eggen and former publishing editor Halvor Fosli, have all declared that they consider a cartoon by the Norwegian pop artist Thomas Knarvik depicting the Swedish Member of Parliament and economist Ali Esbati (of Swedish-Iranian background) as a monkey is a swell contribution to freedom of expression in Norway anno 2016. This past week have predictably seen some of the usual white male suspects line up in defense of what Rolness the sociologists declared to be an expression of ‘European civilization’ (no less, of course, for no exercise in purported ‘freedom of expression’ by the strong against the weak these days, as Alberto Toscano pointed out some years ago, now come without the trotting out of high-minded rhetorical tropes invoking the European Enlightenment, progress and civilization as against, well, you’ve guessed it, ‘the Muslims’ alleged lack thereof – one is reminded here of the Gandhian quip that ‘Western civilization would be a good idea’); serial attempts to shift the balance of the public discussion from racism to freedom of expression (the latter of course invoked as a trump card supposedly doing away with any other relevant societal concern), and (most charmingly, from another aging white male Norwegian author) an attempt to pin the blame for the racist abuse on the victim, for allegedly having spoken ‘too much and too often’ in public about racism in Norway. For is that – ‘the speaking too much about racism’ – not the real and most serious problem in a world in a week in which a presidential candidate from an Austrian far-right party established by real Second World War Austrian Nazi SS Officers in the 1950s, which has done so little to shed its historical legacy that the very same candidate upon first being elected to the Austrian Parliament appeared with a pin commemorating these Nazi founders on his suit was narrowly defeated? And is not this ‘talking too much and too often about racism’ the main problem in a context in which we are in many other European countries (not to mention in the US of Donald Trump), including France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden currently seeing the rise of far-right political formations and the attendant rise of various forms of racism (most notably in its Islamophobic inflections, but certainly also in its anti-Semitic inflections)?   It is perhaps not by chance that it has been from white middle aged male Norwegians of this (reasonably well educated) kind that we have also heard the most sustained attempts at trivializing and banalizing the linkages between the Norwegian terrorist attacks of July 22 2011 and far-right discourses about Islam in Muslims that have long since become ubiquitious in Norway as in the rest of Europe.  This is the point at which it becomes inevitable to invoke James Baldwin’s words to his baby nephew from The Fire Next Time (1963):  “The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority, but to their inhumanity and fear.”

For it does not take more than a Sociology 101 course to realize that in order to understand racism in contemporary Europe and Norway, you do not start out by asking white middle-aged male Norwegians who are unlikely to have ever experienced anything of the sort in their entire lives about the state of affairs in this regard. And you certainly do not ask these same males two define its parameters either. A point which two of the best respondents to Knarvik’s provocations, from Mohamed Abdi and Mala Wang-Naveen, were perfectly well aware of.  This is not to assert what Mustafa Emirbayer and Matthew Desmond have referred to as the ‘insider doctrine’ or  that ‘it takes a victim of racism to know one’, only to assert that some people are a bit more qualified to talk about what racism is, looks and sounds like than your average white middle-class male Norwegian of right-wing political persuasions. “Whiteness, as a set of normative cultural practices, is visible most clearly to those it definitively excludes and those to whom it does violence” as Ruth Frankenberg has it (pp. 228-29).

The old white and male myth which struggles to die in an increasingly multicultural Norway and Europe: ‘We’ call the shots, ‘we’ have the powers of definition, so therefore it is none of your business to try to say something about the experiential world in which ‘you’ live, and how that very power of definition enshrined in your privileged white male middle-class world view impact on ‘our’ experiential worlds. Ta-Nehisi Coates from Between The World And Me (2015): “But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white.”

So before moving on, let me therefore state the obvious: namely that Thomas Knarvik’s cartoons of Ali Esbati and a cartoon of the Norwegian-African celebrity and artist Haddy N’jie and her baby, spread rampantly through social media in Norway in the past week both by supporters and detractors, stand in a long tradition of de-humanizing and racist portrayals of minorities, and are ipso facto racist. And that this is and will remain the case even though Knarvik himself, in a remarkably incoherent and confused attempt at explaining himself in an op-ed published by NRK Ytring and a more than slightly fawning interview with the lib-con publication Minerva has sought to portray himself and his cartoons as something akin to anti-racist acts. Well, here’s ‘news’ for you: In a society in which what Teuns A. Van Dijk insightfully referred to as ‘denials of racism’ have become a standard part of the self-indulgent repertoire of anyone who engages in racist speech acts, whatever an artist who has engaged in such acts post facto proclaims to be his or her ‘intention’ provides little clue to the substance of such speech acts. For Norway does after all now sport a Minister of Fisheries, Per Sandberg from the Progress Party, who in addition to surrounding himself with sympathizers who like to engage in routinized racist hate speech on Sandberg’s Facebook threads and having a long and sustained record of Islamophobic lies and fabrications about Norwegian Muslims,  has a criminal conviction for racist violence for having in 1997 head-butted a Bosnian asylum seeker who dared to insinuate that he was a ‘racist’ to his face. Sandberg, who hails from the only Norwegian party which opposed the Norwegian boycott against apartheid (there was, after all, in the ‘legendary’ words of the party’s then chairman Carl I. Hagen, a real ‘danger’ that South Africa would be run by ‘Bushmen and Hottentots’ [sic] if the racist regime of apartheid was to fall in South Africa) when the Norwegian Parliament finally voted on the issue in 1987, has appearantly taken a cue from post-structuralism, and now likes to proclaim loudly in ever so many media interviews that his political ideal is, well, the late Nelson R. Mandela [sic].

What for Van Dijk was ‘denials of racism’ is for the eminent South African-born sociologist of racism David Theo Goldberg ‘racial dismissal’, which Goldberg in his most recent work lucidly presents as follows: “Racial dismissal trades on the dual logic of reversal. It charges the historically dispossessed as the now principal perpetrators of racism, while dismissing as inconsequential and trivial the racism experienced by the historical targets of racism. In doing so, racial dismissal renders opaque the structures making possible and silently perpetuating racially ordered power and privilege. It reduces responsibility for degradation and disprivilege to individuated inexperience, lack of effort and incapacity, bad judgement, and ill fortune” (Goldberg 2015, p. 30).

What are the visual cultures of racism?

The by now extensive academic literature on racism and linked phenomena has historically been surprisingly uninterested in what one could characterize as the visual cultures of racism. There may of course be any number of reasons for this state of affairs, but researchers in this field, both internationally and in Norway dominated by historians and sociologists, are perhaps not those typically most interested in visual portrayals, but rather in verbal expressions past and present.  At the same time, most people understand quite intuitively that racist ideas and imaginaries about ‘others’ historically and in the present to a large extent are anchored in visual representations. And in particular in visual representations of ‘others’ which contribute to their degradation and de-humanization. Having grown up with a ‘Workers Encyclopedia’ which my father had inherited from his father, a railway worker and trade unionist, I should know something about how black Africans were represented visually in encyclopedic works as well as the media long into our own times.

Think too, of how, black Africans were represented in Norwegian missionaries personal archives from the African field – a topic explored by the late Norwegian anthropologist Marianne Gullestad in her very last monograph.

Or for that matter, how German and European anti-Semitism mobilized in a context of long satirical cartoon traditions whereby Jews were portrayed grotesquely caricatured with long crooked noses, brimming with monetary greed or behind the red banners of Bolshevism. This form of visual anti-Semitism was, as the young Norwegian historian Lars Lien’s recent doctoral dissertation from the University of Oslo demonstrates through numerous illustrations, widespread in Norwegian media in the period between 1905-25, including in national and ‘respectable’ newspapers such as Aftenposten, Nationen and Morgenavisen.

It is for this reason that Thomas Knarvik’s cartoons depicting various Scandinavian politicians and media celebrities as monkeys – inscribed in a long historical tradition of de-humanizing and derogatory representations of ‘others’ – can only for the more ignorant appear as anything but racist. This is now – perhaps to a greater extent than ever before – a visual culture of racism  – which we are all as members of a Debordian ‘society of spectacle’ – invited to take part in in the form of a rapid spread of childish and infamous artistic ‘provocations’ via social media. Note here, the central role in its spread and legitimation played by what we with reference to the work of Cass Sunstein may refer to as elite ‘polarization entrepreneurs’, which once more gives the lie to the idea that contemporary social , political and media elites with privileged platforms in the Norwegian mainstream media play no role in bridging popular and elite forms and articulations of racism in contemporary Norway.  When the visual cultures of racism appear so attractive for a certain class of Norwegian artists, it is of course also due to the very fact that the logic of transgression to which the late Octavio Paz referred to in his seminal work on the eclipse of the avant-garde has in the wake of modernity become so constitutive of the field of art.

What it leads to is of course as Paz noted art as endless repetition and mannerisms, but this has in our late-modern time also been coupled by a mediatized culture of narcissism (the ‘Look at me! Look At Me! – Whatever I do – Look At Me!), an individual and societal impulse which social media both vastly expands and is premised on.      


When it is so easy to establish on the basis of our scholarly knowledge relating to expressions of racism past and present that Knarvik’s cartoons are expressions of racism, it is precisely due to the fact that one of the most easily recognizable articulations of racism are anchored in visual or verbal analogies between humans and the animal realm which reduces individuals with a different skin colour, ethnic or religious background to something less than human or even sub-human. And no, as Mohamed Abdi has made clear for us, it makes precious little difference in this regard that Esbati is of Iranian, not African background. Many Norwegians will recall the aging Norwegian folk rock singer who a few years ago penned a popular song in which he analogized asylum seekers with ‘fleas and lice’ (and, no, he was of course not a self-professed racist either.)

Or, for that matter, the Facebook comment thread which followed after a local Progress Party-sympathizing mother of three had re-posted an image of a group of Emirati tourists praying under a public bridge in the town of Fredrikstad taken by a photographer from the local tabloid newspaper Fredrikstadavisa in the late summer of 2015 under her own title, ‘In the midst of my town of Fredrikstad – the Muslim bastards are having prayer time’. Among the comments of the woman’s thread were statements declaring that the Muslims in question “looked like monkeys”, asking the woman whether she had considered “throwing bananas at them”, and recommending “a shoot to their necks as the thing to do” (and no, the woman who had posted the Facebook comment was of course not a self-professed racist either).

It is above all the keen attention that the Portuguese-British historian Francisco Bethencourt pays to the visual cultures of racism in the European past, which makes his 2013 volume on the history of racism so remarkable from a scholarly point of view.

A Norwegian historian who also have a keen sensitivity towards  the visual cultures of racism, is Torgeir Skorgen in his meticulously documented and richly illustrated 2002 monograph on the history of ‘racial thought’ in Norway and Europe.

Bethencourt’s work was, along with the late George Fredrickson’s seminal work, the most important references in the chapter on the history of racism in my own very short introduction to racism, co-authored with Cora Alexa Døving, and published by Universitetsforlaget in 2015.

The visual cultures of racism and law and justice

It is in the Norwegian context an open question whether racist cartoons may be targeted for criminal prosecution under Norwegian laws against hate speech. For in Norway, it was first in the form of an amendment to the Norwegian General Penal Code § 135 (a) – which since October 2015 has been Norwegian General Penal Code § 185 – adopted by a majority in the Norwegian Parliament (the Storting) in 2005 – that symbols were included among criminally liable forms of hate speech against minority individuals in Norway. From my early teenage years, I vividly recall one of the more unruly school pupils at my local school in a small post-industrial community outside of Bergen, who in an attempt to draw attention to himself that the Norwegian artist and provocateur Thomas Knarvik would certainly recognize today, one day appeared at school with a Nazi swastika pinned to his jacket. He was promptly sent to the principal’s office, and ceased wearing it the next day. Openly racist symbols such as Nazi swastikas or Ku Klux Klan hoods will very obviously fall under the form of racist hate speech which is now liable for criminal prosecution under Norwegian General Penal Code § 185. That has evidently not stopped some from wearing them: An academic colleague of mine in Norway recently told me how some forlorn-looking Norwegian male attending a debate at the House of Literature recently had caused raised eyebrows by attending with a jacket with swastikas on it. When the Norwegian Parliament opted to include symbols in this legal statute, it was on the basis of a report from the government-appointed Holgersen Commission in 2002.

But a central backdrop to this was also the harsh criticism from the UN ICERD Commission against Norwegian authorities in 2005, on the basis of a divided Norwegian Supreme Court’s dubious acquittal of the Norwegian neo-Nazi leader and Boot Boys activist Terje Sjølie for an anti-Semitic and racist speech he held in the main square of the small Norwegian town of Askim in 2001, which the UN ICERD Commission found had violated the UN ICERD Convention’s Articles 4 and 6.

However, as far as I have been able to ascertain, visual expressions of racism in the forms of symbols and the like, though potentially criminally liable under the provisions of Norwegian General Penal Code § 185, have not been prosecuted in a Norwegian court of law. On these grounds, it seems a reasonably safe bet that racist cartoons and caricatures will not be the subject of criminal prosecutions in Norway in the foreseeable future.

Lest I be accused of assuming that the white middle class elites who dominate the public sphere and discussions of racism in Norway have presented a united supportive front for the cartoonist in question, let me hasten to add that this is mercifully not the case: Some of the most strongly worded rebukes have in fact come from solidly liberal media commentators in Norway, such as Hege Ulstein of Dagsavisen and John Olav Egeland at Dagbladet. But in the constant drift to normalize and mainstream racist speech and visual cultures in the name of by now serially instrumentalized invocations of the cherished principles of freedom of expression, it very much remains a tragically open question whether those who understand what a principled and balanced understanding of freedom of expression is will be the long term winner or losers in this unfolding story.

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