Reparations via Polemics
Houria Bouteldja with Edwin Nasr
June 9th, 2019
“The kind of love that I was interested in, that my characters long for intuitively, is the only kind of love that could liberate them from that horrible legacy of colonial violence. I am speaking about decolonial love… Is it possible to love one’s broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power-self in another broken-by-the-coloniality-of-power-person?” - Leanne Simpson, Islands of Decolonial Love 
It is as though, when writing Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love, Houria Bouteldja had squarely anticipated the methods through which the gatekeepers of white infrastructures and their representational apparatus would violently silence and discredit her. After all, it is no coincidence that Bouteldja refers to these infrastructures as a “white immune system,” and attempts to dismantle their manifestations and self-preserving patterns. Lest one finds the analogy redundant, comparing regimes of whiteness in their modern and contemporary formations to a living entity’s immune system does suitably delineate the former’s systematic propensity to identify and reject organisms that threaten its well-ordered functioning.
Before Whites, Jews, and Us was published in France, Bouteldja had already been the recipient of smear campaigns by the institutional Right and the traditional Left alike, in part due to her robust involvement with the Parti des Indigènes de la République (PIR). She was accused of having Islamist sympathies and deploying an essentializing, anti-nationalist, and anti-white discourse. The PIR is a decolonial political party initiated in 2005 following the banlieues riots, and seeks to end the conditions of apartheid-like segregation in Parisian immigrant neighborhoods, managed like internal colonies. Since then, it has operated as a platform for the development and translation of Francophone, decolonial thought, as well as formulated and organized anti-racist discourse and political work. The PIR, and by extension Bouteldja, have been progressively marginalized in various political arenas, including that of the far Left with which they would seemingly share strategic affinities. And this, in large part, for PIR’s insistence on placing legacies of colonial modernity at the heart of their theoretic-political concerns, as well as their refusal to subscribe to color blind ideologies, or racial blind spots.
Her book aims to shackle the foundations upon which universalist Republican thought deploys its hegemony across party lines, while conditioning discourses on the Left to reproduce colonialist tropes pertaining to national identity through positions on immigration, white feminism and the diasporic practices of Islam. In attempting to do so, Bouteldja was cast as a homophobe and misogynist, first for highlighting the French state and non-profit sector’s weaponization of LGBQT rights against Muslim communities and racialized, ‘menacing’ males, as well as for her anti-carceral stances and adoption of community-based practices against patriarchal violence in the militarized Parisian banlieues (where most working class, first and second-generation immigrants have lived since the 1970s). However, the incendiary analytics through which she denounces state philosemitism (which Bouteldja likens to a contemporary manifestation of institutional antisemitism), and explores the question of Palestine in France, were the tipping point that drew broad condemnation insofar as they exposed the French state’s perpetual complicity in the advancement of Israeli settler colonialism, as well as the historical Left’s failure to formulate a properly internationalist, anti-colonial stance.
Perhaps what is most striking about the prose contained within the pages of Whites, Jews, and Us, however, is its insistence on remaining unapologetic in its polemics. Bouteldja abundantly summons traditions of Black radicalism, anti-colonial literature, Latin American decolonial thought and Islamic feminism to also construct an affective, literary and political proposition, at once achingly vulnerable and urgently wrathful. Whites, Jews, and Us repurposes polemical writing as an emancipatory form through which second-generation, postcolonial immigrants can exorcise generational trauma and demand colonial reparations. She retrieves agitational rhetoric from its seemingly monopolized usage by the global Right, and reinserts it as a radical practice of maintenance and care in a decolonial Left. This form carves out a space for the members of racialized, controlled and brutalized communities to (re)claim the right to a confrontational and assertive world(ing). It is this that the crumbling tenets of a liberal democracy in perpetual crisis deem an inadequate mode of expression in the struggle against whiteness, and its incumbent political and other languages.
Edwin Nasr: Whites, Jews, and Us: Towards a Politics of Revolutionary of Love was met with a considerable amount of hostility upon its initial release in France. However, in the US, your book seems to have garnered praise from various corners of critical academia. How would you explain the flagrant difference in reception?
Houria Bouteldja: My book is first and foremost a radical critique of French colonialism and racism, even though it encompasses the histories and realities of the entire Western Hemisphere. Political thought that structures itself around race has only recently surfaced in France, contrary to the US, and it aims to collide in a frontal manner with French universalist thought by taking it to court. It’s a provocative book with regards to French “white good conscience”. I’d also like to add that it was conceived as a scathing critique of Left-wing progressivism, which I also frame as a particularism that the Left attempts to universalize. The heart of this frenzy lies, I believe, in my book’s attempt to dismantle the foundations of “white good conscience” and its abstract humanism.
EN: In an interview for the communist magazine Contretemps, interviewer Selim Nadi noted an “incapacity to read your texts” on account of your detractors, be they activists, journalists, or academics. To use ‘incapacity’ in this context could highlight one’s social positionality, or to put it more bluntly, proximity to whiteness and the limits this imposes on understanding, thinking and discussion. Would you say that is the case with regards to your book and to your work with the Parti des Indigènes de la République (PIR)?
HB: Yes. I position myself within a materialist tradition and believe that the critiques produced and levelled against my work are rooted in an objective defense—acknowledged or not, conscious or not—of the material interests and conditions of the intellectual and media sectors from which these critiques hail. Attempts to safeguard whiteness can even be located on the far Left; generally, the Left needs to acknowledge its blind spots as they relate to feminism, sexuality, philosemitism, race etc. It considers itself righteous on matters such as antisemitism and sexuality—it evens deems itself the most advanced and the most radical when it comes to these questions. However, decolonial thought demonstrates that the Left is itself limited in this regard, and can participate in reproducing forms of oppression related to gender, race and sexuality.
EN: In recent years, polemical writing has mostly been produced by right-wing, reactionary forces. Is the form of your writing—the wording, rhetoric, and rhythm—deployed in order to appropriate polemics as a potentially emancipatory, discursive practice, especially in light of liberal ideals of respectability politics and the technocratization of its intellectuals and former militants?
HB: I’m constantly accused of being a “provocateur”, and to that I reply systematically that one should differentiate between gratuitous provocations, and more politicized forms of provocation aimed at disrupting certain lines of thought. Furthermore, radical thought is always-already provocative when voiced in a context characterized by soft consensus and stifling divisions, and particularly when it aims to interrogate actual and material power structures, and the thought they produce. I believe in the power of polemics as long as it inscribes itself within a larger emancipatory project.
EN: More specifically, throughout the book you address the reader using the first-person plural pronoun "we", and reserve the "I" for passages in which processes of auto-purification (“I am in the lowest strata of profiteers”; “nothing can absolve me of this”) are being discussed. The "we" refers to a collective condition of indigeneity, but you also refuse to define its scope using identitarian taxonomies. Does your shift of pronouns mirror situations in which you yourself partake in the maintenance of the same white infrastructures that systematically dispossess you as a second-generation, postcolonial immigrant?
HB I used the personal pronoun "I" specifically when I had to narrate intimate lived experiences; but the "I" is always collective when it echoes experiences shared among a majority of second-generation, postcolonial immigrants. When I describe the feelings of shame associated with having Algerian parents who failed to demonstrate solid knowledge of the French language, or have “recognizable Arab physical features”, I know that I am tapping into a collective affect we experience. However, I refuse to externalize myself in relation to my community, and I even assume the worst drifts associated with that process—what I call the “rewilding of the native”—despite my being foreign to said drifts, and since I am invested in collective destiny as opposed to individual liberation. Consequently, when I switch to the "we" pronoun, I believe it has the same signification as the "I", yet this is where I try to identify myself with non-white readers and invite them to identify themselves with me through a shared condition.
EN: How does one embody and practice what you term revolutionary love in the face of Empire and capital, when language itself is contaminated by and weaponized against precisely that voice? Do you advocate for what Edouard Glissant called the “right to opacity” in your writing, and does it manifest in its refusal to explain itself?
HB: Indeed, I refuse to drown myself in textual explanations, subtitling, or justifications. However, I don’t consider my writing to be opaque. I offer all the keys necessary to understand the writing but I demand and expect a certain effort from the reader. I produce situations of tension and interrogation—efforts of comprehension allow readers to question the moral edifice upon which their conscience lies. It can prove to be a violent exercise but exercises that seek to debunk imperialist states’ ideological constructions are inherently necessary.
EN: You posit the French writer Jean Genet as an exemplary white accomplice (in contrast to a white ally), citing his radical friendship to “the two great historical victims of the white order: the Jews and the colonized.” Where could one locate white accomplices in our contemporary epoch, when solidarity in thought and praxis increasingly depends on ‘conditional’ parameters—what Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery call “rigid radicalism” —and ignores mutuality, agency, and cooperation?
HB: There are neither definitive allies, nor absolute allies. Most of the time we face having to deal and engage with momentary allies with whom we converge on certain questions such as Palestine but who fail to follow us through on principles of decolonial feminism, for instance. We deal with many allies who participate in anti-police brutality but steer clear from conversations revolving around State philosemitism—which we believe to be a disguised form of antisemitism. This is politics, and we consider ourselves pragmatic in the face of that. The Jean Genets of this world are exceptional. One needs to invent them.
EN: The notion of solidarity is central to your understanding of and call for practices of revolutionary love, itself grounded on “conserving the memory of societies based on solidarity”. How do you envision articulations of solidarity within an emancipatory, decolonial framework, and how should these articulations take shape without becoming absorbed and co-opted by color blind ideologies?
HB: First, I believe that the notion of solidarity is consubstantial with pre-capitalist societies, since the survival of an individual inherently depended on collective survival. I’m making mention of this because I would like to situate solidarity within a material context. It isn’t an idea but a social need. We operate in modern societies that extract individuals from the collectives to which they respectively belong in order to confront them with the State in its repressive form, in both liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes alike. Any decolonial project should strive to preserve all forms of collective solidarities, if not seek to reinvent them to begin with. It goes without saying that this should necessarily go through internal political solidarities among racialized groups.
EN: You lament the direct implication of second-generation postcolonial immigrants—the “lowest strata of profiteers” in the reproduction of oppressive structures—claiming: “It is said that more and more of these immigrants’ children want to shut down immigration for all migrants who come knocking on Europe’s doors because France can no longer take in all the misery in the world.” How does one attempt to resolve this sentiment within anti-racist struggles?
HB: It’s important to define a new political territory from which our demands could emerge. We can no longer lock ourselves within the confines of the nation-state. Being French does not interest me. It’s at best a mediocre ambition but one that constitutes an aim in itself for many non-white individuals. This is what we call integrationism. We should thus imagine and lay out an alternative project that proposes transnational identity and ties as its framework. To achieve that, we need first and foremost to combat our own imperialisms and build a new form of internationalist fraternity, all the while making sure to deconstruct the types of arguments that posit the rejection of migrants as a necessary evil for racialized communities to be tolerated. To that, one needs to counter-pose revolutionary love. Migrants are our brothers and sisters in shared humanity. Welcoming them is part and parcel of a larger process of reparations.
- Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories and Songs, Winnipeg Manitoba: Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2013, 45.
- Originally published in French by La Fabrique Editions in 2016, and translated to English by Rachel Valinsky for Semiotext(e) in 2018.
- See Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times, Chico California: AK Press, 2018.