How does it feel to be the solution?

Issued: Wed, 18 Dec 2019 00:00:00 GMT

 [T]he white people of the city must remember that much of the sorrow and bitterness that surrounds the life of the American Negro comes from the unconscious prejudice and half-conscious actions of [white] men and women who do not intend to wound or annoy.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro, 1899, 396-7.



            I admit the choice of the reflection I am proposing comes from rage. ("Emotions may be crucial to showing us why transformations are so difficult (we remain invested in what we critique), but also how they are possible (our investments move as we move)", Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotions, 2004, 172).

            On June 18th, 2019, Italian deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini demanded in Twitter the forced sterilization of a Romani woman who was caught stealing after she had been spared prison because she was pregnant. Salvini's tweet immediately recalled the forced sterilization of Romani women in (post)communist Czechoslovakia, ended only in 1993, and more broadly eugenics as a way of thinking and feeling, consistent with his politics of letting black folks drawn in the Mediterranean by establishing "solutions" to "the problem of immigration" -- mainly, strengthening Libya's migration control. closing Italian ports, and sanctioning NGOs rescue ships. Salvini's party, Lega, got 34% of vote in the 2019 EU parliament elections.

            The "solutions" Salvini promotes are parts of a problem - a problem very many black and brown folks, Romani and others in Europe and around the world are forced to endure, either through physical or less direct forms of violence. A problem differentiated alongside sexuality, able-bodiedness, class and gender, yet seemingly silenced across the board, overlooked, if not actively denied. A problem that can be called whiteness.

            While part and parcel of the global history of race, sharply discussed in, for instance, W.E.B. Du Bois' The Black Reconstruction of America (1935), 21st-century European whiteness has yet to be systematically analysed. Studies of racial formations have primarily focused on the United States, while comparative studies with South Africa and Brazil, among other contexts, have highlighted significant peculiarities in each national context. "Racial Europeanization" (David Theo Goldberg, 2006) - and more generally the racial fabric of European social, political and economic structures - has rarely been scrutinized from its inside, its own history, so intrinsically embroidered in the making of racial capitalism.

            Gloria Wekker's White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (2016) is one of the first attempts to delve deep into contemporary white self-representations of a European context (The Netherlands). While also drawing on studies of the US, where "decidedly more work has been done on the cultural archive than in Europe" (2016: 3), the anthropologist seems to suggest, in a sense, that it is not necessary to look at Trump for understanding Salvini's racial rule. Taking Aime Césaire's Discours sur le colonialisme (1950) as a chief reference, the author investigates a declination of European whiteness from its inside.

            Wekker's move is very significant. Not only because it ethnographically excavates silent and self-deceptive "unconscious prejudice and half-conscious actions", (Du Bois, epigraph above - however often those prejudice and actions do intend to wound or annoy), gone virtually unnoticed by the scholarship on post-1945 Europe. Also, and perhaps more importantly, because it has the concrete potential of inspiring social inquiries into what I would suggest is a crucial question,

            How does it feel to be the solution?

That clearly is the reverse of the "unasked question" in the opening of The Souls of Black Folk:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They [...] say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. (Du Bois1903: 7)

            Reversing Du Bois' gaze does not mean seeking a shared humanity with those who deny humanity through racial rule and discourse. On the contrary, it means examining ways of being in the world, predicated upon unspoken assumptions underwriting whiteness, often self-deceptive and normative dispositions about classed, gendered, sexualized and racial human hierarchies. One way of doing that is taking on board Sara Ahmed's understanding of feelings and emotions "not as psychological states, but as social and cultural practices" (2004: 9) and adopting a phenomenological approach. Wekker's, for instance. In the book, one of the answers to our question appears in relation to Wilders, the leader of the xenophobic Party for Freedom, who demanded "fewer and fewer Moroccans!" in the Netherlands. The shared feelings behind Wilders' "solution" could be paraphrased as “We are a small nation, innocent; we are inherently antiracist; we do not have bad intentions” (2016: 80). Hence, to be "the solution" may not only feel innocent, but also "inherently antiracist".

            Italian "white innocence" might display slightly different nuances. As example, take the speech Salvini gave to the Senate on March 20, 2019, just before Senators' favourable vote to spare him a court case; he was accused of depriving 177 people of liberty by impeding them to disembark for five days from an Italian Coast Guard vessel which had just rescued them in the Mediterranean:

I usually do not get emotional when I give a speech [...] but when it is about an accusation of a crime... [...] so please forgive a little bit of emotions [...] We [i.e. the government, in power for less than a year] have saved thousands of lives. [...] Less departures [from Libya], less arrivals [to Italy], less deaths [in the Mediterranean]. Less departures, less arrivals, less deaths [...] less departures, less arrivals, less deaths.

            While not mentioning the actual number of people who lost their lives in the Mediterranean in the previous years, he repeated "less deaths" multiple times. This is not only false in relative terms - the rate arrivals/deaths has actually almost tripled from 2015 to 2018 - but also heavily contestable in absolute terms. By supporting Libya's role in repressing people's mobility, Italy has actively contributed to the increase of the death toll in Libya's camps and off the Libya's coast, beside fostering inhumane living conditions inside those camps.

            Salvini continued with a bombastic declaration of innocence -- "We rescue everyone! Because I will never be the Minister, the man or the member of the government who will let even one person die in the Mediterranean without doing anything!", and finished with a full tank of emotions -- "As I love Italy, I love my children, and I love the children of Italians, I dedicate my life to this wonderful country!" This seems to suggest a non-racist "solution", coming from someone who "does not intend to wound or annoy" (Du Bois, epigraph above), rather than an "anti-racist" solution, as is the case of Dutch "white innocence".

            Asking, How does it feel to be the solution? in contemporary Europe would mean in-depth and meticulously unmasking various declinations of whiteness alongside sexuality, gender, class and able-bodiedness, as variable manifestations of historically-grounded racial structures that guided and made possible over five centuries of colonial violence. Undoubtedly, looking at Salvini, still pervasive.




Ahmed, S. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotions. London: Routledge

Césaire, A. 1956. Dicours sur le colonialisme. Paris: Editions Réclame.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1935 Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1903. The Souls of the Black Folk. Chicago:  A. C. McClurg & Co.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1899. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Goldberg, D.T. 2006. "Racial Europeanization", Ethnic and Racial Studies, 29(2): 331-364.

Wekker, G. 2016. White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham and London: Duke University Press.