Review: Alana Lentinon Antoinette Lattouf

Against Representation

The personal is the political is concerned with what is owed to one by society, whereas the political is personal is concerned by what is owed by society to one. The personal is the political is concerned with altering the goal posts, the political is personal is concerned with the field of play. The personal is the political may produce radical individualism, the political is personal produces a radical society. The personal is the political entraps you in the self-achieving, self-aggrandising lifestyle of the rich, the political is personal finds value in the communal lifestyle of the poor.

– Ambalavaner Sivanandan

Nonwhite migrants’ sense of belonging is tied to the fiction of terra nullius and the logic of capital because their legal right is sanctioned by the law that enabled dispossession. However, whiteness is the invisible measure of who can hold possession.

– Aileen Moreton-Robinson

I was finishing How to Lose Friends and Influence White People by Media Diversity Australia founder Antoinette Lattouf on the evening of 14 June. That was when the news came in that the UK government’s first deportation flight to Rwanda had been halted by a powerful combination of direct action by people detained in Colnbrook detention centre, members of Stop Deportation groups, lawyers, and ordinary protestors. On that day, 130 people dubbed ‘illegal entrants’ were due to board the flight. In the end, not a soul left and the plane stayed on the tarmac. The £120m UK-Rwanda deal is a direct borrowing from Australia’s intentionally cruel, ongoing, but mainly forgotten policy of offshore detention which has killed 14 people and irreversibly injured countless more in immeasurable ways.

In the end it was a European Court of Human Rights ruling that legally put paid to the deportation flight. But the UK government, led on this by Home Secretary Priti Patel, is not, as she put it, to be ‘deterred from doing the right thing.’ That the daughter of Gujarati Ugandan migrants is the face of the UK’s murderous border policy complicates things for the central argument of Lattouf’s book, that ‘the idea of a liberal democracy like ours is that institutions should reflect the society they govern’ by being more inclusive of people of colour. The same fiction of ‘stopping deaths at sea’ legitimates this colonial pact, as it does in Australia where both sides of politics are ready with obfuscatory words to loan to London. Priti Patel represents the hard-right government of the British state, a state dependant to this day on the spoils of empire, as Nadine El-Enany has powerfully shown.

In the chapter titled ‘Culture That Counts’, Lattouf applauds the outcome of the 2019 UK general election which saw ethnic minorities making up 10 per cent of the parliament. Eighteen per cent of the present UK cabinet are Black and Brown people. This may be so, but this cabinet is enacting some of the most repressive policies in recent history, policies which impact most negatively on other Black and Brown people, who are among the poorest in British society. In one example, highlighted by housing campaigner Kwajo Tweneboa, the designed degradation of social housing stock since the Thatcher era forces many, disproportionately negatively racialised people who cannot afford private rental or owned accommodation to live in unsafe squalor with no recourse. Trying to fly a plane carrying asylum seekers to Rwanda on the fifth anniversary of the fire that destroyed Grenfell Tower, taking 72 lives and decimating a Black, Brown, migrant and working class community sends a very particular message. That message does not become palatable because it is delivered by a strong Brown woman. Equally, race does not have less effect because a Black Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, citing a report written by a team of ‘minority ethnic’ government appointees, says Britain doesn’t have a problem of institutional racism and that colonialism was rather more positive than given credit for.

The words and actions of Patel and Badenoch call into question a premise of Lattouf’s book, and many others: that representation is an antiracist measure. Throughout How to Lose Friends and Influence White People, when serious examples of racism are raised, the response pivots quickly to the representational deficit that Lattouf sees as largely responsible for the failure to address them. In one sense this is inevitable as Media Diversity Australia’s remit is to ‘improve diversity’. However, the suggestion to ‘turn to the voices and perspectives of non-white writers, comedians and politicians’ as a corrector to white privilege, shines light on the relative absence of those with no access to the media at all and whose everyday struggles are much more indicative of what antiracism in practice really looks like.

I have already let frustration seep in. Lattouf counsels against this in Chapter 6: ‘Eight Steps to Becoming a Racial Influencer.’ Citing an Israeli neuroscientist, she advises us to ‘take account of the emotional state that the person in front of you is in.’ Instead of rushing in with admonishments of ‘old white dudes in power,’ better to emphasise the positive and commend the progress made by Mr John White, an ‘ally for change’. His promotion of women and people of colour has had great results, proving research conducted by Deloitte and others of the ilk that ‘profits have soared and… workplace culture is thriving.’

‘Bravo, Mr White.’

The thing is, I don’t want to clap for Mr White, nor for the ‘white M&Ms’ (allies who are ‘white and strong on the outside but brown and sweet on the inside’). But I do want to be clear. So, I will follow Lattouf, who wants us to be honest with our intentions and ask ourselves, ‘Why am I really doing this?’

I am writing this review believe we need to be clear-eyed about race. On this continent, race is a technology of power of the colonial state. As abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains, racism produces ‘group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.’ It cannot be reduced to attitudes, beliefs or statements, or acted upon on that level. Changing the face of power does not undermine – and may in fact strengthen – racial rule. However, the overwhelming non-Indigenous response to racism, which Lattouf is hardly alone in, makes the opposite case. I want to shift the dial on how we read and respond to race, if even by a notch.

As a teacher at Western Sydney University, in classes where most of the students are negatively racialized and working class, there is a hunger to understand race, because it is the modality in which their lives are lived, to take from Stuart Hall. Race is summated in feelings, feelings of ill-fitting, of being matter out of place. But how race and racial capitalism work are questions that they have rarely had the opportunity to address head-on. Students come into the classroom with the implicit answers, but they often do not have the language to make the complex connections that are necessary for teasing out the extent to which racial logics and practices of rule undergird their experience. And they have been gaslighted by Harmony Day and the ‘most successful multicultural society’ nonsense. The first thing I tell them is that they don’t have to perform what Sara Ahmed calls the ‘happy talk’ of diversity. Antoinette Lattouf’s book is supposed to educate the reader on ‘structural racism’ and help ‘navigate the treacherous waters of antiracism.’ But we never really get to understand what race does, or what anti-racism is, beyond leaning in and speaking up.

The problem begins with the audience. Who is this book for?

How to Lose Friends and Influence White People sits within the archipelago of antiracist manuals that have done a roaring trade, leading with Robin Di Angelo’s ubiquitous White Fragility. As Elizabeth A. Harris comments in the New York Times, the cashing-in on what has rapidly been dubbed the ‘Black Lives Matter moment’ that followed the state murder of George Floyd and the global uprisings that it spurred (which also open Lattouf’s book as has become de rigeur) is a both-sides affair. Racism, as the media scholar Gavan Titley has written, has been made ‘debatable’. And so, following the run-away success of Ibram X Kendi’s How To Be An Antiracist (two million copies sold), publishers are rushing to acquire any race-related book. ‘Right-wing media personality’ Candace Owen’s Blackout is running off the shelves. In fact, the counterrevolutionary attack on a folk devil being named ‘critical race theory’, fanning out from the US with its own cheerleaders in Pauline Hanson and Mark Latham here in Australia, is a response to the surge in antiracist mobilisation unleashed by Black death and, thus, is in some way a measure of antiracist success. However, as Brooklyn bookseller, Kalima DeSuze noted darkly in June 2020, ‘We’re thriving because of black bodies.’

It wasn’t long after that peak in June 2020 that US booksellers started to report that people who had rung in to order antiracist books were not coming to pick them up. More than doing something, many white people wanted to be seen to be doing something. Buying books, or at least intending to buy them, was one way. There is no reason why the Australian publishing industry would not want to join in.

Lattouf’s audience is nominally people like her: media professionals or other members of the corporate class. But it is unclear whether they are people of colour or not. They are certainly not working class. The book sets out to advise its readers on influencing white people, and so presumably it is not for white people. Much like the antiracist self-help books of 2020, How to Lose Friends gently pokes white feelings while purporting to speak truth to power. The book is full of references to friends, but despite Lattouf coming from the ‘large Lebanese community of Western Sydney,’ most of these friends seem to be white.

In one episode, Lattouf recounts attending the ‘very glamorous and lavish wedding’ of ‘a friend of mine from the media.’ To cut a long story short, the groom mistakes her ‘tall, broad and brown-skinned with deep, almost black eyes’ husband for the DJ and herself for the hair and make-up artist. The moral of the story is that her friend, the bride, ‘is a self-declared feminist and an intelligent person,’ but this does not stop her and other white women from being in denial about the effects of racism. The chapter in which this is recounted, #NotAllWhiteWomen, is strengthened by Lattouf’s conversations with Indigenous feminists Celeste Liddle and Antoinette Braybrook and justly notes the importance of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s ground-breaking Talkin’ Up to the White Woman which centres Indigenous women’s standpoint as a corrective to the false universalism of white feminism. However, Lattouf does not conclude from Moreton-Robinson’s point, that often when Indigenous women speak they are patronised by white feminists, that maybe the solution is to stop trying to convince them. It is widely known, as Moreton-Robinson writes in ‘Leesa’s Story’, her account of one Indigenous woman’s experience of workplace racism, that white people believe ‘that there is no racism and that “race” does not matter in how they judge people.’ You don’t need to convince Indigenous people or negatively racialized people of that. But Antoinette Lattouf is trying to convince white people: ‘I sense a “whatabboutery” forming in many of your minds,’ she writes. The people she really wants to get through to are her recently wedded friend or the members of a WhatsApp group, in which Lattouf is the one person of colour, who ‘barely acknowledged’ fellow white journalist Erin Molan’s on-air racism. (Molan is Jim ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’ Molan’s daughter, and he is definitely not a racist).

This makes sense when we realise that Lattouf’s interpretation of racism is rather amorphous. We never get a sense of where it starts, how it takes form, and under what conditions it is reproduced, so no entity is essentially to blame. The constitutive relationship between race, colonialism and capitalism is missing in action. Instead, we get the passive formulation: ‘in countries like the United States and Australia [there are] longstanding problems with systemic racism and inequalities.’ Racism is practiced universally; no group is immune. ‘Lateral violence’ and ‘anti-white racism’ make appearances. She makes sure to call out non-Black people of colour for antiblackness and anti-Indigenous racism, commendably not excusing herself. But where do these attitudes come from? Here Lattouf turns to veteran multiculturalist sociologist Andrew Jakubowicz, who mobilises Israeli geographer Oren Yiftachel’s concept of ‘ethnocracy’ – defined as ‘societies where democracy exists for the dominant ethnic groups, but is less available to cultural and religious minorities’ – to understand why ‘Australia has a long history of the last people through the gate pulling it shut behind them.’ Lattouf unquestioningly accepts the colonial-denialist characterisation of ethnocracy as ‘the substantial power imbalance between Jews and Palestinians’ and Jakubowicz’s vulgarity about blackness, which I don’t feel like reproducing. But the fact that Australia, like Israel, is as Ronit Lentin writes, a ‘racial settler colony’, goes unremarked. Calling it an ethnocracy where racism circulates and hits down the list of Blacks, Irish, Greeks, Italians, and Arabs rattled off by Jakubowicz is to neglect this foundational fact.

Colonialism gets a brief mention in Chapter One, where Australia is described as bearing similarities to the US in that ‘we are both Western democracies, colonised by the British with Indigenous people slaughtered in the frontier wars.’ But the reason for mentioning this is to make the point that drives the book that, despite the global ‘racial reckoning’ unleashed by George Floyd’s murder, no ‘non-white’ people reported on Black Lives Matter for Australian media. To every problem the book raises, the answer is more POC representation and inclusion – above all in media. The reason for this is obvious when we consider Lattouf’s own trajectory, recounted in the book’s preface, from being advised not to set her sights higher than TAFE by her school careers’ advisor to becoming a ‘multi-award-winning journalist and media commentator.’ As Aileen Moreton-Robinson observes, nonwhite migrants to Australia can ‘belong, but they cannot possess’ and the desire for acceptance is strong given the negative impacts of refusing the terms of inclusion in the white colonial state. Her acceptance of those terms is clear in how Lattouf occupies the word ‘we’ vis-à-vis Indigenous people: ‘We need to make more room for Indigenous modern perspectives on the bloody invasion that led to dispossession, colonisation and segregation.’ Inclusion is not even metaphorical decolonisation; it is a colonial technology (see under assimilation).

Instead of talking about colonialism, Lattouf claims that ethnocracy and unearned privilege, explained by Mrs McIntosh’s knapsack (boy, does that worn out bag get around), are the twin determinants of racism, which is expressed predominantly in attitudes and observable in speech acts. Social psychology and statistical data showing the underrepresentation of people of colour across the public, but mainly the private, sphere and especially the media, provide the evidence for racism in Australian society. Lattouf wants us to know that ‘the most damaging form of racism is structural, not individual’ but both the effects she describes and the solutions she proposes are individual, even as she evokes the importance of alliance and community for antiracism. There is a lot of emphasis on recognising implicit bias which can be shifted by ‘more examples of female leaders in politics or Black protagonists in films,’ and the dos and don’ts that close each chapter are directed at ‘you’. Yes, Lattouf recognises that ‘upending racism… is not a solo activity,’ but, because of its liberal frame, How to Lose Friends still poses the changing of individual minds as the main vehicle for systemic change.

Treating racism as a matter of individual attitudes is the bread-and-butter of Australian racism studies, as I discuss in my 2017 article ‘(Not) Doing Race’, on how the dominant tendency to foreground ‘everyday’ and ‘casual racism’ avoids seeing race as a technology of colonising power. So it’s unsurprising that this is reproduced in How to Lose Friends as Lattouf certainly spoke to several key actors in the field for her research. It’s convenient because it allows one to lie, deny, or to be an out and proud racist depending on the prevailing mood. The revolutionary anticolonialist psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, already called our attention to the problem of approaching racism in this way in 1956 when he addressed the First Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Paris. He warned against the twin mobilisation of psychological explanations of ‘unconscious prejudice’ and ‘the appointment of “reliable men”,’ ‘a deception that deceives no one.’ The racial influencer is surely the ‘reliable person’ of today. But, as Lattouf says, they can ‘earn serious coin,’ the current proliferation of Diversity Equality and Inclusion training entrepreneurs across the continent testifying to this.

The function of reliable people in the racial-colony must be held carefully up to scrutiny, and I would include people like me who work in the colonial academy. This scrutiny is particularly important because racism in the workplace is having a moment in Australia, in that people of colour are calling it out. The critical race theorist Debbie Bargallie has already given us the tools to analyse this in her study of institutional racism in the Australian Public Service, Unmasking the Racial Contract. But racism from the white perspective is always a short-term crisis event. As I write, the ABC has acknowledged that staff face racism after the publication of its diversity committee’s report. The response from the top is a copypasta. ‘We will not tolerate racism’: check. ‘Diversity in our storytelling has improved’: check. ‘Our newsrooms are increasingly diverse’: check.

Media Diversity Australia’s CEO Mariam Veiszadeh welcomed the ABC’s acknowledgement: I ‘look forward to partnering with the ABC along this journey.’ It is always a journey, but the destination is never clear, as the radio journalist and media scholar Nicola Joseph suggests in this tweet. Darumbal and South Sea journalist and scholar, Amy McQuire, states the need for a ‘sovereign black media space’ because ‘The MSM is just another colonial apparatus […] we shouldn’t be aspiring to working within these spaces where the frameworks are still set up to become black versions of white journalists […]’ None of this would require influencing white people or training them out of their racism.

The late radical librarian and founder of the Institute of Race Relations and its journal, Race and Class Ambalavaner Sivanandan’ said as much in 1982:

I don’t want you to lose your racism, keep it if you need it. Keep it, keep it […] But don’t ask me to give you racial awareness training. I’m not into potty training for whites. I can’t wipe your arses. I’m not interested in your thoughts. I don’t care about whether the police officer is racist […] I don’t want the media and people to have racial awareness training courses. I want to mount campaigns to stop the yellow press from mounting the lies that creates the prejudice, that creates the racism, that creates the fascism that kills our people.

Antoinette Lattouf seems naïve about what these campaigns need to be. Outraged by the hypocrisy that saw sunbathers in Bondi while Western Sydney’s ‘LGAs of concern’ were under highly surveilled and punished Covid lock-down, it’s not police abolition that’s on her mind, but representation:

I’m pretty confident an Arabic-, Mandarin-, or Vietnamese-speaking Minister for Multiculturalism would turn to her police minister counterpart and tell them sending cops or the army to respond to a health crisis where vaccines are in short supply and conspiracy theories are rife is a sure-fire way to get these communities to turn away from listening to authorities.

Someone should tell her about Lori Lightfoot or Eric Adams.

As the brilliant Africana Studies scholar, Yannick Giovanni Marshall said on the Black Myths Podcast, ‘Broken implies a possible fix’ and white supremacism cannot be repaired because it’s not what Lattouf quaintly calls a ‘lucky ledge’. It is, as Marshall aptly puts it, the ‘founding logic and raison d’etat’ of the modern-colonial world system. So, not only is it naïve to argue that the system is broken, but it is also potentially self-interested. It signals that you pose no threat to power, and helps avoid or defer the wholesale change that ‘upending racism’ actually requires. Delivering repression in a language other than English will not bring about structural change.

It does feel like we are living in dangerous times. Attacks on any form of antiracist speech, including the most mild, are relentless in some quarters. But it is important to say that those of us who do the work of writing, commenting, teaching, making art, and so on are not at the pointiest end of these attacks. For example, the critical race panic in the US is in many ways a proxy war on public education for Black children, further fast-tracking the school to prison pipeline. The ‘debates’ on the teaching of the history of invasion and colonisation here, though important, similarly turn the discussion away from decolonisation in the present. In light of this then, how do we discuss the role of elites, whose own concerns often do more to mystify than to illuminate the extent of the problem?

In a conversation between the two great Black philosophers, George Yancy and Joy James, James remarks of them both, ‘We have no romantic illusions about the nature of our jobs. We were hired to affirm and stabilize the elite university/college. We can demand accountability for white supremacist/(hetero)sexist eruptions and ask for security (which can be denied or curtailed), but we do not pretend that these institutions exist to bring justice to the world or function in the interests of the oppressed.’ James questions the demand for seeing ‘Black faces in high places’ now, under the Biden-Harris administration in the US. It certainly is not coming from the ‘Black masses [who] are consistently told by the Black elite pundits, academics, nonprofit leaders or movements specialists to stay in line and follow.’ In essence, the question, especially for Indigenous people in this racial-colony, is still expressed best by Fanon: ‘how can we obtain the land, and bread to eat?’

Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s new book, Elite Capture, directly addresses many of the problems thrown up by How to Lose Friends. I would recommend reading them side-by-side as I did. He succinctly explains the problems with what he calls deference politics, or the call to ‘listen to the most affected’ because, in practice, that simply means deferring to whoever already in the room ‘appears to fit a social category associated with some form of oppression.’ Those in the room are almost never actually those most affected by racial capitalism and its myriad intersecting oppressions. ‘Being in the room’ politics is expressed by Obama’s belief that ‘one voice can change a room’ and that ‘can change a nation’ and, if it can do that ‘it can change the world.’ Not only does this not work in practice, it is not meant to.

Inspired by Bissau-Guinean and Cape Verdean anticolonial fighter and intellectual Amilcar Cabral, for Táíwò, rather than rearranging ‘the specific rooms that have already been built for us,’ we need to rebuild the whole house. To work towards doing this, it is firstly necessary to raise consciousness among the oppressed. Second, we need to ‘get out the hammers’ and think beyond what we are opposing. Being ‘antiracist’ on its own, especially when the dominant vision of antiracism as presented by Lattouf centres getting more people of colour in the room, will ‘not guarantee a just future.’ If we want to build beyond colonialism and racial capitalism, there is no time to waste whispering into white ears. But neither is there time for pessimism. Liberals do not have the monopoly on hope because hope has never lain in institutional reform, representation, inclusion, or engagement. Lattouf’s recipe of ‘1 generous scoop of optimism’ places too much faith in the room we currently have. Rather, hope lies in shutting its door.

I would like to thank Cher Tan, S.L. Lim and Eda Gunaydin for their valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this review.

Works Cited

Ahmed, S. (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press Books.

Australian racism studies. In Martina Boese and Vince Marotta (eds.). Critical Reflections on Migration, ‘Race’ and Multiculturalism: Australia in a Global Context. London: Routledge.

Bargallie, D. (2021). Unmasking the Racial Contract: Indigenous Voices on Racism in the Australian Public Service. Aboriginal Studies Press.

El-Enany, N. (2021). Bordering Britain: Law, race and empire (Manchester University Press) (1st ed.). Manchester University Press.

Gilmore, R. W. (2007). Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (First ed.). University of California Press.

Hall, S., Gilroy, P., & Gilmore, R. W. (2021). Selected Writings on Race and Difference (Stuart Hall: Selected Writings). Duke University Press Books.

Lentin, A. (2017) ‘(Not) Doing race: “Casual racism”, “bystander antiracism” and “ordinariness” in Australian racism studies. In Martina Boese and Vince Marotta (eds.). Critical Reflections on Migration, ‘Race’ and Multiculturalism: Australia in a Global Context. London: Routledge.

Lentin, R. (2018). Traces of Racial Exception: Racializing Israeli Settler Colonialism (Suspensions: Contemporary Middle Eastern and Islamicate Thought) (1st ed.). Bloomsbury Academic: 9.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2015). The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty (Indigenous Americas) (1st ed.). Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Moreton-Robinson, A. (2021). Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous Women and Feminism (Indigenous Americas). Univ Of Minnesota Press.

Sivanandan, A. (1990[2019]). Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism (Library). Verso Books: 77-8.

Táíwò, O. O. (2022). Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else). Haymarket Books.

Titley, G. (2019). Racism and Media (1st ed.). SAGE Publications Ltd.

Yiftachel, O. (2006). Ethnocracy: Land and Identity Politics in Israel/Palestine. University of Pennsylvania Press.