ow to respond to the Charlie Hebdo murders and their related deaths? My initial inclination was to respond by using the event to repeat a well-rehearsed critique of liberal racial formation. This is a familiar analysis about the antagonism between the tolerant and the tolerated. The analysis goes something like this. Difference is only tolerated provided that the objects of tolerance conform to a model of difference held out to them by the goodwill of those who tolerate. But, the analysis continues, when the tolerated exceed the model of difference held out to them, the bargain is off. The tolerant withdraw their tolerance and retreat into a position of righteous indignation, or an anxiety of ‘white’ loss.

By responding to the Charlie Hebdo murders using this analysis, my hope was that doing so would help illuminate the racial dynamics at stake in the images of liberal solidarity we saw in the streets of Paris following the attacks. And so the analysis I was inclined to make is that contained in the act of liberal solidarity is also an expression of liberal resentment, an example of how liberalism responds when the tolerated exceed their place: the Charlie Hebdo murders are made to stand for Islam’s imagined intolerance of free speech, to which liberal solidarity responds by reminding the Muslim minority that free speech and the freedom to offend are universal, absolute and total, even though we know they’re not. My inclination was that we should read this outpouring of indignation, this response, as more than vigil, public mourning, or collective solidarity in defense of free speech. Rather, it was that we should read these public expressions as symptomatic of what David Theo Goldberg (2009) calls racial Europeanisation, a form of racial expression in which race denial is absolute and complete, in which Europe is held up as the container of universal liberal values, and in which [quoting Goldberg] “the Muslim signals the death of European secularism, humanism, individualism, and libertinism."

However, there is a problem with this analysis: it reproduces a kind of dead-end reasoning that forecloses the meaning of the event – the Charlie Hebdo murders. What this analysis does is reproduce the very dialectic that it seeks to refuse – a dialectic which poses a liberal argument which says that the only way to respond to the Charlie Hebdo murders is to universalise free speech and the freedom to offend, against a critique of liberalism which says that free speech and the freedom to offend are euphemisms for a liberal European white supremacy. The story of tolerance in retreat binds us into an either/or relation. Either ‘Je suis Charlie’ is a euphemism for free speech, or it’s an expression of white supremacy. Either Charlie Hebdo is a racist publication, or it isn’t.

I want to distance myself from this binary. And the reason why is twofold. First, to accept it binds me to an intellectual sovereignty I’m not sure I really possess. It fixes me to a disposition of resolve where the legitimacy of my response is tied to my steadfast conviction in anti-racism (whatever that might mean and however problematic white anti-racism might be). And here the foreclosure of resolve displaces my own yearning for an affirmative politics. Second, the critique of liberal racism binds me to an argument that feels like it can never be won. In much the same way that there is no amount of science that will convince climate change deniers that climate change is real, so too there appears to be no amount of argumentation that will convince liberalism that it contains a racial logic. It’s almost as though liberalism’s durability lies in the very denial of race.

So where does this leave me in terms of responding to Charlie Hebdo? A bit muddled? Maybe. Uncertain? Yes. But also searching for another mode of politics the starting point for which lies, perhaps, with the realisation that the critique of liberal racism is already mainstream. The outpouring of responses that refused ‘Je suis Charlie’, including ‘Je suis Ahmed’, ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie’ and ‘Say no to murder, but don’t be Charlie’: all of these are themselves affirmations not that liberal racism can be defeated but simply that other forms of political community are possible. So in response to Charlie Hebdo, yes, liberal white supremacy is present in these images. But rather dwell on this obvious point, let’s build on the positive affirmation contained in messages such as ‘Je suis Ahmed’. For this also points towards another kind of political solidarity, and another mode of thinking the future of Europe: Je suis multiple. 


Goldberg DT (2009) The Threat of Race: Reflections on Racial Neoliberalism. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.