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HOW IS WHITE SUPREMACY EMBODIED?:


SEXUALIZED RACIAL VIOLENCE AT ABU GHRAIB1

Sherene H. Razack

The violence inflicted on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib by both male and female American and British soldiers was very clearly sexualized. A pyramid of naked male prisoners forced to simulate sodomy conveyed graphically that the project of empire, the West’s domination of the non-West, required strong infusions of a violent heterosexuality and patriarchy. This paper explores what we can learn from Abu Ghraib about how empire is embodied and how it comes into existence through multiple systems of domination. In part one I discuss the role of visual practices and the making of racial hierarchies, a consideration made necessary by the 1800 photos of torture. In part two I consider the violence as a ritual that enables white men to achieve a sense of mastery over the racial other at the same time that it provides a sexualized intimacy forbidden in white supremacy and patriarchy. In part three, I consider white women’s role at Abu Ghraib, arguing that it is as members of their race that we can best grasp white women’s participation in the violence, a participation that facilitates the same mastery and gendered intimacy afforded to white men who engage in racial violence. In the conclusion I consider the regime of racial terror in evidence at Abu Ghraib and other places, focusing on terror as a “trade in mythologies”that organizes the way that bodies come to express the racial arrangements of empire.

Introduction

The violence inflicted on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib by both male and female American and British soldiers was very clearly sexualized. A pyramid of naked male prisoners forced to simulate sodomy conveyed graphically that the project of empire, the West’s domination of the non-West, required strong infusions of a violent heterosexuality and patriarchy. The image of Private Lyndie England grinning and pointing her finger to the genitals of naked Iraqi prisoners indicated that participation in sexualized racial violence and humiliation crossed gender lines. Today an internet web site advises its readers to “do a Lynddie” by finding a victim who deserves to be “Lynndied” and posing for a photo, recording the act while adopting the same pose as Lyndie England did.2 What does this kind of violence and humiliation of racial Others, violence the website boasted “captured the imagination of young men and women all around the world,” indicate about race in the New World Order?. This paper explores what we can learn from Abu Ghraib about how empire is embodied and how it comes into existence through multiple systems of domination.


In part one I discuss the role of visual practices such as photos and the making of racial subjects. In part two I consider the violence as a ritual that enables white men to achieve a sense of mastery over the racial other at the same time that it provides a sexualized intimacy forbidden in white supremacy and patriarchy. In part three, I consider how white women are embodied in white supremacy arguing that it is as members of their race that we can best grasp white women’s participation in the violence, a participation that provides the same mastery and gendered intimacy afforded to white men who engage in violence. In the conclusion I consider the regime of racial terror in evidence at Abu Ghraib and other places, focusing on terror as a “trade in mythologies”that organizes the way that bodies come to express the racial arrangements of empire.

If, as I show below, what we saw at Abu Ghraib was neither the aberrant behavior of a few soldiers, nor an overly aggressive approach to terrorism gone awry, explanations much favored in the media and by the current American administration, then it is the public participation of ordinary people in racial violence that requires the most explanation. How do race, class, gender and sexuality underwrite each other in these moments of public racial violence and how do these practices of violence enable men and women to achieve a profound sense of (gendered) racial superiority? These are questions that impel us to consider an interlocking approach for understanding the violence at Abu Ghraib, an approach that tracks how multiple systems of oppression come into existence through each other.

I use the word interlocking rather than intersecting to describe how the systems of oppression are connected. Intersecting remains a word that describes discrete systems whose paths cross. I suggest that the systems are each other and that they give content to each other. While one system (here it is white supremacy) provides the entry point for the discussion (language is after all successive), what is immediately evident as one pursues how white supremacy is embodied and enacted in the everyday, is that individuals come to know themselves within masculinity and femininity. Put another way, the sense of self that is simultaneously required and produced by empire is a self that is experienced in relation to the subordinate other, a relationship that is deeply gendered and sexualized. An interlocking approach requires that we keep several balls in the air at once, striving to overcome the successive process forced upon us by language, and focusing on the ways in which bodies express social hierarchies of power.


The problem of language (interlocking versus intersecting) is not simply an academic one. If we view the acts as evidence of the operation of one system that is merely complicated by another, we will end up missing something about the violence and its psychic origins. Jasbir Paur offers an example that illustrates the outcome of analyzing one system at the expense of another. Those who viewed the Abu Ghraib photos of Iraqi men forced to simulate having sex with each other as evidence of rampant homophobia, (the photos show homosexuality as degradation) missed the bodies of the tortured Iraqis themselves.3 Paur insists that both gender (Iraqi men are being made to feel like women) and race (Iraqi bodies are the ones marked as degenerate) are effaced if we concentrate on sexuality as a discrete system. In this respect, Paur’s argument is in line with scholars of colonialism who trace how colonizers sought to establish their claim to ownership of the land and conquest of its occupants, not only through the rape of women but through the feminizing of colonial men. As Revathi Krishaswamy has shown in her study of colonial rule in India, “the real goal of feminization is effeminization – a process in which colonizing men use women/womanhood to delegitimize, discredit, and disempower colonized men.”4 Several systems are in operation in the process of empire and they give content to each other. It is in order to overcome the problem of the discreteness of systems, and the obscuring of the full tangle of oppressive relations that I propose a focus on the bodies of the torturers rather than the tortured, a focus that requires an interlocking, historicized approach.

My question concerning how ordinary people come to participate in racial violence is one that has concerned others, among them educators working in critical pedagogy. The question we all have, of course, is what kind of education would it take to interrupt the production of subjects who so easily participate in racial violence. I suggest that an interlocking approach and a focus on the way in which bodies express social hierarchies are necessary for anyone concerned with this question. In 2004, Henry Giroux published an article entitled “What Might Education Mean After Abu Ghraib: Revisiting Adorno’s Politics of Education.”5 As I do, Giroux rejects the argument that what went on at Abu Ghraib was the work of a few bad apples, although he still considers that special conditions prevailing in Iraq pushed soldiers to the brink and he believes that the torture is simply culturally specific torture, arguments that I reject below. Recognizing that the photos reveal something about collective will, however, Giroux explores where soldiers learned the identities they enacted at Abu Ghraib. The “pedagogical conditions” that produced Abu Ghraib, has something to do with “discourses of privatization, particularly the contracting of military labor, the intersection of militarism and the crisis of masculinity, the war on terrorism, and the racism that makes it so despicable.”6 Specifically, the media’s celebration of violence, hegemonic masculinity with its insistence on “masculine hardness” against feminine softness, and market fundamentalism, all combined in a “furious jingoistic patriotism” evident in these acts of torture.


Race is present here as one of many factors, among them gender and class, but how they come together to produce subjects who engage in acts of racial violence (which Giroux does not consider it to be) remains unclear. This failing becomes a major one when Giroux must consider what kind of education would enable students to be critical of the ideologies that lead to Abu Ghraib. Turning to Adorno for help, (in view of Adorno’s identification of the aggressive nationalism that led to Auschwitz), Giroux proposes a self-reflective critical education. He remains vague as to what the specific educational practices are that would interrupt the aggressive nationalism that surrounds us today, remarking only that there is the possibility that “inhuman acts of abuse under incredibly nerve-wracking conditions represent a rare outlet for pleasure.”7 I believe that what an interlocking approach has to offer is an understanding of just such a possibility of race pleasure in violence. If one considers that what happened at Abu Ghraib had little to do with especially stressful circumstances and more to do with deeply historical processes through which Americans understand themselves as white, then we can better confront the educational and political challenges we face in this New World Order by understanding the complex ways in which systems of oppression (white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy) operate on a psychic level through sexual desire and fear.

My response to Abu Ghraib springs from my study of Canada’s own Abu Ghraib, events that occurred during the Canadian peacekeeping mission to Somalia in 1993 when Canadian soldiers tortured to death a Somali teenager and were implicated in scores of events involving the humiliation and beatings of detainees, some as young as six years old. Like the violence of occupation, peacekeeping violence enacted by white militaries (on every mission to date) is openly practiced, sexualized, and recorded in photos and videos and in diaries. As I have shown for Canada’s own prisoner abuse scandal, the ‘Somalia Affair,’ these are acts of racial violence, that are undertaken in the name of nation.8 It is through the sexual that racial power is violently articulated and it is through this violence that men and women come to know themselves as gendered members of a superior race and nation.


Like the violence of Western peacekeepers, the violence at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo is an enactment of a global script in which white nations view themselves as assisting the Third World into modernity. The Abu Ghraib photos reveal the racial fault line of the ‘new world order,’ the colour line Dubois described one hundred years ago where white nations are lined up on one side and Dubois’ “darker races” are on the other9. Colour lines require a great deal of racial (sexualized and gendered) violence and if we are to disrupt them we will need to understand not only how violence is required to make the colour line but how ‘ordinary’ people come to participate in its creation and maintenance.

Part One: “Why Record Evil?”: Photographs and Collective Will

The photographs did not lie. 10

“The photographs did not lie.” This is the line that introduces a book containing the official reports of what has come to be known as the “Shocking Prisoner Abuse in Iraq.”If the images of American men and women gleefully posing beside a pyramid of naked Iraqi men, or giving the thumbs up beside hooded and naked prisoners did not lie, what truth did they tell? There has been remarkable consensus around the answer to this question in the media and in the official reports. As the Fay report summed up: the soldiers who abused detainees were “a small group of morally corrupt and unsupervised soldiers and civilians”11 Circumstances, however, pushed many of them to the brink: “The occupiers were overwhelmed.”12 Inadequately trained, demoralized, fearful and pressured “to obtain information that could help save American lives,” they fell into torture and the sexual humiliation of prisoners.13 Perhaps the only disagreement over this version of events has been over whether or not morally weak, low ranking soldiers were in fact encouraged by their leaders to “mistreat” prisoners.


The attempt to contain the violence to a few weak and stressed individuals could not easily stand by itself. The explanation required reinforcement. There were simply too many images and they appeared to the public to depict a sexual depravity, to say nothing of cruelty and brutality. The sex, if not the brutality, seemed to warrant explanation. The theory that went the furthest to provide an explanation of the sex was based on the idea that sexualized torture was simply a culturally specific interrogations method. Fitting in nicely with the “clash of civilizations” thesis14 that had come to dominate Western explanations for conflict between the West and non-West, and the Islamic world in particular, pyramids of naked men forced to simulate having sex with each other was everywhere to be understood as nothing more than a contemporary form of torture. Few in the media questioned the orientalist underpinnings of this claim. (Unlike us, they are sexually repressed, homophobic and misogynist and are likely to crack in sexualized situations, particularly those involving women dominating men, or those of sex between men).

The ‘clash of civilizations’ approach to torture reinforced the idea of their barbarism at the same time that it enabled the West to remain on moral high ground. Through the idea of cultural difference, sexualized torture became something more generic – torture for the purpose of obtaining information. Sexualized torture, then, was simply “to attack the prisoners’ identity and values.”15 Believing that the fault had to be traced back to the top, Mark Danner declared the photos “comprehensible” given the cultural characteristics of Arabs and the CIA manual on interrogations. The photos are “staged operas of fabricated shame intended to “intensify” the prisoners’ “guilt feelings, increase his anxiety and his urge to cooperate,” Danner wrote, quoting parts of the CIA’s interrogation policy.16 Photos are a “shame multiplier,” according to the Red Cross, since they could be distributed to the prisoners’ families and used to further humiliate detainees.17 Second, through the idea of culturally specific interrogations techniques, Americans were marked as modern people who did not subscribe to puritanical notions of sex, or to patriarchal notions of women’s role in it. The Iraqis, of course, remained forever confined to the pre-modern. When we in the West see photos of prisoner abuse, and when our official inquiries declare without irony that what is depicted amounts simply to a speciality form of torture required in these strange nether regions of the world, we too mark the boundaries between self and Other, between here and there. “More than skin color, and dress, soldiers view mannerisms, cultural beliefs and traditions as the true ground upon which they distinguish themselves as better and thus able to inflict pain and suffering,” speculates one journalist, thereby reducing the encounter in those prison cells to a culture clash.18


For many who remained uneasy about pyramids of naked men or women soldiers brushing their bare breasts against prisoners and wearing thongs specifically for interrogations (as they are reputed to have done at Guantanamo), it was often not the sex that inspired criticism. Rather, it was the current American administration’s aggressive approach to terrorism.19 Both for those who saw prisoner abuse as the work of a few reservists and those, such as Seymour Hersh, the journalist who broke the story, who concluded that the abuse at Abu Ghraib was “a fact of army life that the soldiers felt no need to hide,”20 torture had a political utility. For Hersh, the torture was “eye-for-eye retribution in fighting terrorism,” something dictated by Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush, payback perhaps for 911.21

Despite determined efforts to view the torture instrumentally, that is as having a military function, the sex does not easily go away. Three questions persist about the Abu Ghraib photos, questions not answered in the latest findings of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘independent’ panel of civilian experts (The Schlesinger report) that “chaos” and “sadism” prevailed at Abu Ghraib prison.22 Why the photos? I have yet to find anyone other than Mark Danner who believes that the nearly 2000 photos soldiers sent to their families and to each other were really destined for Iraqi prisoners’ homes or were meant to hang as a threat over detainees of their continual humiliation.23 This leaves the compelling question, as one of Canada’s national newspapers headlined, “why record evil?”24 Why so many of them? It is the excess of it all that troubles. When you are in the realm of such excess, it is harder to believe official accounts about a few bad apples. Finally, why the sex? (This last question is often connected to the question of women’s participation.) There is something too disturbing about the deeply sexualized acts and the grins. Perhaps there is also something too familiar. Certainly the leash Lyndie England held to lead around a naked Iraqi man reminded many of pornography, and the black hooded figure from whose arms electrodes were suspended seemed to one scholar a spectacular and telling inversion of the white hoods of the KKK.25


In her important book American Archives, Shawn Michelle Smith argues that visual practices such as photographs have long served as a kind of technology of belonging, expressing collective will at the same time that they create it. When they were first invented, photos were quickly enlisted “to establish social hierarchies anchored in new visual truths.” From depictions of the physical attributes of criminals to the middle-class family shot and photos of lynchings, photographs were called upon to tell us something about gender, race and class hierarchies. In so doing, they not only reflected what was imagined but actively produced what they declared to exist.26 Photos helped an emerging middle class to affirm their place in the 19th century through marking who was white and middle class and who was criminal and racial other. Building on Smith’s insights, we would then have to consider how the photos at Abu Ghraib, mailed to family and friends, confirmed an imagined community among Americans, one that is profoundly racially structured since it is achieved through the tortured and humiliated bodies of Iraqis and racialized Others.

At the very least, the existence of large numbers of photos indicate something about the widespread nature of these acts of sexualized torture. Of the photo exhibit “War of Extermination: Crimes of the Wehrmacht, 1942-1944" that toured Germany and Austria during the late 1990s, an exhibit that contained hundreds of photos mostly taken by the perpetrators of crimes against Jews Omer Bartov writes: “What many Germans found hard to take was that the exhibition demonstrated in the most graphic manner the complicity of Wehrmacht soldiers in the Holocaust and other crimes of the region, especially in the occupied parts of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.”27 If the soldiers all knew of these crimes, and close to 20 million soldiers passed through the ranks of the Wehmacht, then it follows that Germans knew much more about the Holocaust than they were prepared to acknowledge after the war.28 A debate has long raged among historians about what it took to get so many ordinary Germans to participate in, approve of, or remain indifferent to the Holocaust. The photographs seem to confirm that crimes against Jews had public approval. The record of abuse suggests, too, that there was no fear of reprisal. If the public recording of brutal acts reveals widespread approval and thus something of the collective will, this does not in itself tell us what the photographs do. The photographs oriented ordinary Germans to where they were (an Aryan regime) and who they were – Aryans able to mark the boundary between themselves and non-Aryans.


A spectacular national use of the productive function of visual practices in a context not unlike prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib, was evident in France at the end of the 19th century when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was charged (unjustly) with selling military secrets to the Germans. The military faced a terrible problem in that Dreyfus did not look like the prevailing stereotype of the degenerate Jew. How, then, to prove, that although Dreyfus looked like a regular Frenchman, a sinister alien lurked below? The answer was to transform his body into text, offering visual proof of his degeneracy. Ceremonially ripping his rank from his clothes and photographing Dreyfus in ways that might make him appear non-military and effeminate, Dreyfus’s body then served to resolve the French military’s own concerns over its virility as well as French anxieties over Jews, especially those who too easily passed.29 Photos, then, must be understood, as Shawn Michelle Smith suggested as “visual codes of national belonging.” The photos that did this most spectacularly for America were the photographs of lynched African Americans.30



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