The Politics of Provocations Against Hostile Institutions

Rahel Süß and Alessio Kolioulis

Universities and a politics of provocation 

Universities are a mirror of the hostile environment in our democratic societies. While liberal institutions promise freedom and equality for all, structural racism pervades marketised universities. A politics of provocation reckons with universities’ complicity with a society in which people are racialised, while provoking for an alternative university. 

There are many examples of how we can enact a politics of provocation in the university: Abolition University in the US, Critical University Studies (CUS), Anti-University in the UK, the Cops off Campus campaign, and strategies to democratise universities.

If we fail to understand the relation between race and democracy, we won’t be able to unbuild hostile institutions and meaningfully democratise universities.

Democracy is a hostile environment. Although there is a widely shared agreement that racial discrimination has no place in a democratic society, racial matters pervade nearly every aspect of life. Race influences the spaces in which we dwell, the health care we receive and the violence we are exposed to. This raises a deeper question about the relationship between race and democracy: What kind of democracy is available to us?

This is, in part, what this essay seeks to examine. We want to bring together questions of race and democracy in the context of institutional racism. The problem with liberal democracy, we argue, is that it presents democracy in opposition to racism, and therefore fails to account for systemic racism. This is what we refer to as ‘hostile democracy’.

Racial oppression and liberal democracies

On 21st of July 2020, more than 175 historians called on the Home Office in the UK to remove the history element of the UK citizenship test because of its misleading representation of slavery and the ending of the empire. The distorted version treats the abolition of slavery as a British achievement, silencing the democratic provocations of colonial protests, uprisings and independence movements 1.

The limitations of liberal democracy can be hard to pin down. Woven with alluring promises for a freer society, it is difficult to untangle democracy from the idea of justice. Yet, in the shadow of such promise, we forget that racial oppression is a result of liberal democracy, not the opposite.

Perhaps the biggest mistake of liberal democracies was thinking that racism was over with the abolition of slavery and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the United States. The problem with the liberal tradition is that it constructs racism as illiberal by tying it to the past or by associating it with the extreme right. Liberal democracies are silent on how racial oppression has been one of their drivers.

Racial oppression prevents full democracy, but it has also made liberal democracies possible. This is far from being a paradox. The democratic tradition in the United States was shaped by Black freedom struggles but also slavery and segregation, among other influences. What does this tell us about the relationship between race and democracy?

The concept of race has changed throughout US history. Race emerged through colonial law but was not yet connected to democracy. This occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century, an era of rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and immigration. This period – generally referred to as the Jacksonian era – was accompanied by the growth of the industrial working class and the rise of mass democracy. This period cemented the relationship between whiteness and citizenship.

Such an idea of citizenship holds whiteness as a norm. Whiteness does not simply exclude some persons from enjoying democratic rights. It builds a particular conception of democracy, one that accrues white privileges into everyday life and institutions, making them look the natural result of individual effort. However, as abolitionist theorist Joel Olson reminds us, liberal norms of individual autonomy and equal opportunity ‘were constructed against a backdrop of Black subordination and white advantage.’2

If we understand whiteness as a problem of liberal democracy, we are in a better position to see why bracketing race from democracy fails to account for systemic racism. By excluding whiteness as a problem, contemporary attempts at greater democracy – such as more inclusive and participatory institutions – do little to address racial oppression.

Spaces of democratic repair and the problem of whiteness

New institutional designs advocating more inclusive and participatory environments are at risk of failure because they do not confront the enduring problem of whiteness. This becomes clear when we look at three practical examples: the ‘colour-blind’ society, strategies of inclusion and the politics of recognition and redistribution.

The ‘colour-blind’ society

The first concern refers to what is labelled as a ‘colour-blind society’. Such a society treats white as a politically neutral identity; that is to say, white is one race among others. Assuming this, however, erases three hundred years of systemic racial oppression.

In a ‘colour-blind society’, political rights are understood to be an effective deterrent against racial discrimination. Yet the United States Bill of Rights of 1789 existed alongside slavery and lynching laws, a shattering example of the racial oppression and violence embedded in the law and law enforcement.

Today, to prevent discrimination, institutions become ‘blind’ to one’s race. For example, universities implement inclusive workplace policies and hire diversity consultants, while employees undergo anti-bias training. These initiatives may undermine explicit racial discrimination but do little to address whiteness as the norm.

One way of addressing this problem would be to talk about race openly. But looking at academic journals, for example, we see how these discussions are absent. Development scholar Kamna Patel gives us an idea of the scale of this erasure. She reviewed 9,280 papers published across six development journals in the last 13 years, of which only 0.02% used the concept of race in its own right. 3

Strategies of inclusion

The second concern with spaces of democratic repair refers to strategies of inclusion. To solve social and racial inequalities, policymakers promote schemes of inclusive growth, inclusive development and inclusive economy.

At first sight, this inclusive approach may seem radical. But one distinct implication makes it a less desirable strategy. Understanding racial discrimination as a form of exclusion from the public and economic sphere – to which the solution is inclusion – does not address the problem of whiteness as a norm.

Inclusive strategies assume that participation in decision making is the benchmark for expanding democratic societies. But in a racial and white polity, greater participation might strengthen a white majority and their agenda by deciding who participates and in which ways.

This is not to say that inclusion and participation are not important instruments for deepening democracy. But they are not enough. Strategies of inclusion offer little to the problem of systemic racism, and neither do their alternatives, the politics of recognition and redistribution.

The politics of recognition and redistribution

While the politics of recognition seeks to reduce cultural disrespect, misrecognition and non-recognition, the politics of redistribution is preoccupied with economic inequalities. Both attempts at greater democracy share a focus on differences rather than whiteness as a norm.

Differences are commonly understood as a democratic asset and not a threat. Often implied in this idea is that diverse identities enter the public sphere fully formed. But if we treat identities as largely static and unchanging, we risk constructing a ‘normal individual’ against ‘abnormal’ identities. In a white polity, the ‘normal individual’ is the white citizen, constructed against a backdrop of Black subordination.

This conflict takes a decisive shape in the case of strategies of recognition and redistribution. With student societies and scholarships, for example, universities seek to recognise marginalised identities and compensate for economic exploitation. But in doing so, they avoid confrontation with white privileges.

All three concerns – the colour-blind society, strategies of inclusion and politics of recognition and redistribution – bring us to one key limitation: democracy is seemingly not repairable within the constraints of traditional liberal institutions, as they fail to pay sufficient attention to white privileges. So how then do we confront the enduring problem of whiteness? 4

The politics of provocation

In 1968, a group of Black women who had been active in the civil rights movement formed the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) in New York City. In the early 1970s, they published the Black Women’s Manifesto. In the introduction, Gayle Lynch writes: ‘Racism and capitalism have trampled the potential of black people in this country and thwarted their self-determination.’ 5

Today, anger against systemic racism and police violence have provoked uprisings around the world. With liberal democracies under siege, provocations highlight that there are alternatives – the abolition of police, the army and prisons. But if we want to challenge whiteness as a norm, where do we start?

This is a political challenge, as we discuss here, that requires conflict rather than colour-blindness or strategies of inclusion and recognition. While traditional attempts to repair democracy focus primarily on solving conflicts, we argue instead that democracy has to provoke conflicts to challenge whiteness as a norm.

As we have shown, racial equality and justice do not per se follow democratic norms. They are the result of conflict provocations. It is for this reason that the core task of democracy cannot be limited to solving conflicts. To keep the possibility of radical transformation open, it must continuously provoke conflicts.

This is what we refer to as the ‘politics of provocation’. Such politics emphasises privilege rather than colour-blindness, power rather than inclusion, and abolition rather than recognition.

Privilege rather than colour-blindness

Democracy has no future when it obeys white privilege. The latter is hostile to the very idea of equality. So, let there be a democratic future but let there be the dissolution of white privileges first. More than ever, if we are serious about the future of democracy, we need a critique of whiteness. Such a critique has to be tied to the question of privileges rather than colour-blindness.

So long as the ideal of the colour-blind society dominates thinking on race, it will be difficult to stretch our imagination beyond the boundaries of liberal democracy. So long as the white citizen simultaneously insists on their privileges yet denies they exist, we need to provoke conflicts over and against their power. This task is not without difficulty as privileged groups rarely give up their power voluntarily.

Power rather than inclusion

Democracy has no future if it does not provoke conflicts over power. The Black Lives Matter movement gives a glimpse of that and raises questions of whose lives are treasured, valued and kept from harm. Black Lives Matter demands radical change to a legal system that is unjust, in which some people are more exposed than others to police violence or are left to die at the border, desert or sea. The movement challenges institutionalised racial power.

It is for this reason that postcolonial philosopher Achille Mbembe calls for a Universal Right to Breathe.6 He uses this idea to draw attention to the racial dimension of both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd. The two stories reveal the struggle for air, which is also the struggle to breathe, in the context of systemic racism.

In England, for example, Black people are four times more likely to die from COVID-19.7 In the United States, Black men are two and a half times more likely to be killed than white men.8 More recently, the #SayHerName campaign has brought awareness of police violence against Black women and girls, who are often believed to be shielded from state violence.9

Abolition rather than recognition

Democracy has no future when it surrenders solely to the politics of recognition. Instead, the politics of provocation must be abolitionist.10 Drawing on Black radical political thought and figures like William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, Angela Davis and Joel Olson, abolitionist democracy alters our understanding of community, solidarity and equality.

Practically speaking, an abolitionist strategy seeks to undermine and eliminate white privilege, which manifests in life expectancy and racially skewed unemployment, as well as in policing and racial profiling. The abolition of white privileges is also necessary because even when they are acknowledged, they are often explained as the ‘natural outcome’ of markets and the aggregation of individual choices.

Manifestations of a politics of provocation

How do the politics of provocation manifest today? Through various struggles and assorted forms of action that provoke conflicts over and against whiteness as a norm. If we reject the possibility of restoring the status quo, because racial oppression is embedded in liberal institutions, we have to embrace the radical politics that democratic movements enact today.

We showed that the democracy available to us is hostile. We have also shown that spaces for greater democracy are grounded neither in a colour-blind society nor in inclusive strategies and the politics of recognition. What we suggest instead is to understand conflict provocation as the driver for deeper democracy. But to be this driver, we have to test the results of conflict provocation and ask: do they allow for further conflict provocation?

It is important to acknowledge that democratic provocations are not necessarily progressive. They are contingent and fluid. Their outputs do not inevitably point towards greater freedom and equality. Rather, we must actively engage in this struggle.



  1. Historical Association, ‘Historians Call for a Review of Home Office Citizenship and Settlement Test’. History Journal, 21 July 2020
  2. Olson, Joel. The abolition of white democracy. University of Minnesota Press, 2004, p. 128.
  3. Patel, Kamna. ‘Race and a Decolonial Turn in Development Studies’. Third World Quarterly, (10 July 2020): 1–13.
  4. We understand our role as white academics in anti-racist work as to engage and help to produce anti-racist theories, but doing so without centering white bodies, norms or epistemic positions.
  5. Beal, Frances M. Black women’s manifesto. New York: Third World Women’s Alliance, 1969, p. 21.
  6. Mbembe, Achille, and Paul Gilroy. ‘Transcript: In conversation with Achille Mbembe’. UCL Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Racism and Racialisation, 25 June 2020
  7. Booth, Robert, and Caelainn Barr. ‘Black People Four Times More Likely to Die from Covid-19, ONS Finds’. The Guardian, 7 May 2020.
  8. Edwards, Frank, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito. ‘Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 34 (2019): 16793-16798.
  9. Williams Crenshaw, Kimberlé, and Andrea J. Ritchie. ‘SayHerName: Resisting police brutality against Black women.’ African American Policy Forum, Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, 2015
  10. See the Abolition Journal. ‘Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation’. Abolition (blog), 28 August 2019.

Author Bio

Rahel Süß is a political theorist and author who lives in London. Her research lies in the field of contemporary democratic theory, with interests in digital politics and social movements. Rahel is the founder and editor of the journal engagée and teaching fellow at University of Vienna. Her most recent book ‘Demokratie und Zukunft’ was published with Edition Konturen, 2020. @RahelSuess

Alessio Kolioulis, urban theorist, is a Teaching Fellow at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (UCL). He is also the editor of engagée Journal and Eterotopia France. Tweets @alessioilgreco