Typically when we think of violence we imagine a great cacophony of sounds: screams, bangs, booms, eruptions, stampedes. In writer Taiye Selasi’s reading from her short story Airport, at the event VIOLENCE from the Dictionary of Now series, she counters that violence is most often silent: a glance, a nod, the wringing of hands, a gentle press of a button. At first, Selasi’s protagonist appears to be a twenty-something young man whose face cannot be seen. It is shielded by a hood. He is nervous or anxious or frightened, of what, the listener is not sure. It’s her/him vs. the young man somehow. The passengers at a departure gate vs. the unknown figure. The seats around him are noticeably empty. This emptiness settles into each and every one of the passengers, guilty of something they cannot name. When Selasi’s antagonists appear as a wealthy couple who complain to the attendant of nowhere to sit, analogies of big business, heads of state, power, and corruption are conjured. Airport holds up a mirror to its audience that nobody can turn away from. Most wouldn’t consider themselves to be like the wealthy couple in Selasi’s story but everybody has participated in the violence of looking the other way.

A few months ago during a very crowded metro ride I noticed two women in an altercation with a man. The man had been asking for money earlier, dragging several bags behind him. After a few moments of watching silently, I took out my headphones; and it became clear that the man had been touching the younger of the two women, against her will. The other woman, who didn’t know her, had stepped in to try and to stop him. It wasn’t working and I watched as the man kept reaching his hand out to grab the young woman’s shirt with his hand. Finally, as everyone else looked away pretending not to notice, I yelled “Hey, stop! Sie hat Nein gesagt.” (She said No). Perhaps my Denglish did the trick or maybe the tone of my voice, because the man turned away murmuring to himself. Just then the train stopped and I moved aside to let the other passengers off. As I turned around I saw two employees of the Berlin transport association’s (BVG) security standing behind me. I couldn’t keep quiet.

“Are you going to do something?” I asked them, louder than I anticipated, my voice shaking. The uniformed woman pushed past me and barked “Das ist Deutschland. Du musst Deutsch sprechen.” (This is Germany. You have to speak German). Feeling newly ashamed I put my headphones back in and turned away. I could feel the quick glances from the other passengers as they buried their faces in books and newspapers. As Selasi hints in her story, violence is so often about erasure. Erasure of one’s experiences. Dismissal of those experiences as invalid. History has shown that the most effective way to annihilate a people is to strip them of their language, their culture, and their experiences.

In cultural theorist David Theo Goldberg’s keynote Racial Politics as Civil War he lists the conceptions of a closed society versus societies that are committed to openness. On one side there is “homogeneity,” “ways of refusing access,” and “spiraling inequalities.” On the other he lists “heterogeneities,” “engagement,” and “regulating fairness.” Racism, he reminds us, is one of the most effective tools in dividing society. We are encouraged if not forced to take sides. Why would we want to identify with those who don’t belong? The hooded young man, the woman asking for help on the train. Goldberg reasons that racism today is re-packaged and sold as a new identity. The new monikers are proudly worn as neo-conservatives, nationalists, and the alternative right.

In Reni Eddo-Lodge’s now famous essay-turned-book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (2017), she writes “For so long, the bar of racism has been set by the activity of white nationalists. In the same year I decided to no longer talk to white people about race, the British social attitudes survey recorded a significant increase in the number of people who were happy to admit their own racism. The sharpest rise, according to a Guardian report, was among “white, professional men between the ages of 35 and 64, highly educated and earning a lot of money.” In the imagined race wars, the enemy is not only diversity or difference, it is also poverty. And like any good mission, the goal is to make the enemy fall back, get in line, and keep out.

Historian Achille Mbembe’s lecture The Violence of Borders warns of the costs of keeping people out. Mbembe impassions that the governance of human mobility is the most important question we have to confront today. The “normalization of abandonment denies any responsibility for the lives and welfare of a particular group and is a political and military mechanism for the politicization of the human body itself. Such people don’t belong, therefore why should we care?” Interwoven throughout the issue of borders are the oppressive systems of racism, classism, and patriarchy. Masked as fraternity, recent elections across the globe have narrowed down the main issue to who gets in, or doesn’t get in, to what space. Or who is allowed to stay and who is forced to leave. Violence is more contemporary than ever. Questions of safety posed by nationalists turn their backs on the truths of statistics and turn instead to assumptions about identity. Ill-perceived threats are heightened and entire communities become watchdogs. As Mbembe puts it, everyday society becomes “part of contemporary modalities of violence.” The borders of violence have expanded so that the new normal is police violence, hate crimes, and drone strikes.

Selasi moves to question the rush that this violence gives. She says “Physiologically suspicion or fear and arousal or pleasure are one in the same.” Goldberg warns that “even neutrality in the face of impending destruction is a side taken.” The listener slowly realizes that the main character in Selasi’s story is actually the listener, her/his fear and inability to act. Their silence. Their complicity.