How anti-trafficking rhetoric upholds racial injustice: Q & A with Lyndsey Beutin

Waist-up portrait of smiling Lyndsey Beutin in a black shirt.

Communication Studies and Media Arts professor Lyndsey Beutin explains how campaigns to end human trafficking use language associated with slavery even while promoting policies that uphold a status quo of incarceration and racial injustice.

Lyndsey Beutin, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Media Arts, is the author of Trafficking in Anti-Blackness: Modern-Day Slavery, White Indemnity and Racial Justice, released this month.

In it, she explores the problematic way campaigns to end human trafficking use language associated with transatlantic slavery, while promoting policies that uphold a status quo of incarceration, racial injustice and marginalization.

Beutin, who is giving a talk on the book on Wednesday, April 12 at 3:30 p.m. in the West Room of Alumni Hall, tells us a bit more about her work and the book.

Can you explain what the book is about? What would you like people to know about it?

Trafficking in Antiblackness is a rhetorical analysis of the visual culture created by campaigns to end human trafficking.

Anti-trafficking advocates use the term “modern-day slavery” in opportunistic ways that cover over the legacies of transatlantic slavery and racial injustice in the present.

I argue that invoking the history and memory of slavery and 19th-century abolition but using it to support criminalization and border control is a way for former slaving nations to protect themselves against claims for reparations for slavery and colonialism.

The book shows how narratives of Black inferiority that were invented to justify the transatlantic slave trade are reproduced in anti-trafficking campaigns today.

Ideas like “Black incapacity for self-governance” and “slavery in Africa” were used in the 15th-19th centuries to suggest that slavery was benign or had a civilizing effect on Black people. Now, within anti-trafficking discourse, we see campaigns claim that Black mothers in Haiti and Ghana are selling their children into slavery and need North American and European-based NGOs to train them how to love and secure freedom for their children.

It’s especially egregious to frame Haiti and Ghana this way because they are two of the most important historical sites of Black revolutionary freedom, of Black people imagining freedom from slavery and colonialism, enacting it through their own agency and revolutionary struggle, and winning those revolutions!!

What led you to this area of research?

When I first heard about “modern-day slavery” circa 2011, I was skeptical because the campaigns seemed very disconnected from several social justice campaigns I was involved with. I had previously worked with undocumented and migrant farmworkers in the tobacco fields in North Carolina, and I was involved with campaigns to decarcerate Philadelphia. Both movements sought to rectify structural oppression by abolishing borders and abolishing prisons, respectively.

Campaigns to end human trafficking and “modern-day slavery,” however, were advocating for stricter border control and increased criminalization of sex workers and migrants. I knew then that the anti-trafficking industry was not interested in liberation.

But what continued to irritate me was how the campaigns used the history and memory of transatlantic slavery to garner support for policies that were hostile to the contemporary racial justice movements in their midst.

I began investigating the discourse systematically for a class paper, which turned into a dissertation, and now a book. The funny thing is, I never wanted to study trafficking and I still don’t consider myself a scholar of trafficking. I went to graduate school because I had a burning question about the relationships among how transatlantic slavery is remembered and the efficacy of campaigns for reparations for slavery. Well, it turns out it’s all connected!

How would you like to see anti-trafficking discourse – and the movement itself – change?

Let me be clear that the origins of anti-trafficking policies are unquestionably based in policing, and are counter-revolutionary on all fronts.

What I want people to know is that there is nothing redeemable about the anti-trafficking apparatus. People often ask me what anti-trafficking advocates can do better. I resist this framing. In my book, I show that pointing out the flaws with anti-trafficking is the wrong approach.

Rather, by showing what anti-trafficking discourse produces — indemnity for former slaving nations — we can better understand why anti-trafficking campaigns have been so politically useful for maintaining the status quo.

We can see that the anti-trafficking industry cannot be reformed — it must be dismantled — because it serves as a palatable alternative to social movements for migrant rights, sex worker rights, reparations, and anti-corporate globalization in the 1990s that were focused on using transnational grassroots organizing to dismantle structures of power and oppression.

Worker exploitation, racial injustice, and unsafe migration exist and there are many social movements working to end these oppressions at their roots; anti-trafficking is not one of them.

What do you see as the impact of your work?

My writing, teaching, and activism is informed by and indebted to the centuries-long struggle for racial justice and I hope that my book contributes to calls to defund and dismantle all forms of carcerality, including the anti-trafficking industry.

I hope that my work demonstrates that all media scholars need to understand the history of Black struggle, the structure of white supremacy, and the contributions of scholars in Black studies in order to conduct any rhetorical, visual, or media analysis of the present. This is also what I teach in all my classes at McMaster.

I hope that white readers are motivated to “let go of the fantasy of white transcendence” (as I write in the book) and see that dismantling the global structure of white supremacy is in everyone’s interest, white people’s included.

Can you tell me a little about yourself?

I call my approach to research “heart and hunch,” and I think this phrase encapsulates a lot about my life and work.

Although this book was written based on 10 years of painstakingly systematic media analysis and theoretical interpretation of liberal humanism, the questions that animate it and the insights that power it are in many ways gleaned from involvement in various struggles for migrant rights, queer liberation, prison abolition, the preservation of free Black historical sites, the destruction of monuments to white nationalism, and the creation of mutual aid projects.

I was organized into the struggle for racial justice by peers and elders in the multiracial U.S. South in the early 2000s. Southern organizing is a special thing; there is an embodied sense that we don’t have the luxury of throwing each other away.

I am grateful to have come up in that time and place and to have felt, deeply, how our struggles are entwined, that the state will not protect us, and so we will protect each other, and it will be messy. It’s an honour and a privilege to try to teach these ways of knowing to my own students today.

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