Erasure and Affect in Race-Making in Turkey
Deniz Duruiz, Northwestern University
In the 1990s, the war between the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan – Kurdistan Workers’ Party) guerillas and the Turkish state and the ensuing military occupation of Kurdistan dispossessed most Kurdish families to such a degree that it became impossible for the majority to make a living depending solely on the resources of Kurdistan. Since then, many families from the lowlands of Kurdistan have been working as migrant farmworkers, and they constitute the majority of the rural labor force of western Turkey. Migrant labor is a primary site where the rural Turkish population encounters Kurds, who the Turkish state keeps under surveillance throughout their stay in western Turkey. These encounters mostly reproduce larger patterns of racialization and political violence and reinforce the racialized hierarchies of citizenship in Turkey.
Recent critical scholarship on the relationship between Kurdishness, Turkishness, nationalism, and racism in Turkey characterize the era between the foundation of the republic in 1923 and 1990s as the period of “denial,” which refers to the denial of the existence of Kurds, while they identify the aftermath of the 1990s as an era of “recognition” coupled with the racialization of Kurds in Turkish public discourses. In this article, I draw attention to two common elements underlying both of these eras identified as denial and recognition, namely, erasure and racial affect. In doing so, I invite not only seeing a continuity in the discursive construction of Kurdishness in both eras, but also attending to the constant transaction between state discourses and the forms they take as they circulate in social life.
In 2009, I conducted interviews with over twenty Turkish farmers about migrant farmworkers in a cotton producing region of western Turkey. They said that before the “ones from the East” (a euphemism used for “Kurdish”) came, migrant [Turkish] workers from the nearby western provinces did this job. There was a “cultural difference” between workers from the nearby provinces and “those from the East”, they said, the ones from western provinces are “better in terms of culture”, “those from the East do not understand a thing”, and “they are barbarians.”
Most farmers I interviewed avoided the word “Kurd” like the plague. They replaced the proper name Kurdish with “Easterners,” called the Kurdish language an accent, and replaced the word “Kurdistan”, the biggest taboo, with “the East.” However, erasing these proper names did not break their association with the PKK, which the Turkish farmers saw as a terrorist organization. Moreover, it was not only the PKK militants that were terrorists in their eyes, but all the “Easterners” who were potential terrorists. They said the Turkish state rightfully targeted them for surveillance, one did not know whether the ones from the East were “terrorists or what.”
Kurdish is not only silenced while talking about Kurds. Kurdish workers themselves are literally silenced by Turkish farmers who forbid their speaking Kurdish on their farms and by Turkish locals around the farms who verbally and physically attack the workers. Many workers are harassed for speaking Kurdish on the phone or among themselves, beaten, and some are even killed. This silencing is not limited to the 1990s and early 2000s when the Kurdish question was just starting to be discussed more freely in society, but also continued even after the pro-Kurdish party (HDP – People’s Democratic Party) won a historic percentage of votes in the June 2015 national elections with a political campaign that made Kurds more visible than ever in the history of the Turkish Republic. Ahmed, one of the workers I met in a village in İzmir that summer told me that he had met with the Turkish employer of his fellow Syrian workers the other day. He asked Ahmed where he was from, Ahmed told him that he was a Kurd from Mardin, and the Turkish employer said: “there is no such thing as Kurds” in Turkey. Ahmed kept telling similar anecdotes, he also had a boss who forbid him to speak Kurdish in his presence. Ahmed stood up to him and said that he could not speak Turkish all the time. “Isn’t it so?” he said to me, “Why shouldn’t I speak [Kurdish]? But they don’t understand…”
In such cases, Kurdish workers sometimes stood up against their employers, other times they bit their tongue and kept working for fear of losing their jobs or being reported to the military police with the allegations of “terrorism” since pronouncing one’s Kurdishness could easily be equated to supporting “terrorism.” The mid-2000s was a relatively liberal era of EU accession negotiations, the formation of the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, intermittent ceasefires and peace negotiations with the PKK, and the conferral of limited cultural and political rights to Kurds, the political success of which was attributed to the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government. While the forms of erasing Kurdishness from the public realm diversified at this time, the attempts of silencing, censoring, and rendering Kurdishness invisible were never fully abandoned. Moreover, every time the difference of Kurdishness was erased, it had to be accounted for in other ways, The colonial vocabularies of making racial difference (and sameness) were always present, may they be implicit and subtle like “better in terms of culture” or quite explicit like “they are barbarians.”
Between Denial and Recognition
The scholars who make the distinction between denial and recognition argue that while the period of denial called for the policies of assimilation, oppression, and a “civilizing mission”, the period of recognition put an end to the belief that Kurds would be assimilated into Turkishness. Instead, they were racialized as “the other” of Turkish identity through embodied racial stereotypes like dark skin, hairy bodies, short stature, and body smell and cultural and behavioral attributes like a natural propensity to violence, crudeness, hypersexuality, and gullibility. Mesut Yeğen, Cenk Saraçoğlu, and Murat Ergin argue that the racialization of Kurds (or discrimination and hatred against Kurds for Yeğen) became possible only after Kurdish identity was recognized rather than denied. Dicle Koğacıoğlu argues that both paradigms have been present in both periods but the hegemonic paradigm was constructed through an assimilationist/developmentalist imaginary until the 1990s and through a racial/cultural imaginary after the 1990s.Although Emel Uzun Avcı agrees with this periodization and argues that with the political reforms of the AKP government in the 2000s talking about the Kurdish question ceased to be a taboo, her research on the Kurdish question in the narratives of lay people shows that the elements of denial never fully disappeared from public discourses. After 2015, as the war between the PKK and the Turkish state escalated and the political reforms of the AKP government were reversed, the official discourse “turned back dramatically to the classical discourse of denial.”
In my research with farmers and farmworkers, it is easy to identify discursive elements from both periods characterized as denial (banning the speaking of Kurdish, avoiding the words Kurd and Kurdish and reinscribing it as “the East”, calling Kurdish an accent, formulating the social difference of Kurds as a “lack of culture” and “barbarism”) and recognition (associating Kurdishness with terrorism, racialized references to Kurds’ having many children and lack of mental capacity as in “those from the East do not understand a thing” or being deceived by the PKK to support its cause). Not only do the discursive elements of signifying Kurdishness as racialized difference in the era of “recognition” come from the period identified as “denial” but also the precondition of that re-signification comes from the operation of erasure active in both processes. I argue that denial/assimilation and recognition/racialization are two modalities of “racial thinking” and “race-making” that have prevailed in the discourses on the relationship of Kurds to Kurdishness and Turkishness in the history of the Republic. In contrast to the periodization of moving from denial to recognition, I emphasize the continuity in race-thinking in both modalities by tracing erasure and racial affect.
The Turkish employer’s response to Ahmed, “there is no such thing as Kurds” is a central discursive element in what is called the Turkish state’s “policy of denial” by both the Kurdish political movement and critical scholars.Historically, there was a brief period after the end of World War I (1918) and before the formation of the Turkish Republic (1923) that both the Palace and the newly-forming Turkish government lead by Mustafa Kemal promised to recognize Kurds’ cultural rights and their right to autonomous self-rule. It is with temporal reference to the armistice era (1918-1923) that the years between 1923 and 1990 is characterized as “denial” since in this periodization it looks like Kurds’ political rights were first recognized and then denied. However, it is not only the principles of inclusion or exclusion that determined the place of the peoples of the Empire but also the ideologies, emotional and “affective dispositions” of the Young Turk elite such as trust, suspicion, and distrust of whole peoples (especially Christians of the Eastern provinces like Armenians and Assyrians), which led to mass deportations and genocide of the peoples considered to be “enemies” or “collaborators with the enemy.” 
Unlike the non-Muslims of the Ottoman Empire, who the Young Turk government absolutely saw as obstacles to the creation of a homogenous nation-state and eliminated through mass deportations and genocides, Kurds, along with other Muslim ethnic groups were seen as assimilable into Turkishness, therefore into the nation. There were Kurdish elites among the founders of the Committee of Union and Progress (the CUP), the governing body of the Young Turks that came to power positions with the Constitutional Revolution of 1907, and Kurdish people of all classes, who perpetrated and benefitted from the Armenian Genocide. However, as Ümit Uğur Üngör argues, there were also many Kurdish groups who resisted the genocidal acts and the Turkification policies of the CUP, which made not only the rebellious Kurds the enemy, but all Kurds potential enemies in the eyes of the governing elite. Thus, as early as 1916, much like non-Muslim populations, Kurds were subject to mass deportations from the Eastern provinces, separating the tribal chiefs from their people, and resettling the Kurds in Turkish villages or among the migrants that escaped from the violence in the Balkans resettled in the Eastern provinces, aiming to reduce their presence to mathematically calculated proportions of 5-10% through social engineering policies. While the erasure of Armenians happened through their total annihilation through genocide, the erasure of Kurds was always partial, always incomplete. Its incompleteness constantly invited the colonial binary of “good Kurd” versus “bad Kurd,” making all Kurds potentially “bad Kurds.” Both the discourses and the affects of trust and distrust, and the suspicions of collaboration with the enemy towards entire peoples, first Armenians, then Kurds, formed the affective baseline for the racial collective psyche of the Turkish nation.
Erasure and Racial Affect in the Period of “Denial”
1930s and 40s were characterized by more explicitly racist definitions of Turkishness that drew on anthropological, linguistic, and historical research conducted to identify the Turkish race through white skin color, “blood types, bones, skulls, body types, hair and eye colour, and nose shape.” After the defeat of fascism in Europe, and the switch to a multi-party regime in the 1950s in Turkey, the Turkish state partially abandoned defining Turkishness through biological racial traits and explicit references to “the Turkish race.” However, as Murat Ergin argues, the definition of Turkishness has always had a racial element to it, which is irreducible to the domains of ethnicity and nationalism.Ergin underscores two racial elements in the definition of Turkishness. The first element is the idea of a timeless and immutable nature of the Turkish identity, through which citizens of other nations such as central Asian Turkic Republics, the European-born children of Turkish migrant families that have been living in Europe for generations, and the Turkish-speaking Bulgarian citizens are easily seen as belonging to the Turkish nation. Along the same lines, Ayşe Parla argues that the Turkish-speaking migrants from Bulgaria are accepted into the Turkish nation as “racial kin” (soydaş) and identifies one of the most eminent affective dimensions of their belonging as “entitled hope” which “is firmly rooted in and relies on legal and historical structures of relative privilege.” Conversely, Jews, Armenians, and Kurdish citizens are considered as “internal others whose belonging is suspect.”
The second element that Ergin identifies in the racial definition of Turkishness is the fascination and preoccupation with whiteness and what is considered “European looks” such as tall stature, blue eyes, light skin in demarcating class, status, and culture. Kurds are excluded from this physical portrayal too since they are represented as dark skinned, short statured with short arms and legs, smelly bodies. While accepting that Turkishness is defined in racial terms and that the affective, discursive, and historical dimensions of the exclusion of Kurds from fully belonging to the nation heavily draw on racial elements, Yeğen, Ergin, and Saraçoğlu argue that Kurds were not racialized until the 1990s because the ethno-political aspect of the Kurdish Question was “denied”. Yeğen states: “The Kurdish question, framed as an issue of banditry and tribal unrest, was also, then, a state project of the ‘introduction of civilization.’” Here, I would like to take Yeğen’s signification on the elimination of the ethno-political aspect of the Kurdish question seriously and analyze it as the discursive operation of erasure.
As Yeğen argues, the operation of the racial definition of Kurds may occur through discursive enunciation, the usage of explicitly racial vocabularies depicting Kurds as inferior to Turks biologically or culturally, and mostly both. For example, in the 1930s and 1940s official Turkish state discourse racially defined Kurds with the false and contradictory statements like “a group or a member of this group of Turkish origin, many who have changed their language, speaking a broken form of Persian” and “Turks who speak Arabic.” This racial vocabulary was also active in public discourses and implicated a racialized body. As Welat Zeydanlıoğlu cites, during the 1930 Ağrı uprising a journalist, Yusuf Mazhar, defined Kurds as follows:
The manifestation of the feelings and intellects of these ones, which work through the simplistic drives like those of ordinary animals show how vulgar and even stupid their ways of thinking are. […] There is no difference between these men who mix raw meat with a little bulghur and eat it just like that and the African savages and cannibals.
Although not as blatantly racist and malicious as Mazhar’s words, the themes of the Kurds being “barbarians” with “dim intellect” and “animal-like” emerged frequently during my interviews and ethnographic fieldwork with Turkish farmers. Assuming that there is no connection between these colonial and racist public representations and collective affects of the 1930s and the contemporary ones, would mean underestimating the power of the circulation and endurance of colonial and racial vocabularies and affects in the social domain. Moreover, racialization operates not only through overt racist signification but also through silencing, omitting, and replacing social difference with covert symbols that do not have racial meanings outside a specific context. Erasure might take explicit forms such as the following words of the Interior Minister Şükrü Kaya from the Parliament records of 1934:
Why should we still speak of the Kurd Mehmet, the Circassian Hasan or the Laz Ali. This would demonstrate the weakness of the dominant element. . . If anybody has any difference inside him, we need to erase that in the schools and in the body politic, so that man will be as Turkish as me and serve the homeland.
A similar overt erasure happened through the social engineering policies implemented by changing the non-Turkish names of villages, districts and cities into Turkish names in Republican Turkey and the division of the national territory into seven geographic regions established according to “natural features” the First Geographical Congress held in 1941.  This division was one among many strategies the Turkish State used to “dehistoricize the land and erase the ethnic markers in the Ottoman provincial names “like ‘Eastern Rumelia’, ‘Pontus’ and ‘Kurdistan.’”  Kurdistan was thus divided up into two regions, “Eastern Anatolian Region” and “Southeastern Anatolian Region.” These “regions” prepared the ground for reducing social difference to geographic difference and re-signifying it through “backwardness” and “lack of development” starting with the 1950s. Thus, racialization started to operate through the covert markers of “the East” (Doğu) and “the Southeast” (Güneydoğu) matching “backwardness” with “Eastern” and “Southeastern” bodies.
Several scholars have argued that this was a form of Turkish Orientalism, colonialism or postcolonial condition, comparable to the Orientalism of the West, in which the Turkish elites reproduced the Orientalist gaze and mode of government with regard to the periphery (taşra), the religious Muslim masses, Arab countries, “Persians”, and Arab minorities alongside Kurds, which made them the “other” of the ideal Turkish citizen. However, many of these scholars also underscore that this form of orientalism of the Turkish Republican elite is intimately connected with nineteenth century racist and colonial discourses, especially towards Kurds. There are many material factors that set Kurds apart from all the other Orientalized groups cited above in terms of their high population density in a single area, the past experiences of regional autonomy and self-government, and a history of organized resistance to the Turkish state. These factors contributed not only to the obsessive erasure of the names “Kurd”, “Kurdish”, and “Kurdistan” and their replacement with the euphemisms of “the East”, “the Easterner”, and “the Southeasterner” but also to the incessant overt and covert signification of everything Kurdish through a racialized vocabulary and affects of distrust and potential of betrayal that is always mapped onto a real or imagined Kurdish body.
“Recognition” or Colonial Erasure and Racial Affect?
More recent ethnographically based studies focus on how Kurdish bodies, Kurdish spaces, and the relationships in-between are built (and erased) visually, discursively, affectively, and materially, almost always through an overt or covert intervention of the Turkish state. Özsoy examines how the dead bodies of Kurdish guerillas become a key site of Kurdish nation identity and how the Turkish state tries to prevent it “by a series of repressive techniques such as refusing to deliver dead bodies for burial, secret interments, destroying graveyards, banning funeral or attacking funeral participants.” The political in the unofficial capital of colonized Kurdistan, Umut Yıldırım argues, is formed as much through the “visceral sensations of irritation, disgust” of her interlocutors at the sight of the military as it is through the unseen governmental gates of the “classed and racial blockages, pushing out those Kurdish citizens legally labeled as potential terrorists.” Writing on the people trapped in the basements of apartment buildings in the military operations in Kurdistan in 2016, Darıcı and Hakyemez argue that the Turkish state used the racialized structure of feeling that the Other can always be fake and claimed that the PKK made combatants look like civilians, while the Kurdish movement appealed to the universalizing affective structure of humanitarianism, depicting their thirst, pain, hunger, fear, their jobs, families, feelings as well as the universalist language of innocent children in the hopes of eliciting compassion from outside Kurdistan to stop the state violence. Güllistan Yarkın’s study on Kurdish homeownership in Zeytinburnu, a working-class district of İstanbul shows that Kurdish home ownership emerged as an anti-racist practice since the owned home (rather than the rented home) was one of the very few places where Kurdish migrants could escape from Turkish racist aggression. Onur Günay draws attention to how Kurdish communities in another working-class district of İstanbul mobilize affects and narratives of counter-violence as communicative labor among generations of Kurdish migrants where the justness of counter-violence “becomes a key element of care for one’s self and community.” In all these studies, we see both the erasure of Kurdishness (or at least one form of Kurdishness that Turks and/or the Turkish state find threatening, the content of which might range from “supporting the pro-Kurdish movement” to simply “speaking Kurdish in public”) and the racialization of Kurds not only through openly racist stereotypes but also through silences, affects, sensations, and visceral experiences.
Marlene Schäfers uses the concept of erasure to reflect on how Kurdish women singers (dengbêjs) performed at two events that were characteristic of the era of recognition: one, a performance at a state university in İstanbul with the majority-Turkish audience, and the other, a performance at a rally of the pro-Kurdish political party in Kurdistan with a Kurdish audience. She draws upon on Irvine and Gal’s concept of erasure, which they define as: “the process in which ideology, in simplifying the sociolinguistic field, renders some persons or activities (or sociolinguistic phenomena) invisible. Facts that are inconsistent with the ideological scheme either go unnoticed or get explained away.” Schäfers argues that the singers were obliged to erase various elements of their performances to fit the ideologies and the affective and embodied political sensibilities of their audiences in each case.
My take on erasure builds on Derrida’s conceptualization of “under erasure”, and it differs from Irvine and Gal’s definition in that erasure is never complete, and therefore always leaves behind a trace to be dealt with. Even when erasure renders some persons and activities invisible to paper over a contradiction, the trace of the erased object emerges as another contradiction and thus never allows the ideological scheme to be complete. Erasure does not presuppose an original truth that is evident in the world, which is then endorsed or rejected. Erasing Kurdishness, just like the discursive construction of Kurdishness, is a productive practice. Neither does erasure cause Kurdishness to disappear, nor does the recognition of Kurdishness put an end to its erasure (or the attempts of erasing it). Erasure of Kurdishness always leaves behind readable traces, which expose the instability of its past and haunts its present. It also invites a recurrent, almost obsessive, rewriting of Kurdishness, the re-signification of which draw on vocabularies associated with either era characterized as denial or recognition.
The practices of race-making in the social realm are as affective and material as they are symbolic, and thus racialization goes beyond the articulation of otherness, difference, and exclusion as race. The making of race includes the formation not only of the subordinate (marked) but also of the dominant (unmarked) subjects as racialized affects circulate through spaces, bodies, relations, and real or imaginary encounters. Once these affective and material practices of race-making go into circulation, they tend to stick to (racialized) bodies, summon (racial/colonial) vocabularies, become commonsense, and outlast the periods in which they were produced.
Lisa Marie Cacho states: “As ways of knowing and methods of meaning-making, race, gender, and sexuality simultaneously erase and make sense of what should have been a contradiction by making racial contradictions commonsense.” In other words, in my usage, it is not the completeness of erasure but the recurrent erasure and re-signification embedded in the operation of race that allows contradictions to become commonsense. For example, the Turkish “civilizing mission” may seem to carry the promise of the transformation of the entire Kurdish population defined as “barbarians” into a civilized people in the future. However, these “barbarians” are also imagined to have an embodied difference, which made them inferior in the first place. Imagining this hierarchical embodied difference is made possible not only by erasing Kurdishness as a people with their own ways of doing, living, and being but also by erasing the very operation of that erasure so that the contradictions in the statements of “there is no such thing as Kurds” and “they are barbarians” can go together in the same social imaginary.
The erasure of erasure is how the Turkish farmers in my research could simultaneously avoid the word “Kurd,” mark Kurdishness as inherently dangerous (potential terrorists), yet also act with the absolute confidence that it was the Kurds who would be in danger in a potential conflict since the Turkish state would side with themselves. They refrained from recognizing Kurdish as a language, called it an accent, but also note that they did not understand a word that they said when they “switched” to the accent. Both the practices of the erasure of Kurdishness and the formation of Turkish and Kurdish subjects through the circulation of racialized affects that are characteristic of the period called “denial” continued into the period called “recognition” and both of them always implicated the body. By paying attention to the current mechanisms of erasure and racialized affects, we can see that racialization has always been intrinsic to the formation of not only Turkish but also Kurdish ways of being, seeing, and doing as well as reflections on the self, the other, and the distance in between.
 Yeğen, Mesut. “The Kurdish Issue in Turkey: Denial to Recognition.” Nationalisms and Politics in Turkey: Political Islam, Kemalism, and the Kurdish Issue. London and New York: Routledge (2011): 67-84.; Saraçoğlu, Cenk. “‘Exclusive Recognition’: The New Dimensions of the Question of Ethnicity and Nationalism in Turkey.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 32, no 4(2009): 640-658; Ergin, Murat. “The racialization of Kurdish identity in Turkey.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 37, no. 2 (2014): 322-341.; Koğacıoğlu, Dicle. “Knowledge, practice, and political community: The making of the “custom” in Turkey.” differences 22, no. 1 (2011): 172-228.; Uzun Avcı, Emel, 2019. “Denial of the Kurdish Question in the Personal Narratives of Lay People.” Ethnicities, 19(1):156-173.
 For the uses of the figure of the “terrorist” in Turkish nationalist publics see Açıksoz, Salih Can. Sacrificial Limbs: Masculinity, Disability, and Political Violence in Turkey. University of California Press, 2019.
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 Koğacıoğlu, Dicle. “Knowledge, practice, and political community: The making of the “custom” in Turkey.” differences 22, no. 1 (2011): 172-228
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 This conceptualization of erasure comes from Jacques Derrida’s “sous ratour” and Spivak’s translation of the concept as “under erasure” in Spivak, Gayatri. “Introduction. Of Grammatology. By Jacques Derrida.” Trans. Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP (1997). Spivak defines under erasure as “to write a word, cross it out, and then print both word and deletion. (Since the word is inaccurate, it is crossed out. Since it is necessary, it remains legible.)” (Spivak 1998, xiv). Every time the words Kurd, Kurdish, and Kurdistan are erased, their erasure not only opens up a productive space of rewriting but also attempts to erase the operation of erasure. However, since erasure is never complete, Kurdishness, which is attempted to be erased since it is marked as not-of-the-right-order, not-belonging, and in that sense inaccurate, remains legible.
 Mesut Yeğen argues that the relationship between the status of Kurds and the concept of Turkishness has been always productive of a space in which Turkish state could implement its policies ranging from assimilation (inclusion) to discrimination (exclusion) because of the ambiguity inherent to both the status of the Kurds in Turkey and the racial, political, nationalist, and civic meanings and practices of Turkishness. Yeğen, Mesut. “” Prospective-Turks” or” Pseudo-Citizens:” Kurds in Turkey.” The Middle East Journal 63, No. 4 (2009): 597-615.
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 Cacho, Lisa Marie. Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. Vol. 7. NYU Press, 2012, 2