CharlieHebdo

A Confederacy of Colorblinds: Charlie Hebdo and French Racism

“You lack context!”

That seems to be the cry of defense for the French, on this blog and across the internet, this week and last as more and more people question the role of Charlie Hebdo‘s satire and the general state of equality in French society and of course, a controversial article on this site, Je ne suis pas Charlie.

There seems to be lots of context that I lack, according to the comments (and rants) of enraged Frenchmen of all hues. Lack of French cultural context, which to certain degrees, is very true. Lack of an understanding of French comedy, which to certain degrees, is also very true. The French are relentless in their assessment of the American political gung-ho cowboy approach, often with fair criticisms. The French make no secret that with a few exceptions, most Americans are considered to be classless and proudly ignorant. And given that most French citizens travel in a way that many Americans do not, they are fair in their right to hold that informed opinion. But America has a pretty long history in dealing with racism and calling it by its name – and probably know it better when they see it, even if it’s in another country. Why is it that the French identity and humor needs mounds of contextualization to explain comics, which by the very nature of not being dependent upon words, needs very little explanation? Why can’t a country which for better or for worse, is renowned for its fight for racial equality, not qualified to remark on a France’s problem with race, even though the French don’t know what their country looks like?

anonymous Creole woman from Martinique, 1880s

anonymous Creole woman from Martinique, 1880s

French identity, with regards to race, has always full of contexts, asterisks and explanations; it is a democracy that one could forcefully argue still has colonies. It is a multi-racial society which has no statistics to tacitly prove this. A haven for African-Americans seeking political asylum in the 20th century, it also put an African-American woman in a phallic, banana skirt, half naked on stage, to dance and amuse French audiences.

The irony of it all.

French identity, tolerance and esteem has always depended upon proximities to White Frenchness; a minister of Louis XIV described the value of the Canadian Indians ripe for “civilization” as, “one must summon the inhabitants of the country to a life in common with the French, instruct them in the tenets of our religion and our customs, as to form with the inhabitants…one people….” It was the beginnings of the privilege of “French extraction”, a colorful mélange that tantalizes the French imagination and aesthetic, satisfying equal fetishes for thorough Frenchness and the thoroughly un-French exotique. The privileges and obsession with mixed race people (and creating them) functions as trophies of French assimilation; it is still a standard and mechanism of progress in French society. For all France’s history of race based slavery, colonization, subjugation, an obsession with all things Asian that is/was so strong that it named a style of furniture, sexual exoticism of women of color ( lest we not forget that Gauguin was a Frenchman and was the first to document a sexual tourist vacation), France is a country that purports to not see race. In it’s “colorblindness”, France has created a system by which cultural colloquialisms and beliefs are de-facto yet unstable statements of Frenchness that serve as proxies as Whiteness, given one’s proximity to Whiteness. Thus, one is French by how close one is to White ideals and embodiments.

“…job applicants with obviously North African or African names are far less likely to get called in for interviews than those with traditionally French names. A study funded by the Open Society Institute showed that black and North African youths were much more likely to be stopped by police in France’s equivalent of stop-and-frisk.”

Race functions as a silent truth in Parisian society because Paris is a part of a country which was a colonial power, a brutal colonial power and subjugated people on the basis of race, religion and origin. Anyone, (especially people of color), that have spent considerable time in France or lives there knows that the French are anything but colorblind. I don’t know many people in France or Paris of color that actually believe this.  Yet, the denial of the lived experiences of Asian, African and North Africans in France as facts and thus, a social reality, only makes the presence of race in French society all the more there. In a democracy, where the individual right to express oneself is one of the most treasured rights and very much the anchor for the supporters of Charlie Hebdo, that right is only extended and protected for those that show that they are sufficiently French. And France has a particular history of infringing upon this right when it infringes upon ideals of (White) Frenchness. The burqa, a full veil that many Muslim women wear as a religious obligation, is banned, as well as headscarves in schools. Violators of this law are subjected to fines and “citizenship instruction”, as to remind them of what being French is and what it looks like. And the particular ire between the Islam and Charlie Hebdo is rooted in a strong anti-Muslim sentiment that is also rooted in the colonial history of North Africa, particularly Algeria. French colonization in Algeria was so brutal and unsuccessful that Tocqueville described the process of colonizing the country as having “made Muslim society more barbaric than before the French arrived.” (below is one of the most famous clips from the very famous film, “The Battle of Algiers”, which neo-realistically told the story of Algerian independence.)

It was in the simplest of terms, a wholesale subjugation of people to make them French via the annihilation and denial of their Berber heritage. It was one of the most violent forms of French assimilation. And when Algeria finally won its freedom in 1962, it marked the third time that the French had lost a colonial war,  a wound made deeper by the fact that Algeria was France’s oldest major colony and the colony which characterized much its colonial identity. The French could barely tolerate the occupation from a fellow European power; they were downright belligerent at being felled by the bon sauvage. (pour mes amis français, un retourné, bon sauvage en français.) The French have never forgotten it, nor as Charlie Hebdo’s most recent article cover says, was all ever fully forgiven.

“In France, the Algerian is the nigger. That’s because of the relationship of France to Algeria for 130 years: A very complex relationship in which Algeria simply belonged to France and when an Algerian came to France, he was treated and is treated as a mule…” -conversations with James Baldwin 

To repeat, the French state(s) keep no official racial or ethnic statistics (or religious demographics), the populace and the government alike reasoning that there is no such reason to do this when all citizens of France are French, irrespective of their histories and colors. Many French people feel that to do so would encourage people to see differences and focus on them. You see, Americans, in their race obsessed society, have so many problems because they are encouraged to see race, the French say. The banlieues in Paris don’t burn like the projects in Detroit. And they don’t burn like Detroit because the French are civilized, they are a fully integrated country which does not see Algerians, the Cameroonians as being the survivors of a brutal colonial regime and agents of their own freedom from this, but as French. A vision of Frenchness imagined in a colorblind image. The Vietnamese are not political refugees from a country that is still recovering from the Indochina War (which led to the Vietnam War) and French colonialism – they are “just French” and should consider themselves such. Muslim and Arab identity in colonial North Africa wasn’t suppressed by the French banning Islamic law and practices – they’re are “just French” now and should act as such. Nevermind all that stuff that happened so long ago. More or less. Comme ci, comme ça.

 banlieues outside of Paris in 2005

banlieues outside of Paris in 2005

But the banlieues do burn and sometimes, quite literally. And they burn because many people of color feel cut out of the French process and French society. Jokes about being welfare queens aren’t funny when you are North African and Black and you can’t get a job, because your name does not sound French enough, because applicants are required to put their photographs on their employment applications, because you live in the outer métro zones and it is more expensive to get into the city and because the métro closes between 12:30AM and 1AM, the menial jobs that you might be hired for, are difficult to transport to and fro. Jokes about the Koran being shit aren’t quite as funny when you fully expressing your religion is illegal. Many supporters of Charlie Hebdo in the comments section of this site claim that the humor of the publication is to “take the piss out of someone”, which is true. But the power dynamics of French society  for those that don’t have agency and the recognition of their lived experiences with racism is such that taking the piss out of them also amounts to having it thrown into their face.

But, the French persist, Charlie Hebdo isn’t racist – it’s equal opportunity slander. The slander is all the same, because they are all French. Everyone is equally taken a part, skewed, given their fair share turn at the gaulois (Gallic) humor which is known for it’s love of humiliation. The comparison for most Americans would work like this: if British humor is known for “taking the piss” out of someone, French humor might make you drink it. And that’s the égalité of French humor and Frenchness – everyone’s made to drink their own piss. And this is what Charlie Hebdo does, the French say; a round of piss for everybody! Here’s an excellent guide, in English, written by a Frenchman, as to why Charlie Hebdo isn’t racist, allegedly.

black person on a leash

In this drawing of a Black person on a leash being walked by two White people, the author of the post says:

“Oh my god, two white people have a black person on a leech pictured as a dog!!!!”

Yep, how much more racist can it be huh?

Context maybe? I mean that could help right? Last year, the strong conservative right wing side of France was on the streets to protest against same-sex mariage [sic]. At the same time, a few modern slavery stories made the front pages as some rich traditionalist families got arrested actually having modern-days slaves, usually immigrants with their passeport[sic] confiscated, that they did not pay and had work 20 hours a day at their home, with no possiblities [sic] to go out.

So Charlie Hebdo drew this, saying that in order to be accepted as “normal” by those traditionalists, gay people had to AT LEAST be like them: a family has to be made of two parents and one slave, like they were doing.”

It is not (French) context that is needed; it is for the French to understand the context of how humor which is defacing can not be divorced from the power dynamics at work in an unequal society. It is a myth to believe that people struggling for the basic dignities in a democracy and those that are not, are equally humiliated by the display of their culture, religion or likeness being defiled. Those that represent and maintain the dominant powers must understand and consider how humiliating people that have historically been held to be inferior and discriminated against, is not actually satire. And when it is perpetuated by people that have been historically responsible for such delineations of inferiority, it’s not funny, because it is cheap and it is cheap because it trades on inhumanity – and a perpetuation of the histories which White French citizens claim to have happened “a long time ago.” When Black youth are rioting because they can not get jobs, it is not funny that a group of White men and women should decide that they will fight racism by more tropes and images of racism. Nor is it equal when the children of said White men and women can get the jobs that the children of Asian, African and North African immigrants or third generation citizens can’t get. Making fun of Jews in a country so hostile to them that many consider leaving for Israel, is irresponsible. As one Frenchwoman of African descent told me, “I am not Charlie and even if I wanted to be, France wouldn’t allow me to be Charlie.” (A personal remark: I felt unsafe bringing a small menorah to France to finish the observation of Chanukah, because of the casual anti-Semitism that I have personally witnessed during my time in Paris. And I am not even Jewish, though part of my family once was.)

A photo of the Charlie Hebdo staff working on the edition.

this is a photo instead of the Charlie Hebdo staff working on the edition

 

I understand that it is offensive to portray the Prophet Muhammad, and do so not in disrespect, but because of the event and the story.

I understand that it is offensive to portray the Prophet Muhammad, and do so not in disrespect, but because of the event and the story.

I don’t agree with the cover and find it in poor taste, still. Those however, are my personal opinions on the matter. What should be a fact in a democracy and a press running in such society is that making fun of, or troping the most vulnerable members of a society by exploiting what makes them vulnerable to the most ignorant and least tolerant members of your society is stupid and it is dangerous. The cover, a persistent “fuck you” to the sensibilities and laws of Muslims worldwide, persists in the (White) French right to, as a lawyer for Charlie Hebdo said, “blaspheme.” The American press, most of whom have decided that they are not Charlie, has been lukewarm to the cover.

As one Facebook commenter put it, “…The North Korean government recently called Obama a monkey. That’s not a good enough reason to draw him like a monkey on a magazine cover and say you are making fun of the North Koreans.”  The French entitlement to believe that this is fair, or even substantive political commentary worth defending is a part of  the colonial French laws of assimilation, which were and still pedal notions of equality based on one’s French language and Frenchness – and leave no space to discourse the real realities of living in a society which has bias, inequalities, disadvantages, misunderstandings and exploitation that race-based.

It is possibly to mourn the deaths of innocent lives and renounce what their work and their institution stood for. It is possible to not identify with “Je Suis Charlie” because it represents a cheap laughs that encourage a society with deeply undiscussed racial issues to continue in blindness, not because you support fundamentalists. The French have every right to continue to print and support Charlie Hebdo. But that comes with a responsibility and a price. And part of that, is that some people might not think drinking piss is actually very funny or an acquired taste. They might just think you’re drinking piss.

 

Je ne suis pas Charlie/ I am not Charlie.

And before I get into this, I want to be first extremely and explicitly clear: I don’t condone the massacre. I don’t think the cartoonists and writers deserved to lose their lives. There’s just no way to logically defend their deaths without ignorance and/or hate.

But I’m not Charlie though. And I’m not Charlie for several reasons: Charlie Hebdo for many people of color in France, particularly in Paris, that don’t benefit from mixed or proximity-to-White French- privilege is extremely racist. It’s a particular brand of French racism and xenophobia sheltered under the grey tent of “satire”. It’s belittingly. It’s demeaning. And it’s a larger, published example of the explicit forms of aggression that many people of color in Paris live with, daily. The irony is that I haven’t been returned to the States for even a week from Paris when this happened, after spending more than a week meeting and interviewing people of color in Paris about their experiences with racism, exociticsm, discrimation and the aggressions of living in Paris while colored. Because to put those experiences and Charlie Hebdo into context, these are some of the images and “freedom of speech” that’s being defended.

racist charlie hebdo

un peu raciste, non?

mind you, the woman depicted is an elected official.

mind you, the woman depicted is an elected official.

"The Koran is shit; it doesn't stop bullets."

“The Koran is shit; it doesn’t stop bullets.”

This is the “freedom of speech” that #JeSuisCharlie represents for so many people of color in Paris. These aren’t isolated editions. This is the humor that many White Frenchmen and Frenchwomen find funny and even consider to be political commentary. And at what point, will we draw the lines between “freedom of speech” and “hate speech”? At what point do mainstream media outlets, which are largely controlled and written by White people, stop racializing Islam and stop creating humor based on the humiliation of people of color and their culture and faiths? At what point do White people have that moment of self-reflection, without the threat of terrorism to do so?

“Don’t be afraid, calm down, I won’t kill you,” the gunman told her in a steady voice, with a calm look in his eyes, she recalled. “You are a woman. But think about what you’re doing. It’s not right.” 

je susi charlie paris

Solidarity in Paris

The “Je Suis Charlie” hashtag and the cries across the world of the infringements on freedom of speech have shades of grey in common with the demands to release the “The Interview”, which for many represented the entitlement of “bros” to laugh and disrespect anyone in the name of humor and free speech. And again, it’s interesting and telling to see informally and (unscientifically) who feels that #JeSuisCharlie is about defending the right to say anything, at whomever’s expense. As with “The Interview”, I see mostly White people that feel this is an attack on freedom of speech, specifically, their freedom of speech.  From the commentary I’ve seen from people of color, the attacks are not about freedom of speech but extreme measures taken in the face of continued humiliation and White privilege and White supremacy in the degradation of people of color.As Asghar Bukari wrote about Charlie Hebdo, “White people don’t like to admit it, but those cartoons upheld their prejudice, their racism, their political supremacy, and cut it how you will — images like that upheld a political order built on discrimination.” What’s funny about two privileged White American bros trolling North Korea and the human rights violations there? What’s funny about the White writers of Charlie Hebdo depicting sex slaves as welfare queens? It’s not a “controversy.” It’s racist. It’s hateful. And history has taught us that more often times than not, hate is met not with tolerant compassion and civil discourse, but hate that ups the ante. Hate almost always ensues that more hate will follow.

"The sex slaves of Boko Haram are angry: "Don't touch my allocations!"

“The sex slaves of Boko Haram are angry: “Don’t touch our benefits!”

A Charlie Hebdo journalist, Laurent Léger said in a 2012 interview, “And if some people are not happy with this, they can sue us and we can defend ourselves. That’s democracy. You don’t throw bombs, you discuss, you debate.” But how do you debate hate that is protected as civil discourse and freedom of speech? How does a person of color debate in court their rights and the violations of such when France doesn’t even keep racial demographic statistics? How do you address these fanatical issues of racism and White supremacy (i.e., that 200 girls stolen from school are welfare queens) which are considered to be “discourse”, “debates” or even intelligently assembled? To elaborate on Ta-Nehisi Coates, it’s the privilege and weakness of Whiteness: to live in a world of myth(s) built upon unchallenged and uniformed thought, often of one’s own creation and be confident in the assumption and expectation that you should – and will – be taken seriously. It’s the privilege of French Whiteness to mourn the loss or perceived loss of the privilege to demean French minorities, lest they have to be considerate and rigorous in their assertions. It’s the privilege of Whiteness around the world to fear this fear for French Whiteness, lest they suffer the same fate in their own racially stratified countries.

I spoke with a woman yesterday that I interviewed for an upcoming article that I’m writing, ironically, on racism in Paris. It was a tense day for her. Surrounded by grieving, mostly White people at her job, Céline* stepped outside to whisper into her cellphone. “The White people are all mourning and I am too, but I look at this differently. Charlie Hebdo has done nothing but make fun of Black people, Islam, Algerians,” she said, rushing through her words. “This needs a nuanced look because my humanity is under assault everyday, in the French system and this press which thinks that they have to make political statements by humiliating Black people and North Africans.”

And I can’t help but to think of the people that I interviewed, in 2006 and 2014, that feel so completely shut out of French society and how this only speaks to their invisibility. In an effort to combat this pervasive feeling, a the hashtag, #JeSuisAhmed is gaining ground, named after Ahmed Merabet, the North African police officer that was killed point-blank by one of the gunmen during the rampage.

Je ne suis pas Charlie

je ne suis pas charlie copy

Some hope that it will to help stem the tide of anti-Muslim violence that people are expecting in the wake of this attack and also recognize that a Muslim man was a victim as well, killed for protecting the right of the writers of Charlie Hebdo to diminish, devalue and mock him. Those fears are not unfounded, as several mosques in France have been attacked in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. And continuing the trend of ignorance, in the video below, Don Lemon asks a Muslim human rights lawyer if he supported ISIS after his repeated denouncements of all forms of religious extremism, including Christianity’s: (at the 4:50 mark)

Muslims around the world, on social media and in news outlets are being burdened with the responsibility of denouncing the attacks of Brown Muslims in Paris. Newsweek declares, “Moderate Muslims must speak out.” Why should a minority of people be burdened with speaking for over one billion people that are at this moment, making sandwiches, praying or doing whatever else mundane things make up life, lived daily? Yet, White Christians are not expected to speak to the atrocities and ideologies of the KKK, the Crusades, the “discovery of the Americas”, the American Tea Party and other entities that speak and commit violence in the name of God?

Because.

Because no matter how insipid or egregious the offense, White privilege can and often is invoked to disassociate one’s White self from the White collective. The individual is invoked and dispatched like an airlift out of the messy reflection on the ramifications of Whiteness. Thus it’s possible to have the world rallying to protect Charlie Hebdo and stand in solidarity with the magazine and not have a conversation about how to change it for the better, so that it can actually represent free speech and spirited discourse that does not rely on humiliating religious, racial and sexual minorities. Charlie Hebdo, with the help of Google, French newspapers and a few other unnamed media companies, will run next week. Of course the edition will sell out. Of course it will be characterized as defiance in the face of tyranny, which it is in some ways and I respect them for that, refusing to be silenced by extremism. But unless a real conversation takes place about the rampant racism and hate in French society and Charlie Hebdo‘s role in perpetuating such, Charlie Hebdo continues to live in a world of myth, of unchallenged racial, religious and cultural assumptions and tyranny which asks French minorities to sacrifice their dignity and equality for a good rire. Because freedom of (widely distributed hate) speech.

*obviously not homegirl’s name

Correction: An earlier draft had “suis” misspelled as “sais”, which is equally clever, but an accident made in haste. My apologies for the confusion. My response to the comments can be found in the follow up article, “A Confederacy of Colorblinds: Charlie Hebdo and French Racism“.