racism

We Owe “Scary Spice” An Apology

Originally published on Medium in the Human Parts Collection. It was also listed in Dazed Magazine’s “Best of The Web” the week that it was published. 

mel b

Lately, I’ve been in my Black Girl Hair feelings. It’s winter and I’ve been travelling up and down the East Coast, so I’m spending more time in beauty salons, straightening it so that I don’t have wash it and risk pneumonia while it air dries (into curlsicles). But really, there’s never not a time that Black Girl Hair isn’t in my feelings. Solange’s wedding photos had every Black girl in the world — me included — feeling some kind of way. And as I finish testing over 15 products for an article about affordable hair care products for women of color in Paris, I’m being confronted with the global issues of how little Black hair is considered, much less, the possibility that it’s beautiful.

Of course, there are those comments to think about. The comments about Zendaya’s hair. The sound bites: weed. Patchouli. Dreads. Deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, the subtext of these remarks “dirty,” “undesirable,” and “unworthy.” Hair that is so unabashedly Black that it cannot be fantasied into racial ambiguity or “otherness” and thus, must be dealt with severely for its inability to amuse and/or be exoticized. Coiled dreads that are so unabashedly Black that Zendaya — who months ago many claimed she was not Black enough to play Aaliyah — is now so Black that she reeks of weed and patchouli through the television screen.

All of this talk has me thinking about Melanie “Scary Spice” Brown. For me, she was the first Black woman who wore curls and wore them proudly, the first I could identify with. And I think of her when White women say they are excluded from the natural hair movement, the new focus on curly hair in beauty products that hesitates to mention that aforementioned movement for fear of associating with Blackness. And in 2015, where a Black woman’s hair on the red carpet is evocative of deviant behavior, it’s worth collectively examining how we consider Blackness in its follicle form and the pathological fears and stereotypes that those follicles are wrapped in for mainstream consumption.

Nearly 20 years later, I still can’t get over the fact that we thought it was okay to call a brown girl with beautiful curls “Scary.” I can’t believe that we’re still using that name for her in headlines. Sure, she uses it herself in her Twitter profile — but as a public figure who uses name recognition as part of her brand, does she have much agency in the matter? That nickname is awful, erroneous, and racist. Why was Melanie scary? Because she’s Black? Because she has big curly hair? Because she’s the only Black girl girl in a group of White girls? Because mainstream doesn’t know what box to toss her in?

I remember so vividly the first time I saw Mel B. and her curls bouncing across the Zenith television in my room. My eyes immediately zeroed in on the cool Black girl amongst the other White girls, feeling an immediate kinship with that mise en scéne. (I was one of the few Black kids at my suburban elementary school.) It wasn’t that I didn’t think that Posh’s Gucci mini dress wasn’t cute or that I didn’t want Baby Spice’s pigtails; it’s just that I knew those things were unattainable for me. There was nothing in Baby Spice’s long, thin, blonde hair pigtails that went almost to her waist that spoke to my curls-turned-cute Afro puffs, not in any way. (And my mother was not buying a Gucci mini dress for her 12-year-old.) But Mel B. — she was a girl who looked like me. I was immediately obsessed. I wondered if she fought with her hair the way that I did, if she had ever gotten a relaxer (a Black girl in the 90s that did not get a relaxer might as well have been a unicorn), if she had spent hours of her Saturday mornings in beauty salons slathering creamy crack onto her curly roots while her White girlfriends were at soccer practice. I wanted to be Mel’s friend or at the very least, a pen pal. I did numerous and unfruitful searches on Netscape 2.0 for “Scary Spice hair conditioner.” Without question, “Scary Spice” was my first Black girl crush. After an 80s and 90s childhood that demanded I find myself in Alicia Silverstone and Winona Ryder, that gave me hair advice and tips that would never apply to my hair, Mel B. and her ringlets were manna from MTV.

But “Scary Spice.” It felt so wrong to call her that. Why was I calling this beautiful woman that looked like me, “Scary”? Sure, I thought she was beautiful, but why would the “people in charge” (in my 12-year-old mind, everyone) call her “Scary” if she were really pretty? I looked at her, trying to find something to justify the name, but couldn’t. And then I began to think, “Well, is she as pretty as I think that she is? Does that mean that I’m ugly?” The girls at my suburban middle school, many of whom vacillated between wanting to be Posh or Baby Spice, did not notice Mel B. at all. Was it because she was ugly? Less than that, she didn’t even register. She was just “the Black girl.” And though the “lesbian” and “slut” coding of Melanie Chisholm (“Sporty Spice”) and Gerri Halliwell (“Ginger Spice”) are for another day, the invisibility of Melanie Brown’s beauty to my friends only made me love her more, as I didn’t have to compete with anyone to prove who was a bigger fan of Melanie B. But it was also a reminder as to how hostile the world would be to me and the things that made me beautiful.

In normalizing “Scary Spice,” we trained a whole generation of Millennials to think about Black women and Black hair as frightening. (Millennials are less racially tolerant than you think.) Without realizing it, we’ve helped create a generation of feminists that lack intersectionality; those excluded are made to create their own spaces because of a lack of inclusion. And we’ve given a whole generation the continued license to not consider Blackness as something that can be beautiful without Whiteness being a reference point, thus enforcing White supremacy by means of implying that Whiteness is a neutral, identity-less baseline of objectivity. Beauty standards built on restrictive norms enforce this idea that beauty is a scarce resource and that anything outside of those resource boundaries (i.e., Whiteness) must be attacked and diminished to preserve the potency of resource horde.

I don’t think for one minute that Giuliana Rancic was thinking about all of that colonialism, perpetuation, and preservation of patriarchy when she compared the scent of a Black woman’s hair to patchouli or weed. I really believe she didn’t understand why those comments were hurtful. I think her apology was sincere and should be an example of how to listen to people of color and be an ally. But that’s the thing; the messages of ugliness, the unworthiness, the otherness of Blackness has been so thoroughly engrained and approved by our society, that the bias is implicit and subconscious. The associations of inferiority that were made were so smooth and unassuming, just like the straight, thin locks our society covets. Some might feel that being cognizant of how stereotypes and tropes are perpetuated isn’t fun, but having one’s humanity confined by them is a helluva lot less fun.

We owed Melanie Brown the apology that Giuliana Rancic gave Zandaya 18 years ago. And I’m glad to see we’ve come far enough that Zandaya received it. I don’t know Melanie Brown in real life, but she seems to be a complex, beautiful, and rather full person. A collective disregard and fear of Blackness and Black femininity prevented a more thorough appreciation of Melanie Brown, both then and now. The casualness of saying that a young woman on the red carpet at the Oscars smelled like drugs because of her un-malleable Blackness is completely related to the fact that for almost twenty years, we’ve called another Black woman scary because she too, had non-negotiable Blackness.

Some might say Melanie Brown’s singing talents are mediocre. This may be true, but then again, when did that ever stop the majority of White pop singers in this country? Melanie Brown deserves more credit than what we’ve given her. Not because she’s an overlooked talent, but because she stands as a testament to our subconscious anti-Blackness that is still rampant in its casualness and frequency. Mel B. was a big influence to finally cut off the chemicals and embrace their curls, and their Blackness, for many Black women — myself included — who went natural in the early 2000s. And though she’s rarely seen today with her curls, I still want to ask her what conditioner she uses — and to apologize for calling her “Scary Spice” without understanding what I was continuing or condoning.

Why We Left

Hey y’all. I do still write, though at the moment, I’m writing mostly on other outlets and working on a stealth project that I’ll be sharing later in the year. 🙂 In the meantime, I’ll be reposting my work and other dope writers on the blog. This piece, “Why We Left” is republished from one of my most recent in Medium’s Human Parts Collection

why we left

“A powerful way to sidestep America’s reluctance to become post-racial would be for more Black Americans to become post-national.” – Thomas Chatterton Williams

As 2015 already seems exhausting with regards to the frequency of police brutality, I’ve been having parallel conversations with a number of friends, mostly Black, about their holiday travels. Non-ironically, almost all of them went abroad. Between the friend who spent three weeks in Trinidad and Jamaica, the friend who went to Ghana for almost a month, and my own holiday in France, it was clear without having to be stated: the fatigue of American life has sent a number of my friends, particularly my Black friends, abroad.

Going out of the country is hardly newsworthy. Facebook is full of travelers, mostly childless Millennials flexing their international check-in muscles at hole-in-the-wall bistros across Europe and half-ruined Buddhist temples. A few friends are feeling thirsty and bohemian, trapezing across Southeast Asia; another friend is hiking across East Africa; a poet friend is planning her tour across South Africa. But the reasons my friends are travelling doesn’t quite split down a racial line — rather, race and class illuminate the fractured spaces. Ostensibly, my friends, irrespective of race, are travelling to get away from the ties that make life respectable but taxing. Everyone said, “I need a break,” but the subtext from my Black friends was screaming, “I needed to get out of the United States because I can not breathe.”

And then there are those who can neither breathe nor leave. The activists across the country who organize, who fight, who sacrifice, who make decisions like choosing between bus fare to protests and eating dinner — they can’t leave. Most Black Americans, when shit starts hitting the fan, the walls, etc. — they can’t leave. It’s not that they don’t want to. They too dream of lying on beaches of white sand and warm waters with their families. They too want to travel the world. They want to know what it’s like to mention places like the Louvre and the Tate with a casual boredom that happens when money, opportunity, and freedom have bred familiar contempt. Eric Garner was selling cigarette loosies (but not that day) because of a judicial and economic system that denied him more formal alternatives; the probability that he or Mike Brown or Kimani Gray could “just get away” is laughably and insultingly, low.

The end of 2014 was a traumatic period for lived Blackness; the miscarriages of justice for Clinton Allen, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner left me completely drained. Being Black at the end of 2014 left me with an overwhelming mix of anger and despair that can only be described as fighting with an opponent whose arms are so long it feels like air boxing. For many, “Black Lives Matter” reminded them how much their lives actually don’t. The paradoxes of Blackness in late 2014 were reconciling the love of a country that your Blackness has built, but that hates you. We left because of fatigue, because the arc is long and we are still so very young to be this exhausted. Anywhere but here was appealing. “Why are we even staying in a country that hates us?” someone asked me on Twitter. I couldn’t really answer that. I was conflicted. As much as I needed to go, I didn’t want to. I stalled looking for an Airbnb. I waited until the absolute last minute to renew my passport. I was late when contacting friends in Paris. I briefly wondered if I’d regret not booking a one-way ticket. I wasn’t even completely sure what I’d be writing about in Paris. I just knew that I wouldn’t be in the States. But I felt forced out.

I chose Paris because I like problems and paradoxes. I went knowing that Paris was not free; Paris has not been free since the Romans colonized and humiliated the Gauls, who never forgot it and in turn, colonized and brutalized Algeria, Morocco, Vietnam, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and more. I knew better than most that racism in Paris can be acute, if not for African-Americans, most surely for the North Africans, whom I have been mistaken for on occasion. Paris has always loved African-Americans, even if French history itself has despised and exploited Blackness. As such, while New York was filled with protests through the holidays, I floated through Paris for nearly two weeks mostly unbothered, the assumption being until I opened my mouth that I was from Martinique or Guadalupe. The Martiniquaises and Guadeloupéens more or less, are people from island colonies in which their very racially mixed population are widely cited testaments to the alleged French commitment to racial mixing and thus, racial harmony. Even when my Americaness was revealed, it was not a problem for two reasons: one, I was African-American (the only Americans the French respect) and two, I would be leaving soon — but while I was there I was spending money, not like those other Black immigrants sponging off the French economy.Perhaps this is what White privilege feels like, I remember thinking. You can convince yourself that none of this is really about you.Should you even think that hard about it to begin with.

I failed this practice test of White privilege miserably and immediately. The protests that I left behind in the States had ignited passions in Paris; weeks before I arrived, activists took to the streets to protest the human zoo exhibit. Gross old Frenchmen suggestively raised their eyebrows and when they could, whispered loud enough, “café au lait.” I interviewed people of color in Paris about their experiences, which ranged from wanting to open a Black Panther Party chapter at the Sorbonne to forced indifference. The correct answer, had I passed this test, would have been to assign it all to Frenchness, to the lasciviousness of French men, to the complex colorblindness of French society that I, as a race-obsessed American, would never understand. But it seemed like a trick answer given how deeply French functions as a proxy for “White.”

I thought of another dear friend, who now lives in London with no immediate plans to return to the States. His words before he left always ring clear: “There’s no law that say that you have to make your home in the country you were born in. In fact, America was built on a whole mass of people that did exactly the opposite of that.” But I didn’t want to be French, or British, or even African for that matter. How could I be? I am so thoroughly American. And part of what makes me so deeply American is my Blackness. Blackness, as a concept of not Whiteness and a justification for exploitation, was put on the books in the Americas first, most notably in 1639 and 1705, though the slave trade had begun and been perfected by the Europeans.

If culture has always been America’s most valuable export, the fruits of Black labor are still its biggest and most lucrative. And since Blackness and subsequent racial constructs were first created, used, and exported to the rest of the Americas, Europe, and even Africa in order to justify the economic system of slavery, how, in my Blackness, could I be anything but American?

African-Americans, as it pertains to descendants of American slaves, have every logical reason to permanently leave the United States of America. African-Americans have also ingeniously employed every seemingly illogical reason to stay. Incredibly, many of them are returning to the lands of plantations, sharecropping, and lynching that just a generation or two ago sent their grandparents fleeing north as political refugees. If we were to look at this objectively, it is clear that African-Americans should consider their investment in America as sunk costs. The cultural capital of Black America would presumably travel wherever they go. Try elsewhere. Start over. But yet, African-Americans do not. Why they do not leave, collectively, I can’t answer. But I know why I cannot permanently leave. I have lived elsewhere, but it is here, to me, that the breadth of Black sorrow has become the most radiant form of life affirming brilliance — and it is addictive. Living while Black in America requires an intellectual and mental athleticism and finesse that has few peers. It is the startup of all startups. It is the ultimate marathon. Blackness demands from its cognizant participant a rigor and focus that can only produce majesty and mania. It is both heaven and hell. It is mercilessly reviled and hopelessly imitated. It is in short, a spiritual experience.

The reasons why we left are explicit and endless. The reasons why we returned are more complex, more paradoxical. Black America has consistently provided the moral compass and blueprint for a country in which its White faction has consistently, more or less, asked us to leave. And perhaps we would have left, if we knew that America — one of the brilliant masterpieces that Blackness has created, the thing which our soul, over centuries, has been given to and pillaged for — would be all right without us. Would you abandon your masterpiece? For a people denied property, rights, the opportunity to possess much less bequeath, America is what we own. It is our life’s work, our investment, our birthright, our trust fund. We are past the point of sunk costs, or even investments; it is a matter of ownership, stewardship. Our deeds and receipts are written in blood that still flows out of brutality and exploitation. And while America as a proxy for Whiteness has never thought to wonder this, many of us are more terrified of what America would become without us. Or perhaps it has. And it could be that the inability for Blackness to breathe is what America would feel too, if we left.

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“.

Do Thugs Code? San Francisco and The Culture of “Celebrations” in White Culture

I am in a coffee shop, literally 15 minutes from Market Street, where a massive civic demonstration could erupt today. Any clue where I might be? Well, it’s definitely not Ferguson, but can you tell the difference from the photos below?

SF fire squad         Ferguson police

I’m in San Francisco (top, and assuming you didn’t click on that link) where the other day, hordes of young White men trashed the streets, threw bottles at police officers, climbed up street lights, trashed cars, showed partial nudity in public or, in “celebration” of their home team winning their third straight World Series. I mean, it’s kind of crazy that  city known for tech and being a bastion of vegan one percent-ness had helicopters amped up the other night like it was Compton circa last week.

The joy that erupted in San Francisco after the Giants won Game 7 of the World Series quickly turned into the same kind of rollicking orgy of fire, broken bottles, fistfights, sirens and drunkenness that the city endured after the last two world championships.”

SF fire

SF police bust out

That sounds like a pretty long and circuitous way of describing thug-ass, ghetto-ass behavior, which is exactly how it would be described had this been a group of one or more Black persons standing around. Ferguson brought out the same tear gas that was used in Palestine for peaceful protestors; I can’t imagine the clamp down had the whole lot of them been violent and throwing bottles at the police officers decked out in AKs and riot gear. Why can’t we call this what this is? If thug is defined as brazen, lawless, logic-less behavior, San Francisco, White Delegation, I have news for you: THIS IS THUG AS SHIT.

White ppl tearing up Sf

Any community, race or group of people are capable of being destructive in the name of merriment and alcohol. But yet, when it happens in communities of color, we tend to create pathologies for the behavior and over-report it. In Ferguson, protestors were thrown in jail for exercising their civil rights to protest and film cops. I mean, one cop even threatened to “fucking kill” a protestor. The DOJ literally had to remind Ferguson that you can’t in fact, arrest people for protesting and gathering peacefully.  The White Delegation has somehow escaped this scrutiny, despite the fact that there is a clear conversation about the culture of White (male) violence that we are not discussing. Why is celebrating in the White community dependent upon destruction and obstructing laws, order and justice? Why do street parades, Homecoming parades and generally any public display of celebration have to go in tandem with public displays of drunkenness, urination and all around criminality?

As was once asked by Cord Jefferson and Chris Hayes, I too wonder: “What is the White community going to do about these problems within White culture?” I mean, I’m not avoiding Market Street because I’m afraid of a bunch of Black kids carrying stereos on their shoulders; I’m scared of a bunch of drunk White men that are probably wearing Chubbies in Nantucket Red. This deserves a much longer meditation, which it ultimately will get. But I’m disinclined to believe that when you look at the overall issues that seem disproportionately perpetuated by White men – school and mass shootings, the killing of unarmed Black men, the Gamergate vitriol online – that this is an isolated or regional problem. Every community and racial group has it’s problems and it’s about time for White America to admit that it may indeed, have a thug problem.

Stuff White People Like: Halloween Edition

It’s almost that time of the year, Colored People Appropriation Day Halloween, which marks the time seasonally where one takes stock of their cuff season Q1 standings, thank the based gods that at least The Craft is on Netflix (eventually, Hocus Pocus) and endure love letters on Twitter to the trash that is candy corn. Halloween has the interesting distinction of being perhaps THE Whitest holiday on record (except for maybe Columbus Day) and peaks of Whiteness are on Mt. Kilimanjaro levels. Before we go any further, let me appease the naysayers who counter, “How is Halloween ‘White’? Everyone loves Halloween!” I mean, I guess. Sure. And now that I’ve paid obligatory homage to faux universality and false cultural equivalents (which are mostly consistent with peak levels of Whiteness, but I’m too blessed to be petty today), let’s get to the realness.

miley cyrus

This shit is disgusting, no? Well, welcome to what Halloween feels like for The Coloreds on October 31st and the other 364 days of cultural appropriation that’s been going on for the past, 400 years or so. Needless to say, colored people just don’t really check for Halloween like that. And despite the literal manuals to helping White People Do Halloween Better, it still remains an incredibly stressful 24 hour period. Anything could happen. Blackface does could happen. Slutty Native American for sure could happen. Black body and Obama effigies swinging from trees is a little too Strange Fruit comfort for most.  The majority of us in The Black Delegation are walking around with tight chests, swearing before Gawd in hopes that no bro takes the fist bumps and “What’s up brotha?!” (that they have been forcing every Black person they encounter to partake in with them since 2008, btw) as an excuse for fist bumps and “What’s up my nigga!” in Bob Marley costume. Because friendships would be lost and asses would be have to be had. So, coupled with the quotidian stress of trying to not die in colored skin, the fact that all the Black people, die early in horror movies, all Asian chicks are assumed to be “Happy Ending” geishas, every Latino is “esse” for the day, Native Americans are remembered for one day and we’re not welcome to trick-or-treat in certain neighborhoods anyway, we usually just let The White Delegation have it.

Man, listen.

Man, listen.

The uncomfortableness of racial identities being appropriated and shat upon aside, watching White people being White on Halloween can be entertaining. “Did you see that crazy ass White boy wearing that toilet on his head?!” It’s an opportunity to frankly, watch the spectacle of being White from an uninvolved distance. To White people, Halloween is the one day that they have to step away from the pressures of sitting atop almost every cultural, sexual, racial, religious and economic hierarchy and be someone else. I mean, we get it. Because who has the will to dress for Halloween when you have to worry about Miley Cyrus dressing up as you the other 364 days out of the year? Meanwhile, for “the others”, it’s the spectacle of watching privileged people who need a reprieve from said privilege, attempt to out-do one another in epic battles of satirical irony and ridiculousness in which a great deal of money, time, effort and cultural tone deafness are used to express and meet these ends. Imagine that! And since living while melanin-ed exhausts peak levels of irony for most of us in the Colored Delegations, it’s more amusing to watch White people put so much effort into making trivial matters be so vital and competitive. And nothing more clearly reflects this than Halloween DIY costumes. Like this one below.

Quinoa Woman

NO FLEX ZONE

QuinoaWoman02

THEY KNOOOOW BETTAAA

This chick dressed up as quinoa. Quinoa. (At first, I was pumped because I thought she was a box of Kix, but whatever.) The problematic consumption politics of Brooklyn hipsters eating quinoa and leaving impoverished South Americans to starve aside, this is actually a brilliant costume. It’s quite creative. I mean, the levels of White going on right now, in this moment are so fleek, this is intimidating to non-voting members of the White delegation. The viscose/tissue/faux threadbare t-shirt turned skirt is just rich. Not that she was done there.

ain't no body fucking with my click.

ain’t nobody more organic than my clique.

Captain Kale. That’s right, that green leaf that taste likes tree bark everyone’s putting into their smoothies these days. Because, why stop at quinoa when, with enough people to dress up as seitan and coconut water, you could be a whole vegan meal? I mean, this is why Halloween for us non-Whites stays amusing. We marvel at the time, money and waste use of privilege all on spectacle and display for Halloween. If you’ve got enough power in society to dress up as Whole Foods without being reminded that you can’t afford to shop there or it’s gentrifying the hell out of your neighborhoods, most of us would probably just buy whole foods, or buy Whole Foods (stock). It’s a wealth/privilege/sense of humor disconnect. But on the very bright side, she’s not dressing up as a distressed messenger/sex slave of ISIS. (Because there will be some smart ass undergrad who will try it.) And if this peak of corny, yet harmless levels of Whiteness is the alternative to Trayvon Martin “costumes”, I’m here for it.

DIY how-to for Quinoa Woman. Just in case there are, “inquiring” minds.

If Anyone’s Seen Barack Hussein Obama….

strolling through Martha’s Vineyard today, most likely at Nancy’s after his morning jog – please firmly, but gently remind him that we’ve got a U.S. territory – an entire city actually – currently occupied by a paratrooper militia and we could use his help, preferably in the form of an Executive Order and/or the National Guard. If it’s not too awkward between bites of his lobster roll, please let him know that all sorts of rights have been violated. That would be so greatly and deeply appreciated, as, the situation is so dire, the beleaguered Palestinians are sending us tear gas remedies.

(taken from the Tumblr, Magna Carta Sallie Mae)