We continue to be devastated by the deaths of the journalists of Charlie Hebdo. As we mourn, we also grapple with what this all means. This includes deciding whether or not we should be celebrating Charlie Hedbo’s cartoons as symbols of democracy. Is Charlie Hedbo the embodiment of Liberté (liberty), Égalité (equality), and Fraternité (fraternity)?
On January 9th I published a piece in Truth-Out that struggles with this very question. In it, I note that we must mourn without misconstruing racism as democratic ideal. This essay is an extension of that conversation.
What happened to the journlists of Charlie Hedbo was horrible and inexcusable. My engagement with their work is not about blaming victims. It is, instead, about the broader philosophical question of the consequences of their work and how we deal with such tense and difficult issues at such a sensitive time.
Since January 9th there has much debate over the extent which Charlie Hedbo’s cartoons are racist. That debate is far from over.
I have heard a couple of counter-points to the argument that Charlie Hedbo reproduces racism. Let me address some of them here in the spirit of "liberty, equality and fraternity" that is so much a concern for many of us right now. Here are the arguments and my thoughts on them:
1. Anti-Muslim sentiment cannot be racist because religions are not races.
Fascinating but a bit misconstrued. The idea that anti-Muslim cartoons cannot be racist because Islam is not a race completely glosses over the racialization of Islam in France and elsewhere. Muslims are often stereotyped as only Arab or black. Many of the Muslims in France are indeed immigrants or descendants of families from former French colonies like Algeria and Senegal. Thus, we cannot separate anti-Muslim sentiment from the history of French colonialism. This tragedy was as much about this fraught history as it was about freedom of speech.
France, like the rest of Europe, has been experiencing a new era of racism since 9/11. Race relations scholar A. Sivanandan identifies this as the new xeno-racism in Europe. Xeno in the sense that it is directed against all foreigners and racism because it couples familiar forms of racial prejudice, like anti-blackness, with less familiar ones like the racialization of Muslims, who are by in large stereotyped as not only foreign and backward but also non-white.
And if this is not enough to put the “Is it really racism?” debate to rest consider this: Black and Arab Muslims are the disproportionate victims of police violence in France. And although approximately 8% of the French population is Muslim, Muslims make up approximately 60-70% of the prison population.
2. Raw and biting satire is a tradition in France.
Charlie Hedbo, founded as Hara-Kiri Hedbo in 1969, is famous for “its full-throated opposition to religious fundamentalism and restrictions on freedom of speech.” In this sense, it is the embodiment of France’s irreverence for religion and fiercely republican ideals. This irreverence is embedded in French cultural identity and laws. Take for example laïcité, the French principle of the separation of church and state that is mandated by law. This law has broad-sweeping effects, including making it illegal for Muslim women to wear the hidjab (traditional headscarf) in public. Charlie Hedbo both embodies and vehemently defends laïceté.
Because Charlie Hedbo is almost as fanatical about its secularism as the so-called religious fanatics it satirizes, its irreverence is unpalatable for many. Thus the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasCharlie, “I am not Charlie.”
Comedian Arthur Chu wrote a great piece for the Daily Beast where he critiqued Charlie Hedbo and talked about an important distinction. If the satire is so subtle that you cannot tell the criticism from the insult then it’s not really doing what it intends to do. Excellent point.
Indeed many comedians and satirists have made similar criticisms. One that I liked a lot was from Carlos Latuff, a Brazilian cartoonist.
Cartoonists make decisions about what they deride and how they do it. And choosing to ridicule a community that already suffers immensely because of global Islamaphobia is in poor taste.
3. “Charlie Hedbo is not racist.”
Long before ten of Charlie Hedbo’s journalists were brutally murdered, including its editor, Stéphane Charbonnier (known as “Charb”), the magazine publicly debated the extent to which its cartoons are racist. Indeed, Charbonnier spoke out several times about this.
To be fair, the magazine’s writers have vigorously denied that their work is racist. Charbonnier denied it in interviews years before he died. Those who know the magazine personally deny it as well. Many people have said that those in the English-speaking world cannot understand France’s satire and humor. This excuse does not quite work though.
For many of us the issue is not the intent to be racist but rather the effect of being racist. I see this a lot in the work that I do on racist humor in Brazil. There, it is very much a part of the culture for people to make racist jokes all the time. There are several high profile television programs that routinely engage in blackface. One that I have analyzed is Zorra Total. Their character Adelaide invokes many of the racist, sexist, classist stereotypes against black women that Charlie Hedbo invoked in its cartoon of the Nigerian girls abducted by Boko Haram. When some people criticize these performances as racist the response is always “it’s just a joke”, “ we’re just making fun of racism”, or “racism doesn’t exist in Brazil.” I hear similar arguments when I read the responses to the criticisms of Charlie Hedbo.
The fact of the matter is there are both intentional and unintentional consequences to racist representations. Let me explain.
One of the Charlie Hedbo cartoons that incites controversy is a depiction of Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, a black woman. In this cartoon (above), Charlie Hedbo represents the minister as a monkey. The caption reads, "Blue Racist Rally" and refers to racist depictions of Taubira from the right.
Many have noted that this cartoon was sketched to make fun of the racists who make fun of the minister. But if that is the case then the result was basically a satire that was so subtle that it actually ended up reproducing the very racism it intended to thwart. Desipte the fact that it is not intentionally racist, it reproduces racism.
What are the consequences of this kind of subtlety? Systematically, both implicit and explicit racism has quite dire consequences.
Social psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff demonstrates that there is a cognitive, implicit association between black people and apes that directly leads to the sanctioning of extreme violence against black people, including police violence and the death penalty. We need only remember Officer Darren Wilson’s woeful depiction of Michael Brown as a crazy monster to understand exactly how deadly this kind of cognitive association can be. In other words, even when we are not aware of the mental associations we may make between black people and monkeys, when we see these depictions, it incites us to violence.
Caricature also has historical links to group violence, particularly genocide (see for example the work of Ervin Staub). The Nazis produced anti-Jewish caricature and cartoons as propaganda during the Holocaust. And anti-black caricature was often the precursor to lynching in the United States (see Marlon Riggs’s Ethnic Notions). Satire and caricature are dehumanizing tools that often precede group violence.
So what do we make of all of this?
Saturday over three million people marched in France marched from the Place de la République to the Place de la Nation in Paris to mourn the dead and protest the brutal violence that took their lives. Again, the phrase “Je Suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) was the slogan. Yet many of us still reject it because it ignores the racism and Islamophobia that Charlie Hebdo often reproduces. #JeNeSuisPasCharlie
France as a nation is hurting, and that is not something that any of us should take likely. But we should mourn all bodies equally. We should be enraged when extremists of any ilk (religious, racial, ideological) kill brutally and coldly – like the unprecedented massacre of 2000 Nigerians by Boko Haram on January 3rd (why has it taken us almost 10 days to listen?). Yet, as we well know, all lives do not matter equally in this world. And until they do, we must criticize racism, sexism, classism and homophobia wherever it lies.
The Silence Transformation Collective is a transnational, multi-lingual healing space for black women to share their reflections and thoughts on life and survival. It is inspired by Audre Lorde's [1984 (1977)] essay "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action." There she writes, "I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood." Here, we dare to speak and share, recognizing that our silence will not protect us.