Charlie Hebdo: Dating an African Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Racist
January 28, 2015 § 1 Comment
Of the various excuses that have been given for Charlie Hebdo’s racism, the one that really had me rolling my eyes was the suggestion that Charb, the editor, couldn’t have been racist because he was dating a woman of North African descent. And of course if the editor wasn’t racist, then Charlie couldn’t have been racist.
While this has to be the most tired excuse for Charlie Hebdo’s racism to date, the opportunistic citing of personal relations with black people as proof of anti-racism and openness to race is nothing new. In fact, claiming knowledge about and/or sympathy with Africans is one of the easiest ways to try to worm out of accusations of racial prejudice. The reasoning behind this excuse is that someone cannot be prejudiced if they have relations with Africans, due to the assumption that our personal associations magically free us from racist conditioning. The idea is that if the person had a real prejudice against the entire African people, then no African would be okay to date. Ultimately, the aim is to have us ignore any other evidence we have to assess the person’s attitude, by only taking into account the existence of personal relations with one single African.
There’s a persistently wrong idea that to be racist you must hate a particular racial group, commit hate crimes and use racial slurs. This derives from the existing stereotype of racists as only people with extremist ideas and actions, such as members of America’s Ku Klux Klan or the Neo-Nazi movements of Europe. However, contrary to popular belief, hatred is not a requirement for racism; and neither are white masks, conical hats or swastika tattoos. There are varying degrees of racist bigotry, from passively racist, mostly in thought, to violent and confrontational. Harboring racist thoughts and attitudes, but not speaking or acting on them does not mean you’re not racist. It only means that you’re a closet bigot.
Racism was invented on the slave plantations of America – the very same slave plantations on which white slave owners acted on their sexual desire by raping the Africans they had enslaved. Therefore sexually desiring Africans doesn’t automatically make you non-racist. Just as it is common for some heterosexual men to remain misogynists after marrying the women they love; it is possible to be intimate with an African and still be racist.
Racism in Interracial Relationships
Just because you love/ like/ admire/ accept/ tolerate one African doesn’t mean you stop having preconceived biases against Africans as a group. As has been seen time and again, one can be a bigot and still wed/ date/ friend across the color line.
Take for instance the white husband whose basic lack of respect for Africans blinds him to the possibility that his African wife can make good decisions. Convinced it’s his duty to manage the affairs of not only Africans but women as well, he assumes the role of “protector” and subjects his wife to a double dose of paternalism: sexism and racism. Or the “colorblind” white wife unable to empathize with the plight of her black partner due to her insistence that racist oppression is but a forgotten past with no imprint on the present reality of black people.
There are also the white men who treat their committed relationship with African women as a taboo, secret or shame, unwilling to tell their family about their African girlfriend. No matter how well he treats her, if he cannot stand up to his family and speak up against racism, he is racist. Other white men who identify as only being attracted to African women and who are in a committed relationship with African women will continue sleeping around with other white women.
And then there are the white women with a tendency to date – more or less exclusively, African men, but who are quick to clutch their handbags and lock their car doors when a group of African men comes close. Having negative stereotypical views of African men as dangerous or feeling afraid or uncomfortable when you encounter them is a sign of racial prejudice.
We also have the white male fetishists who sexualize African women in a racially charged manner, bombarding them with offensive suggestions that Africans are wild, untamed, feral animals. Yet, these men refrain from using similar perverted pick-up lines when hitting on white women. Fetishization indicates an enhanced awareness of race – the main ingredient of racism, which makes it very different from truly celebrating someone’s ethnicity as it relates to their full humanity.
And then there are the white tourists who date Africans as part of their sexual safari tour of Africa, but would never consider fully loving or marrying one. This is an exploitative relationship which, in the absence of any real commitment on the part of the white partner, exists primarily for their personal needs.
Other types of interracial personal relationships also manifest the contradiction of racism. For instance the white grandparent to a biracial child who stereotypes Africans as “lazy”; the white mother who adopts an African child but continues to use the N-word; the white voluntourist who claims to have “African friends” who are really just acquaintances, neighbors or employees; and the white expatriate aid worker who is motivated to help precisely because they believe Africans are inferior to white people. Rather than genuine altruism, such “White Man’s Burden” assistance is merely a means of reinforcing white superiority.
Openness to interracial relationships is therefore no indicator of the absence of racist attitudes. If anything, many interracial relationships are proof that dating interracially doesn’t necessarily make one more racially sensitive or enlightened about racial equality.
With the excuse of “having a North African girlfriend” discounted, there is no evidence of Charb’s anti-racism. Instead, what we have are numerous dehumanizing cartoons portraying black people as monkeys, welfare queens and racist caricatures of Black Sambo, and filled with racial slurs such as the N-word – all of which were published during his tenure as Charlie Hebdo editor. That Charb’s relations with a woman of North African descent did not prevent him from publishing cartoons that were racist towards Africans as a group is solid proof that interracial romance is never an effective antidote to racism.
I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with the ideology of white supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is being made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the white supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt – unless they are actively anti-racist – they will find themselves carried along with the others.
– Beverly Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race
Mutual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate, is the only standpoint that makes possible an encounter between races that is not based on denial and fantasy. For it is the ever present reality of racist domination, of white supremacy, that renders problematic the desire of white people to have contact with the Other.
– bell hooks, Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance
In an ideal world, being intimately involved with someone of a different ethnicity would help you gain insight into their life and culture, as well as appreciation and respect for their humanity in a way that would make racial prejudice or bigoted thoughts, feelings, words or actions an impossibility on your part. White partners would also gain understanding of how racist oppression continues to impact the lives of black people. And this understanding would motivate the white partner to commit to anti-racism work by using their white privilege to confront and dismantle racial oppression and promote racial equality in their private and public lives.
However, the world we live in is far from ideal. Instead, interracial unions are today not only used to excuse racism in individual white people, but to also push indifference towards racism in the entire white dominated modern world. Leading this crusade are supporters of colorblind ideologies who point to the rising number of interracial marriages as proof that race is no longer a determining factor in life’s outcomes.
However, while interracial unions are today generally accepted, they can hardly be taken as a mark of progress in terms of racial equality. Take South Africa for instance which, three decades after the repeal of anti-miscegenation laws forbidding marriages and criminalizing all sexual relations between whites and non-whites, was in 2014 named the “most unequal country in the world”. The fact that interracial couples are today free to wed without legal prosecution or cultural persecution must therefore not be used as an excuse to sweep the history and impact of racist oppression under the rug of “colorblindness.”