Charlie Hebdo, the attack on the NAACP, and racism

There have been a lot of accusations of racism thrown around in regards to the work of Charlie Hebdo and the media coverage (or lack thereof) around the domestic terrorist incident at the NAACP in Colorado and I want to tease out some of these ideas that I’ve seen.

1. Accusation: Media coverage of Charlie Hebdo and not the NAACP is racist

The idea here is that the media covered Charlie Hebdo because the villains were people of color and the dead were white, while the NAACP is an organization for people of color that was attacked by a white person.  The media thinks people are more likely to respond to narratives where the heroes are white, even if they are French.

I think this accusation is wrongheaded for a number of reasons.

1. No one died in the NAACP attack, 12 people died in France.

2. One of the more compelling stories to come out of France is the story of the Muslim police officer who was killed defending Charlie Hebdo against the terrorists.

3. The villains are organized and have been established villains in popular imagination.

4. Most importantly, the victims are other members of the media.  It cannot be overstated how much the media latches onto stories of the media being victimized.  This bias in the media is the most mundane one, and one that rarely gets talked about over the left vs right bias.

2. Accusation: The media not covering and being slow to cover the NAACP domestic terrorism is racist

When you separate it from the comparison to Charlie Hebdo and just note that the media has been a bit reluctant to pick up the story, then yeah, I think this is a reasonable complaint.  This is a big deal and should be big news.  It does seem to be picking up a bit now.

3. Accusation: Charlie Hebdo made racist cartoons

Ehhh, this is complicated.  Of course it is, isn’t everything?  A lot of the commentary around these cartoons has been, in my opinion, very shallow, both in the accusations of racism and the defense from racism.  I think everyone is, of course, welcome to their opinion, this is not a personal criticism of any individual.

Political cartoons are almost always kind of racist the moment you put people of color in them.  Not putting any people of color people in them would also be pretty racist.  This is because caricature relies heavily on stereotype to get messages across quickly — all communication does, but political cartoons do even more extremely.  Now, show a bunch of edgy political cartoons to people who don’t understand the language on the cartoons or the culture that produced the cartoons and ask them how racist those cartoons are?  Yeah, they’re going to think they’re really racist.  None of that, by the way, relieves cartoonists of the responsibility to make not racist cartoons.  That said, many of the cartoons that are being called out as racist are making points against oppression of minorities or oppression within minority culture or referring to specific racist behavior of politicians or other figures.  That doesn’t make them entirely not racist, but it also makes them complicated.  They also come in the context of Charlie Hebdo being equal opportunity offenders.

However, Charlie Hebdo’s many layered context comes in the further context of France being a really awful place to live if you’re Muslim.  It’s an incredibly racist and xenophobic society.  What does that all mean?  Not any one thing, except that if you are going to read criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s interaction with race, make sure it is nuanced and culturally specific and not just, “Look at this racist cartoon.”  And just because a cartoon is racist or has racist elements, that doesn’t mean the publication or the people behind the publication were “racists.”  Finally, I personally am really hesitant to take seriously any criticism of these cartoons unless it comes from someone who is a fluent French speaker and follows French politics closely, criticism from anyone else veers perilously close to cultural imperialism for lacking enough context unless they’ve done an immense amount of research.

4. Accusation: Calling Charlie Hebdo cartoons racist means you don’t support free speech

No. Nope.  Incorrect.  There are a small group of people who think that the cartoons are hate speech and shouldn’t be allowed to be published, but the vast majority of people who think that the cartoons are grotesquely racist have valid reasons for doing so and are making points about complicated histories and relationships between people and media.  They are worth listening to even if you ultimately disagree with their conclusions.  And people thinking that speech is terrible doesn’t mean they want to regulate it away.  I think the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church should be allowed to say things.  I also think they are horrible.  These two things reflect totally different values that I hold independently in the same head.

5. Accusation: You can’t be racist against Muslims

Usually accompanied with “Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world.”  To which I say, “Show me one Charlie Hebdo drawing that is of someone from Indonesia.” Islam is not a race, but that really doesn’t matter, because the Western world has a racial idea of what it means to be Muslim.

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Charlie Hebdo, the attack on the NAACP, and racism

10 thoughts on “Charlie Hebdo, the attack on the NAACP, and racism

  1. 2

    @1 hugues

    I would say that ‘incredibly’ is an overstatement. On the other hand, while France doesn’t think of itself as racist and xenophobic and most of the people within it don’t feel hostility towards people of other races and foreigners (on the contrary) there are some problematic tendencies.

    1. French people are typically very happy in their culture and proud of it. There is an almost completely un-self-conscious perception that everybody else should be proud and delighted to be a member and just jump in with gay abandon (largely abandoning all the other cultural bits and pieces they brought with them). There is an enormous tendency to prefer assimilation to integration which can often manifest itself as pressures on individuals in everyday life. But other people don’t want to/can’t abandon all their cultural baggage and you don’t pick up a new culture just like that. You build fusions, eventually.

    2. It’s very hard to be considered fully French by indigenous French people if you’re not indigenous and in fact, it’s hard to be fully French as it’s understood in France. That rather requires being able to point to which French village your great-great-grandma came from and lots of similar things. So second class citizen syndrome is rife and people’s sense of ownership and full participation in the culture gets restricted. It would be possible to build broader views of what it means to be French, but it hasn’t been done yet.

    3. People who basically look like indigenous French people assimilate quite well after the 2nd generation (given the pressures), but people of other races tend to be perceived as foreign very easily, even after several generations because France hasn’t fully re-imagined itself as a multi-racial society yet. Which is racist, however you slice it.

    4. There are fundamental conflicts between indigenous French culture and some incoming cultures. That isn’t xenophobic/racist in itself, it just is, and it’s inevitable that in many cases I think the local culture is ‘right’ – I think it’s right in terms of women’s rights and secularity for example. But the indigenous culture quite unself-consciously abuses its power and privilege in settling these matters. For example, it tends to demonise the problems created by incoming cultures while down-playing the difficulties caused by its own members.

    PS – are you French? I though possibly you were, based on your spelling of hugues. I am dual Franco-British nationality and if it does anything for your national pride, I can say that my experiences in the UK were far more horrifically xenophobic, though the UK does do some aspects of being a multicultural/multiracial society better than France.

  2. 3

    Political cartoons are almost always kind of racist the moment you put people of color in them. Not putting any people of color people in them would also be pretty racist.

    So true. There is definitely an element of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ which it is very, very hard to work around.

  3. 4

    Not that you are in any major way, but please be careful not to underestimate the importance of the NAACP bombing. The attack was poorly planned and executed, the bomb was poorly designed and constructed and didn’t work as desired. If is had it seems likely there could have been people injured or killed and the building destroyed.

    Beware. The attack on the NAACP office is ideologically driven by a long standing and well financed and chronic rhetoric of of racists, white supremacists, and several sub-sects of fundamentalists. The idea of an attack on targets like the NAACP office is deep seated and ever present within these groups. If one fool acted on them it can be counted on that others are thinking about it and, importantly, thinking about how to do it better. The next attack will certainly be better planned and executed. Each iteration will be more workmanlike, and likely more lethal and destructive.

  4. 6

    France xenophobic and racist? What are you talking about. I’m South American and lived for 9 years in France. The people are incredibly welcoming. They have good education and it shows in the way they interact with foreigners. The problem with Muslims comes from the bad inmigration policies after the de-colonization of African and Asian territories. In the 60 and 70s Muslim immigrants were gettoed in isolated communities far from the city centers. These poor communities are the source of most of the crime, and are still today affected by the territorial segregation. So there is a problem indeed, but the reason is not religion or xenophobia, but the result of an auful colonial isolation policy.

  5. 8

    I think part of the perception of racism here is that so often, many of the cartoons that are getting called out were using a ‘generic Muslim’ caricature, rather than one drawn from a specific person–say, a speaker or the head of an organization. It’s kind of like the difference between using an identifiable caricature of Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, Sr, vs. a Sambo-style caricature.

    This made it a real issue when the image was of Muslims who would rightfully be called “victims”–I have yet to see anything resembling a coherent defense, for instance, of the Boko Haram slave-bride/welfare queen cover.

  6. 9

    @freemage My understanding of that cartoon from various sources is that it is saying that even if the people in France who needed welfare were victims in need of as much help as the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram, the right wing would still be painting welfare recipients as Welfare Queen stereotypes getting pregnant intentionally to get benefits from the government. This has a good explanation of how it is still racist and sexist while making that point: http://www.vox.com/2015/1/12/7518349/charlie-hebdo-racist

  7. 10

    Ashley: Thanks for that link–it was well-written, cogent and balanced, unlike a huge portion of the commentary I’ve seen on this subject.

    There is one point is didn’t bring up, and which I feel is valid. I’ve seen a number of CH’s defenders decry the ‘poor taste’ of criticizing the magazine for its willingness to use racist caricatures so soon after the attacks. This always strikes me as ironic to the point of hypocrisy, given the very values that CH was fighting for and the tactics it was using. One would hope that CH’s staff would be among the first to agree that they, themselves, are ‘fair game’ for critics, and that ‘timing’ shouldn’t remove that status.

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