Tag Archives: structural racism

The myth of free speech in the Western world

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo cartoonists this week were atrocious and unfair. There is never any justification for the cruel massacre of 17 people and the terrorizing of a whole city for three days. But I am not Charlie and I feel very uncomfortable with the global endorsement of that hashtag. Although it has been pointed out to me that the hashtag is just a show of solidarity for the victims, I am extremely uncomfortable in supporting free speech that makes fun of Boko Haram sex slaves – sexually abused children – to make a (racist) point about welfare.

In a breath of fresh air, the leaking of internal Al Jazeera emails to The National Review revealed that they have privately positioned themselves against the global support of Charlie Hebdo. One of the quotes that most stood out for me was the following by journalist Omar Al Saleh: “Journalism is not a crime [but] insultism is not journalism. And not doing journalism properly is a crime.”

In the fast-paced world of online journalism and Twitter, a condemnation of the attacks and an unquestionable support for free speech was demanded left and right. It has become a matter of “If you’re against Charlie you’re pro terrorism/against free speech,” whereas the question here should really be: “Free speech is great, how do we use it responsibly?”

Even if free speech is an unquestionable right the Western world prides itself in, the right to publish anything you want doesn’t excuse the use of irresponsible, racist, polarizing cartoons. You are free to make fun of Boko Haram sexual slaves but the question is – should you? (Hint: No.) David Brooks of the New York Times puts it well:

“(…) Whatever you might have put on your Facebook page yesterday, it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.

“We might have started out that way. When you are 13, it seems daring and provocative to “épater la bourgeoisie,” to stick a finger in the eye of authority, to ridicule other people’s religious beliefs.

“But after a while that seems puerile. Most of us move toward more complicated views of reality and more forgiving views of others. (…) Most of us do try to show a modicum of respect for people of different creeds and faiths. We do try to open conversations with listening rather than insult.” – David Brooks, I Am Not Charlie, The New York Times

The thing about freedom of speech is that it does not exist in a vacuum where it has no impact, especially if you are a journalist exercising your right in a major publication. Once your words appear in a magazine or newspaper, those words matter and they will influence the people who read them. You may tell yourself that people will decide for themselves to be racist and that you had nothing to do with it – but if you publish a racist sentiment you are validating thousands of racists who already feel that way and you might influence people who don’t know much about the subject.

Some people have claimed that Charlie Hebdo’s racist cartoons have spurred on debate about Islam. And here, I ask: who was part of this debate? Was Islam presented accurately by white cartoonists who probably don`t have any Muslim friends? Through the medium of the depiction of the prophet with a star on his ass, was Islam represented fairly or was it vilified? What use is a debate where only one side is heard – the side of the voyeurs?

Free speech is not about petulantly publishing offensive content that adds nothing to difficult conversations we should be having about religion, race and oppression. And neither is it “brave,” like many have claimed – it is actually pretty cowardly to incite Islamophobia in a country where Muslims are increasingly discriminated against. It is ignorant and reeks of white privilege.

Religions are not beyond reproach but the Charlie cartoons were very racialized and polarizing – they othered a group of people. Extremism can and should be questioned but not to the expense of generalizing an entire group.

The Myth of Free Speech

Much has been said about how free speech is under attack in the Western World because of this attack. Frankly, this is extremely hypocritical when, as a woman online, I see the silencing of people of colour and women every single day.

It can be through extreme harassment in orchestrated attacks or just a woman being pushed out of a forum because of gendered slurs aimed at her. It can be through the prominence of racist cartoons over the voices of real Muslims where Islam is concerned: and the erasure of these voices and the lack of positive representation of Muslim characters in the media can result in violent Islamophobia and othering. I have heard of female journalists being told their content was “too women centred” or too “politically correct” for the broader media. As the brilliant Sunny Hundal puts it:

“(…)Let’s also stand up for free speech when Muslims are being threatened. Some of the voices I hear piping up about free speech only do so when Muslims are the perpetrators not victims.

“That isn’t just inconsistent, it also makes me think you don’t really care for the principles at stake. And that also makes it much harder for all of us to convince Muslims about why they should embrace more free speech and the right to insult their religion.” – Sunny Hundal, Why do liberals find it so hard to persuade Muslims about free speech?, Liberal Conspiracy

It must be pointed out that in France, the use of the hijab is forbidden. In 2012 several Muslim institutions sued Charlie Hebdo for their racist content but the case was dismissed. To me, this is a clear double standard: racist cartoons inciting hate? Okay. Embracing Islam as a religion publicly? Not okay. This is only one instance in which free speech is exposed as a myth, or rather a selective right: it is only available to the powerful majority.

We are kidding ourselves if we idealize journalism as some kind of noble profession when a lot of the content is produced for profit. Of course, the fact that it is for profit does not mean it cannot be used for good and for the public interest but your commitment to free speech is extremely polarized if you think everyone has the same footing when joining in the conversation.

Journalists, I am sceptical about your commitment to free speech if you are not seeking diverse voices to include in your work. Editors, I am sceptical about your commitment to free speech if you are not striving for a more diverse pool of writers. I am sceptical about the commitment of most of the press when their opinion sections look like this:

The Times, June 2014.
The Times, June 2014.
The Times, January 2015
The Times, January 2015
Question Time panel after the attacks in Paris.

Go ahead and say “But I am pro-diversity!” but this is not about you or your opinions. This is about systemic violence that silences women and people of colour across the Western world and the fact that people aren’t outraged about that. I am not Charlie Hebdo because I believe a diverse set of voices – not polarizing racist cartoons – will set us free.

UPDATE: Adding this helpful read about the two-layered type of humor Charlie Hebdo is all about – as well as an explanation of how it is also exploitative and racist.

My thoughts are with the friends and family of the victims of the massacre and the Muslims who will undoubtedly suffer Islamophobia as a result of these attacks.

The Brazilian media, Representation and ‘bullying’ of foreigners

Last week, the Brazilian Human Rights Commission approved a request by Congressman Marcos Rogério to remove a Guaraná commercial featuring Neymar that allegedly ‘promotes bullying against foreigners in Brazil’. Watch the video above.

In the commercial, foreigners ask Neymar how to order Guaraná, a Brazilian soda made from an Amazonian fruit. Neymar then writes the translation on a piece of paper. But he doesn’t write what they asked him – he writes common Brazilian sayings that make zero sense in the context of ordering a drink. And so the ‘gringos’ go off to Rio and embarrass themselves by saying things like “I am a dog sucking on a mango, please” (which is a phrase that means ‘ugly’).

Maybe it is a little bit offensive, but if someone is travelling to a place where they don’t know the language they should expect some confusion and ridicule. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being lost in translation – no one expects someone to speak all the languages. And if you are hung up on going places where the language is unknown to you… well, just stay at home.

In any case, the complaint was not made by any gringo (that I know of) but by Brazilian congressmen who are responsible for human rights in this country (it’s important to note that the former president of this human rights commission was largely homophobic, racist and sexist). From this I can only assume they a) have nothing better to do and b) have no idea what human rights actually are.

It’s very difficult to agree that this little prank qualifies as bullying and that this commercial somehow, as the request document put it, ‘violates the values of human dignity’ when so much of the media representation in Brazil is incredibly harmful to its own population.

For example, black women are notably either portrayed in soap operas as maids or sexual objects. The first ‘gay kiss’ on national television was aired a few months ago but comedy shows still largely rely on homophobia to make jokes. Women in general are told they are token prizes in commercials, or are regularly asked by yogurt adverts whether they are thin enough for summer.

If the issue really is ‘human dignity’ and not ‘don’t bully the gringos, they’re bringing us cash’, then why is the image of the Brazilian woman, for example, so warped? A study published by Avon in 2013 shows how women in particular have their ‘human dignity’ violated by the Brazilian media: half of Brazilian men think women are responsible for the house and 89% of them find it inadmissible when women do not keep the house clean. Around 50% of Brazilian men also think women don’t feel the need for sex and 69% of them will not allow their wives to go out without them.

Judging by the commission’s complaint against the Guaraná commercial, we can assume that these congressmen know the importance of media representation. And yet, the Brazilian media is sexist, misogynist, transphobic, racist and does not correctly portray our people – in fact they are regularly oppressed by it.

Slavery is constantly erased, and made into a joke – despite the ugly fact that Brazil was the last country in the world to abolish slavery, after bringing 3 million Africans to the country. Women are belittled and represented as sex objects. The history of native people is also constantly made fun of and the genocide of native peoples is erased by the mainstream colonialist rhetoric.

And this pathetic complaint, that uses ‘human dignity’ as an argument, is coming from a human rights commission that spent the larger part of 2013 trying to pass a bill of law called ‘Gay Cure’ that would allow doctors to treat homosexuality as a psychological disease.

When the population’s ‘human dignity’ is violated every day by harmful stereotypes and oppressive representation, it is really hard to care about Neymar laughing at a few tourists who are fortunate enough to be able to travel to Brazil to (presumably) watch the World Cup.

Mark Duggan’s death is a result of racism

The verdict of Mark Duggan’s inquest has raised some very important questions about police, order and racism in the UK. Many people were quick to deny that race had anything to do with ‘lawfully’ shooting down a young black man and others have adamantly affirmed that Duggan posed an obvious threat to the policeman who shot him, even though the gun, that was said to be in his hand since the beginning of the case’s press coverage, was actually twenty feet away from him.

It is hard to believe the police is held accountable in the UK when there have been no convicted officers for deaths in custody since 1969. Cases where families have to take up the cause of their own justice against the police are common in the UK (see Hillsborough disaster cover-up) – unfortunately that is unsurprising considering that 827 people have died in police custody since 2004, without a single conviction.

Does this mean that the police’s actions were irreprehensible 827 times? Or do we have to examine corruption and cover-ups that the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) has so far failed to acknowledge or investigate?

If you are unfamiliar with the IPCC and how it works, here is a summary:  the IPCC is an organization separate from the police that is in charge of policing the police. They investigate complaints that are made by civilians and must be automatically called in when someone dies in custody. They express in their website that they are not part of the police: “[The IPCC] is independent, making its decisions entirely independently of the police and government. It is not part of the police”.

A What Do They Know investigation has revealed that in 2012, 42% of IPCC staff and 88% of its senior investigators were ex-police. Perhaps this is understandable in terms of abilities and requirements for the job, but it raises question as to how independent and unbiased the IPCC actually is. In the eight years the IPCC has existed, there have been many complaints about the competency of the commission itself: they are known to have conveyed with the police to compose press releases (when they should be investigating suspicious deaths), taking hours to get to the crime scene and hiding essential evidence (again, see Hillsborough disaster). The IPCC is more often than not doing damage control when the police makes a mistake than actually investigating the misconducts.

In fact, the IPCC helped the police draw up the press release on Duggan’s case.

“The IPCC was also partially responsible for creating the false public perception that Duggan had shot at police first. (…)The mass media swallowed the shoot-out story, and the tabloids proceeded to portray Duggan as a gangster and a drug dealer, as if its job was to make the killing acceptable to the public.“ – Deaths in British police custody: no convicted officers since 1969, by Koos Couvée, opendemocracy.net

But all of this only scratches the surface of Mark Duggan’s case in particular. The incompetency and corruption within the IPCC and the police force are not the only issue to be discussed: it is essential to point out that Duggan’s death, the following media demonization of his character and the verdict are a result of racism.

Benefit of the doubt

The verdict of a ‘lawful killing’ stems from the conclusion that the police felt Duggan was a threat and that he was reaching for a gun. However there is enough evidence to indicate that he was not holding the gun when he was shot dead.

Mark Prodger from the BBC reports:

“As soon as Mr Duggan was shot by police the gun apparently disappeared. One officer at the scene said that even as he fell to the ground, and the officer grabbed his arms, the gun was nowhere to be seen.

“Nobody said they saw him throw it, either before or after. Officers said they later found the gun, wrapped in a black sock, some 20ft (6m) away on the other side of some railings.” – Mark Duggan inquest: Why killing was deemed lawful, by Mark Prodger, BBC.

Despite the fact that Duggan was unarmed, the policeman still felt his life was threatened. And if we are talking in legal terms, we can consider Lord Griffith’s statement in Beckford v R: “A man about to be attacked does not have to wait for his assailant to strike the first blow or fire the first shot; circumstances may justify a pre-emptive strike.”

It could be that the police have lied: according to Witness B’s statement Duggan was raising his arms in a show of surrender when he was shot and he was not holding a gun. They also described the killing as an ‘execution’. Or it could be that in a split second, the policeman really did feel threatened by a black youth who is part of a group of people who have been historically vilified by the media and the police themselves.

In both scenarios, one of merciless execution and the other of racial profiling, race comes into question. Lord Griffith’s earlier statement implies that the benefit of the doubt must be given to the shooter (apparently, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary), but it begs the question – why wasn’t Duggan given the benefit of the doubt?

The marginalized don’t get the benefit of the doubt

Mark Duggan was immediately painted as a low-life criminal by the media. The implication of this portrait was that since he was a ‘gangster’ person of colour in possession of a gun he deserved to die. A photo of Duggan making a gun shape with his hand was widely circulated, purely for shock-value.

The word gangster was thrown around mercilessly and it was instantly obvious that Duggan would never get the benefit of the doubt. To the media he looked like a criminal so he was a criminal. Duggan had two minor offences on his record (none of them violent): cannabis possession and receiving stolen goods – hardly the portfolio of a dangerous criminal.

Stafford Scott, consultant on racial equality and community engagement, writes for the Guardian:

“The headlines declared him a gangster who was on a mission to avenge the killing of his cousin, Kelvin Easton. However, during the inquest no evidence was offered in support of this claim. It was further alleged that he was a large-scale drugs dealer, but yet again not a shred of evidence was provided to substantiate these allegations. But that did not matter, the mud had been slung and it clearly stuck as it was designed to. Even now most people still do not realise that he was only ever convicted for two relatively minor offences – one count of cannabis possession, and one count of receiving stolen goods.” – This perverse Mark Duggan verdict will ruin our relations with the police, Stafford Scott, The Guardian.

Mark Duggan was not a dangerous criminal and there is evidence to support the claim that he was not holding a gun. He was not given a chance to surrender.

But he was a criminal!

He might not have been a large-scale drug dealer, and – fine! – he only had minor offences, but he illegally bought a gun! So he was a criminal and he deserved to die for getting in trouble in the first place.

Believe it or not, this has been a common argument I’ve had hurled at me on social media when I tweeted my outrage when the verdict came out.

Duggan was a 29-year-old man who bought a gun. This is illegal and it was a bad, bad life choice. But this does not strip him of his humanity. It does not strip him of his right to live, or his right to a fair trial. It does not strip him from the right to a chance to be rehabilitated.

In the UK, possession of a gun is taken very seriously so Duggan would have problems with the law if and when he was caught carrying one. That was, presumably, something Duggan knew. But he didn’t know he was going to be executed – but perhaps, considering the structurally racist world we live in, he should have guessed.

Minorities are still the biggest suspects

Racism is alive and well. Home secretary Theresa May’s public consultation on the police powers in England and Wales revealed that people who are black or of minority ethnic background are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.

This whole case reminds me of one particular passage of Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, where a Wall Street man named Sherman and his mistress run over a young black man in the Bronx when they made the snap assumption that the youth and another black man were going to mug them. Sherman’s internal monologue fleets between racism and the idea that these men are just trying to help him – which they were. This book was written almost thirty years ago – and yet, here we are.

Racial profiling still exists. Snap assumptions based on race happen all the time. Trayvon Martin and Mark Duggan are only two examples of it.

You still fail to see how this is a race issue

It could have happened if Duggan had been white, right? No, I don’t think so. Black youth has been vilified and demonized for decades if not centuries – it’s the Scary Black Men stereotype (although black women are also feared). It is the belief that a black male is more likely to attack you because of their race – and in a split second decision this particular manifestation of racism can result in the death of a 29-year-old unarmed man.

This is what happened in George Zimmerman’s trial, where his victim, Trayvon Martin, was painted as a Scary Black Man by the defence team.

“In pre-trial motions the defence showed pictures of Martin taken from his cell phone of him with gold teeth and giving the camera the middle finger; and also pictures of marijuana plants, guns and even a video of homeless men fighting over a bike. Attorneys alleged he participated in organized fighting and noted his school suspension, evidence it seems to imply the life of a troubled teen. All of a sudden language about an “aspiring street tough,” and “would-be thug” surrounded Martin.” – George Zimmerman trial: Trayvon Martin portrayed as ‘scary black man’, Reniqua Allen, The Guardian.

The same thing was done to Mark Duggan: the IPCC purposefully led the media and the public to believe Duggan had shot first (see admission of lie here) and insisted he was a dangerous, known criminal, when he only had two strikes on his police record.

In 2012, the NYPD disclosed that 96% of shooting victims in New York City are black or latino. You might think that New York is too far away from the UK, but London has scary figures too: from April 2004 to the end of March 2008 65% of youth murder victims were black African or black Caribbean and 12% were white European.

When I was researching to write this post, I came across a blog on BlackYouthProject.com that illustrates the result of the Scary Black Man stereotype.

Edward writes:

“Am I really that scary? I’m only 5’9’’ 180 pounds.  This is what I asked myself when a girl ran away from me as I walked down Ellis Avenue two weeks ago. Initially I was flabbergasted by her reaction. Did I look like a criminal? I had on an under armour shirt and some old basketball shorts because I had just left the gym. Was I doing anything out of the ordinary? No, I was just walking with a tote bag in my hand. From my vantage (sic) point I looked like an unassuming University of Chicago student tired from a long day of lectures and treadmills. She started walking briskly after she looked back and saw me behind her around the Midway. By the time I got to 59th and Ellis, she was in front of the Burton Judson Dormitory frantically searching for something in her purse.  Maybe it was a key or maybe it was mace.” – Scary Black Men, by Edward, BlackYouthProject.org

Imagine if the mace was a gun and the girl decided she was in imminent danger. Another black young man would be lost because of racism.

I am not black so I cannot speak for black people – nor am I trying to do so with this post. After being met with consistent racism and denial of racism on social networks regarding Duggan, I felt this case deserved an analysis. After reading the documents, researching the police, the IPCC and other similar cases, my conclusion is that Mark Duggan was killed because of racism. While the IPCC and the police need to be held accountable for their constant racism and frequent cover-ups, the whole of the UK has to admit that structural racism is very much still part of British life – and working on fixing that is the next step.