Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Excuse me, Black like what? Of racist anti-racism

Very often, white people wanting to engage in anti-racism (including myself) unawarely end up perpetuating and reinforcing racism. White supremacist assumptions are so engrained in our world view that we are sometimes completely blind to a Black Consciousness perspective. However, we must recognise that, no matter how good our intentions, exercising anti-racism will necessarily bring to counterproductive results as long as we do not make the effort to actively engage in Critical Whiteness. We cannot possibly be allies in the anti-racist struggle without trying to see things from the perspective of People of Colour.

Once again, I draw my evidence from the very racist world of children’s literature. Don’t take it as a provocation. As a matter of fact, the world of children’s literature is VERY racist.

Pili Mandelbaum’s “Noire comme le café, blanc comme la lune” (published in English with the title “You be me, I’ll be you”) is a highly praised book which is widely recommended to address the topic of difference with young children. Of course, the fact that the book was published by the prestigious École des Loisirs and that it continues to receive enormous praise is very telling of the supremacist whiteness of the book market at all levels.

Let us start from the title: Black like coffee, white like the moon. One should not even need to look further than that to know this book goes in the wrong direction. The book cover, portraying a white man and a little Black girl makes clear who is what. Without wanting to go deep into the implicit hierarchy juxtaposing the ground versus the sky and the physical versus the metaphysical, the association of dark skin with coffee is alarming enough. Along the history of racism, Black skin has been associated with items of consumption and, by extension, Black people themselves and Black women and children in particular. Therefore, no, it is no longer acceptable from white people to refer to chocolate, coffee, cappuccino or alike denominations when describing different shades of Black. Black bodies deserve better than that. Adding to the injury, there is no parallel consumptive comparison for the white man, who is associated with the moon, with all its poetical and metaphysical meanings. Something of the kind “Black like coffee, white like mozzarella cheese” might be more acceptable, as irony would highlight the denigrating character of such comparisons. Nevertheless, such alternative title would not be palatable for a white readership.

While the book is most probably cherished by many progressive whites for its focus on acceptance and self-esteem, its approach cannot genuinely bring forward a notion of racial equity. The main obstacle to equity in this story is that racism is presented as a subjective issue rather than a structural system of oppression. In fact, racism itself is not presented at all. On the contrary, it is completely neglected and obliterated in the name of a most vexingly naive colour-blindness.
This is the story of a little girl who does not find herself pretty. She does not find herself pretty because of the colour of her skin. There is nothing in the story to suggest that the problem comes from outside rather than from herself, that her lack of self-appreciation is a result of structural racism. On the contrary, the issue is trivialised and reduced to skin shade and personal taste rather than racism. Foregrounding the idea that everybody wishes to be different at some point, the comparison with the white woman getting a good tan in the sun is stupid and denigrating. In the assumption of a white reader, the little girl has a race, not her father. Her skin is the problem, rather than the meanings society charges it with. In such a way, the real issue of racism disappears from the picture. However, not addressing racism when it is actually the central issue is a huge hypocrisy that cannot be excused.

Most problematic of all is the strategy the father comes up with in order to convince the little girl that she is indeed pretty. He covers her face with white flour, paints his own in brown, arranges his hair in a parody of locks and has the two of them go out in public to finally meet the Black mother (not surprisingly, she, who is the Black character who should have a say on the matter, is not offered an active voice). Grotesque and frankly offensive pictures accompany this pathetic masquerade which evokes the racist practice of Blackface (if you do not know it, get informed or else drop your anti-racist endeavour). The English title (You be me, I’ll be you), only apparently softer than the original in French, actually focuses on the worst aspect of this book and brings forward the deceptive idea that Black and white identities can be interchangeable and on the same level. Now, this is a no-go.

Dear white people, this is a racist book. If you still don’t see it, please consider interrogating your white fragile self. (Check out Robin DiAngelo’s “white fragility”concept).

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