Reflections on Constructed Identities, Non Humans & White Innocence
“Als je weet, ben je medeplichtig” – If you know, you’re complicit
Is it possible for white folks to finally leave behind a history that will maybe, maybe or embrace a history that might set them free from being white? extract from Glaude, in his response to the racial murders in El Paso, USA.
The elephant in the room
Two days ago, on the 19th of August 2019, I googled the word Non-human and the below description with the image of a dark skinned child appeared on Wikipedia. A day later, after my complaint, it was removed.
Seeds of Hate, Reflections on Constructed Identities, Non-Humans & White innocence is inspired by my encounter with an elderly white woman who during my current artist in residency in Bourbonne-les-Bains, in France, saw me looking at old historical books at a market and felt compelled to come and tell me that the books were not for free and that I needed money to buy them.
Living with Racism in Europe
As a dark skinned woman living between several countries in Europe, encountering racism is something that has become part and parcel of my daily life. Both as an artist, the director of an institution, when collaborating with other public institutions, in my private life, in fact, in all aspects of my life. After years of living with all the unbearable and painful racist encounters, which for years made me change how I dressed so as to minimise being easily targeted, “speaking right,” working ten times harder, making sure to always be correct, being constantly alert and never complaining about how I truly felt, which in truth, resulted in my extreme unhappiness, it hit me that I had taken upon me a responsibility that was not mine to bear in the first place. I had accepted the position of the non-human and had embraced the fact that it was a norm that white people saw me different and that I needed to change something in me so as to blend in. I had grown up in an environment that was for whites and coloured only and when I came to Europe, my humanity already scared by being non human and not belonging in my own country of birth, was further diminished.
It is due to the above that the take off point of my project is therefore on the one hand, a reflection on the white old woman’s justified and entitled need to “put me in what she felt was my place” and on the other hand, an invitation to begin the dialogue about racism and bring to light the dark under belly plaguing our societies world over. Our current climate is rife with political leaders that proudly cultivate the already fertile fields of “us and them” and in these fields, plant seeds of hatred and societal division. The demonisation of the non white grows in strength and brings to light the urgency to re-examine the unaddressed shared history born out of despicable human injustices that were justified, morally, biologically, theoretically, scientifically and in everything else. These human injustices include among them: The European conquest of the world, Colonisation, Slavery, Lynching, Segregation, Stigmatisation, Apartheid, Genocide and Racism, which is embedded on the institutional, organisational, historical, and systematic level.
The question is, how do we move past constructed identities when one of those identities benefits from the oppression of the rest?
Echos of Racism and human injustice
In the wake of the racist driven murders in El Paso, USA, Glaude speaks about America not being unique in its evils, and goes on to say that, “Americans may be singular in their refusal to acknowledge them—and the legends and myths they tell about their inherent goodness to hide and cover and conceal so they can maintain a kind of wilful ignorance that protects their innocence.”
But the reality is that, America is sadly not singular in refusing to acknowledge its evils, Europe is plagued by the same disease, with their dark past usually described by some Europeans as the little black dot in their history. Putting in mind that Europe is the mother board where it all began, I’m of the view that the evils of America are intertwined with the evils of Europe and at the same time intertwined with the evils of rest of the world. And that its about time to address this ugly part of our shared history whose effects still echo and continue to shape all the corners of the globe whose countries fell victim to Europe’s global conquests and colonial expansion.
Beyond the superficially constructed identities
In rethinking the notion of us and them, in relation to Constructed Identities, Non-Humans & White Innocence, one thing seems to appear…that till now, the constructed race of White people has been left untouched and it seems unaffected by the evils that came to be and continue to happen, as a result of the creation and maintenance of whiteness. Is there a possibility to get rid of whiteness so as to give room to finally encounter the human being beyond the superficially constructed identities?
In Toni Morrison’s words, I quote – “racism has just as much of a deleterious effect on white people and possibly equal as it does to black people. If you can only be tall, because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is, white people, have a very very serious problem and they, should start thinking, about what they, can do about it. Take me out of it.” – End of quote.
In my language we have a saying, Inqamu idla zombili – “the knife ‘cuts’ on both sides” Although we cannot deny that we are all trapped, unable to move past the colour-lines of white people and the rest, in this bowl of the constructed and serviceable, what alludes me is how anyone would be proud of and want to hold on to a constructed identity that continues to break a part of the society down, while at the same time, being plagued by a very ugly history of human injustice. Through this project, I seek to uncover what drives this need to maintain and protect this constructed whiteness and otherness, as well as how we all can move past it.
Glaude, in response to the racial murders in El Paso, speaks of the danger of white innocence, the playing of politics of hatred and that it’s easy for the Americans to place it all on Donald Trump’s shoulders. This too rings true for Europe and right-wing nationalism whose existence in part is due to discontent about globalisation, immigration, a dilution of national identity and the EU itself. And these issues of globalisation, immigration and dilution about national identity are themselves tied to Europe’s unaddressed past. The rise of extreme right in Europe, is a symptom of a dormant plague, whose full awakening is only a matter of time.
Glaude continues to express that it’s easy to place Pittsburgh, El Paso and Charlottesville on Trump’s shoulders.” But he then sharply added, clapping his hands: “This is us!” and that Trump, is a manifestation of the ugliness that’s in us.” So too is the case with Europe.
In his last words, Glaude says, – I quote “either we are going to change, or we are going to do this again and again. And babies are going to have to grow up with out mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, friends, while we are trying to convince white folks to finally leave behind a history that will maybe, maybe, or embrace a history that might set them free from being white. Finally.” end of quote
His last words, where he speaks about the attempt to convince white folks to finally leave behind a history that will maybe, maybe, or embrace a history that might set them free from being white is a statement that does not leave my mind, for it is in this statement, I believe that the unaddressed elephant in the room, the elephant that maintains the ugly, resides.
So, how then do we begin the dialogue that helps us face up the ugliness in us? And what will it take to move past the constructed and serviceable identities. It is my hope that despite the fact that this subject is uncomfortable to speak about, that we can begin a dialogue that moves us forward as one human race.