At the time I said - or at least thought - I would throw all the men out of my bookcase. I didn’t. I threw all the white men out of my bookcase. And I decided to lend my voice to a feminist discourse. As I said: “An ode to the female body, in all its intensity, explosivity, ugliness...That was a step in the right direction, but it was not what I really wanted. Because immediately I thought: which female body, De Meyer, which female body? Which female body am I going to perform an ode for? Your body is as normative as fuck. A new acronym would have to be invented for an ode of that sort: DPF. Deeply Pathetic Feminism.
In that flash of clarity, after the white men I threw the white women out of the bookcase. That did leave gaps, but in no time I filled those gaps with the most graphic, moving and revolutionary texts I have read in ages.
I have already talked about Rachida Lamrabet’s Zwijg allochtoon! (Sihut up Immigrant!).
Through her and others I found my way to
- Whites, Jews and Us by Houria Bouteldja
- Critique of Black Reason by Achilles Mbembe
- Olivia Rutazibwa on The End of the White World on Touché (Radio 1)
- White Innocence by Gloria Wekker
- Wit is ook een kleur (White is a colour as well), a film by Sunny Bergman
- Niemand zal hier slapen vannacht (Nobody will sleep here tonight) by Rachida Aziz.
And they led me to Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon and Jean Genet. Radical anti-colonialist and anti-racist writers.
Here in Benin I only have the books of Mbembe and Bouteldja and the interview with Rutazibwa, so for the moment I’ll focus on them.
Critique of Black Reason is about race. It states that basically there is no such thing as race or races. Race is a concept that was introduced and developed in the eighteenth century, the century of the Enlightenment. The idea of race stemmed from developments in science, ethnography, encyclopaedias, global mobility, etc.
That concept of race consisted of two interrelated notions. On the one hand, the idea that you can divide mankind – and also the animal kingdom – into species and subspecies and, on the other, the idea that there is a natural difference in quality between the species, that certain races are naturally biologically, intellectually and morally superior.
This dual vision of ‘race’ is one of the structuring principles of Enlightenment thinking.
Race is ‘the glowing core’ around which new views on politics, the law, warfare, citizenship, the economy, ethnography, identity, etc. developed.
Race generates subdivisions the world over, ‘cracks, splits and borders’. It creates an inside and an outside sphere. An inside sphere where the values of the Enlightenment prevail – democracy, equality, freedom and solidarity. And on the other side of the split, the outside sphere, areas where those values are not applied. Areas where warfare goes unchecked. Territories where there is no taboo of sacrilege because nothing is sacred and nothing can make an a priori claim to protection.
Borders between peoples too. Peoples made up of individuals who are endowed with enlightened reason, with a degree of socio-political power, with a mental and emotional inner world. People. And, on the other hand, peoples who can make no claim to this identity. Peoples without that inner world, who are defined by an empty existence. Figures submerged in semi-darkness, who cannot free themselves of the animal in them, are trapped in primitive wars and idolatry. Figures who always carry inside them something that is dead, something that makes them part of the human race.
The word ‘Negro’ was invented along with the modern-day usage of the word ‘individual’.
To draw a border between what is human and what is not.
“The Negro is the quintessential designation of the slave, the human metal, the commodity, the human mint.”
The Negro has no inner world. He is purely body. He is the supply of labour taken by the trans-Atlantic slave trade to plantations in the United States of America, where he yielded untold profits.
That plantation system then became a vital link in Europe’s Industrial Revolution and in the construction of modern capitalism.
In other words:
the intellectual and technical developments of the Industrial Revolution, growing prosperity, the sociological, political and cultural developments which stem from the growing prosperity; none of these achievements can be seen in isolation from large-scale colonialism, plundering, deportation and exploitation.
All that would have been impossible without the labour contribution, which was extracted for free using the most horrific methods, of millions of individuals reduced by Enlightenment thinking to the identity of ‘Negro’.
Mbembe shows how the word ‘Nègre’ doesn’t relate to a reality, but to a web of delusions and fantasies. This is what he writes about the fabrication of those delusions:
“When it came to depicting distant worlds, the European discourse often took refuge in fabrication, both on a scientific and everyday level. The discourse avoided what it laid claim to and maintained a fundamentally fictitious relationship with it, while pretending to disseminate objective knowledge. The object and the place where this fantasy relationship and fictitious economy manifested themselves in the most brutal, pertinent and explicit way, are in the symbol we call Nègre, and indirectly in what has apparently fallen outside the world and is referred to as Africa.”
Negro and Africa are symbols which don’t refer to a factual reality, and don’t need to either. “I know this continent, without ever having set foot in it!” (Tocqueville). The word Negro doesn’t denote a reality, but a film, a membrane of delusions which were made into a web in which people and areas could be wrapped. The content of the words consists largely of fallacies, “figures and images fabricated above a void”. The purpose of those fallacies is exclusion, to create areas and peoples from which we are separated by a difference that cannot be bridged. Areas peopled by pre-human figures who are so different that a human-to-human relationship is impossible.
“For the modern consciousness ‘Africa’ is the name given to societies regarded as incapable, not able to procure universality or to attest to its existence. Societies ruled by potentates and riddled to the core with superstition. Africa stands for a blind force, an undifferentiated mass, locked in a time that is pre-ethical or pre-political. It is difficult for us to feel an affinity with it. Their lives and ours bear little if any resemblance. They and we have no common world, which means that the Africa politics of our own world cannot be like-for-like politics, but only politics of difference: the politics of the Good Samaritan, politics inspired by a sense of guilt, resentment or compassion but never a sense of justice or responsibility. The word ‘Africa’ stands for the fundamental denial of both words: justice and responsibility.”
So not only does Mbembe approach Africa and ‘les Nègres’ as words which refer to a specific continent and its inhabitants, but he also views them as a body of fantasies which justify exclusion and exploitation. So he also speaks of a modern-day Negronization, an Africanization of other parts of the world, giving rise to more rather than fewer ‘Negros’ – who are not necessarily black, but are excluded economically and socially on racial grounds. The idea persists that there are human species, and that one sort is superior and the other inferior.
“Take Europe, which has become a fort Europe, take the anti-immigration laws the old continent has armed itself with. They are developments rooted in a – well-disguised - ideology of the selection of human species.”
Olivia Rutazibwa had this to say about it on Touché:
“The debate about racism should not be about who is guilty, or who should feel good or bad about it. It is about the racist attitudes which make unequal trade agreements, colonization and slavery possible. You cannot transport millions of people from one continent to another and have them work for you as serfs, if you don’t think about those people in a certain way.
Even if you are a good person, to do that you must feel that they are inferior to us.
The refugee crisis, thousands of people dying at Europe’s front door, while we quietly go about our business.
I don’t say it because we should all feel bad.
However, how is it that we are told some things as if they are extremely important, while other things are simply passed over?
Things of which we may say in thirty years’ time: how did we allow this to happen?
We do say that there are humanitarian organizations and there is intervention but, when push comes to shove, some human lives are worth more than others.
And as long as we don’t knock that on the head, we cannot speak of moral superiority.”
Mbembe writes that as long as we fail to take the above into account, the criticism of modernity is not complete.
The history of Western modernity is currently a very selective story in which the link between the Industrial Revolution and slavery (among other things) are rarely if ever explicitly made.
It is a history of rationality, technological developments, the establishment of democracy, the suppression of superstition and irrational religiosity.
A history of innocence and moral ascendancy. That selective historiography has helped sustain the Western sense of superiority which emerged during the Enlightenment.
That white sense of superiority is the principal theme of Whites, Jews and Us.
We, white Westerners, shamelessly make ourselves the centre of the world.
The white world is ‘the centre, the absolute, the universal’.
We say that Columbus set sail from the West and then discovered America.
“As if there was nothing there, as if those areas and the people only started to exist when we clapped eyes on them.”(Rutazibwa on Radio Touché)
History books call wars staged in Europe ‘world wars’.
The tone of Boutledja’s essay is very different from Mbembe’s. She takes the sledgehammer approach.
In the second chapter she addresses us direct: ‘You, White People’.
She writes: stop presenting Hitler and the Holocaust as the great anomaly in European history. As the big mistake in a history otherwise bathed in white innocence.
“Before mass crimes were tested in Europe, they were first tested in the Americas, in Africa, in Asia. To dehumanize a race, to destroy it, to make it disappear from the surface of the earth. If the techniques of mass massacre revealed all their efficiency in the concentration camps, it is because they had been tested on us, and thus made all the more efficient. Hitler was nothing if not a good student. He, ireserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algerindeed, as Césaire wrote, “applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been a, the coolies of India and the blacks of Africa”.
In the chapter ‘We, Indigenous Women’, Bouteldja talks about feminism.
The Western sense of superiority is reflected in the way we consider all our political, social and cultural structures to be universal, and so applicable to the whole of the rest of the world.
We regard feminism and the emancipation of women as a universal subject, as a necessary step every society has to take if it is to achieve greater equality and justice.
Bouteldja makes the following point: the European experience of the emancipation of women is not universal. The process unfolded in a specific historical, socio-political and economic context.
The power of imperialism imposes feminism on societies with a history all of their own, on societies with totally different economic and political systems, which (among other things) define and shape the relationship between men and women. The feminist struggle for emancipation was imposed on, for example, matriarchal societies and on societies which classify gender in totally different ways, societies where the difference between male and female gender is not even recognized.
“In fact, before the great colonial night, there was an extreme diversity of human relations that I do not want to romanticize, but that we cannot ignore. As Paola Bacchetta reminds us: ‘The colonizers did not only impose their own notions of gender and sexuality onto colonized subjects: the effect of this imposition has been to worsen the situation of women and sexual minorities’.”
Today the latter is apparent in the institutionalized aggression used to unveil Muslim women in the West. As if women who wear a headdress or niqab are by definition oppressed and in need of liberation. As if they are by definition creatures who cannot think for themselves.
“As if they cannot have a million good reasons for wearing a headdress. Reasons you can agree or disagree with, but then if you have the institutional power and say ‘I am going to free you from it here with the hand of the law’, yes, I have great difficulty with that.” (Rutazibwa on Touché)
The disdain with which we uphold our Enlightenment Values about barbarian Muslim men and their oppressed, veiled women, or about the poor Negros in Africa, or the Asians who only exist in large groups and have no enlightened sense of individuality.
And that while we barely know the half of the history of those values, we do not systematically recognize the dark side of that history.
It is so arrogant, so disrespectful and so unjust.
It is so unjust, it calls for revenge.
As Aimé Césaire writes (Mbembe quotes him as a motto of his book): “... these heads of men, these collections of ears, these burned houses, these Gothic invasions, this steaming blood, these cities which evaporate at the edge of the sword, are not so easily disposed of.”
You cannot fail to react with an instinctive desire to contribute something, anything, to the healing of this crookedness of life. Even as a white Westerner, despite the guilt, despite the shame - indeed because of the guilt and shame – because you are a human being and this is about systematic injustice towards other people.
As Boutledja writes about Jean Genet: “He succeeded in being a radical friend to the two great historical victims of the white order: the Jews and the colonized. There is no trace of philanthropy in him, either in favor of the Jews, the Black Panthers, or the Palestinians. Rather, there is a deaf anger against the injustice that was done to them by his own race”.
In the last chapter ‘Allahou Akbar!’ (Allah is the Greatest) Bouteldja writes about religion and spirituality, a recurrent theme with Mbembe and Rutazibwa too. She describes how the French Revolution proudly brought to an end all forms of transcendence and equated atheism with intelligence. “Therefore when a white Frenchman crosses paths with a Muslim Frenchman, he does not encounter a friend or an enemy but rather an enigma. Who is this human who persists in prostrating himself five times a day in degrading positions? Who is this foolish creature to whom we have delivered Enlightenment on a silver platter, and who persists in turning toward Mecca, like a sunflower that only the sun can subjugate?”
Boutledja describes how Western modernity has proudly rid the world of its enchantment. An end has come to the Grand Narratives and ‘emancipatory projects’. But the West now seems to be in a state of dehydration and parch, of growing individualization and climatological disruption. “More than a crisis of perspective, we are witnessing a moral collapse, a crisis of meaning, a crisis of civilization that is conflated with a crisis of Western conscience. And more and more this crisis looks like suicide”. A society collapsing under its own world view. A world view that invariably places the individual above metaphysics, history above any vision of eternity, human beings above nature, reason above intuition, masculine above feminine. What Bouteldja calls for is a ‘re-enchantment of the world’.
“Beauty, poetry, spirituality - this is what is most cruelly lacking in our modern, dry societies.”
Spirituality and religiosity in what sense? In the sense that as an individual you firmly believe that you are part of a greater whole. Whether that greater whole is society or nature. And you believe that damage to one part means damage to the whole, and so damage to all parts.
Spirituality or religiosity in the sense of recognizing that everything is connected to everything else, as in an endless network of threads, and then the humility, care and solidarity which naturally stem from them.
‘‘‘Solidarity’ and not ‘tolerance’ or ‘humanitarian intervention’ or all those other bloodcurdling, terrifying words.”
Mbembe speaks about the recognition of the Other as the one in whom difference and similarity converge.
As the title of his epilogue says: There is only one world. There is only one world and everyone has an equal right to it. He talks about Mandela who, after endless peregrinations, hardship and dark exile, asks the simple question: how can we live free from race and racial domination? How can we reflect on “a world project that is truly universal, a world purged of the burden of race and consequently without the resentment and desire for revenge that all racism inspires.”
Bouteldja speaks about the Great Replacement: “Human rather than white. Human rather than black”.
“This is where the question of the great We will be raised. The We of our encounter, the We of the surpassing of race and its abolition, the We of a new political identity that we will have to invent together (...) The We of the diversity of our beliefs and our identities, the We of their complementarity and their irreducibility. The We of this peace we will have earned because of the high price it cost us. The We of a politics of love, which will never be a politics of the heart. For to produce this love, there is no need to love or feel sorry for oneself. One will have only to recognize the other and embody the moment of ‘right before hatred’, to push it back as much as possible and, with the energy of despair, to dispel the worse. This will be the We of revolutionary love”.
I want to react to these sources in two ways.
I want to make a new production entitled new skin, in which I take a poetic approach to these themes, the images they evoke, my travels in Benin and all my encounters there. That is to say: without yet knowing what form it will take, without imposing on the artistic work the task of also being a political manifesto.
But, a manifesto is needed too. So I also want to set up another, longer-running project: What we whites don’t learn at school.
It would be absolutely fantastic to invite people like Boutledja, Rutazibwa, Lamrabet, Mbembe or authorities on their work and to listen to what they have to say. Or, for example, to invite the women from the BOEH group [Boss of Your Own Head] and to listen to the hundreds of valid reasons why they wear a headdress. And all the others who care about these subjects and who I don’t know yet. Not yet. Because they are voices we can feed on. We, the whites, who seem to be increasingly afraid, who withdraw and close our borders, it’s these voices that will set us free.
And it so happens that we have the perfect symbolic space to organize these evenings: the former Museum of Merchandise, where goods from the former colonies were put on display.