Friday, April 20, 2012

Good Racism, Bad Racism

 Some days are just a treasure trove of fascinating news items.

There's a new Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia that just opened in Michigan. It sounds like it's not for the easily offended, or for anyone who is unable to understand the educational value of displaying artifacts (and not-so-old artifacts like an "Any White Guy 2012" election t-shirt) with cultural significance in the context of racism against African Americans.

I don't know if I'll ever find myself up in that neighborhood but if I do, I plan to visit.

Yikes. Just yikes.
Then, the flip side. There's the photo and news story from Sweden so appalling that it even managed to make me cringe.

It's the story of an Afro-Swedish artist who staged a performance in which Sweden's (probably soon-to-be-former) Minister of Culture, Lena Adelsohn-Liljeroth, is asked to slice a piece of cake shaped as the body of an African woman. And she is asked to slice the vagina. And as she does, the artist, Makonde Linde, whose head and face is painted in blackface and poked through a hole in the table to appear as the head of the African-woman-cake, begins to scream as if in agony. The intent is to portray female genital mutilation. Then the Minister feeds the cake to the artist. And the audience of white, blond Swedes laughs and cheers. Admittedly, the fact that it is a crowd of blonds only makes it that much easier for me to write them off as stunningly idiotic racists.

It's true you can't assume too much about people you don't even know, but the fact that this crowd thought laughing was an appropriate response says a lot about what they know about racism: nearly nothing.

Some have come out in defense of the Minister and the audience, saying they are most likely "kind-hearted, noble-minded people who oppose racism." Yes, they probably think they are. But what does it mean to claim to oppose racism when you have such a poor understanding of it that you laugh and cheer when confronted with it? These are probably the same people that will then vehemently deny being a racist if you suggest they are. At best it's absurd; at worst, it's the worst brand of ignorance. Sweden is an overwhelmingly ethnically homogenous society. It's largest minority are Finns, who make up 5 percent of the population. I frankly doubt many Swedes have ever been challenged by race.

Racism is such a complex and nuanced concept that outrageously overt displays like blackface really don't go very far to show that someone understands what it is. It's far more than disliking someone because their skin is a different color than yours, or they have a different faith. More importantly, these days it's usually far more subtle, allowing people who know nothing about racism to claim they they're not racist just because they've never burned a cross on someone's lawn.

So our kind-hearted, noble-minded anti-racists mean well, but they don't really know what it is they mean well about? I'm profoundly unimpressed.

The end result of the performance, I assume, was to open up discussion about female genital mutilation and race. The story has gone wildly viral around the world but people seem to be talking more about the arguably poor execution of the performance than the bigger issues it meant to highlight.

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