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“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way” – Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Reflecting on the life and legacy of this great man today. May we all have the courage to dream right and to do right, as he did. Happy MLK Day. #mlkday #martinlutherkingjr #youcankillthedreamerbutyoucantkillthedream
The wonderful instagram community @disruptivewoman – which features dynamic, pioneering women – was kind enough to feature me as one of their interviewees. The question they asked was “what problem in the world do you want to solve?”. What a great question! I had a lot to say on that one. See my answer is below:
I want to see an end of racism. Racism needs to be returned to the trashcan from where it came. I am a staunch anti-racist, and I despise racism as a concept, a phenomenon, a philosophy and a reality.
The need to judge, categorise and assign value to people based on the colour of their skin (which none of us are responsible for, nor can we do anything about) has caused – and continues to cause – untold problems in our world, as has the need to make racially-based determinations about whose culture is superior to another.
Racism is full of so many logical inaccuracies and fallacies that if we really sat down to unpick it intellectually, it would soon be exposed for the nonsense that it is.
Unfortunately, we don’t do that. We don’t unpick why racism is a false, and utterly flawed, ideology. We don’t unpick what makes it illogical and nonsensical. Instead, we talk about racism like it’s an issue solely of opinion or morality, when it really just comes down to an illogical, incorrect and ignorant understanding of humanity and the world.
For example, let’s think about this seriously… Is there a correlation between your eye colour and your behaviour? Or the colour of your hair and your intelligence? So, why should there be a correlation between the colour of someone’s skin and the level of their intelligence? Or their behaviour? Or the value of their humanity?
From the ages of 3 – 11, I went to a great co-ed, multicultural prep school in South East London. In that school, there were children of all ethnic backgrounds, hence kids of a variety of shades of skin. We all played happily together, we were friends (as much as children of a certain age can be friends!) and we studied alongside each other without problems.
My closest friends were English, Scottish, Irish, Ghanian/English, Indian, Japanese, Jamaican, and Nigerian. Some were Hindu, some Christian, some Muslim some of no religion. I grew up knowing that we were all just kids, all unique individuals with different personalities, all coming from families with different cultures and heritages. The differences in our skin tones were just due to where our families hailed from – the closer to the equator your family was, the darker your skin would be. Melanin is function of human biology function, designed to protect us from the sun. It’s that simple.
No child is born racist. Racism is learned, and it is taught. It is man-made. If you put a bunch of babies together and had them interact with each other in a non-racist environment, I am confident that they would not start hating each other on the basis of the colour of their skin.
The good thing is that since racism is created, taught and learned, we can also un-teach it, un-learn it, and create a world without it.
It wasn’t until I was about 12 that I really started to understand that there are people on this earth who think that having darker or lighter skin makes you a better or worse human being, and that that idea literally can be the difference between life and death.
I first went to South Africa in 1996, not long after the end of apartheid and then lived in South Africa in 2006. I have seen the ravages of apartheid, which saw black people subjugated and treated in such despicable and wicked ways on the basis of this mental illness which we call racism.
I went to the Apartheid Museum in Joburg, one of the most compelling and moving museums I’ve ever been to, and saw the long list of laws which had been put in place under apartheid to stop South Africans from participating fully in their own land. I was struck by the undertone of fear, insecurity and a need to dominate which underpinned those laws and that system.
I have also lived in America for a number of years, and similarly have seen the deep, deep damage that racism wreaks on individuals as well as to society as a whole.
I continue to see the stark differences in education, in the application of the law, in life expectancy, in healthcare, in how the police treat African Americans and in professional settings between those that the racist system has deemed worthy and those that it doesn’t.
I will never forget the murder of Stephen Lawrence in the UK, a man who would be 40 years old today if a bunch of racists had not cut his life short – simply because they did not like the way he looked. I remember thinking “wow, he was just on his way to school – something which I do every day – and he was killed because his skin was dark”. And then to see the police totally bungle the case, resulting in a total lack of justice for his murder, simply because THEY also believed that the colour of his skin meant something untoward… I mean, WTF?!
Racism has been used to justify the exploitation of millions of people around the world. It has been used to justify the pillaging of countries (see: the transatlantic slave trade/apartheid/the holocaust/colonialism/imperialism). And it continues to be used as a tool by self-serving people and politicians to justify their fears, insecurities, ill-treatment and bullying of others. That’s on a state and systematic level.
On a micro level, there is still everyday racism. The question is: why should my life, as a black woman, be inconvenienced because other people are unable to police their own imagination, or to challenge their own stereotypes and thinking? Why should I be asked to leave a bar because the waiter does not believe I deserve to be there (something which has actually happened to me?). Why should parents have to cry over children brutally murdered? Why should kids not be entitled to a quality education because they have darker skin? It’s ludicrous and it gets to the point where enough is enough, really.
Economically, racism has enriched much of the western world. The west would not be what it is today without racially-based exploitation. But – I often wonder how much richer the world would be if people were just allowed to fulfil their potential and self-actualize without such interference.
Racism is an evil, and an ill. It is a symptom of a very warped way of thinking, and I hope that we can eliminate not only its fruits, but its very roots as time goes on. Education is part of that. We have to start telling the truth in the world about history in its entirety.
We also have to teach people to ask questions and to think critically about things in front of them. To ask the why’s and the hows’, and not to jump to easy conclusions, nor to seek simple answers to complex issues.
Part of the problem is that, as well as having been legally segregated in some places, people self-segregate, and by doing so, don’t get an opportunity to even get to know people from other ethnic groups on any kind of friendly level. You can’t properly get to know groups of people from the news or from mass media – not when the majority of what the western media writes and shows about other countries, ethnicities and groups is mostly negative. People have to get out of their bubbles, but in a way that’s genuine and comes from a place of humanity. Don’t come to my church in Harlem and gawk at me. Talk to me, on a one-to-one level, as a person.
For people of colour, we have to do what we can. I believe in inspiring one another, and providing positive images, positive role models and stories for collective worth and esteem, and to show what we can and have done. We have done a LOT that we simply don’t get credit for.
We also should forge ahead without waiting for validation or acceptance from those who might not be interested in giving it to us. That’s one of the reason why I started @motherlandsmasterpiece – There is SO much good stuff being done and created by black people all over the world, but where do we go for that kind of news and information?
At the same time, I don’t believe in being ‘colour blind’ per se. My skin IS dark brown. And it’s gorgeous 🙂 I am very proud of my ethnic culture (Nigerian/Yoruba), my racial culture (“black”, “black British”), and I don’t want people not to recognize those things about me nor to pretend that they don’t matter. I just am not interested in negative stereotypes / discrimination/prejudices about those things because there’s just so much more to it than that.
I believe that we are all created with potential, and my fundamental desire for all humans is that we get to enjoy and fulfil our potential without unnecessary restrictions or constraints. Racism is a man-made constraint against the fullness of humanity – and for that reason, it must GO! Aluta continua! 👊🏾
[Originally published in The Atlantic]
The artist’s portraits of neighbors, icons, and strangers show a keen and democratic attention to detail.
DAVID ZWIRNER GALLERY
When, in 1938, Alice Neel decided to relocate from Greenwich Village to Spanish Harlem with José Negrón, a musician and her then-boyfriend, she was making a bold yet potentially career-destroying move. During the early ’30s, Neel had participated in New York’s first open-air exhibitions, held in Washington Square, which had begun to put the city on the map as a hotbed of abstract art—and had befriended artists like Joseph Solman, who would go on to found The Ten, a prominent group of expressionist painters.
In addition to being part of the decade’s zeitgeist as led by downtown artists, Neel’s own star was ascendant: In 1932, the Philadelphia Inquirer had written that her paintings “reveal[ed] the possession of interpretive gifts out of the ordinary,” while at the American Artists’ Congress exhibition in 1936, her work was singled out for recognition in the New York World Telegram. Why then, her peers might have wondered, would an artist who was just beginning to garner critical attention shun the New York art world’s epicenter for a poorer neighborhood that few knew or cared about?
The answer to this question might lie in the retrospective Alice Neel, Uptown, a fascinating exploration of the painter’s symbiotic relationship with Harlem. The show, on view at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City, is curated by the New Yorker critic Hilton Als, who describes Neel’s subjects as “artists, writers, everyday people, thinkers, and upstarts of color”—all of whom she painted over the course of the nearly 50 years she lived and worked uptown, before her death in 1984. The potent yet personable paintings, mostly done in oil, are enduring proof of Neel’s curious, compassionate eye, on and off the canvas. “Whether I’m painting or not, I have this overweening interest in humanity,” she once said. “Even if I’m not working, I’m still analyzing people.”
The burbling, bohemian vibe of Greenwich Village didn’t hold much interest to the Pennsylvania-born Neel (she thought it too “honky-tonk”), and her portraits were at odds with the abstract expressionism that would come to dominate the New York art scene. As the art historian Jeremy Lewison has written, “Neel’s devotion to the realist depiction of the human form in an era of increasing abstraction … confirmed her position as an outsider.” Her indifference to the artistic trends of the time was partly a result of having spenta year (1926-1927) living in Cuba, with her first husband Carlos Enríquez, also a painter. According to Phoebe Hoban, in her book Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, it was while immersed in Havana’s art scene that Neel came to believe that art could be political, revolutionary, and sociological, documenting and capturing everyday people in times of social crisis and cultural change.
There’s no shortage of events to create uproar in America. A couple of weeks ago it was caused by members of the Tea Party who seemed to forget that this is 2010, not 1965, and took to insulting black and gay congressmen while protesting in Washington. This month it has been Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s turn to cause outrage with his declaration that April is Confederate History Month in the state of Virginia.
As a guest on Rev Al Sharpton’s radio show last week, I listened to caller after caller express their view on commemorating confederate history. Unsurprisingly it is a sore point (to put it mildly) for the many African-Americans whose roots lie in the south. It shouldn’t just be a sore point to African-Americans though – the confederacy was a stain on America’s history. It’s truly a wonder that any American would feel comfortable commemorating something which was the source of so much suffering for others and that created a legacy of deeply entrenched inequality that could be said to be at the root of many of the continued issues that America faces today.
In 1861, just weeks after Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas seceded from the union, Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the confederacy delivered a speech which became known as the Cornerstone Speech. In it, he said: “[The] foundations [of the new government] are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Even though McDonnell has now recognised slavery as part of Confederate History Month, the above statement alone should be enough to make him ponder deeply on the merits of commemorating anything from which such assertions came.
States like Virginia only fought so hard for their independence from the union in the civil war because they wished to continue to enslave millions of black people and to maintain the white supremacy that Stephens talked about in the Cornerstorne Speech. Furthermore, not only did confederate states secede from the union in order to protect their interests as slave owners, but their actions were also considered treason and illegal in the eyes of the rest of the union. And all that is the “sacrifice” that is apparently worth commemorating?
A man who called into Rev Sharpton’s show last week said: “What surprises me [about the reinstating of Confederate History Month] is that anyone’s surprised that this is still happening.” His view was that, African-American president or not, in many parts of America there are still people who cling to the notion that America was better in the old days, in the days before black people had the opportunity to do anything, much less become president. It is a shame that these can find allies in people like McDonnell.
While there are clearly progressive, forward-thinking Americans, it has also become clear that there are a number of Americans who are clinging to a very unsavory version of the past. The ugliness that has reared its head from those people since President Obama’s election has also been nothing short of spectacular and nothing short of depressing. It is truly a strange and sorry thing to see.
It is time for all people, Governor McDonnell included, to start looking ahead to the future. The past is gone, and celebrating the olden days in this way is a fruitless exercise which only courts controversy and creates deeper divisions. Politicians who practise divisive tactics like this should not be allowed to remain in office. Society simply has no need for this.
Forget confederate history. It is time for politicians of this kind to be history.
The past year has provided the world with the opportunity to see whether or not the potent symbolism of Barack Obama’s inauguration has translated into reality. This is particularly so today, a federal holiday in the US to mark the birthday of Martin Luther King, on the subject of race relations – a topic so fundamental to America’s history and one unmistakably tied to its present day social, economic and political reality.
According to a recent Pew poll, America’s race relations are in better shape now than they were two years ago. African-Americans are assessing race relations and prospects for the future more positively than at any time in the past 25 years.
Yet others might argue the contrary, that a number of high profile race-related incidents over the past year suggest a lack of progress. Henry Louis Gates, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, tea-party goers, the New York Post and, most recently, Senator Harry Reid are just some of those who have been involved in controversial events which have led to questions, criticism and scrutiny about exactly how much racial progress has been made under Obama’s presidency.
Yet, expectations that President Obama could single-handedly overturn centuries-old individual prejudices and systematic racial issues – particularly in the space of one year – was merely setting him up for failure. There have been enough successful and powerful Americans of colour to suggest that one person’s acheivement will not radically alter the day-to-day lives of the rest. Nor should it be left to one person to bear that responsibility. In fact, by adopting the notion that casting a vote is enough and that all subsequent efforts are to be made by the president and his administration, people are absolved of their own responsibility for creating a society that works well for everyone.
The most important question now, going forward, is how to get to the root of the matter – so that the situations which lead to higher than average unemployment rates for minorities, even when there is no recession, and disparities in healthcare, education, economics and elsewhere no longer exist. It is here that an opportunity for something new lies.
Since President Obama’s inauguration, there have been repeated calls for more talk about race as the key to solving issues and improving race relations. However, if there’s anything the past year has taught us, it is that Americans already talk a great deal about that topic. If talking about race were the only, or best, way to end race-related issues, they would surely have ended a long time ago.
Racism – indeed, any –ism – and race-related issues arise from a fundamental, and often subconscious, belief that people are unequal. When Martin Luther King gave his famous “Dream” speech in 1963, he proclaimed his desire to see an America which would hold “self-evident, that all men are created equal”.
Unfortunately having an African-American president does not mean that all people believe that “all men are created equal.” Indeed, some of the views that have been expressed since the inauguration suggest that there are those who clearly still see the president himself as not being equal.
If President Obama is to really fulfil Dr King’s dream, and to make a real difference in his presidency when it comes to America’s race relations, it will be by having the notion that “all men are created equal” come to life as an integral part of American beliefs, such that all America’s systems – educational, economic and the rest – continue to change to reflect that. Until that happens, it is likely that we will see a continuation of disparities that will limit not only minorities but America as a whole.
When watching the likes of Glenn Beck (or other pundits of his leanings) on Fox News, I’m not just alarmed by the man himself. It takes a big team of people to sustain a daily TV show, so there are producers, writers, researchers and executives who decide there is value in him saying the things that he says. I’m often left wondering who those people are, and how it is that they feel comfortable with trying to pass such divisive and often bizarre ranting off as journalism. It has become clear that the support for Beck’s rhetoric goes much higher than just those involved in his show. In fact, Beck has support all the way from the very top – and it appears that the guy at the top is equally as misguided and ill-informed as he is.
Just this week, Rupert Murdoch, the proprietor of News Corp, which owns the Fox network in the US and so many other news entities around the world, told one of them – Sky News Australia – that Glenn Beck was “right” in his assertion that President Obama hates white people. The announcement that President Obama has a “deep-seated hatred of white people and white culture” is one of Beck’s most inflammatory and eyebrow-raising statements to date. This incendiary pronouncement, which was followed by a number of advertisers withdrawing their ads from Beck’s show, came after President Obama criticized the policeman in the Henry Louis Gates saga for having acted “stupidly” in arresting Gates just outside his own home.
Murdoch’s interview has, unsurprisingly, caused controversy, with civil rights groups like Colorofchange.org now demanding that Murdoch – whose position on whether or not Barack Obama is racist has changed a number of times this week – settles once and for all whether he agrees with Beck.
Murdoch’s words are indeed troubling. But it’s not even necessarily troubling that he believes that Obama is a racist. He is, after all, entitled to his opinion. In any case, Murdoch’s disdain for Obama is no secret: earlier this year he also described president’s policies as “dangerous”. What is most problematic here, however, is that he is the owner of influential news outlets, which are supposed to provide their viewers with facts, information and the truth about what’s happening in the world. This is an issue of journalistic standards and the future of the media.
When the White House denounced Fox News for acting as a “wing of the Republican Party” many conservatives saw this as the president using his power to silence his critics. However, it cannot be coincidental that News Corps’ news outlets – such as Fox News or the New York Post – seem to appear at the centre of racist or sexist controversies, that their pundits engage in race-baiting, or that the man who runs the company has now come out in public support for the views of the organisation’s most alarming pundits.
This isn’t just about media output but the very culture of at the heart of Murdoch’s News Corp. Currently, Sandra Guzman, a Latina who worked as a senior editor for the New York Post, is suing News Corp and the Post. She alleges that she was fired after she objected to a controversial cartoon published in the Post earlier this year, which made a thinly-vielled reference to President Obama as a crazed chimpanzee. She claims that the Post is a “hostile work environment where female employees and employees of colour have been subjected to pervasive and systemic discrimination and/or unlawful harassment based on their gender, race, colour and/or national origin.” While conspiracy theorists have their own conclusions about what Murdoch is aiming to do with his media empire, anyone would be forgiven for thinking that Murdoch appears to be consciously fostering an organisation which has ugly practices and the propagation of a certain kind of ideology at its root.
It is also clear that Murdoch has little regard for the truth. Not only did he misrepresent the president’s remarks in his TV interview – saying that Obama “did make a very racist comment about blacks and whites and so on” but was unable to explain exactly what it was – but at several points he also made inaccurate statements. One of these was his denial that Glenn Beck or anyone else had compared the president to Stalin when there are a multitude of video clips available in which Fox pundits do just that. This is more than just one elderly man’s perspective. It is an issue of journalistic integrity that, it is becoming clear, News Corp’s oputlets appear to sorely lack.
Deliberate distortion of the facts, bias and partisanship in the media are serious issues, especially considering how powerful the media can be in shaping our perceptions and ideas. While some silppage is to be expected, a line must be drawn somewhere. Fox News, in particular, cannot continue to pretend that it is a neutral entity when the very man who owns it is far from neutral in his views.
Just last night, Lou Dobbs stepped down from his position as a CNN presenter, an event long encouraged by protests from civil rights groupsupset that he was using his platform to voice his anti-immigrant statements as though they were truth. The public demands better of its journalists and news organisations. Murdoch owes that much to the public. If he continues along the same path, his staff can expect more reaction of the Lou Dobbs variety.