The Cost of Free Speech: The Racism of Equal Opportunity Offenders

Je ne suis pas Charlie

We got out of the cab at 7:55 pm that let us off on the corner of 8th and 49th rushing to the theater as we were trying to make sure we weren’t late to the curtain of Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon.”  I had marginally heard about the show and knew it was a musical.  I had a friend alert me to the soundtrack and I had had an inkling of remembrance of the song ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ but didn’t have enough of a frame of reference to make it make sense.  When I heard the very familiar voice associated with Comedy Central’s “South Park” in the opening scene, I knew that we were in for a show.  Elder Cunningham’s character was introduced and I knew that we were going to get something over the top.

Book-of-mormon broomsAs the two central characters were in the airport boarding Airfrique to Uganda (yes, the entire country, not a city), a woman came out to give them an “African” welcoming dressed like a stereotypical “bush” person that seemed like a relic from the early 20th century depictions of persons from the “dark continent.”  She even had three whisk brooms to make a headdress.  The next scene cut to something depicting a slum village and I knew that this was NOT going to go well for my friends and I.

We were treated to the blunt stereotypes of Africa, as a monolithic continent, through the eyes of white privileged and reified as satire or parody.  With images of warlords, and even mammy-esque characters being shown on the stage, I couldn’t help but wonder what time warp I had been dragged through when I walked through the front doors of the Eugene O’Neill theater.  The complimentary beverages we obtained for the second act helped ease the pain.  But, the depiction of Johnnie Cochran in “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” was indicative of deep-seated beliefs.

spooky mormon hell

And the whole time, the audience laughed.  Old people, young people, in between, and even children.  The language was vulgar, the names of cast members were deplorable, with gross sex acts discussed and what many would call “cooning” on stage by the black actors the show was absolutely unfathomable that it got green lighted.  But then, once we left the theater rushing to makehasa diga eebowai dinner reservations the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is America and anything is liable to sell.

One of the after dinner and cab ride home conversations was about what was considered entertainment.  One of my friends was arguing that what we saw was not entertainment, but sheer racism on stage.  I made the argument that it was entertainment because the show was showing through white eyes how many in western culture still view Africa: as a monolithic continent with no distinction between north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the west coast of Africa and east Africa, the tribal differences, the fact that major, urban and industrialized cities are on the continent–even in sub-Saharan Africa.  For many the image of “spears and sticks” is synonymous with a whole continent.  Egypt is never seen as part of Africa, and that small nod is evidenced by the fact that the U.S. Census allows those with North African nationalities (Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia) to claim “white.”  We saw what the white Other sees all the time.

For them there was no deeper meaning.  A big black woman in rag clothing walking like Miss Sophia through the field didn’t invoke images of mammy or anything historical feelings, it was just entertainment.  The fact that the warlord general’s name couldn’t be printed in newspapers, let alone the Playbill, meant nothing to anyone, it was just a name, and it was just entertainment.  The show brought to bear the serious issue of AIDS and genital mutilation and made it the butt of many jokes that garnered much laughter.  It was rude, it was crass, it was the equivalent of a fart joke told by preadolescent boys.  The sheer volume of sins that this show violated when it came to political correctness would probably make actors at Fox News even blanch a bit, but by the second act it was like watching comedy of errors.  The show had the comedic effect of the ipecac scene in Family Guy: it was so gross, so vulgar, so insulting and so over the top, you had to laugh at it.  And therein lies the problem.

Far too many followers, however, have given the show a pass, claiming that because there are no limits to their attacks, at least Parker, Stone and Lopez are “equal opportunity offenders.” But the utter lack of originality in “The Book of Mormon,” combined with an often downright mean-spiritedness, drags the show to unforeseen depths. To those who insist we look beyond the vulgarity, there simply is no there there. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and others in the tradition had powerful points to make. The delinquents of this creative team are far from the inheritors of that mantle.

Theodore Mahne of the New Orleans Times-Picayune makes the astute observation about comedic satire as a means of a tradition that makes powerful points against larger society.  “The Book of Mormon” hardly falls in that vein.  What my friends and I watched was something worthy of a “South Park” episode.  Where the drawings are intentionally one-dimensional as means of showing the ways in which American culture can be so jacked up at times.  “South Park” has operated under the protection of “equal opportunity offenders” and that was illuminated when the late Isaac Hayes quit the show when the writing decided to take on Scientology of whom Hayes was an adherent.  It reeked of the playground bully mantra of being able to dish it out but refusing to take it.  The public, for the most part, sided with “South Park” as having the moral high ground.  But, just last week, 12 people were killed for what was called satire and protected under the fundamental understanding of “free speech” and I was forced to ask the question, then who’s paying for it?

What makes satire so powerful is that it is able to take the icons of society and profane them with the clear intent to make a political or social point.  When comedians or political cartoonists satirize the current or past president they do so because it humanizes them.  It knocks them off the pedestal of being untouchable.  The same exists for satire of Catholicism or the Pope, this can happen because there is over one billion Catholics in the world and the satire of one comedian in one venue doesn’t have the power to overwhelm the majority; there are more than enough dominating images that positively depict the Roman Catholic church and the Pope.  The magazine “Charlie Hebdo” made the decision to pick on the so-called little guy.  In the social and political climate of France, the Muslim population is not the majority and they don’t hold any seats of governmental power.  What may have been intended as satire comes off as vulgar and mean-spirited.  In fact, it reeks of a global sense of white hegemony that allows a European power structure to “other” a minority population that acts incredulous when the other side cries being offended.

“If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” Francis said, throwing a pretend punch his way. “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

But recently the Vatican and four prominent French imams issued a joint declaration that denounced the attacks but also urged the media to treat religions with respect.

Francis, who has urged Muslim leaders in particular to speak out against Islamic extremism, went a step further when asked by a French journalist about whether there were limits when freedom of expression meets freedom of religion.

Francis insisted that it was an “aberration” to kill in the name of God and said religion can never be used to justify violence.

Many people around the world have defended the right of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to publish inflammatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed in the wake of the massacre by Islamic extremists at its Paris offices and subsequent attack on a kosher supermarket in which three gunmen killed 17 people.

“There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others,” he said. “They are provocateurs. And what happens to them is what would happen to Dr. Gasparri if he says a curse word against my mother. There is a limit.”

The concept of being “equal opportunity offenders” is a privilege afforded by whiteness in this country because only would that privilege be given to white people.  As I ruminated over “The Book of Mormon” in the hours after leaving the theater, I figured that I had watched a live episode of “South Park” and I didn’t like it.  I watch that cartoon easily enough, laughing, and rationalizing that “they do this to everyone” so I don’t get fully insulted when Token makes an appearance.  The difference is that “South Park” is on a small screen, that has equal access to all who own a laptop or a TV (which is most everybody these days) and not a live-stage play with tickets costing nearly $500 playing to a mostly white audience.  Think about who is going to that show.  Average black and brown people aren’t going to pay that much money for tickets to a Broadway show.  (There are other Broadway shows that are cheaper than that if one just simply wants to go see a show.)

The ways in which racism and xenophobia are so utterly pervasive in this world should give a bit of pause to the ways in which we as a people would like to digest information such as this.  If one has to mount the “free speech/expression” argument to justify what was said, it stands to reason that someone was viciously offended by it.  As someone who identifies as Christians, we are the largest religious community in the world with approximately 2 billion people identifying as such with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews following in that order — that means that Christians are the dominating force.  Aside from Middle Eastern countries, the Islamic faith is not a major demographic force where it’s followers occupy major seats of power and influence.  The whole point of satire is to critique the powers-that-be, not caricature the marginalized.

Free speech in the United States provided decades of justification for “blackface” in this country where African Americans were caricatured, lampooned, derided for the sake of advertisement to sell products.  All the way from Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben products that still exist to other images that are sickening to today’s public.  But it’s free speech right?  Charlie Hebdo took on an icon, that of the Prophet Muhammad, which contrary to Christian iconography, is never to be depicted.  Perhaps in a day in age when America is well entrenched in its latest race conversation following Ferguson, one can’t help but see the similarities and stories of how people of color and other ethnic minorities and Europe are fairing.  While it has escaped much of the public’s memory, it was only in 2011 that London was besieged by riots following a police shooting of an unarmed black man in Tottenham.  Yet and still, it seems as though certain communities of whites, both domestically and globally, act with impunity when it comes to comments, actions and even response to the fallout.

At this point for me, it’s hard to say that the journalists at a place like Charlie Hebdo are racists.  I’m not willing to make that charge at the feet on those individuals because to do so places them in a category of evil that could justify their murders.  I will not do that.  I will say that they are agents of institutional racism that blindly accepts “white as right” and the standard-bearer for which all other concepts of cultural norms are to be understood.  Rather than recentering the narrative from a Islamic point of view, it will always remain that of a western and Europeanized (whiteness) center.  That inability and intransigence of holding the center from that of whiteness allows the conversation to always favor “free speech/expression” and paint Muslims worldwide with the broad brush of “radical Islam.”  There’s nothing inherently wrong with white people, there is something wrong with whiteness – a system that consistently privileges and centers the experience of those of European descent over others.  People need to be liberated enough to level criticism at the racism that whiteness produces; mourn for the deaths of journalists at Charlie Hebdo as well as call them out for their xenophobic political cartoons that fetishize a revered person in the faith of millions around the world.  Not to mention sounding the clarion call about Boko Haram in Nigeria and the mass slaughter of innocents.

I wanted to walk out of the theater during intermission at “The Book of Mormon,” but I didn’t want to be rude to the person who purchased our tickets–not to mention, where was I going to go.  But it was one of those weird moments in blackness where my friends and I were but a few speckles of pepper in a sea of overpowering salt; salty enough to render all life forms dead if placed in water.  Watching images of people with my similar levels of melanin as I perform, maybe even “coon” on stage was a reality I was not ready for, and one that it seemed white people in the audience had no problems with at all.  It was weird, it was uncomfortable, it was disconcerting, it made me feel black.  I was fully aware of my blackness.  Not just my skin color, but of who I was, my essence, my sheer being.  I didn’t know if I should be ashamed, cower in a corner, should I laugh fully and blend in as best I could with the rest of the audience; divorce myself from the body present in a theater and the spiritual existence of being black like an atom splitting in two and just prepare for the atomic explosion at the core of my protai ousiai?

When the show was done, I walked out, just as Black as ever.

Keep it uppity and keep it radical, JLL




10 thoughts on “The Cost of Free Speech: The Racism of Equal Opportunity Offenders

  1. I remember seeing this advertised on one of the local news stations and they made it look interesting enough for me to consider it. However, something didn’t sit right with me supporting the mockery of a religion that millions of people (some of whom I’ve called friends at one point or another in my life) follow. That said, I’m not surprised that the script included racism to boot. It’s always easy to justify satirizing others. Admittedly I’ve never been a fan of satire, which could explain why a lot of adult cartoons (South Park, American Dad, etc), sketch comedies (Chappell), and certain movies (Django, or really anything by Tarantino) make me cringe regardless of the subject. A large part of me sees it as sanctioned disrespect disguised as some sort of pseudo Socratic monologue. It’s easy to beat the free speech drum when you’re not required to present or consider the other side.

  2. I think your comments on Charlie Hebdo and its cartoons are, with respect, misguided. Firstly, there is nothing in the Koran forbidding depiction of the prophet, merely a proscription against worshiping graven images, same as the bible. There is a rich history of visual depictions of Mohammed in Islamic art and literature. The idea that it is sacrilegious and offensive to even depict Mohammed is the claim of fundamentalists who are in spirit akin to right wing Christian fundamentalists in your country.

    Secondly, it is a fiction primarily repeated by American writers unfamiliar with European satire that Charlie Hebdo “picked on” Muslims and reflected a white, hegemonic view. Their religious editor is an Arab woman who answers this charge, and the charge of tokenism, much better than I could. I encourage you to read her letter reproduced here:

  3. Don’t you think that referring to a social problem as “whiteness” is problematic and divisive? I understand that there are grave and ongoing issues that have stemmed from European colonialism over the course of centuries, but if I referred to the cultural problems that exist in black communities as “blackness”, I really don’t see that going over well with pretty much anybody. I live in a very multicultural and generally open-minded city in Canada; racism exists, like it does everywhere else, but it’s certainly not as bad as it seems to be in the large American urban centers, and I’m sure this has an acute effect on my perspective of racial issues. My racial background is a mixture of Western and Eastern European, as well as West Africans who were brought to the Caribbean as slaves. At the end of the day, though, I’m a Canadian first and foremost; my personality is derived from a mixture of my mental chemistry and my cultural experiences. I think that to rise above the many social inequalities that exist today takes a lot of mutual understanding and respect and frankly, I don’t find your use of the term “whiteness” to be very respectful at all and it certainly wouldn’t make me want to reach out and work with someone who used it. The same thing goes with the use of the word “nigger” or even “nigga”…I don’t see how social equality is expected to be achieved when one racial group is “allowed” to use a word (one that is frankly disgusting no matter who says it) and another is not. The notion of throwing it in the face of the oppressor is beyond played out and nothing positive can come from it. I digress, obviously, but I think these issues need to be talked about and I think they are often oversimplified.

    1. @Darcy

      Whiteness is a sociological term that emerged from black critical theory. And to my point, whiteness is descriptive of the sociological construct that created race, and that supports economic and political oppression, but we often times call it capitalism and democracy. Whiteness does not describe white people per se. Blackness, on the other hand is a cultural identity of many of those who are of a darker skin color in this country and other parts of the world. Blackness is an ontological choice. Blackness is not the opposite of whiteness even though the two have the same suffix.

      1. I appreciate the response. I understand the differences you refer to, I guess my point is more towards the etymological choice in the term “whiteness” and how, at face value (which is how many of us take things because fewer and fewer people are willing to read more than a blurb these days) it can come across as a generalization of a group of people that are diverse and have evolved substantially on both a social and cultural level. I’m not an expert on black critical theory. That being said, as an emergent theory, I can see why it would have to be contrary or responsive to what the status quo was during its emergence. But I also think people have come a long way and referral to oppressive social views/constructs and all their implications shouldn’t be labelled as synonymous with a particular race because where I come from, most people couldn’t care less what someone’s race is; they treat the person as they feel the individual deserves to be treated. Let’s face it, the worst of the oppressors in the Western world are long dead or on their way out. I’m not naïve to present evils in our world, but this “whiteness” thing seems to me like an inappropriate way to refer to all of the bad things white people ever did.

      2. @Darcy

        I think it’s a bit more dubious than that. There’s a difference in offering a metanarrative critique and then making it synonymous with individual people. That is to say, inherently, I don’t have a problem with white people, I do have a problem with whiteness–the two are not to be understood as one and the same. Blackness, I think is a little bit harder to separate because it’s a chosen identity. There are many people with brown skin color and they don’t really engage in those cultural identifiers with being black. Hence the whole “you talk white” is so problematic.

        Forgive me if I step over the boundaries too much into your personal life, but I’ve discovered given the social circles in which I grew up and cities I’ve lived in, race isn’t an “issue” for people when the population of whites is over 90%. It’s not an issue because there isn’t enough people to merit it as an issue. I mean, I guess that’s fine on an every day interaction, but the whole “if we stop talking about race, then racism will end” approach I think oversimplifies what critical theory has to say, and that is certainly a metanarrative critique. It allows for resistance to be offered at a larger level. When voter ID laws here in the United States that want to be passed at the state level overwhelmingly disadvantage blacks and Latinos, it’s a problem. When laws on the book for non-violent offenders result in mandatory sentencing and black and brown persons are the ones more likely to be arrested, the numbers “show” that black and brown people tend to be criminals more than others–but how many white people do we know that never have to worry about a “stop and frisk” or the likelihood of being pulled over just because they’re black? I’m not making it up, these numbers are documented facts.

        In a society that overwhelmingly privileges those with white skin and disadvantages those with black and brown skin, it’s hard for me to act as though we’ve come THAT far. No, I don’t know of any white people personally who are racist, but I do know whites who are blind to some of their prejudices and biases. While biases and prejudices know no color, having white skin and enacting those prejudices as a police officer, a judge, a prosecutor, an elected official (I could go on) is where the crux of the problem is, that is where whiteness, as an entity, rears its ugly head.

        It is from that perspective I offer my commentary.

  4. Hey man, no you’re not stepping over any boundaries, I welcome the discussion. Where I come from, I wouldn’t say race isn’t an issue, but it’s probably not as big of an issue compared to where you’re from, or at least, the issue is a bit different. It’s definitely not 90% white here; Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world, we’ve got it all. I also don’t think we should never talk about race, in fact, we talk about it (at least in my social circle) all the time simply because it’s an unavoidable fact…as I mentioned, we have people from pretty much all walks of life here

    I’m certainly not arguing with the American statistics, I know damn well black people get stopped by police more frequently and are jailed at a completely unbalanced rate. I was never arguing against those facts. Like I had said in my earlier comment, when it comes to the term “whiteness”, the issue I was raising was more towards the etymological choice, especially coming from somewhere where things really are much better than they were several decades ago. I’m not naive to institutionally rooted discrimination, even in Canada. My dad always warned me about getting into trouble with the law for that very reason; the results can be different for some compared to others simply because of the color of their skin. I still think, though, that in a society that is becoming more and more ethnically integrated, and where social circles are becoming as racially varied as the individuals who are a part of them, that it can be problematic to refer to a system of discrimination as “whiteness”. I’m not arguing against the existence of the system itself, just the way it is currently labelled because most white people, and people in general, that I know are as welcoming as one could be. The perspective from which you offer your commentary is, indeed, a bit different from mine from both a geographical/societal standpoint, as well as a personal one and I’d certainly never argue against its validity.

    The whole reason I even began a blog was to share my varied cultural experiences that I’ve been lucky enough to have through travel (as well as to push my writing ;)) and I am always willing to learn more about people no matter where they are from, including close to home. I appreciate you engaging me in this conversation.

    1. @Darcy

      I think the next generation will need to be intentional about how they choose to frame this conversation as a point of critical theory–as an academic exercise–but also how does that make applicable sense. The fact that both places like Canada and the US are becoming more and more ethnically diverse is going to force that conversation to happen sooner rather than later. The black and white dichotomy where a super majority of blacks can trace their ancestry through the slave trade, as well as whites who can trace their heritage through slave owners is getting less and less strong. I guess for me, I picked up the book The Invention of the White Race, written by a white guy, and it totally shifted my perspective. It’s a two volume book and certainly not one for the faint of heart, and what did it for me is simply that the race known as “white” came to existence as a social construction. Like, I already knew that, but then to hear someone else really say it and add historical credence to it made my whole perspective shift.

      Martin Luther King et. al. used to take the whole “love vs. hate” thing as the reason why all the strife happened, and on the surface that seems fine, but it’s deeply entrenched in the very ethos of this country and it runs deeper than trying to have a colorblind society and trying to be post-racial. Every time I hear something offered up that gets labeled heretical in some sense is something that I’m sure has stumbled upon some truth; when I hear something that mainstream media latches on to I usually see it as a diversion. I know it sounds all conspiratorial, but I think that just speaks to how efficient this whole system is. Like I said, on a day to day basis, no I don’t think I’m obsessed, but at the same time, I am aware of the ways in which power structures systematically disadvantage people of color.

      So, I don’t know the demographics of Toronto, but I have heard of it’s diversity. But politically speaking, look at the color of the people who hold power in the city from city council persons, to other civic leaders, the Assembly members and I’m sure its overwhelmingly white. When Obama gave his state of the union back in January, some statistic was dropped that the US Congress was 80% white, 80% male and 92% Christian — that tells the whole story. When there’s not enough to mount a serious counter-narrative then the oppressive policies, sentiments, sensibilities, biases and all that can go unchecked. If referring to the system of economic, political, social and even religious oppression is entitled “whiteness” then so be it. If the face of systematic oppression is white, the response should not be to recoil at being white, the response should be to stop being oppressive!

  5. I’ve never seen a more racist site than yours. We, whites, are a salt that “renders all life form dead” in water? What a nice metaphor. And your obsession with “whiteness” is sickening. Really, you write well, you ought to take a job and quit hating my skin color.

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