There have been a lot of accusations of racism thrown around in regards to the work of Charlie Hebdo and the media coverage (or lack thereof) around the domestic terrorist incident at the NAACP in Colorado and I want to tease out some of these ideas that I’ve seen.
1. Accusation: Media coverage of Charlie Hebdo and not the NAACP is racist
The idea here is that the media covered Charlie Hebdo because the villains were people of color and the dead were white, while the NAACP is an organization for people of color that was attacked by a white person. The media thinks people are more likely to respond to narratives where the heroes are white, even if they are French.
I think this accusation is wrongheaded for a number of reasons.
1. No one died in the NAACP attack, 12 people died in France.
2. One of the more compelling stories to come out of France is the story of the Muslim police officer who was killed defending Charlie Hebdo against the terrorists.
3. The villains are organized and have been established villains in popular imagination.
4. Most importantly, the victims are other members of the media. It cannot be overstated how much the media latches onto stories of the media being victimized. This bias in the media is the most mundane one, and one that rarely gets talked about over the left vs right bias.
2. Accusation: The media not covering and being slow to cover the NAACP domestic terrorism is racist
When you separate it from the comparison to Charlie Hebdo and just note that the media has been a bit reluctant to pick up the story, then yeah, I think this is a reasonable complaint. This is a big deal and should be big news. It does seem to be picking up a bit now.
3. Accusation: Charlie Hebdo made racist cartoons
Ehhh, this is complicated. Of course it is, isn’t everything? A lot of the commentary around these cartoons has been, in my opinion, very shallow, both in the accusations of racism and the defense from racism. I think everyone is, of course, welcome to their opinion, this is not a personal criticism of any individual.
Political cartoons are almost always kind of racist the moment you put people of color in them. Not putting any people of color people in them would also be pretty racist. This is because caricature relies heavily on stereotype to get messages across quickly — all communication does, but political cartoons do even more extremely. Now, show a bunch of edgy political cartoons to people who don’t understand the language on the cartoons or the culture that produced the cartoons and ask them how racist those cartoons are? Yeah, they’re going to think they’re really racist. None of that, by the way, relieves cartoonists of the responsibility to make not racist cartoons. That said, many of the cartoons that are being called out as racist are making points against oppression of minorities or oppression within minority culture or referring to specific racist behavior of politicians or other figures. That doesn’t make them entirely not racist, but it also makes them complicated. They also come in the context of Charlie Hebdo being equal opportunity offenders.
However, Charlie Hebdo’s many layered context comes in the further context of France being a really awful place to live if you’re Muslim. It’s an incredibly racist and xenophobic society. What does that all mean? Not any one thing, except that if you are going to read criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s interaction with race, make sure it is nuanced and culturally specific and not just, “Look at this racist cartoon.” And just because a cartoon is racist or has racist elements, that doesn’t mean the publication or the people behind the publication were “racists.” Finally, I personally am really hesitant to take seriously any criticism of these cartoons unless it comes from someone who is a fluent French speaker and follows French politics closely, criticism from anyone else veers perilously close to cultural imperialism for lacking enough context unless they’ve done an immense amount of research.
4. Accusation: Calling Charlie Hebdo cartoons racist means you don’t support free speech
No. Nope. Incorrect. There are a small group of people who think that the cartoons are hate speech and shouldn’t be allowed to be published, but the vast majority of people who think that the cartoons are grotesquely racist have valid reasons for doing so and are making points about complicated histories and relationships between people and media. They are worth listening to even if you ultimately disagree with their conclusions. And people thinking that speech is terrible doesn’t mean they want to regulate it away. I think the KKK and Westboro Baptist Church should be allowed to say things. I also think they are horrible. These two things reflect totally different values that I hold independently in the same head.
5. Accusation: You can’t be racist against Muslims
Usually accompanied with “Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world.” To which I say, “Show me one Charlie Hebdo drawing that is of someone from Indonesia.” Islam is not a race, but that really doesn’t matter, because the Western world has a racial idea of what it means to be Muslim.