Guest post: The problem with “je ne suis pas Charlie”

Originally a comment by Salty Current on Charlie Hebdo is not racist.

This is a tough one. I don’t think you can legitimately make the claim that Charlie Hebdo was a racist publication, but to say as a blanket statement that it was not racist, full stop? That seems extremely unlikely, given what we know about the pervasiveness of racism*.

I didn’t write that title, but honestly if this is how people are going to be arguing, I don’t think a real discussion can be had. People haven’t been making general statements like “No one’s immune from racism.” They’ve been arguing for the past day or so that CH is a racist publication, using a couple of cartoons as alleged illustrations. The clear implication is that they are espousing racist ideas in the manner of Minute and other racist publications, using racist tropes and dog whistles for humor not caring about who’s hurt, or at the very least disregarding whether their content promotes racism. People are just flinging these claims out there and then failing even to acknowledge when the images’ context and intent are revealed to them.

The idea that racism is pervasive and so therefore they’re racist like everyone is just vacuous here. References to people you know who found certain (uncited) images racist are a problem. As was discussed on the other thread, many people are taking the images at face value, without knowing, in one case, that an image was explicitly targeted at a racist rightwing publication. People are interpreting the cartoons and speculating about their effects without knowing relevant facts about their targets, the contemporary political context, the historical context, CH’s history, the local history of visual humor, or their public reputation (the fact that they openly consider themselves to be and present themselves as an antiracist publication doesn’t, of course, mean that they’re purified of any racism, but it’s certainly relevant to the assessment of both racist intent and the local reception of the images).

Sure, but that implies there isn’t a racist Left.

No, it doesn’t. I’m trying to understand why people are seizing on a couple of putative examples as evidence of CH’s racism, ignoring their intent and the context of the images’ production and reception to cling to weak arguments about possible splash damage and so on. Why people are allowing others to declare that it’s a racist publication and “Je ne suis pas Charlie” and the like while demanding that anyone challenging these claims prove that CH is entirely free of any trace of racism, even unintentional, or let the claims stand. I find this morally and intellectually irresponsible, and I’m trying to understand the reasons people might be doing it. One motivation that I’ve experienced is that we recognize the danger of millions of people being seen as allied with and encouraging the FN and other violent far-Right European parties, so we want to make sure that isn’t the message we’re sending by showing solidarity with CH. But vetting CH shouldn’t mean demanding perfection, or failing to appreciate the complexities and pitfalls of political humor in this context. We’re far from perfect ourselves.

Charlie Hebdo’s intent with the particular cartoons that are appearing as examples, while important and significant, isn’t any more magic than anyone else’s.

Magic and highly relevant are not the same thing.

(I also know a few people who are clearly over-compensating because I know they do not know enough about not being white or the French cultural context to make a decent judgment on whether any of the cartoons are racist.)

I see it as wise and basic fairness to people who were just massacred to try to understand the situation as well as possible before forming judgments.

Ultimately, I don’t think it’s useful at this point to either make the claim that Charlie Hebdo was a racist publication or that it wasn’t racist at all. I think both are pretty clearly false. I do think it’s important to remember and celebrate and perpetuate what the victims stood for, even when their execution was flawed.

Ultimately, I think that’s an empty comment. It suggests that there is no definition of racist or possibility of intelligent investigation of the evidence to come to any even tentative conclusion. It fails to remember or perpetuate what they stood for, or even to show any real concern with finding out what they stood for.


Yes. He was. I’m appalled to see that racism, transphobia and misogyny defended.

This thread is about racism. You haven’t seen racism defended here. You’ve seen people who are trying to form a fair and informed impression of other imperfect human beings.


  1. says

    Discussions across Facebook on this issue over the past couple of days really have me… Let’s say – baffled. And confused. Rational, liberal (left or left-leaning, even) people — whose opinions and thoughts I respect as a matter of fact — have joined the chorus of calling Charlie Hebdo a racist production, and therefore, made statements like “I am not Charlie Hebdo, because…”

    I have mostly stayed away from these threads, because I couldn’t wrap my mind around this disagreement. On one such thread (in a weaker moment, and having time in between assay steps), I wrote that a possible reason why some people are rejecting the idea of CH being racist is because some people don’t see a criticism of Islamic extremism as inherently racist. I also wrote:

    Islam is a religion, as is Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism and others. Islam is not a race or ethnicity. There are people of many races/ethnicities around the world, who have embraced Islam (or who were forced to convert to Islam). A criticism of their Islamic identity, as well as of weirdness in extremist religious ideologies, is not inherently ‘racist’, as many seem to be alleging in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.

    I come from a country with a significant Muslim population, and despite the current climate of growing religious intolerance, the predominant refrain in the country is still one of national integration: we are told and taught that we are Indians first, and then Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain, Buddhist and so forth. Given this context, am I or am I not allowed to criticize, mock, or even insult religions, including religious iconography, without being labeled ‘racist’?

    On that Facebook thread, a friend of mine who holds a view opposite to mine indicated that the reason they considered CH racist because CH’s mockery and depictions used racist portrayals of Muslims, promoting a narrow evocation of who Muslims are. This, my friend said, was contrary to the reality that Muslims comprise a variety of ethnicities and a variety of interpretations of Islam. I rejected this interpretation (then, as I do now) because the portrayals by CH, often grotesquely exaggerated and rude, were quite transparently meant to poke fun at Islamic extremists, not ordinary people of Islamic faith broadly.

    In that context, I did provide an example, too. (Quoting myself)

    Charlie Hebdo cartoonists made grotesquely exaggerated and rude depictions of Islamic religious figures, which pissed off many devout Muslims, and presumably goaded the extremist Muslims to threaten the lives of these cartoonists and eventually murder them.

    Compare this to:
    MF Hussain, a celebrated Muslim artist and painter in India, drew Hindu goddesses on canvas, sitting in a posture or dancing or whatever, but without clothes. The paintings were tastefully done, but those pissed off many devout Hindus, and goaded (actually, not just presumably) Hindu extremists to threaten his life, and eventually drive him away from the country. He wasn’t allowed to return until he died.

    If Charlie Hebdo was racist against Muslims in France – as you say, would you say MF Hussain was racist against Hindus in India?

    Because many of the fundamentalist Hindu individuals and religious organizations levied the same charge against MF Hussain. In that Facebook thread, as long as I was around, no one answered my question.

  2. says

    At many other threads, the idea has been floated that CH was racist because in its depictions, all Muslims were brown-skinned. Many, many brown-skinned people, including people born to Muslim families, have debunked the notion that CH was racist. Off hand I noted Gayathri Brown-Iyer in various threads, Taslima-didi on Twitter, Tehmina Kazi, Maryam Namazie, to name a few.

    Why are Western liberal intellectuals disregarding the voices of these people?

  3. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    SC, you are the only person I’ve read in this entire situation who’s making sense to me (our host excepted). It’s been impossible to have productive conversation, or even to know what to think. Thank goodness you’re writing about this.

  4. Jeff S says

    Thanks again Ophelia and Salty Current.

    Criticism of Charlie Hebdo as being a “racist publication” is akin to calling Charlie Chaplin a Nazi Sympathizer for Lampooning Hitler in “The Great Dictator”.

    Mocking racism through tongue-in-cheek imitation is effective, although it may offend some sensitivities.

    Charlie Hebdo was certainly an OFFENSIVE publication, that was often the point. The intent behind the offence was always to fight AGAINST discrimination/corruption.

  5. funknjunk says

    Delurking to comment: >>I’m trying to understand why people are seizing on a couple of putative examples as evidence of CH’s racism, ignoring their intent and the context of the images’ production and reception to cling to weak arguments about possible splash damage and so on<< I don't understand this either. On another blog, "intent is not magic" was even used in the argument that the CH satire reinforces racial stereotypes. I don't see how satire in context reinforces stereotypes rather than dispels or diffuses … one can object aesthetically to the images and not want to republish because they find them repellent on the surface. But I don't get the logic about intentionally pointed satire reinforcing racism or bigotry. Makes no sense to me whatsoever …

  6. RJW says

    It’s inevitable that the ‘race card’ would be played by some elements of the Left, they have an ideology to defend, ie Islamic terrorism is necessarily a reaction to ‘racism’ and prejudice against Muslims. The notion that jihad against unbelievers is an essential component of the totalitarian religion must not be conceded under any circumstance. ‘Needlessly provocative’ is one of the more sinister expressions used by Islamic apologists, apparently it’s a license to murder.

  7. Vincent says

    Charlie-Hebdo is an anti-racist newspaper.

    (and not “was”, please)

    To be sure, ask people who read it at least once.

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