Humor Is a Cover for Racism


The fight against institutional racism recently won a major victory in the Netherlands. The organizers of Zwarte Cross (‘Black Cross’), a major Summer festival combining motorcross and music, finally decided to remove various Islamophobic and racist signs from their premises, following outrage on social media by activists. (Trigger warning: I will be forced to quote some racist statements in this column).

’Long live colored folks!’, we read on a sign, next to the image of an Oompa Loompa. A sign above a snack bar was even nastier: ‘Allah’s afbakbar’ (‘bake-off bar’, a juvenile word pun on the holy phrase ‘Allahu akbar’). When patient activists attempted to educate the organizers, at first they persisted: ‘Our intention was not at all to offend or discriminate against anyone. On the contrary even.’ The signs were simply ‘intended’ as witty puns, the festival ‘intended’ to be inclusive. But as anthropologist Martijn de Koning from the University of Amsterdam (white himself, but let that pass) remarked this week: ‘intentions are not relevant’ when it comes to racist statements like these. Intentions are lame excuses behind which white oppressors seek cover. In reality, the Zwarte Cross signs have caused deep emotional injuries to colored people – so deep, in fact, that most victims could not even muster up the strength to respond to them (luckily courageous activists intervened on their behalf). For once and for all: racism is never about the intentions of the perpetrator, but always about the feelings of the victim. 
White people who protest against this principle testify to what is called ‘white fragility’ in the literature, the inability to face your own racism and admit guilt. As a rule, the more arguments they come up with why they are not racist, the more fragile they prove to be. A case in point was the white Dutchman Huub Bellemakers, from the supposedly ‘progressive’ party GroenLinks. He didn’t mind the Islamophobic sign ‘Allah’s afbakbar,’ because after all, Zwarte Cross also pokes fun at Christianity. Bellemakers referred to another sign at the festival: ‘Zwarte Cross worst event since the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.’

What Mr. Bellemakers doesn’t understand is that Christianity is a white religion. Muslims, by contrast, are people of color, who are living under the yoke of institutional racism and white supremacy every single day. Apparently white people like Bellemakers do not realize that academics have discovered for some time that Islamophobia is actually a form of racism, which scholars call ‘cultural racism’ or ‘racism without race’. Apparently they have never heard of the concept of ‘intersectionality’ in activism, which means that you protect groups to the extent that they have a higher (i.e. actually lower) victim score. A white woman you can still laugh at, but certainly not a brown woman. And a black, lesbian, transgender Muslim should always be elevated above any kind of humor. Incidentally, it is not at all condescending to suppose that colored people have thinner skins – it is simply a matter of respect for vulnerable people.

Admittedly, intersectional thinking can be hard. Whiteness is not just a skin color, but above all a way of thinking. Take the case of Özcan Akyol, the columnist of the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad. At first glance Akyol has a somewhat brown skin complexion, but appearances can be deceptive. In his column on the incident he labeled the activists who stood up against Zwarte Cross as ‘humorless creeps’. In other words, Akyol is pandering to white supremacists and Islamophobes, which means that he is a House Muslim, an identitarian bounty: brown on the outside, white on the inside. A bit like Martijn de Koning, but the other way around.

Besides, that anti-racism activists are ‘humorless’ should not be taken as an insult. All too often humor is a white cover to stigmatize, exclude and oppress vulnerable groups. If white people want to support the fight against racism, they can (apart from acknowledging their white privilege and complicity) renounce provocative humor altogether. Strictly speaking, it is not inconceivable that some jokes will not hurt the feelings of any minority, but it is simply impossible to predict in advance what irreparable emotional and psychological injuries you might cause, regardless of your so-called ‘intentions’. It is better to completely avoid humor for safety’s sake. And ‘satire’, that insidious poison of white oppressors, above all.

(Translation of a column published in NRC Handelsblad. See also: Poe’s Law)