Racism, Popular Media, and the Pain of Non-People

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In 2011, when Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway, the dominant media narratives focused on Breivik’s psychological profile and evaluation. White people were horrified that such a wanton act of terror and violence —the sort that racist, right-wing, politicians in the West have long insisted was the sole purview of Muslims— could come from one of their own. Breivik, the son of proper, middle class, parents was not an unattractive man, and was clearly thoughtful given his long, rambling, racist, manifesto. As a child, he had been an altar boy. I know all of these details about Anders Breivik because these are the details that the western media chose to examine in the wake of his bloodletting.

On the 15 of March, a right-wing white nationalist sociopath stormed a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, murdering 50 people and wounding 50 more. Brenton Harrison Tarrant was a personal trainer with an affinity for alt-right political commentary, and memes. He was a world traveler with a sarcastic sense of humor who traveled all over Europe and Asia after his father died in 2010. In his manifesto, he describes himself as an “ordinary white man.” I know all these details about Brenton Harrison Tarrant because, again, these are the details that the western media chose to examine in the wake of his bloodletting.

In an extraordinary moment of clarity, New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern (a woman who has revealed herself to be a big, bright, shining political star throughout this entire affair) announced on March 19ththat she would never speak the gunman’s name again, so as to deny him the notoriety and infamy that he had hoped to inspire. It is a quaint gesture, reminiscent of Calvinist “shunning” where the offender is relegated to the status of “non-person.” Ardern attended a memorial for the victims wearing a hijab, and journalists “ooh’ed” and “aahh’ed” turning the Kiwi Prime Minister into the courageous, stoic, face of the tragedy.

The Muslim victims of this tragedy have been portrayed in collages showing Afghan faces, and Syrian faces, and Pakistani faces. There are old Muslim faces and young Muslim faces. There are men and women, girls and boys. For the most part, they are nameless and even when their names appear in print next to their images, those names are foreign and exotic and strange. These faces, and these names, are not the sort that people are accustomed to seeing on television in the west unless they are being depicted as enemies. Now, that they have become the focus of a singularly vicious racist attack, western media is confronted with the dilemma of how to portray Muslims sympathetically to an audience that has been conditioned to celebrate Muslim anguish and slaughter.

In this moment, it is worth comparing the western media’s response to Christchurch to the response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. On January 7, 2015, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi stormed the offices of a French periodical notorious for publishing racist provocations and killed 12 people. All over the world, concerned people of conscience declared their solidarity with the victims, proclaiming “I am Charlie,” and “Yo soy Charlie,” and “Je suis Charlie.” Politicians from all over the world scampered together in Paris for doctored photo-ops meant to give the impression that they were leaders. Centrist pundits took turns asking one another what was wrong with French Muslims; right-wing pundits took turns asking one another what was wrong with Islam. If the deaths of 12 French journalists was enough to send the world into mourning and tearful expressions of solidarity, one would think that the deaths of 50 people in Christchurch might warrant some sort of equivalent acknowledgment…but, it doesn’t.

In the absence of grieving white people, or convenient racist narratives of Muslim savagery and the barbarism of brown people, it is almost as if western media has nothing to say at all. Muslim grief is not enough to carry a news story, because white people do not relate to grieving brown people. This is why Ardern’s decision to don the headscarf was so noteworthy: it is because she used her position of privilege –as Prime Minster, and as a white person with emotions that are easily recognizable, and relatable, to other white people—in order to force the media to record a sympathetic image of a woman grieving in a hijab.

Aside from Ardern’s political theater, the bulk of the media commentary has side-stepped the issue of Muslim pain. White bigots see this story and say “we wouldn’t have this sort of thing if we just kept all the Muzzies out to begin with. Leave them to their shithole countries.” White liberals see this story and say “this is what comes of normalizing the racist bigotry of people like Trump (or Tommy Robinson, or Geert Wilders, or LePen, or Bolsonero, or Fraser Anning).” In either case, however, the focus of attention remains riveted to white people and white narratives.

Nowhere are the victims of Christchurch portrayed as human beings. We don’t know which of the dead were “mummy’s boys” like Breivik. We don’t know which of them had sarcastic senses of humor, or who among them had traveled throughout Europe and Asia to find themselves after their daddies died. In the end, the western media portrays the victims as “others,” not as neighbors, not as countrymen, not as fellow human beings. For western media, the victims of Christchurch are representatives of constructs: they are “Muslims” (whatever that means to you), and they are “immigrants” (whatever that means to you), and they are “refugees” (whatever that means to you).

Nowhere is anyone asking the actual victims of this terrorist violence what it’s like to endure this sort of event. This is because without an acknowledgment of their humanity to begin with, there is no reason to seek out their expressions of anxiety, or panic, or terror (after all, only humans experience those sorts of complex emotions). Most critically, no one is asking them what it is like to despair that white institutions can (or, perhaps, care to) protect them from this sort of predictable, structural, violence at the hands of vicious, politicized, white racists.

Darryl Barthe, PhD

Originally from New Orleans, Dr. Barthe relocated to New York City last year from the Netherlands where he was, most recently, a lecturer in history at the University of Amsterdam and the University of Leiden.

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