THE OTHER AND WHY WE NEED IT
I don’t think I am saying anything controversial when I say that, in the Western world, we are currently living in the Age of The Other. For the last few hundred years, the modern world has been very largely shaped by white heterosexual men, and we are now in a period where that order appears to be changing. The Other – that is to say, anyone who is not white or heterosexual – is feared to be taking over. It is absolutely true that the recent election results in the Western world can be explained by a popular revolt against the ruling elite. But that is only a partial explanation, and I think that the entire explanation is much more unsettling, if not sinister.
When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, there was a rush by many commentators to explain his victory as due to the “economic anxiety” of his voters. The initial data seemed to support this view, with twice as many white working-class voters voting for Trump as for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Yet a deeper analysis of the numbers showed something different. A study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic Magazine found that, and I quote, “financially troubled voters in the white working class were more likely to prefer Clinton over Trump. Besides partisan affiliation, it was cultural anxiety—feeling like a stranger in America, supporting the deportation of immigrants, and hesitating about educational investment—that best predicted support for Trump.”
We saw a similar pattern in the UK, when the country voted to leave the European Union; an event known as the Brexit referendum. Brexit was explained, just as Trump had been, as a working class-revolt against the elite. I thought that this was strange, given that only a year before the working-class had been given a chance, at the general election, to vote that same elite out of power – and they had re-elected them. Something was amiss. My suspicions were confirmed by a piece of research published earlier this year by the London School of Economics, or LSE. To quote that research,
“Keen to distance themselves from charges of xenophobia, Vote Leave worked hard to dispel the notion that their cause was powered by generalised anti-immigration sentiment. Where immigration was mentioned, the issue, it was claimed, was not numbers but control and fairness. Why should unskilled East Europeans get in ahead of qualified South Asians?…Yet academic research raises questions over this interpretation. First of all, immigration was key. Second, and more surprising, is concern over non-European immigration. The problem of unrestricted low-skill European immigration was repeatedly flagged during the campaign, so many assume people voted Leave because they were primarily exercised by the issue of East European immigration. This turns out not to be the case. What’s striking – and no one is talking about – is that British voters prefer EU to non-EU migrants…This pattern of preferring immigrants from inside the EU to those from outside holds across all social groups in our data.
What’s most interesting to me about this research from the LSE is one particular sentence: when they say that “what’s striking – and no one is talking about – is that British voters prefer EU to non-EU migrants”. When the researchers say “no-one”, they have clearly not been listening to years of warnings from non-white and non-EU migrants about the degree of xenophobic sentiment in the UK. These findings are remarkable because, even though they were received by many as some grand revelation, they were – to me at least – not at all surprising.
And then we turn to Germany, where I have been living for the last three years. Here we see that the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party has claimed over 13% of the vote in the general election. Here we saw the same pattern. In the media, a great deal of emphasis was placed on the fact that the AfD appealed to voters who were victims of the country’s economic inequality. Yet this analysis again ignored the research. I quote, from an article in the German newspaper Deutsche Welle:
“a study by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research (IW), published in April, nearly 34 percent of AfD sympathizers belonged to the top fifth of the population, while fewer than 10 percent are worried about their own personal economic situation. This was backed up by a TNS Infratest survey released in March, that found that 79 percent of AfD supporters described their personal economic situation as “good” or “very good.”
We could go on, and on – to examine the rise of the far-right in the Dutch elections, the French elections, the Austrian ones. But I think the pattern is clear. Not only is xenophobia a common factor in each of these election results, it is also one which comes as a shock to many voters.
I want to talk about this shock. It is often based upon what is known as “white privilege” – that is to say, when white people are unaware of racism or don’t have to be, because it doesn’t affect them directly. There are times when I feel like calling it “white innocence”. It constantly amazes me that a country can have such a shocked reaction when the xenophobia of a large part of its population is revealed.
This is because of white innocence. Not all white innocence is deliberate. Some people simply don’t know how bad racism can be, because they don’t see it as part of their daily lives. But there’s the other kind of white innocence, the wilful ignorance of what is happening, and that is thoroughly, utterly dangerous.
How does this innocence manifest itself? It’s to be found in all those people who choose to look away from injustice. Those people who avoid the awkward conversation about racism at the family dinner table, who don’t speak up when the hear anti-Semitic jokes in the dressing-room or on the golf course. It is to be found in the cowardice of the people who cringe when they hear open bigotry among their friends or relatives, but remain silent. It was James Baldwin who best expressed this state of affairs. In “Notes from a Native Son”, he wrote that:
“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
Monster is a strong word. And rightly so. I also think that it is accurate. I think that there is a certain amount of denial that we all need in order to maintain life as it is. I think that most of us have the need to believe that, fundamentally, we are good people. There are some senses in which I am probably a monster. As a meat-eater who until a few years ago ate fast food fairly regularly, I have been complicit in the deaths of many thousands of animals. Increasingly, I find it hard to justify my consumption of meat on moral grounds.
It is difficult to call ourselves monsters. We are good people. We love our friends and our partners and our parents. We are good children, not monsters. It is this same cognitive dissonance that lies behind the results of a poll conducted in the US. That poll was carried out by Ipsos between late August and early September, for Thomson Reuters and the University of Virginia Center for Politics. It took place a few weeks after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, during which a counter-protester was killed by a white supremacist. The poll found that, and I quote, “while there is relatively little national endorsement of neo-Nazis and white supremacists “there are troubling levels of support for certain racially-charged ideas and attitudes frequently expressed by extremist groups.”
Furthermore, the poll noted that:
“While only 8 percent of respondents said they supported white nationalism as a group or movement, a far larger percentage said they supported viewpoints widely held by white supremacist groups: 31 percent of Americans polled strongly or somewhat agreed that “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage,” and 39 percent agreed that “white people are currently under attack in this country.”
What has happened here? Well, I think that white innocence is at work. There is an understanding that to be seen as a racist or a white supremacist is a Bad Thing. But there are also widespread and deeply-held fears of non-white people. These are not, as is often argued, views that are held subconsciously. Earlier this year Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a US-based data scientist, examined a series of Google searches in order to see if he could detect previously undiscovered levels of racism. He found that, and I quote at length, “In my work with Google search data, the single most telling fact I have found regarding hate on the internet is the popularity of the word “nigger”…Searches for “nigger jokes” are 17 times more common than searches for “kike jokes”, “gook jokes”, “spic jokes”, “chink jokes”, and “fag jokes” combined. When are these searches most common? Whenever African Americans are in the news.
The frightening ubiquity of this racial slur throws into doubt some current understandings of racism. Any theory of racism has to explain a big puzzle in America. On the one hand, the overwhelming majority of black Americans think they suffer from prejudice – and they have ample evidence of discrimination in police stops, job interviews, and jury decisions. On the other hand, very few white Americans will admit to being racist. The dominant explanation among political scientists recently has been that this is due, in large part, to widespread implicit prejudice. White Americans may mean well, this theory goes, but they have a subconscious bias, which influences their treatment of black Americans….There is, though, an alternative explanation for the discrimination that African Americans feel and whites deny: hidden explicit racism.”
It is James Baldwin, again, who I think is most important here. In an interview in 1963, he said that:
“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger,” he said. “I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it… If I’m not a nigger and you invented him — you, the white people, invented him — then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that, whether or not it’s able to ask that question.”
Why do some white people need the nigger, or the other? Why do they need to lash out against those different from themselves? I think that some white people need it because, in a time of such uncertainty – of surging social and economic inequality – they need to point to someone, to a group of people, and tell themselves: “well, life may be terrible, but at least I am better than them.”
In the three months following the Brexit referendum, charities reported that crimes against LGBT people had risen by 147% compared with the same period in the previous year. The victims of these attacks reported that they had been abused by people saying “now we can get these people out of the country and you’re going to be next”.
This may be uncomfortable for some, but I feel that a significant part of the Brexit, Trump and AfD sentiment is based upon a visceral, almost primal desire for some form of purging – to return to a time when things were clear and clean and straightforward. To some extent, these voters need The Other, because to hate them is a reassuringly firm feeling in turbulent times. It’s here that I would like to introduce the best analysis of economic anxiety that I have read anywhere. It came from Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah in a magnificent essay for GQ Magazine, entitled “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof”. One of Ghansah’s interviewees, an elementary school teacher in South Carolina, said that:
“Trump showed us this, that we underestimated how vulnerable and precarious self-esteem is for white, working-class people in this society. They not only see the white elites, but then they see…black people, coming from behind, eclipsing them. And, they say, ‘What are these people doing up there? What has happened to me?’”
BEING THE OTHER
If you are Other in some parts of the Western world, then you need to work out not only how thrive but to endure. That may sound like a dramatic statement, but all the same I think it has some weight. I say this only because a good friend, a black woman, has recently moved from Berlin to Stockholm, since she believes she is less likely to suffer racial violence there. Around this time last year, she was pushed off her bike by an elderly white German woman as she cycled past. Several other friends, in the lead-up to the US election, reported a rise in levels of racist aggression in the street. One was sitting on a train when a passenger sneered at her and then showed her his Nazi tattoos. Another was beaten up by his taxi driver. I detailed these incidents and other yet more grave ones in an article for the New York Times in February 2017, entitled “Fake News Meets German Racism”. The piece was met in some quarters with fury, as some people asked why I was trying to make Germany feel guilty for its welcoming nature.
Now, I am not saying for one second that the Western world cannot be a dangerous place if you are white and male. I am saying that, if you are a woman, or gay, or transgender, or non-white, then those dangers – then those risks of emotional and physical danger increase sharply, often exponentially.
Of course, women know this very well. As a dark-skinned black man who identifies as queer or bisexual, I know it too. In Berlin, the problem has become more intense in the last few months. I believe that Angela Merkel’s decision to provide a million Syrians with refuge from the war is one of the bravest and most praiseworthy political decisions of the modern age.
I say this not only because of the horrific fate which Chancellor Merkel helped many Syrians to avoid, but also because of the significant logistical challenges of helping the Syrians in their new home. Merkel has paid a political price for accepting these challenges, facing not only fierce criticism from her rivals but also losing a significant share of her vote in the general election.
It has not been easy for Merkel. In early 2016, in Cologne, an event occurred which a fellow journalist described as “a game changer”. At New Year, hundreds of men “of north African appearance” perpetrated the sexual assault of dozens of women. Though the perpetrators were overwhelmingly German-born, it was the Syrians who received the bulk of the backlash, with Merkel’s refugee policy being blamed for these attacks.
It would later emerge that the Cologne attacks had a profound effect on the psyche of the German public. The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, Germany’s leading NGO in the fight against far-right extremism, published a paper on how Cologne had led to the reawakening of the old trope of the foreign sexual predator.
There were no positives to be drawn from the AfD’s capture of 13% of the vote in the German elections. There were only the smallest consolations. I heard some non-white friends say that at least people would now believe them when they said that there was a problem with racism in Germany.
I can only say, from my own experience, how exhausting racism is. I would like here to read you a post that I wrote in July this year; it is a little long, but I think it explains how racism feels as well as anything I have written. It is called:
“Racism breaks my heart.”
Racism breaks my heart. I am writing this directly after reading the official confirmation that Adama Traore, a young black Frenchman, died of asphyxiation after being detained by police. I am writing this right now because the feeling is raw, and I need to express what this is like – this helplessness. Racism doesn’t always break my heart. Sometimes it is just an inconvenience – like 4am last Sunday morning, when listening to music on my home from a great night out with my friends, and my journey was interrupted by a tourist who leaned into my path and asked me for drugs. I can shrug these moments off. Yet they accumulate until I can’t ignore them, and then a tide of sorrow rolls through me, so deep and wide that I succumb to it.
Two nights ago a friend of mine stepped off a train in Berlin and three white Germans serenaded her with a chorus of “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger”. Yesterday I saw a video of a 48-year old Nigerian man who was dragged off a train in Munich by two inspectors – though he had paid for his ticket, he had not presented his ID – and, howling, had his face pressed to the concrete. The journalist who posted the footage, for her trouble, received a hailstorm of threatening phone calls from the far-right. Today, I read the news about Adama Traore.
Racism breaks my heart. There are days you look in the mirror and wonder how you can negate it. If you can dress more smartly in certain settings – if you can avoid certain areas. But then you realise that you can’t. To the racist, a monkey in a nice set of clothes is still a monkey. There are days you wish there was an app on your phone that allowed you to travel through the world on stealth mode.
Racism humbles you. You can be as successful as you like but there are still those – so many of those – who will not see you as fully human. It’s a strange world. Some would advise me to concentrate only on those who are enlightened, who are not prejudiced – but I am not convinced that the majority of people in our world are like this. From London to Rio to Bratislava to Cape Town and elsewhere, I have seen too much severe social and economic inequality of which racism was the root. We daily tell ourselves that most people are good, but I am not even sure what that means anymore. What use is being good, what use is being the decent silent majority, if deaths like those of Adama Traore don’t cause that majority to roar? What use is outrage at injustice if it is never spoken?
I’m aware that when I write about racism, many people may tune out. To those people, I would like to say this: I wish I could tune out too. I wish I could hang my dark skin on a line somewhere, and carry on with one less problem like the rest of you. Because life’s hard enough already, isn’t it? Life’s hard enough trying to hold down that job, and trying to keep your partner happy after all those years, and mending those ailing ties with your family. Life’s hard enough without walking the streets of different cities, fearing that you may be too big, dark and dangerous for people’s comfort.
Of course this isn’t how I approach every day. It’s just that there are some days when you find your soul heavy with grief at the death of a sibling in prejudice you never met – last week her name was Bianca Roberson, this week his name is Adama Traore – and, on those days, your eyes brim with tears as you type, because in that moment being black is an almost unbearable burden. Days, I am sad to say, like today.
HOW TO MAKE “THE ART OF THE OTHER”
How, as someone who is Other, should I make my art? That might sound like a silly question. You might just think: “it’s easy. Just get out a piece of paper, or pull up a blank screen on your laptop, and start writing.” But I do not think it is as easy as that. I believe that the way the Other – anyone who is not white or heterosexual – is portrayed in popular culture shapes the way the Other is treated in our world. If we artists continue to produce work filled with stereotypes, then we encourage the world to judge queer people and so on according to those stereotypes. And you only need to look at Nazi-era propaganda to see how that ends up.
Perhaps you think I am being dramatic, but the problem is a severe one. Compare the media’s treatment of Mike Brown, who died at the hands of a police officer, with its treatment of Stephen Paddock, who has just murdered upwards of 50 people in Las Vegas. The first details to emerge about Paddock’s life was that he was a quiet man who loved country music. The first details to emerge about Brown’s life was that he had a fondness for marijuana. The instinct of Western media, for so many profound historical reasons, is so often to humanise white murderers and to demonise non-white murder victims. When making new work, I feel a particular responsibility to confront that dynamic. We do not create art in a vacuum.
Look, too, at the representation of people of colour in fiction. I quote an article from Marykate Jasper, writing in February 2017:
“The Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which has been tracking the number of books published by and about people of color since 1994, announced their numbers for 2016 on Wednesday. For children’s books published last year, approximately 22% were about people of color, and 12% were written or illustrated by people of color. Currently, people of color constitute 38% of the U.S. population.”
At a time when non-white people are being reduced to stereotypes in the political arena, I believe that representation matters more than ever. I feel an obligation to write non-white characters who, if not necessarily heroes, are nuanced, well-rounded – in other words, fully human.
There can be a danger in this. I believe Junot Diaz has written about the pressure that non-white writers feel to be the voice of their community. You have to be careful not to be some kind of self-righteous mouthpiece – well, you can be that if you want to be, but it rarely makes for good art. Then you have the warning from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie of “the danger of a single story” – of writing a tale that people then take to be representative of an entire community.
As much as you can, you must avoid the “Other Gaze”. That is to say: you may want your work to resonate widely, and in doing so you may try to make it as accessible as possible. The danger in doing so, though, is that in order to reach a wider audience you reproduce familiar and even comforting tropes.
How do you avoid all this? You can never guarantee how readers will receive your work – in some ways, that’s part of the fun of being a writer. But you can help yourself by being self-aware. Here’s one example.
A few years ago, I began writing a version of Romeo and Juliet, based in a fictional African nation that I had created. The romance was to take place between two black men – one of whom was a freedom fighter suspected of bombing the town centre, the other one of whom was a detective investigating the case. It was, I thought, something that could be a moving love story – it would bring in themes of homophobia, of tribal conflict, of forbidden love.
But I didn’t write it, and I’m glad I didn’t. Because, at the time, I was a queer black man who didn’t believe that love between two black men could ever end well – that our society was so violent towards us that any romance was doomed to fail. And, without realising it, I had begun to reproduce that narrative. I didn’t write the novel because I believe that it’s time for gay black men in fiction to have happy endings. That’s why I applaud the director Barry Jenkins for making Moonlight.
That was several years ago, but I am still not immune from the danger of viewing black people only by the oppression that they suffer. Last year I began writing a novel, entitled “Make Us Human”. The title – ironically enough – referred to the one-dimensional way in which the media portrays black people. The novel was about how a black boy is killed by a neo-Nazi, and how the investigation into his death tears the family apart. The black boy, Michael, was a model student and an excellent footballer, yet in death he is made out to be a drug-using troublemaker.
I didn’t finish this novel, and I am glad I didn’t. Because, in the end, it was still framing the story of the black family primarily in terms of its suffering. A few months ago, I published the first seven thousand words of the novel online, and the response was incredible – several friends asked if I could finish writing the book. But I declined. Black people, I thought, are so much more than our pain.
So, I have told you of two novels I have not finished. What is the use of being an artist if I don’t actually finish any work? Well, here is the good news. At the start of this year, I visited the German town of Wurzburg, where I spent a weekend retreat at a place called the Institute for Philosophical Progress. There, I was able to set out the philosophy behind the work that I intended to make this year. I came to the following conclusions.
We are in a time where forces of repression are in the ascendancy. In America, we see a President whose daily ignorance and bigotry is often overwhelming. We are seeing the victimisation of the Other from Myanmar to Egypt to Holland to Iraq. I can therefore do one of two things. I can either write work that reacts to the mood of the times; or I can urge and create a positive vision of the future.
Given that I am of African heritage, and that my work features African protagonists, I think that this makes me an Afrofuturist.
In short, I want to spend the rest of my life writing stories where people who look like me help to contribute to a better world for us all. My work will be inclusive. It will encourage people who are not The Other to empathise with refugees, with immigrants, with non-white people, with queer people.
Last year I wrote what you might call an Afrofuturist novel. It is called “The Trauma Thief”. It is a sci-fi thriller set in London in the near future, with a fourteen-year old black girl as its main character.
It’s taken a while for me to realise this, but most of my favourite artists are Afrofuturists. There’s Outkast, with just two of their seminal albums – ATLiens, and Aquemini. There’s Janelle Monae. My favourite song of all time is Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” – the extended version, of course. It’s closely followed by “Expansions”, by Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes, whose lyrics – though they may seem embarrassingly simple – are as rousing as any I have heard:
“Expand your mind
We all must live
In peace together
Extend your hand
To help the plan
Of love through all
Mankind on Earth”
The modern version of Lonnie Liston Smith’s classic track is probably Kendrick Lamar’s “Fuck Your Ethnicity”, from his Section 80 mixtape. I quote:
“Now I don’t give a fuck if you
Black, white, Asian, Hispanic, goddamn it
That don’t mean shit to me
Fuck your ethnicity.”
In this song, Kendrick advances a radical, beautiful vision of the Other, one which I share. One where the Other uses their vantage point from the edge of society to bring everyone in society together.
I am not proud to say that in my teens I had homophobic views. I am proud to say that, when I realised that I was bisexual in my twenties, I learned empathy for so many other marginalised groups. I realised, to quote the poet Stacey Ann Chinn, that “all oppression is connected”.
This, I think, is my unique opportunity as a member of the Other living in Western Europe. I have, to some extent, faced discrimination from the existing social order, but not enough to stop me doing the work that I need to do. I am in an extremely privileged position, and I acknowledge that. I have a platform where I can help to make life easier for people in more hostile environments.
I am also lucky, in a very particular sense. When society casts you to its fringes, it gives you a perspective from which you can critique it. It is very hard to observe the grand vehicle that is our society when you are speeding along in its front seat. It’s much easier to watch it from the pavement as, often thoughtlessly, it rushes onwards.
I have made this pledge with my work – that my art, as the Other, may at times be scathing, but ultimately it will be optimistic. It will try, as far as I can, to follow the vision of the African feminist Jessica Horn, who set out a political philosophy as inspiring as any I have heard. She said, in an interview with AfricanFeminism.com:
“I claim feminism as a political home, and feminist as a political identity because I believe the feminist proposition that the root of injustice in our world and in the lives of women in particular lies in patriarchal power and its friends racism, classism, homophobia, ableism…and that in order to transform the world we have to challenge patriarchal power. Whenever you challenge unjust power there will be backlash. But I believe in the possibility of justice for all, and for full choice, full happiness, full opportunity and lives free of violence in these gendered bodies we live in. I believe freedom is possible. Anything you believe in is worth fighting for.”
“ My feminist utopia begins in our bodies, as our first and last home, as the only thing that is ever really ours-as the space that life is made real. My utopia is a world where we all live free, healthy, pleasurable, agented lives in our own bodies. It requires political, economic, social and cultural systems that enable embodied freedom for all. Oh and there must be art too. Lots of it.”
This is a joyful vision, one which Horn has described as “revolutionary love”. It is an ideal of which I may fall short, but I will try, as far as I can. I will try.