Recognition is the answer

Why is it crucial to stop censoring Black female artists and activists

By Anna Wetsi

I would like to begin my short essay by thanking the staff of the almanac for their inclusive initiative and for the friendship and patience they have shown me in the writing of this text. Indeed, I am dealing with concentration disorders that are the result of decades of over-adaptation in a hostile environment. I say hostile but the right word would be racist. For decades the butterfly in me has been trying to break through the glass ceiling and spread its wings. To put it in context: Born in Etterbeek in 1976, my Congolese parents lived in Belgium to study at university. Initially, the plan was for us all to return to live in the Congo, but due to the political and economic situation there, this never happened. So I grew up in French-speaking Belgium.

As a young adult, I studied art history at the ULB with the aim of ‘working in a museum or an art gallery’. I must admit that at the time, I didn’t really know this environment and the terms curator or curatorial assistant were not familiar to me. I only knew that I was fascinated by my culture of origin and by Africa in general. I wanted to know more about it. I was also feeling an urge to defend it. I was aware that this part of my identity needed to be protected and preserved. At the same time, I continued the integration efforts instilled by the education of my parents, the school, the society in general. The efforts to integrate were manifested in the way I spoke, in the way I dressed, in my need for perfection in everything. The idea was to blend in and do everything possible to be accepted in Belgian society. Few Congolese parents taught their children Lingala, for example. The message was really to adapt ourselves to the Belgian society and communities. Until the day, after years of applying for a job in the arts, I was forced to admit that no matter how much I tried to integrate, there was a structural system of oppression designed to keep me in a form of inferiority. This realisation was decisive. So I put my energy into taking care of myself and deconstructing the internalised racism that had been pushing me to always want to surpass myself, to always want to do more. I learned that I had value, that my culture of origin had value and that I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, contrary to what society had taught me. So I became what is called an activist, because I was going against the grain to affirm the beauty and validity of African culture. I also denounced racism in European society and took part in many debates on sensitive issues such as the restitution of African stolen goods, the missed opportunity to renovate the Africa Museum or the decolonisation of public space. To me today, the violence of some of the reactions to my emancipation testifies to the need to actively fight racism, because it is alive and well. In her article “Racisme en de psychologische effecten op het kind”, the writer and psychologist Birsen Taspinar uses a definition of racism in a broad sense that is quite enlightening in describing the phenomenon. It is as follows:

“A system of dominance, power, and privilege based on racial- group designations… where members of the dominant group create or accept their societal privilege by maintaining structures, ideology, values, and behavior that have the intent or effect of leaving non-dominant group members relatively excluded from power, esteem, status, and/or equal access to societal resources.”

This definition describes quite well the reactions generally provoked by attempts to reappropriate the discourse or to denounce ordinary racism. The extent of the problem is measured by the repression that such behaviour provokes. For example, I recently posted a short video on a social network denouncing a racist advertising poster. And although many reactions agreed with me, many others tried to put my experience into perspective. I have long wondered what it is about people who do not experience racism that makes them speak out on the issue as if they were experts on it. And I have noticed that these people, these gatekeepers, can be particularly vicious. They don’t hesitate to try to hide their ignorance behind a lot of fancy verbiage, supposedly balanced and nuanced statements, when all they are doing is asserting their desire for the status quo. Racism is thus manifested here in interpersonal relations between people of the same social and cultural background, and it is often the case that these gatekeepers are in fact displaying internalised racism (as some or many of them are themselves Afrodescendants). That is, they are racialised people who have integrated racism into their worldview and who argue for the status quo using arguments borrowed from colonial propaganda about the salvific, civilised North and the savage, opportunity-less South. This attempt to silence racialised people who speak out against social injustice is at the heart of how our society works. The injunction to accept one’s fate silently and with a smile is disseminated in the media at all levels, whether it is a question of well-thought-out testimonies, of people who have succeeded in creating a place for themselves socially or economically, by dint of effort and self-denial. This injunction to be cheerful is another manifestation of the survival of contemporary colonialism, or coloniality which constitutes a form of violence. The consequences of this everyday violence manifest themselves in various ways among racialised people. Withdrawal and low self-esteem are common symptoms.

For me, this includes attention deficit and withdrawal. Since the period of confinement during the COVID-19 crisis, I can no longer tolerate the daily microaggressions. My body and brain have become accustomed to living away from the insistent, sometimes animated looks in the supermarket. They have become unaccustomed to accepting the surprise in other people’s eyes when I am in a socially privileged environment. I now prefer to order my shopping online and have it delivered. If there is one thing that seems to horrify the dominant world, it is a black woman who speaks out on issues of racism. Who openly asserts her will to power. And just like Mc Solaar when he sings, “Le silence est d’or, et dort. Alors, je me tais” Silence is golden, and sleep. So I remain silent in the title ‘Séquelles’, while in another (Qui sème le vent récolte le tempo), he affirms on the contrary: “Le silence est d’or mais je choisis la cadence.” Silence is golden but I chose the cadence”, I accept contradictions and nuance. I accept that one day I choose to speak and another day I choose silence or opacity. I choose to speak at chosen times, and I allow myself to be silent sometimes. Speaking up and choosing authenticity. Not rejecting aspects of my culture of origin or identity that are stereotyped by the dominant world takes diligence. Because there are consequences. Censorship is real even though there are many strategies of resistance to deal with it.

Often, people who live in the privilege of whiteness ask me what they can do to participate in the emergence of a more inclusive world. This is a difficult question to answer because there is no magic formula. There is no manual or recipe to follow. It is a slow and voluntary process that requires, above all, empathy. You have to be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, without thinking in their place. And accept that among the ‘other’ there is a great diversity of points of view, sometimes radically different. Amongst the other, there are specialists and thinkers, and there are also people who do not question their identity or their place in society. The first thing to do is to let the people who want to speak do so, and to listen actively. In the end, this means giving them some form of recognition. This theme of recognition is crucial. Isn’t there an adage that says, “If you admit it, you are halfway forgiven”? It is crucial to recognise the suffering and violence of the past, the present and the difficulty in this context of projecting oneself into the future for people who have lived through it for several generations. Many authors have written about the condition of being Black or racialised in a minority context. Frantz Fanon spoke of the double punishment to describe the phenomenon of land appropriation coupled with mental alienation, both for the colonised and the coloniser. James Baldwin spoke of being a stranger in one’s own home, to describe the feeling of not belonging to a world that is nevertheless one’s own. Malcolm Ferdinand describes the situation as follows:

“Reduced to a labour force of other people’s desire, slaves remain strangers to the world (…) The slave ship has ‘created’ beings who are neither strangers nor true citizens, assigned to the hold, whose primary strangeness is to be inadmissible on the deck of the world.” (p. 254, A Decolonial Ecology)

Being inadmissible on the deck of the world or being assigned to be nothing, a concept by Achille Mbembe (Sortir de la grande nuit, 2013). Norman Ajari describes Black Necropolitics as: “a birth that is at the same time a non-naissance to the world, (…) Black lives destined from the start to a ‘form-of-death’. “Et ainsi de suite”, as Youssoupha sings in his track Entourage, for I could go on citing other examples of thinkers and artists who have attempted to describe the Black condition in the West.

But I would now like to analyse the need for recognition, as conceptualised by the sociologist Axel Honneth, and perhaps show that this is the way to change things and to heal, to end the violence. I invite here to replace fear and censorship towards Black and Bipoc militants with acceptance and recognition as a societal model. The violence of censorship comes from the fact that revolt is a struggle for recognition. It is a necessary and normal stage of it. In his or her identity journey, every individual is led to fight for recognition, dignity, life. Everyone aspires to be recognised for what they are. According to Axel Honneth, “The individual does not seek so much to suppress or lower his adversary as to be recognised by him in his individuality”. However, we build and create an image of ourselves, an identity based on the gaze of others. All attempts to deny our experiences of Noirxes, all demands to disregard our specific condition are punishments that only add to the initial punishment, which is already the denial of our individuality and our value. The different forms of contempt hurt and destroy the relationship to oneself. The forms of recognition are: emotional ties (love/friendship), legal recognition as well as membership in a solidarity group (family, society, state). The fact that cultural institutions can stop penalising and censoring activist artists, recognising that this stage of revolt is a necessary passage for the liberation of racialised people, is an essential step. And it is not enough to propose to artists who are known for doing depoliticised work to suddenly work on committed themes. It seems to me that when such an awareness takes place, the commitment of artist-activists should really be recognised. People who have not hesitated to defy censorship, as in the case of Laura Nsengiyumva. This artist, who describes herself as an artivist (a contraction of artist and activist), works in a context where forms of recognition are undermined. She interprets the character of Queen Nikkolah in order to repair the forms of contempt that hurt and destroy the relationship to oneself through the racist folklore of Zwarte Piet (Père Fouettard in French). As an artist, woman, Black and activist, Laura finds herself at the intersection of many sources of discri mination. Intersectionality is the key concept articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1991 to describe the situation of Black and Latina women who found themselves at the intersection of discriminations that were directed only at them: these discriminations were in fact not directed at white women or Black men, but at Black and Latina women. Similarly, a Black female artist like Laura Nsengiyumva, whose work is considered radical, has to face discrimination that only concerns her as a Black ‘radical’ female artist. All female artists are facing underrepresentation and invisibility, but when it comes to openly and directly confronting social inequalities due to race in the society, this is another step. Once only someone for whom this question is as crucial as a matter of life and death can choose to take, no matter what the dominant world will like it or not. That’s why still very few black women artists in Belgium dare to address these decolonial themes. These are indeed themes that may seem easier to address when not trying to cope with institutions and openly working at advocating for a change. There are a few Black women activists who actively fight in Belgian society to bring about a change of mentality. For these women activists, as for the artists, very few can count on family support, for example. because of the disparities in experience between parents socialised in their country of origin and children socialised in Belgium; and for economic and social reasons too, because the racism and structural discrimination to which these women’s communities are subjected deprive them of a support network to which they can turn in the event of violence (loss of professional income, divorce, etc.) and lead them more quickly into situations of such precariousness that they have to turn to social assistance services.

Moreover, activists who have the courage to speak out against social and racial injustice face censorship and retaliation that average people in society claims is normal. One should be prepared to suffer the consequences of resistance and to languish in the margins if one does not wish to bow to structural injustices. Society thus exercises a silent violence against those who have the audacity to want to act to improve the material conditions of the group, at a collective level. Indeed, Black people, more than any other group, are denied the right to form a community. What the capitalist and neoliberal world fears more than anything else is the collective and political organisation of Black people (Fania Noël-Thomassaint). This incapacity to join a group in solidarity is the ultimate denial of recognition by the state, by society as its guardian, and ultimately by Black people themselves, who then act as gatekeepers (or house n…) holding on to the little comfort they have gained and who have internalised structural racism.

This is why, as Afrodescendent people, we must learn to dare to claim our right to error, to exaggeration, to opacity. We must also collectively claim our right to individuality, to originality. There is no one way to be Black or African, so we must stop with all kinds of experts on Black and/or African cultures and allow for a plurality of voices. The revolt can no longer be silent and must become audible, vocal. This year, 2022, Queen Nikkolah received a Golden Afro Artistic Award. This sign of recognition from the African community is an indicator of the change in mentality that is taking place. She is going mainstream. She is slowly gaining the support of the Black community. This means that the mental alienation and internalised racism that acts to neutralise the will of the people concerned is receding. But in the end, and to quote Queen Nikkolah herself, “what the boldest must say to themselves is that everything that once seemed crazy will sooner or later become mainstream, at least in terms of decolonisation”. The question is whether one is an innovator or a follower. The Queen has definitely chosen her side.

Anne Wetsi MPOMA she-her is President of Nouveau Systeme Artistique asbl.