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What everyone gets wrong about Charlie Hebdo and racism

Over the past week, millions of people who had never heard of French magazine Charlie Hebdo have come into contact with its controversial covers and cartoons. And many have come away with questions about those cartoons, including a nagging sense that their depictions of Islam and people of color have been insensitive, or even racist.

Some argue that any questioning of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons implies sympathy with the terrorists or is tantamount to criticism of free speech itself, but this is a fallacy. We, as a society, have all agreed that there can never be any justification for such an attack and that free speech is an irreducible value. That question has been answered.

But an entirely separate set of questions still stand: are Charlie Hebdo's cartoons racist? Did they go a step beyond satire and become something uglier?

What Charlie Hebdo's critics get wrong about its satire

This October 2014 cover reads "Boko Haram's sex slaves are angry." The women are shouting, "Don't touch our welfare!" (Charlie Hebdo)

To broach this question, it helps to start with a cover that is not specifically about Islam — we'll get to that later — and that has been widely circulated among Charlie Hebdo's non-French critics as one of the magazine's most obviously racist.

Here's what the cover shows: a group of headscarf-wearing, pregnant Nigerian women shouting "Don't touch our welfare!" The title reads, "Boko Haram's sex slaves are angry."

On the surface, then, it would appear that the magazine is ridiculing Nigerian human trafficking victims as welfare queens; hence the outrage among non-French readers. However, that is not actually what the cover is conveying. In many ways it's saying the opposite of critics' interpretations.

French satire, as Vox's Libby Nelson explained, is not so straightforward as it would seem; jokes usually play on two layers. In this cover, the second layer has to do with French domestic politics: Charlie Hebdo is a leftist magazine that supports welfare programs, but the French political right tends to oppose welfare for immigrants, whom they characterize as greedy welfare queens cheating the system.

What this cover actually says, then, is that the French political right is so monstrous when it comes to welfare for immigrants, that they want you believe that even Nigerian migrants escaping Boko Haram sexual slavery are just here to steal welfare. Charlie Hebdo is actually lampooning the idea that Boko Haram sex slaves are welfare queens, not endorsing it.

That's what's tricky about two-layer satire like Charlie Hebdo's: the joke only works if you see both layers, which often requires conversant knowledge of French politics or culture. If you don't see that layer, then the covers can seem to say something very different and very racist.

The New Yorker did almost the exact same thing in 2008

A 2008 cover of the New Yorker (New Yorker)

To get a sense of how Charlie Hebdo's two-layer humor works, recall this 2008 cover from the New Yorker. It portrayed Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, as Muslim. And it portrayed his wife, Michelle Obama, as a rifle-toting militant in the style of the black nationalists of the 1960s. It caused some controversy.

If you saw this cover knowing nothing about the New Yorker or very little about American politics, you would read it as a racist and Islamophobic portrayal of the Obamas, an endorsement of the idea that they are secret black nationalist Muslims. In fact, though, most Americans immediately recognized that the New Yorker was in fact satirizing Republican portrayals of the Obamas, and that the cover was lampooning rather than endorsing that portrayal.

To understand Charlie Hebdo covers, you have to look at them the same way that you look at this New Yorker cover. And you also have to know something about the context of French politics and social issues. Many non-French readers coming to Charlie Hebdo don't have that context and don't know to look for that second layer, and so are reading the covers as something they are not.


Charlie Hebdo's satire makes high-minded points, but indulges racism along the way

Again, scroll up to the Boko Haram cover, looking at it again through the lens of the New Yorker cover and reading it as a comment on the French right's anti-welfare politics. It looks a lot less racist. But it still looks racist. (Similarly, a number of Americans who understood the New Yorker nevertheless still felt it went too far.)

You don't need me to walk you through the way that these women are drawn to see the racist tropes in their depiction — tropes that come directly from colonial-era racist ideas about Africans as sub-human, and tropes that are unnecessary to make the magazine's point about welfare. And the emphasis of the cover, making light of Nigerian victims of mass rape in order to skewer French politicians, is uncomfortably revealing. The very real suffering of these women is treated insensitively, as a low priority.

This is a regular pattern in Charlie Hebdo's cartoons, even if you see the two-layer satire they often play at. People of color are routinely portrayed with stereotypical features — Arabs given big noses, Africans given big lips — that are widely and correctly considered racist. These features are not necessary for the jokes to work, or for the characters to be recognizable. And yet Charlie Hebdo has routinely included them, driving home a not-unreasonable sense that the magazine's cartoons indulged racism.

Further, the portrayal of people of color, as well as Muslims of all races, has been consistently and overwhelming negative in Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Reading Charlie Hebdo cartoons and covers in the aggregate, a reader is given the uniform and barely-concealed message that Muslims are categorically bad, violent, irrational people. This characterization indulges and indeed furthers some of the widest and most basic stereotypes of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims. That would certainly seem to be racism in its most unmistakable and transparent form.

(There is a counter-argument among Islamophobes that Islam is not a race and thus racism against Muslims is impossible. I have heard enough sweeping statements conflating Islam with Arabs to know that Islamophobia is often experienced and indeed expressed as about race, but if you prefer, you may read "racism" as bigotry here.)

Charlie Hebdo's biggest problem isn't racism, it's punching down

Muslim women visit a chateau in Nantes, France (JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD/AFP/Getty)

There are counter-arguments to the assertion that Charlie Hebdo's cartoons are racist. One is that its depictions are meant to satirize racist portrayals rather than endorse them, as with the Boko Haram cover.

Another counter-argument is that its lampooning of radical Islam is aimed at separating out radicalism from mainstream Islam, which is ultimately a service in favor of Islam. The magazine's own editors have said this. "We want to laugh at the extremists — every extremist," Laurent Léger, who survived the attack, told CNN in 2012. "They can be Muslim, Jewish, Catholic. Everyone can be religious, but extremist thoughts and acts we cannot accept."

One cover, for example, portrays a member of ISIS poised to decapitate the Prophet Mohammed; Mohammed says, "I'm the Prophet, asshole!"

But just as we have to consider the larger context when understanding the intent of Charlie Hebdo's satire, so too must we consider that larger context when evaluating the satire's effect. And that larger context is not flattering to Charlie Hebdo.

French society is in the middle of what we in the United States would call a culture war. Though French colonialism ended in the 1950s and 1960s, France has absorbed a large number of immigrants, many of them Muslim, from former colonies in North and West Africa. Those immigrants and their descendants face systemic discrimination.

France's white majority, whether Catholic or secular, tends to be highly skeptical of the idea that the immigrants can ever truly assimilate or be French. This is often expressed as hostility to Muslims or to Islam itself. These attitudes make it very difficult to be a Muslim, or ethnically non-white, in France.

Within the French culture war, Charlie Hebdo stands solidly with the privileged majority and against the under-privileged minorities. Yes, sometimes it also criticizes Catholicism, but it is best known for its broadsides against France's most vulnerable populations. Put aside the question of racist intent: the effect of this is to exacerbate a culture of hostility, one in which religion and race are also associated with status and privilege, or lack thereof.

The novelist Saladin Ahmed articulated well why this sort of satire does not exactly have the values-championing effect we want it to:

In a field dominated by privileged voices, it's not enough to say "Mock everyone!" In an unequal world, satire that mocks everyone equally ends up serving the powerful. And in the context of brutal inequality, it is worth at least asking what preexisting injuries we are adding our insults to.

The belief that satire is a courageous art beholden to no one is intoxicating. But satire might be better served by an honest reckoning of whose voices we hear and don't hear, of who we mock and who we don't, and why.

Jacob Canfield put it more simply: "White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out."

This is a culture war with real victims. Fighting on the winning side and against a systemically disadvantaged group, fighting on behalf of the powerful against the weak, does not seem to capture the values that satire is meant to express.

Charlie Hebdo is Western society at its best and worst

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy reads a 2011 issue of Charlie Hebdo (Franck Prevel/Getty)

So if Charlie Hebdo's cartoons expressed or indulged racist ideas, and if its satire "punched down" in ways that were more regrettable than admirable, then why does it feel so uncomfortable to criticize the magazine?

It's partly because, whatever the magazine's misdeeds, they are so utterly incomparable to the horrific crimes of the terrorists who attacked it that it can feel like a betrayal to even mention them in the same sentence.

But it's also because, with this attack, Charlie Hebdo really has come to symbolize something much larger than the satire embedded with its cartoons: a resolve to maintain freedom of speech even in the face of mortal threats. While free speech is not at the risk of being snuffed out in Western countries over these sorts of attacks, it is an abstract value that is constantly under siege in the world and requires constant defense. The cartoons have become a symbol of that fight.

"Unforgivable acts of slaughter imbue merely rude acts of publication with a glittering nobility," Matthew Yglesias wrote last week. "To blaspheme the Prophet transforms the publication of these cartoons from a pointless act to a courageous and even necessary one."

And yet, raising these cartoons to something much grander does have victims. As is so often the case, those victims are society's weakest and most vulnerable, in this case the Muslim and non-white subjects of Charlie Hebdo's belittling ridicule.

"The elevation of such images to a point of high principle will increase the burdens on those minority groups," as Matt put it. "European Muslims find themselves crushed between the actions of a tiny group of killers and the necessary response of the majority society. Problems will increase for an already put-upon group of people."

The virtues that Charlie Hebdo represents in society — free speech, the right to offend — have been strengthened by this episode. But so have the social ills that Charlie Hebdo indulged and worsened: empowering the majority, marginalizing the weak, and ridiculing those who are different.

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