Theorizing Modernities article

Black Dignity as a Universal Horizon

Black Lives Matter protest in Brussels, Belgium. June 7, 2020. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Vincent Lloyd’s Black Dignity is a thoughtful and important reflection on dignity. Taking the Black Lives Matter movement as a starting point, Lloyd writes a philosophical manifesto that does not restrict itself only to theoretical analysis but equally offers ideas for how to re-center the struggle for a renewed Black dignity. Dignity doesn’t restrict itself to what he describes as the opposition to “ontic” manifestations (oppression, exploitation, and harm), but should extend to a continuous opposition and struggle against relationships of domination, which is defined by the capacity to impose one’s will over another human being. Dignity, therefore, is the refusal of that relationship of domination, the refusal of subjugation.

As someone who has been studying, researching, and thinking about race and racialization in continental Europe, and especially from the vantage point of what scholars have come to describe as the Muslim question, I take Lloyd’s reflections on dignity, especially as he constructs it in opposition to respectability, as a basis to reflect on how mechanisms of racialization operate in very distinct forms. While the legacy of the transatlantic slave-trade figures as the background in Lloyd’s reflection, race works differently—but no less insistently—in Western Europe, a continent which still fails to grapple with colonialism and its afterlives. Starting from two cases, which touch upon the question of Blackness and Islamophobia, I want to address how the question of dignity can be rethought in a context where one’s alterity is simply erased.

Respectability and Survivability

In May 2023, the sixth edition of the Afropolitan festival was held at the prestigious Centre of fine Arts (Bozar) in Brussels. This festival started in 2015 as an annual homage to the Belgian and European Afrodiasporic community in all its complexity. Artists, community organizers, and filmmakers gather to discuss questions and issues that are at the heart of the African diaspora. This year’s festival was dedicated to the theme “Legacies from the Black Cosmos.” For three days, dozens of artists gathered to showcase and discuss the imaginative possibilities of Black communities, taking their inspiration from the American artistic movement of Afrofuturism. As with the previous editions, the central purpose of the festival was to allow for African artists to “tell their stories and (re)present themselves.” The festival is well-attended and receives  timid, yet overall positive media coverage.

While the legacy of the transatlantic slave-trade figures as the background in Lloyd’s reflection, race works differently—but no less insistently—in Western Europe, a continent which still fails to grapple with colonialism and its afterlives.

About 40 miles to the north of Brussels, in Belgium’s second largest town, Antwerp, which is known for its harbor and diamonds, another festival took place a few weeks earlier: the Medina Expo. The festival started out as the “Muslim Expo” in 2014. It was held in the commercial exposition halls of the city. Its central aim was to create a space of encounter between Muslims and non-Muslims and to allow for Muslims to showcase their talents and competencies in all their diversity. Since 2014, dozens of entrepreneurs and community organizations have gathered in a large public hall, while workshops and public talks are given by influential speakers. In 2017, the organization decided to change its name from the Muslim Expo to the Medina Expo to attract a wider non-Muslim audience. It also hoped to entice more entrepreneurs who often operate in “the city” (Medina in Arabic). This, interestingly, also occurred right after the terrorist attacks of 2015 and 2016. The festival is largely self-funded and organized using private funding. Since 2015, every edition of the Medina Expo has also been consistently met with demonstrations by the far-right party Vlaams Belang who vehemently oppose its organization. They warn that it marks the steady Islamization of society and threatens the possibility of “Islamic terror.” In 2017, the mayor of Antwerp, Bart De Wever, ordered a security clearance on one of the keynote speakers from the Netherlands and public speakers are regularly subjected to public scrutiny.

The two cases sketched above can be read as illustrations of love: Afrodiasporic and Muslim love. Men, women, and community organizers gathering to celebrate each other and re-center the narrative around their own accomplishments. Yet these two initiatives don’t seem to attract the same kinds of responses from the public, as the reactions to the Medina Expo illustrate. Muslim-centered public initiatives are routinely seen as polemical. Both their body politics (the headscarf being the most infamous), as well as their public initiatives are often met with suspicion. Muslims are accused of promoting unacceptable forms of secessionism, or simply banned from engaging in advocacy work as the dissolution of the French human rights organization fighting Islamophobia, the The Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF), illustrated. A quick, and misleading, reading could lead one to conclude that anti-Blackness (or Afrophobia, the preferred term in Europe) and Islamophobia don’t work in the same ways in a country like Belgium, and that organizing as Muslim makes one subject to a higher degree of harassment and subjugation. Yet holding such a claim would not only be factually inaccurate (as the moral panic around wokeness and decolonization has aptly shown in the recent years, and which also includes an anxiety around Black collective bodies), but it also risks indulging in an “oppression Olympics” that is neither analytically fruitful, nor politically helpful. Rather, the distinct sociological treatment of these different cases should be seen as an invitation to adopt a relational view of domination, i.e., to understand how domination can take different forms and work through distinct mechanisms.

In Lloyd’s book, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the primordial encounter between the White master and the Black slave serve as paradigmatic and phenomenological starting points for conceptualizing domination and reflecting on dignity. In a context like the US—where slavery and Blackness have historically, legally, financially, and institutionally been co-constitutive in shaping the body politics— one can understand how and why Black dignity comes to represent “the paradigm of dignity” (14). Dignity is in Lloyd’s work also sharply contrasted with respectability, which he considers a temptation that those involved in the struggle against domination should resist. Respectability maintains an asymmetrical relationship with Whiteness as it strives for a multicultural politics of recognition which depoliticizes the struggle against domination.

In the continental European context, however, the dialectical relationship between “Blackness” and “Whiteness” doesn’t operate as an explicit formative element, nor does colonialism, for they are simply erased from the body politics. The Dutch anthropologist Gloria Wekker describes this as White Innocence, which she understands to be the ostensible disavowal of a series of interdependent ties (produced through colonialism, migration, etc.) in the political imaginary of the Netherlands. In the European context, this is manifested in the repeated erasure of the historical role of Islam in the formation of Europe and the erasure of colonialism from the archives of the industrial revolution. This colonial aphasia maintains itself today through the vehement denial of this postcolonial presence, which today is embodied in the presence of migrants from the former colonies. This colonial aphasia is managed through the exoticization and commodification of these migrants and/or their criminalization. The multicultural “other” is either celebrated as a commodity of diversity or chastised as a threat. I see the two cases described above as two sides of the same coin.

Ancestral Uprising AR art installation at Spadina Museum, by Afrofuturist Quentin VerCetty. Photo Credit: Flickr User City of Toronto. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A relational view of domination also shows how striving for “respectability” is not always only a matter of recognition but also of survival. Islamophobia is often defined through discipline rather than domination. At stake is not so much the erasure of Muslims’ will (as is the case with the Slave), but rather their continuous redisciplining into acceptable lifeforms, which means—in the European context—lifeforms which are seen to be compatible with liberalism, secularism, and Whiteness. As has been noted by several scholars, Muslim subjectivities have, for distinct historical and theological reasons, been treated as important challengers of liberal modernity. Their redeemability (or secularization) has often been treated as a conditio sine qua none of their acceptability. This redisciplining is manifested in the case above through the renaming of the Muslim Expo as the Medina Expo, as well as through the heightened emphasis on a neoliberal logic of entrepreneurship and self-governance (all participants are presented as entrepreneurs).

One could read this as an instance of trying to gain “respectability.” Yet respectability includes not only wearing the right “clothes,” but also an existential component. It is also a matter of (social) survivability. For if, and when, Muslims fail to properly comply to liberal and secular demands of Whiteness, they risk a form of social death that may translate into isolation, marginalization, expulsion, deportation and in some cases—and depending on the geographical zone—physical death.

Dignity and/as Solidarity

In Lloyd’s account, dignity appears primarily as an articulation of resistance and opposition to domination. The struggle for dignity is both an individual and collective enterprise which is also affectively charged (rage, love, and spirituality feature prominently in the book). Yet in a context where postcolonial domination is expressed through erasure rather than only domination, the question of solidarity and mutual entanglement imposes itself as a pressing question—one which isn’t addressed in very explicit terms in Lloyd’s text. Solidarity is necessary to make one’s presence visible and to oppose postcolonial racial systems of domination. Blackness, I want to suggest, has historically played an important role in making that possible—in a way that exceeds subjects who are phenotypically defined as Black. Rather, the tradition of political Blackness has produced a set of discursive repertoires that make certain struggles legible, certain oppressions visible, and certain fights possible. Blackness has historically produced a vital and universal repertoire of speakability in the struggle against domination which goes beyond the case of the US. I want to illustrate this point by returning to the BLM movement as it spread outside the U.S. and show how it allowed for an unprecedented political conversation on police violence.

Muslim subjectivities have, for distinct historical and theological reasons, been treated as important challengers of liberal modernity. Their redeemability (or secularization) has often been treated as a conditio sine qua none of their acceptability.

#BlackLivesMatterBrussels, June 2020. Around 10,000 people gather in the streets of Brussels around the monumental Palace of Justice to support the worldwide protest for Black dignity. From the public tribune, Black community organizers and representatives call on the public to face the afterlives of colonialism and tackle the realities of police brutality and violence. One of the banners reads “COLERE NOIRE, COMMUNE REVOLTE” (Black anger, common revolt), thereby signaling a definite rupture with the invisibilization as it is hegemonically imposed through Europe’s postcolonial racial order.

A few weeks before the demonstration, on April 10th 2020, a young man named Adil Charrot of North-African origin was killed in a confrontation with the police. The police denied any guilt in his death and spoke of a tragic accident, while a small coalition composed of family members and friends challenged this version. The story of Adil would have passed unnoticed were it not for the death of George Floyd a few weeks later, on May 25th, 2020. The BLM movement that ensued launched a worldwide conversation on police violence. Suddenly, Adil’s fate was not only discussed in small activist blogs, but in articles that were published in the national press. But he was not the only one: in those weeks, the larger public learned about several other victims who died after a confrontation with the police, not to speak of all those who have perished in their quest for a better future when trying to cross the borders of Europe. The demography of these victims is much more messy: Moroccan, Algerian, Afghan, Syrian, Nigerian, Guinean, Congolese, Slovak.

Preceding the organization of the Black Lives Matter demonstration there was a slight indecision among the organizers on how to deal with this “messy” reality of the victims of police violence. BLM was understood to be a movement addressing Black suffering, and some organizers felt that this focus should remain central. Yet after much negotiation and discussion an agreement was met that family members of Mehdi, one of the North-African victims of police violence, would be allowed to speak in the tribune. The hesitations among some of the organizers stood in sharp contrast with the crowd, who didn’t wait for the organizer’s approval: the banners that were carried honored the most well-known victims of police violence, endorsing this “messy” reality and including victims with “Arab” sounding names. They all understood that they too were “Black” and that they were killed because their lives were considered redundant.

Against institutionalized attempts to erase the memory of #Semira #Lamine, #Mehdi or #Adil, BLM thus served as an incredible opportunity to honor and restore the dignity of the victims of the racialized system of exclusion. Such victims are too often forgotten and erased from the public conversation. By challenging a simplistic take on “Blackness,” a larger alliance was built that defied attempts to co-opt Sub-Saharans (Afro-descendants) into a fetishized politics of representation and place them in competition with other racialized communities (“Arabs” or “Muslims”—implying that Muslims aren’t Black). Racial dominance was addressed in its “ontological” appearance, as Lloyd suggests, by collectively challenging its necropolitics, or politics of death. Just as hip-hop has been able to offer a language and rhythm to the world that has travelled well beyond the Bronx and into the French banlieues or Gaza, the political vocabularies and tactics generated through the African American struggle has had a universal reach that has inspired and shaped struggles all over the world. While the struggle against domination might be a never-ending aim, as Lloyd rightly states, the quest for Black dignity acts as one of the universal compasses in this process.

Nadia Fadil
Nadia Fadil is an Associate Professor at the Department of Social and Cutlural Anthropology at KU Leuven. She works on religion, race and secularism with a particular focus on Islam in Europe. Her most recent publications include Secular Bodies, Affects and Emotions. European configurations (2019) and Radicalization in Belgium and the Netherlands. Critical perspectives on Violence and Security (2019).

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