Deji Bryce Olukotun: The spear of the N-word

21 January 2015


Opinion-piece by Deji Bryce Olukotun    INSIGHT 

In May 2012, a man walked into a South African art gallery and vandalised a painting, portraying President Jacob Zuma naked, that was entitled The Spear of the Nation. He was quietly apprehended by security and did not resist. A few minutes later, another man approached the painting and besmirched it with black paint. He was also arrested, though more violently.  The title of the painting played upon the name of the armed liberation group of the African National Congress during apartheid, Umkhonto we Sizwe, which literally translated meant the “Spear of the Nation.” But in the painting the “spear” was President Jacob’s penis, a reference to his four wives and his trial for rape, for which he was acquitted.

Artist Brett Murray explained: “The Spear has a dual purpose: it is a work of protest or resistance art, and it is a satirical piece.”

Before the Spear incident it is likely that only a handful of people would have viewed the painting at all. The piece is well executed, and its choice of color and tone allude to Soviet propaganda pieces. But it wasn’t groundbreaking stuff, and Murray’s rendering of Zuma’s penis was generous, to say the least. The government claimed that the painting caused “hurt and pain to many South Africans” and that it had violated the “right to human dignity” of the president. As a result, Brett Murray and his gallery assistant received death threats from a church. But there was a silver lining: he became a household name in the country, and P-Diddy, the entertainment mogul, even bought one of his paintings. The painting was never officially banned, and the government was unsuccessful in its attempt to force a newspaper to take down an image of the painting from its website.

The government clearly violated South Africa’s own liberal Constitution by demanding the removal of the painting, and, in making the issue a matter of national concern, it directly caused physical harm to the painting and psychological harm to Murray and his assistant, who both had to flee their homes. It was an example of free expression being used as a pretext to silence a critical voice in the name of tradition.

But the Spear controversy also implicated questions surrounding race, especially given South Africa’s complicated history. Brett Murray was a white South African painting a black South African. It begs the question of who can depict a member of a different ethnic group, especially in an unflattering or ironic manner. When is it appropriate?

Stoking even more controversy, Brett Murray later published a book in which he appears in black face on the cover. This caused a few chuckles in the country, but did not spark the same level of concern as his painting. Black face has a similar connotation in South Africa as in the U.S., because the tradition was brought to South Africa by Americansin the 1800s. In short, it is usually used humorously by whites to depict stereotyped versions of blacks but it is extremely rare to see it today and most people view it as a bizarre relic from a different time. In the U.S., blackface has more or less disappeared, and its history was notably satirised by director Spike Lee in his 2001 film Bamboozled. In the film he uses blackface to demonstrate that the underlying structures of racism still exist in the entertainment industry.

In Europe, several high profile art exhibits dealing with racial stereotypes have recently caught headlines. These include a strange art opening in which Swedish artist Makode Linde baked a cake that looked like a stereotypical African — black skin, red lips — to commemorate the 75th anniversary of an arts organisation. The artist then asked the culture minister Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, who was in attendance, to eat a slice. For some reason the minister obliged and the image coursed around international social media, leading to calls that the minister should be sacked. The artist, who is mixed race like me, explained that he was drawing attention to racial stereotypes through his own concept of Afromantics, but many viewers assumed the exhibit was about Female Genital Mutilation. He sparked outrage amongst black and whites alike.

In 2014, two other art exhibits were criticised for depicting black stereotypes in Britain and Sweden. In London’s Barbican art gallery, artist Brett Williams featured live performances by blacks who were shackled and caged. Brett Williams is a white South African artist like Brett Murray. Swedish artist Dan Park held an exhibit in which he portrayed three black activists with nooses around their necks and Roma people as thieves.

This was the second time that Dan Park had created controversial posters, and this time he had targeted Jallow Mamadou, an anti-racism activist and a member of Sweden’s leftist Vänsterpartiet party. The art gallery was looted and he was sentenced to six months in prison for inciting hatred. The difference between Park’s poster and Brett Murray’s painting of Zuma is that there appeared to be no satirical element, and instead Park seemed to attack already marginalised minorities in the country, none of whom were elected public officials.

Blackface isn’t just the subject of art pieces. In Holland, two million social media users signed a petition in favor of Zwarte Piet “Black Pete,” a character who in Dutch lore helped Santa Claus out of the chimney to help distribute presents. The tradition features whites painting their faces with soot and donning large gold earrings. Minority groups and whites have protested against Black Pete, even leading to the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights calling attention to the practice.

Opponents suggested compromising to change the color of Pete from black to green, but this has not yet happened. Instead some 60 protesters were arrested for failing to remain within approved protest zones.  The police doubled the injustice, because instead of arresting the people dressed as Zwarte Piet, which would have been impossible and included children, they exercised their authority to arrest people in an act of civil disobedience. In August, a lawyer representing the movement against Zwarte Piet received death threats and decided to quit.

It’s not the first time that people have suggested changing the color of an important cultural figure in the name of tolerance. In 1964, Roald Dahl published Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In the original book, as journalist Layla Eplett explained to me, Roald Dahl’s Oompa Loompas were African pygmies hired to work in his factory for all the chocolate they could eat, which they loved and craved. The NAACP, an American civil society group, threatened to boycott the 1971 film version starring Gene Wilder, so the film studio changed the skin color of the Oompa Loompas from black to orange. Roald Dahl then altered the text of a new edition of the book so that they no longer came from Africa. Neither the original book nor the movie were officially banned, instead the author had succumbed to public pressure against stereotypes.

In the U.S., a debate has raged over the use of the term “nigger,” and whether it should be banned entirely. The NAACP held an official “funeral” for the N-word in Detroit in 2007, deciding that the term no longer had any positive value for race relations or tolerance in the U.S. But the word persists today, so much so that the National Football League, the most popular sports league in America, proposed banning its athletes and officials from using the term on the playing field. Piers Morgan, a U.S. television personality who gained notoriety as a tabloid journalist in the UK under Rupert Murdoch, also wrote an op-ed about how blacks should shoulder the responsibility to eliminate the N-word because they are the most frequent users of the term.

I have my personal views on the matter. I grew up in a small town which was once a center of the Ku Klux Klan in New Jersey, but by the time we moved there the Klan was gone and our neighbors were generally very welcoming. Nigger with an “r” is a term I dislike intensely and I believe it has no value other than as a cultural relic. I didn’t really hear the term “nigga” — with an “a” — until I started listening to hip-hop, and the term clearly had a different meaning from “nigger.” My white friends would occasionally rhyme words by Dr Dre or Snoop Dogg, but they sounded ridiculous, mostly because it’s hard to rhyme with rhythm, but also because we grew up in the suburbs and couldn’t make the words sound like the rap artists. When I moved to New York, I heard black kids saying nigga in all kinds of contexts. The word is versatile: it can be used as an insult, a complement, a term of endearment, or even a punch line to a joke, depending on the situation. Still, most people use the word “son” much more frequently than “nigga,” as in “listen to me, son” instead of “listen to me, nigga.”

Despite my skin color I do not believe I have any right to use the N-word and I don’t want to. My feeling is that you shouldn’t say it unless you grew up using the term in your community and you were raised using the term with black people hearing you use it. The last part is an important caveat, because it doesn’t matter to me if you and your brother called each other nigga in the house if you did not have some sort of approval by black people — because in any other context you would be offending someone. This is not nearly as complicated a dilemma as Piers Morgan makes it sound. If you are white, in my opinion, you should never use the word, except in limited circumstances explicitly defined and approved by blacks on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, you should never assume that anyone of color would want to hear the N-word.

As journalist Ta Nehisi Coates explained, a “separate and unequal standard for black people is always wrong. And the desire to ban the word ‘nigger’ is not anti-racism, it is finishing school.” Author Rebecca Carroll clarified: “White people don’t get to use that word — and they don’t get to bar black people from using that word by pretending that they just want other white people to stop.”

I understand how strange the controversy over the N-word may seem to someone outside America. When I lived in South Africa, I had drinks with a white man who told me he wanted apartheid to return and I let it roll off my shoulders to keep the conversation going. But when a man carrying a motorcycle helmet painted with the Confederate flag walked into a restaurant where I was eating, I grew very upset. You see, he had brought an American symbol into the context. I also understand that many people listen to hip-hop out of curiosity about African Americans, so it seems unfair to ask them to only sing parts of the lyrics they like but not others. Author Junot Diaz, who is Dominican-American, explained that the concern with word might be overblown:

What’s funny is that this is a conversation that interests the middle class and the upper classes in our communities — but talk to kids where I grew up or where I’m living now and that’s not really what’s at the top of their priorities. They’re wondering why they’ve been abandoned educationally, politically, culturally — why living in these urban zones is so very bad for your goddamn health.

Our uncomfortable limbo with the N-word is the cost of a marginalised group re-appropriating a term that once served to marginalise it. It’s like reversing the course of a river; it’s natural that there should be whirlpools and eddies where some would find it too treacherous to swim.

But what I’m suggesting are just rules of thumb for the N-word. I am calling for individuals to make personal choices about how they behave, and to err on the side of inclusion and tolerance for minorities. I’m also a creative artist. I do not believe that the N-word should be banned from writing or art. This is mostly for practical reasons — when I worked for the writers’ organisation PEN, I learned that the censorship of artistic expression always has a major chilling effect on other, valid kinds of expression. For example, what about an artist wrestling with her experience of racism in art? Is art not an excellent way for her to explore her thoughts about the N-word? The fact is that most art is never viewed by many people, and most abhorrent content is outweighed by much more benign or even benevolent content.

Boycotting is a different strategy that can be helpful. In the examples of both Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Brett Williams’ exhibit of human slaves at the Barbican Gallery in London, activists attempted to boycott the works. Boycotts have the ability to take money out of the creator’s pockets and simultaneously to build public awareness about the injustice. I think this is an acceptable form of protest provided it is not used against the vulnerable. For art, boycotts are better than calling for the full power of the state, which could stomp its jackboots in people’s faces and lock them in prison with little discretion.

How does the digital age change all this? Some of it is the same-for every revolting swastika, there are ten thousand videos of cats leaping into boxes or babies taking their first steps. But an important argument in Piers Morgan’s article, mentioned above, is that the N-word is used almost 500,000 times per day on Twitter. Social media brings immediacy and can, in certain cases, incite harm or even violence, and not just because the president of a country doesn’t like to be imagined naked.

In France in 2012, a Jewish student group called on authorities to investigate the use of the hashtag #unbonjuif (a good Jew), which was being used as an anti-Semitic slur on Twitter. A French court ordered Twitter to hand over the identifying information of the people who had posted the Tweets to the authorities in July 2013 after prolonged legal battles. The case demonstrated the importance of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter today, which allow users to block or report abusive users, but which do not, generally, have to proactively police their content because of the large volume passing through their servers. The user bases of these companies now rival the world’s largest countries — with Facebook having 1.3 billion users in 2014 — so expression on their networks can have real effects on the ground. As the French case shows, their decisions become even more acute in the face of local laws relating to incitement to violence and national hatred.

There are genuine risks to free expression when governments ban speech because of religion or national hatred. Laws to protect against discrimination can be used to jail dissident voices. Take the case of Iranian cartoonist Mana Neyestani, who was forced into exile after one of his cartoons sparked protests that resulted in a government crackdown. He was blamed for the crackdown on the basis of spreading national hatred with his cartoon — but he didn’t kill the protesters, the government did. To address this issue, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights adopted its Rabat Plan of Action in 2012. Among many thoughtful recommendations, the plan suggests that in deciding whether to punish speech for incitement, the state must consider the context, speaker, intent, content, extent of the speech, and likelihood of harm of any speech. This is because international law requires any impingement on freedom of expression to be proportionate. Importantly, those who are wronged by incitement should receive access to a remedy and should be made whole again for their suffering.

Applying these recommendations by the UN is a positive step forward, but not easily workable on the internet in real time. The reason is the sheer volume of content that passes through social media. One hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every single minute. No individual could possibly police all that content, which is why users are asked to alert companies about offending Tweets, posts, and videos. The decisions these companies make are shaping free expression on a global scale.

But the lines are increasingly blurring. This past month, racial tensions in the U.S. have been stretched by the failure of two grand juries to decide to prosecute police officers for killing unarmed black men. Social media related to the killings helped spur the outrage against racial injustice, including video of the death of Eric Garner, a man who was choked to death on camera by a police officer in a borough of New York City. His last words “I can’t breathe” have since become a slogan for live social protest and an internet meme at the same time.

There are also problems with identity. Some protesters may be excited to loudly announce on Twitter that they are supporting nationwide protests, while others may prefer to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals at work or in their communities. Yet companies like Facebook do not have viable opportunities to create anonymous accounts — a problem for dissidents and sexual minorities. So race and protest immediately bring up concerns about privacy as well. What happens if the government requests your information from Twitter after a protest, as it successfully did with the protester Malcolm Harris in the Occupy unrest in New York in 2012? What should the government do if a user Tweets racist or incendiary information to intentionally cause panic during a protest?

Social media will remain an important part of this very painful realisation about the war on African Americans and ethnic minorities through mass incarceration and discriminatory police practices. Technology can be part of the solution, but there is no guarantee that it will solve all these problems. We should be cautious in pressing for laws to outlaw racist speech that could better be accomplished by coding by engineers at social media companies; at the same time, we need to be hyper vigilant and cautious about empowering those coders with too much power to decide too much about our lives.

What lessons can we draw?

1. If you become president, it’s better not to grow upset if someone imagines you naked. It’s certainly better than the reverse, as this image of George W. Bush painting himself in the bath attests.

2. Face paint is best left for clowns, which are creepy enough in their own right without blackface stereotypes.

3. You should never use the N-word, unless of course you can.

4. And remember to think twice before you Tweet. Someone might actually be listening. The government definitely is.

Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of ‘Nigerians in Space’, a novel out now from Unnamed Press. He is an attorney who fights for digital rights at the organisation Access. @dejiridoo

This article is part of a Freemuse  INSIGHT  series edited and compiled by Marie Korpe.
It was published in January 2015.


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