“The ability to be ignorant, to be unaware of the history and consequences of racial bigotry, to simply do as one pleases, is a quintessential element of privilege. The ability to disparage, to demonize, to ridicule, and to engage in racially hurtful practices from the comfort of one’s segregated neighborhoods and racially homogeneous schools reflects both privilege and power. The ability to blame others for being oversensitive, for playing the race card, or for making much ado about nothing are privileges codified structurally and culturally.”
As I wrote in my last piece, my neighbor, a young Korean women in her mid-20s had disappeared. She’d been taken by border control, in the geographic center of Poland. She’s now returned, documents verified during detention, and I happily greeted her yesterday whilst busily getting into the elevator. Today, I am pleased to hear the humming of the washing machine again (we are both obsessive cleaners!). Within that article I exposed the use of ‘blackface’ by the Vietnamese-Polish drag queen, Kim Lee. I also recounted an interview I did with Lee last summer, whereby she said “they didn’t get the n***** color right,” referring to the piece, modeled on Édouard Manet’s 1863 “Olympia,” in question. Now, the original piece is deeply problematic, and reflective of anti-Black tropes of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
Reflecting on Manet’s original, one notices that the white, relaxed Olympia gazes at the viewer directly, whereas the Black servant brings a boutique of flowers and looks, head tilted, toward her master. This was a time of slavery. Critically, it is important to remember the historical context of this image. Just three years before Manet’s “Olympia,” across the Atlantic, in the US where nearly 4 million African slaves were “serving” (toiling away for) their white masters, Mississippi Representative L.Q.C. Lamar attacked abolitionism and sought to justify slavery based on the supposed natural inferiority of Blacks. Lamar‘s chief authority in his speech, The Slavery Question, was G.F.W. Hegel reading directly from The Philosophy of History. G.F.W. Hegel (1837), a “prominent” European philosopher, wrote in the aforementioned text,
“In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence – a for example, God or Law – in which the interest of man’s volition is involved and in which he realizes his own being. The distinction between himself as an individual and the universality of his essential being, the African in the uniform, undeveloped oneness of his existence has not yet attained; so that the Knolwedge of an absolute Being, an Other and a Higher than his individual self, is entirely wanting.
The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality – all that we call feeling – if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious with humanity to be found in this type of character. The copious and circumstantial accounts of Missionaries completely confirm this, and Mahommedanism appears to be the only thing which in any way brings within the range of culture. Death itself is looked upon by the Negros as no universal natural law; even this, they think, proceeds from evil-disposed magicians. Tyranny is regarded as no wrong, and cannibalism is looked upon as quite customary and proper. Among us instinct deters from it, if we can speak of instinct at all as appertaining to man. But with the Negro this is not the case, and the devouring of human flesh is altogether consonant with the general principles of the African race; to the sensual Negro, human flesh is but an object of sense – mere flesh.
Among the Negroes moral sentiments are quite weak, or more strictly speaking, non-existent. Parents sell their children, and conversely children their parents, as either has the opportunity. Through the pervading influence of slavery all those bonds of moral regard which we cherish towards each other disappear and it does not occur to the Negro mind to expect from others what we are enabled to claim. The polygamy of the Negroes has frequently for its object the having many children, to be sold, every one of them, into slavery; and very often naïve complaints of this score are heard, as for instance the case of a Negro in London, who lamented that he was not quite a poor man because he had already sold all his relations.
The only essential connection that has existed and continued between the Negroes and the Europeans is that of slavery. In this the Negroes see nothing unbecoming them, and the English who have done the most for abolishing the salve-trade and slavery, are treated by the Negroes themselves as enemies.
At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it – that is in its northern part – belong to the Asiatic or European World.”
From Paris to Prussia, from Manet to Mississippi, anti-Black racism proved both an invaluable intellectual excuse for enslaving millions of Africans and for cultural ideas of “white supremacy” – as noted above (Hegel includes “Asiatic” peoples in his Philosophy of History as a part, albeit second to Europeans, of History’s becoming toward Absolute Knowledge). These political, philosophical and aesthetic norms which framed Africans – Black people – as mere objects to be used is still alive and present today. From police violence against Black communities, to racist mass incarceration in the US, and Euro-American anti-African, anti-Arab immigration policies, which includes mass social exclusion, policing and incarceration of Black communities in Europe, the reality of anti-Black racism is all too real.
After publishing the article about racism in Poland, which included Lee’s troubling comments and their vile use of ‘blackface,’ I expected some resistance from Lee. I also, from previous experience, expected mostly silence on the part of the Polish ‘artistic’ and LGBTQ communities. Lee did respond, refuting that the n-word had been used in that interview, despite the fact I had called Maciej Gąsiu Gośniowski, a Polish performance artist, right after my interview with Lee. When I relayed what had happened to Maciej, he immediately told me that publishing that would hurt the Polish LGBTQ community because of Lee’s prominence here. At the time I was struggling with being new to Poland, and also with the multiple ethical questions, I set the profile of Lee aside. However, after living in Poland for another six-months, I began to realize that racism, in all its forms, permeates Polish society. Deeply entrenched in both rural and urban areas, and supported by those who claim to be on the Left, queer, ‘artistic,’ and etcetera Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to Poland, and during my time living in Los Angeles, New York City and London I witnessed some egregious anti-Black rhetoric from ostensibly ‘avant-garde’ circles. Yet in those places there was at least some questioning, some push-back against the rhetoric. In Poland, the sound of crickets fills a great void where opposition voices should be speaking up against racism.
Finally, regarding Lee’s anti-Black ‘art,’ some voices did begin to speak up, push back and make a stand. Unfortunately, these voices were in defense of Lee. Lee wrote, “I have never discussed with the author any racial issues, and for someone to read the shade of the make-up, used during the preparation to the photo-shoot is [a] plain example of […] bad will.” Anna Grodzka, former Polish MP, and the first transgender person elected to parliament, replied on this same Facebook thread, “I think Kim Lee is right about what she told you. I liked her answer. I think your reaction is a misunderstanding. I know her views. I am an enemy against [racism] myself. I know that the complaint against Kim that she is a racist is a misunderstanding.” Lalka Podobińska, founder of ‘Trans-Fuzja,’ the only transgender advocacy group in Poland, responded more forcefully, arguing that the problem was really with Manet’s work and stating “there’s nothing racist in this artistic stylization by Kim!!!” (I suppose one exclamation mark would not have sufficed?)
Karen Taylor, a board member of the European Network Against Racism, writes,
“Worryingly, many European countries fail to acknowledge the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism, which led to deeply rooted stereotypes about Black people. These prejudices continue to this day and feed into the collective imagination and traditions such as blackfacing celebrations in several European countries, such as Saint Nicholas and Black Pete in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Despite this history of racial oppression and current levels of anti-Black racism, European countries continue to be in a state of denial. It is high time to make meaningful efforts to recognize the reality of Afrophobia and ensure that Black people in Europe have equal opportunities and outcomes.”
Indeed, as many Europeans look in horror at the anti-Black police brutality in the US, they are remiss in addressing this same phenomenon at home. Poland is no exception, with the exception that even anti-Black violence in the US is hardly recognized here (it is in places like France, neighboring Germany and the UK). Kim Lee is not the central problem, although their work is vile; rather Lee is an emblem, or symbol, of the problem. Firstly, the photographer, Tomasz Płatek should have known better than to even proceed with Lee’s Manet minstrel mimicry. Secondly, the fact that two renowned Polish Leftists have roundly come out in favor of Lee, without a scintilla of critique, speaks volumes about the intellectually decayed, anemic and internationally irrelevant state of Poland’s so-called “opposition” to the far-right ruling government.
I am a camera.
. . .
Appendix / Image Responses from Facebook