I Refuse to Condemn: Decentring the white gaze
The burden of people of colour in the West is beyond heavy. The ubiquitous white gaze and everything it entails renders many supposedly simple tasks extremely difficult. One wouldn’t care about the white gaze if it didn’t have direct repercussions on one’s life, but it does.
The trauma the white gaze induces takes time to heal that is if it ever does. Ultimately, the white gaze becomes a major part of the way people of colour perceive themselves. "I had constructed me, myself and I through the white gaze," writes Fatima Rajina.
I Refuse to Condemn, a collection of essays edited by Asim Qureshi, does the exact opposite of perceiving oneself through the white gaze. It invites the reader to step out of that restrictive and reductive sphere that is the white gaze, a first step that represents the essence of resistance.
I Refuse to Condemn is a safe space for people of colour to write about their experiences and deconstruct more from there. It is a space in which the status quo is questioned and the refusal to be seen and accepted is made clear
The publication of this essay collection couldn’t have been more timely – published by Manchester University Press in November 2020, a month after the beheading of the French teacher Samuel Paty who had used satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to teach his class.
Muslims of France and the West were expected to apologise for this attack and to condemn it. "Islam is a religion of peace," "This is not what Islam looks like," "the perpetrator is not a good Muslim," were the statements many Muslims felt forced to say, to write and share in their social media accounts and so on. This was done to let the West know, they were condemning this act, they were the opposite of the perpetrator, they were the "good Muslims". That is playing right into the white gaze trope.
The writers of I Refuse to Condemn work at challenging this narrative and giving meaningful ways to react – when needed – by decentring the white gaze.
The scope of this book is far from being limited to Muslims only, it is aimed towards all people of colour who are victims of systemic racism and white supremacy and who are trying to resist them.
In the introduction, the editor Asim Qureshi explains the events that lead to this book, from his interview with Jon Snow in which he was yet again asked to condemn an attack, to the goal of "attempting to understand the culture of condemnation as lived experience by those who are subject most directly to its logic".
This specific point is at the core of this collection and validates the experiences of people of colour. The writers do not aim at sounding academical or intellectual, even though some of the contributors are scholars and academics. Instead, they generously share their own painful experiences of trauma related to racism and draw conclusions from them as to what needs to be changed in order to resist system racism in the future.
The book is then divided into four parts. The first four essays answer the question "How did we get here?" which works as the first part of the book. The question is taken in the literal sense. How did people of colour get to the West? It is a simple question that gets a simple answer in the essay They Needed Us, and Now They Are Terrified by Fatima Rajina.
People of colour are in the West because of colonisation first and foremost. This leads us to answer the question of how people of colour ended up having to condemn attacks carried out by other people of colour in the West.
Shenaz Bunglawala stresses the importance of redefining communication since condemnation culture is carried out through communication. “What if communication isn’t just about what is said by a speaker, but about the integrity of the content being communicated, the agency inherent in the act of speaking out?" What is the purpose of condemnation besides soothing the ears of the white listeners whose minds are filled with prejudices? Does condemnation bring any change? If not, then why should people of colour still be expected to condemn?
Fatima Rajina explains that living in the West one gets accustomed to “consume out othering […] that we no longer attempt to subvert the essentialist constructions of ourselves”.
These essays [in I Refuse to Condemn] are a great support system for people of colour and 'minorities' navigating their resistance in the West
Adam Elliott-Cooper’s essay entitled The Four Stages of Moral Panic focuses on the decline of the nation and how white people, especially the media experience this decline. Similarly to the stages of grief, the media goes through the shock, anger, sadness and acceptance regarding the moral decline of Britain which is to them synonymous with Black social and cultural life.
Tarik Younis' essay closing down the first part of the book draws from his childhood memories and his experience of being the “good Muslim” to explore how our “yearning to be seen”, accepted by white people and white powers is what leads us to condemnation.
But the latter is a trick. As explained later in Part IV Resisting the performance, condemnation is but a distraction from the real issues that must be dealt with as Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan explains by quoting Toni Morrison: “the very serious function of racism, is a distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.”
While in Part I the writers explore the details and dissect the current state of the West, they also provide possible solutions to resist, as all the writers do all throughout the book even though Part II, III, IV are entitled respectively Resisting the Structure, Resisting the Personal, Resisting the Performance.
The editor, Asim Qureshi recommends reading the book as a whole but also taking the liberty to “dip in and out of the chapters”. The essays can be read on their own, but there is also great connexions between them.
For instance, Shafiuddean Choudry writes about how the supposedly neutral algorithm which is far from being neutral as “biases and prejudices are abstracted into code” as he remembers one instance in which he gets “randomly” selected by the algorithm. Few essays later, Lowkey also recounts the moment when he and his friends get “randomly” stopped in Kent just to be told later that “When we look at your passports and see Lebanon or Iraq we would be stupid if we didn’t ask”.
In another chapter, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan writes that “it is the contradictions between the gazes upon us that provide unexpected opportunities for dodging and feinting”. This part is best embodied by Hoda Katebi during her interview on a local TV station WGN news Chicago or what has now become the famous and empowering “That’s because I’ve read”.
When Larry switches the conversation from fashion, the reason behind Katebi’s presence at the TV station – to nuclear weapons, she “laugh[s] and agree[s] […] knowing they don’t realise [she] would be able to respond.” In this context, the white gaze upon visibly Muslim women allowed for a beautiful and iconic resistance to be broadcast live.
I Refuse to Condemn is a safe space for people of colour to write about their experiences and deconstruct more from there. It is a space in which the status quo is questioned and the refusal to be seen and accepted is made clear. But more importantly, these essays are a great support system for people of colour and “minorities” navigating their resistance in the West.
The publication of I Refuse to Condemn was timely with an attack in France, but it is important to remind that such a book will always be timely regardless of yet another attack, as white supremacy and racism are ongoing.
Assia Belgacem is a French-Algerian book reviewer with a focus on Muslim and Arab literature
Follow her on Instagram: @shereadsox