The Unbearable Mediocrity of Being White

Oh Jimmy, how many times do I have to tell you to not play with your surrogate phallus at the dinner table?

All captions penned by Efe Levent. 

I did not know that “European values” were a thing until I tuned into the BBC World Service one fine morning and heard the reporter ask a young woman if she was proud to be German. She had volunteered to greet refugees coming from Eastern Europe and perhaps to take selfies with them to put on her Tinder profile. She chirped some platitudes about something called “European values.” I stopped in my tracks. Is it these values they had when they stole people from Africa and had them work as slaves in plantations across the Caribbean Islands? Could it be their values in carving up the Middle East into arbitrary countries to facilitate their exploitation? Or wait! Could it be the values of making the biggest genocide in world history and triggering the biggest refugee crisis which led to the creation of a nuclear power in that same part of the world?

Humanitarianism summarized.
Humanitarianism summarized.

As if us Middle Easterners did not already have enough things to be grateful to Europe for, now we have to be indebted to them for their recent benevolence. It all started when a journalist took a horrifying picture. A picture that shook the heart of the White Saviour Industrial Complex. A picture so chilling that even a description of it is disturbing. Yet it was circulated with a sense of righteousness that put the dignity of those it concerned at jeopardy. In the name of putting a “human face” to a tragedy, the picture reduced the refugees to mere empty receptacles for white pity. To add insult to injury, for an entire week, mainstream media regaled us with stories titled: “Could This be the Picture that will Finally Change the Mind of Europe?” The inherent mediocrity of whiteness is laid bare by its eagerness to show vulnerable people grovelling at the feet of Europe, just to make itself feel chivalrous for having taken a photograph.  

View of Banksy's Dismaland (2015).
Detail from Banksy’s Dismaland, depicting Mediterranean refugees (2015).

In the art world, Banksy is the prime example of the alarming trend to use third world suffering for personal profit and glorification. Although the UK based artist’s identity is anonymous, the voice in his works is so overwhelmingly white and male, that nobody would be surprised if he turns out to be Prince Charles (think Bruce Wayne/Batman). In his ironic take on Disneyland, Banksy has found it appropriate to feature a little pond featuring miniature drowning refugees. Earlier this year, he had the idea of painting kittens on destroyed buildings in Gaza. He even whitesplained his art to a local man: “I wanted to highlight the destruction in Gaza by posting photos on my website—but on the internet people only look at pictures of kittens.” Like Bono before him and Bob Geldof before, Banksy is keen on opening our eyes into a suffering that is not his. Urban legend claims that at a Glasgow gig years ago, Bono requested the audience to be silent, then slowly started clapping his hands. He eventually declared: “Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa dies.” One voice in the audience pierced the silence to say “Well, fucking stop clapping then!” Like a faithful sidekick who allows the hero to shine, the only Palestinian voice in Banksy’s cavalier expedition to Gaza, is the “local” who asks “please, what does it mean?”

The rising trend in the US for white artists to appropriate the #Blacklivesmatter campaign with total insensitivity to African-American families also illustrates this patronizing disregard. The profit and glory driven feeding frenzy to make art from the police shooting of Michael Brown, has been done without the authorization of his family and in spite of protests. The exhibition depicting his dead body lying face down at a gallery in Chicago or the reading of his autopsy report as “conceptual” poetry are cases in point. Both artists have defended their actions by saying that they are opening a “discussion.” Because clearly, people who are actually affected by injustice are incapable of starting that discussion. Because clearly, when those who are murdered speak out for themselves, it is “divisive.” But when magnanimous white artists and philosophers speak on their behalf, their generosity deserves praise.  

Cecil Rhodes' statue, covered up by students of Cape Town University (2015).
Cecil Rhodes’ statue, covered up by students of Cape Town University (2015).

While white artists are busy appropriating the struggles of people of color, colonial works of public art from an era that is supposed to be “by-gone” still continue to occupy contentious spaces. Students of the University of Cape Town have received a great deal of global attention recently for fighting back against both, with their campaign to remove the Cecil Rhodes statue from their campus with the slogan “All Rhodes lead to the colonization of the mind”. The white elite of South Africa have rushed to defend the presence of the colonial figure on the grounds of “freedom of speech” and celebrating his “entrepreneurial genius.” With textbook strategy of slander, they have reverted back to the language of “savage blacks” in reporting the movement, even branding Chumani Maxwele, the student who started it off as “poo-flinger.”  

Students of color who object to being taught tired old works of the Western canon are similarly being demonized as rabid extremists not only in South Africa but also in Europe and United States. So much (digital) ink has been spilled over this subject by a handful of white men who feel threatened by the idea of losing their cushy positions, that an entire bibliography of links will not do the droning repetitiveness of the argument justice. “Why can’t these students be more civilized?” they cry out. “Can’t they see that memorizing the collected works of Shakespeare will contribute to their cause?” they moan in despair. Much like Cecil Rhodes’s genius, a lot of the culture and art that is placed on the highest pedestals today is in fact, overrated. It comes full-circle then. Because the only kind of culture that white people can be proud of are things like the investment genius of Cecil Rhodes or the raging Islamophobia of Charlie Hebdo, they feel the urge to slip out of their bland existence by fetishizing the pain of others.  

Oh Jimmy, how many times do I have to tell you to not play with your surrogate phallus at the dinner table?
Oh Jimmy, how many times do I have to tell you to not play with your surrogate phallus at the dinner table?

One figure with his male white invention of “universality” stands out as particularly ripe for ridicule: Immanuel Kant. In his discussion of the pleasure principle in *Critique of Pure Reason* Kant, waddles in reveries of a very private kind:

“Suppose that someone says his lust is irresistible when the desired object and opportunity are present. Ask him whether he would not control his passion if, in front of the house where he has this opportunity, a gallows were erected on which he would be hanged immediately after gratifying his lust. We do not have to guess very long what his answer would be.”

Kant is drifting into bizarre sexual fantasies like a 14-year-old pimple ridden boy who draws penises on the back of his homework. The question that keeps him up at night is: would he have sex with the biology teacher if it meant being executed right afterwards? His answer is—queue drumroll—: No. Centuries later Lacan responds saying that he would indeed sleep with the biology teacher. . . And this ladies and gentlemen, is the drivel that passes for philosophy in universities from San Francisco to Mumbai, a system of thinking that understands women as passive “desired objects”, reclining receptively like celebrated nude paintings, mere vessels for the robust imagination of the white male philosopher or artist. Historian Anne McClintock argues that women were the “desired object” of sailors who bound female figures on their ships prows, cartographers who drew mermaids at the borders of maps, explorers who called unknown lands “virgin” and for philosophers who veiled “Truth” as female to uncover it with their virility. It appears much like colonial expansion, the Western canon of recognizable, laboratory manufactured culture of mediocrity originate from the same seedy fantasies.  

I wonder how Immanuel Kant had his tea every morning. He is well-known among his fan boys as being a very meticulous man. His fondness for tea and tobacco are recorded. I wonder who toiled in China to bring it to him? How many lumps of sugar did he take? I wonder how many slaves were flogged in Barbados for his sweet tooth? And his tobacco? Could it have been from Virginia? Where Pocahontas had been captured and raped by tobacco planters; later re-imagined as a lovestruck pliable young girl receptive to Western fantasies of domination. I wonder, what did Kant think of Pocahontas?

Edited by Merve Ünsal

Efe Levent is a grumpy anthropologist, specializing on representations of gender and ethnicity in popular media. He is currently working on decolonizing his mind and pairing his socks so they match.