On Whataboutism, Notre Dame, and the Precarious Politics of How & When We Grieve
I grew up wanting to be an architect. My maternal grandfather, whom I never met, was one. In a heady, all consuming romance over the idea of following ancestral footsteps, I wanted to be like him and plan the places where people would live and dwell and visit. My aspirations were short lived, but my fascination with spaces has long persisted. I am by no means a bonafide architectural critic- I have neither the technical language nor the expertise- but I am attuned to the sentimentality, spirituality and meaning of physical spaces. The places in which we live, breathe, are sheltered, schooled and pray or contemplate are saturated with things that transcend our bodies and minds.
About two years ago, I visited the church in which my parents got married. It is an old Presbyterian structure reminiscent of gothic styling. It is closed, dilapidated, unmaintained. It is rife with history, a jarring contradiction to the landscape on which it sits- a clear relic of European presence and influence many years before. It stands in Mphunzi, an unimportant village in Dedza, a district in Malawi, an equally unimportant country. My visit was filled with contemplative quietude. I am of the sentimental crop, and I draw connections with spaces. I feel the energy in people’s homes, feel the muck in the air when a space has been unlived in. People leave a dent in the atmosphere of the spaces that they inhabit. The church in Mphunzi is no exception, its worn steeple, boarded-up doors, broken-down shutters and moss-covered brick had a presence by it that was characterized by absence. As writer Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu writes, “an absence, like a presence, occupies space — it has proportions, parameters and a sense of permanence”.
Buildings, physical spaces, hold histories, stories, memories, ritual, knowledge, artifacts- they are both monuments to the parts of us that are most sacred most human, and are those parts themselves. Places of faith are even more stirring. Saturated with contemplation and prayer, stained with tears and yearnings, etched in their essence with the spirit of unions and offitiations, baptisms, passage rites. They draw us in in ways that clue us into some aspects of something bigger than ourselves, our world- something divine and otherworldly.
As the flames raged in Paris, a friend and I engaged in a private conversation, expressing how conflicted we were. My friend comes from Ethiopia, a country with its own particular legacy of empire and rich cultural history symbolized through architectural structures. As we chatted, she joked “Watch all these people who can’t even get visas to get into continental Europe post #IamNotredame lmao”.
Depending on who you are, this remark will either sound curt and insensitive, or brazenly bold- giving language to the conflicting feelings of coming from a historically and geopolitically exploited context. As a writer, I consider many things texts, even the blithe text messages exchanged in the dead of the night. They are grounded in theory, situated in discourse, articulations of truths that reside in our bones. In this case, my friend was speaking to the dissonance at the heart of standing “In Solidarity” with the metropole. For what does it look like for the powerless to “stand with” the powerful? It is a contradiction. For to stand with one must have equal or more power.
My friend was highlighting the absurdity of holding affections, and affectations thereof that are neither reciprocated nor rewarded by the metropole. What does it mean to stand with a building with the financial, emotional, political backing of The West’s powers, when the space it stands in ferociously barricades itself from our presence? (Just this week, a student of mine had his visa to the UK denied, a gesture that affronted whatever semblance of sympathy I might’ve had for the empire).
I received an impassioned direct message that accused me of Whataboutism when I tweeted that I would not grieve Notre Dame- that it was neither my place nor responsibility. This is the Twitter thread in question.
As it plays out on social media in response to news, Whataboutism is the practice of challenging coverage on the basis that elsewhere, other forms of injustice are happening that are largely being ignored. I’ll admit it gets repetitive and tired. I can also acknowledge that many times, Whataboutism is tactlessly employed, and can very often be more rooted in an anglo/franco/ameriphilic preoccupation with the attention of The West- a manifestation of the parasocial relationship that those of us from once-colonized contexts experience with the metropole. Part, perhaps, of Jean- Paul Sartre’s “nervous condition”.
John Oliver brilliantly explains the dangers of weaponizing Whataboutism, stating that it implies that “all actions, regardless of context, share a moral equivalency.” I am completely well-versed with the damage it can cause when it is employed by those with power.
As with everything, however, where it is employed by those who are systemically subjugated, whether it is rooted in vitriol and vendetta or not, Whataboutism is defanged, and is a valid and valuable part of discourse. It reminds us about hegemony, about power, and about how these shape what we hear, see, care about, stand with and grieve. It holds a mirror up to our faces and asks us to interrogate where our sympathies lie, and for what reasons. It calls bullshit on our hashtags, flag filters, thoughts and prayers, and asks us whose grief we endorse, and whose we turn a blind eye to. It is not just a jejune “even me”- it is pained disappointment at our general aloofness over news, bodies, tragedies that are non-white, non-christian, and non-western. And frankly, if Whataboutism is what’s at the heart of what I meant when I tweeted these things, then colour me the President of the [Decolonial] Whataboutist Society.
The internet is full of criticisms that have followed the responses to the fire at Notre Dame. Critiques of France’s continued, violent treatment of its colonies. Irreverent revelling. Memes. All part of discourse. All part of the precarious position that comes with simultaneously belonging to an exploited group and existing in a world that centers your oppressors. All understandable.
One of the most contested has been the refusal of some people from ‘formerly’ colonized contexts to grieve. This has been met with arguments citing the fact that while French imperial rule was an injustice, it occurred centuries after the cathedral was constructed. But this is a deduction that simplistically erects temporal demarcations between what can and cannot emblematize the violence of the empire. Regardless of when they were erected, something happens to these historical buildings as time goes by, and as history unfolds and is complicated and compounded, so is what these structures represent . They are no longer just physical structures. They are part of state, of country, of empire. To the local and the sentimental traveler, they represent beauty, culture, national identity. But, equally justifiably, is the case for France, to those who have been subjugated by the nation, they represent the metropole. It is difficult to extricate the symbolism of historical monuments and sites from the empire they represent.
There is a genre of riddles in Malawi called Ndagi. One of them is as follows:
Ndagi: Kumudzi wakumunsi kwaphili kukachitika maliro, mudzi wakumtunda umazapepesa. Koma kumudzi wakumtunda kukachitika maliro, akumunsi samazapepesa.
Chimasuliro: Manja ndi miyendo.
Riddle: When there is a death in village at the bottom of the mountain, those at the top of it come and pay their respects. But when there is death in the village at the top of the mountain, those at the top grieve alone.
Answer: Hands and feet (hands console injured feet, but feet do not console injured hands).
Over the past couple of days, I have watched as the world has rallied around France in cash and in kind. I have watched as the donations have piled up, from the millions into the billions. I have borne witness as some of my African kin have poured their digital libations, moved enough by their own right to make public displays of grief. I cannot police what people do or do not feel, or how they choose to use the platforms they have. I cannot even speak for all of us who were ‘formerly’ under colonial rule. What I can do is write, and air my grievances over what we all know to be true; tragedy anywhere is not tragedy everywhere.
Those of us from these contexts pour so much of ourselves into standing with these giant nations. Perhaps it’s the kind thing to do. But it breaks my heart. We weep and weep with them, but this weeping is never reciprocated. We are bending ourselves- taking the feet up to the hands, regardless of the fact that when the tables are turned, as comfortable as it is for them, the hands do not tend to the wounds they have, in fact, inflicted.
And oh, how the feet are bleeding.
See more of my writing at www.takondwa.com.