In Sadness, In Anger

written in September 2018

How the death of Hamze Ibrahim is connected to that Serena Williams cartoon and what it says about the disciplining of people of colour’s emotions.

On a suburban Sydney street in early September, a brown man, Hamze Ibrahim, lay dying in his home. As word spread, grieving relatives gathered outside. The paramedics arrived. Soon after the police were called. In an official statement, the Australian Paramedic Association (APA) would denounce these relatives as a “violent mob” of “angry males”. News Corp culture warrior, Andrew Bolt, would make explicit the race-baiting that was inherent in the APA’s statement, by claiming that “such mob attacks suggest an ethnic or cultural factor”. A few days later the APA would backtrack almost completely, apologising and stating that no paramedics were assaulted or hindered in attempting to assist Ibrahim.

The following week a cartoon printed in an Australian newspaper would draw ire from around the world for its racist depiction of respected athlete, Serena Williams. Excellent articles have been written that discuss the racist implications of that cartoon in more depth than I could. What I want to explore is how white people misinterpret the emotional expressions of people of colour, how this generally results in a false perception of threat and why this is so regularly harmful, if not outright endangering – for people of colour. This is what ties the story of the Ibrahim family to how Serena Williams’ display of frustration, in the midst of competition, could result in a cartoon that called upon a series of racist tropes to position black people as barely human, always on the cusp of reverting to barbarity.

In its coverage of the APA’s apology after Hamze Ibrahim’s death, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that a paramedic called police “in response to the sheer number of emotional and distraught people gathering at the property”. We could start and finish with how the arrival of numerous police (15- 20 are reported to have attended) to a scene where brown people are grieving and upset is most likely to antagonise a situation in which any number of potential scenarios could play out that would exacerbate the family’s pain. On this occasion it seems that the police did not rush into a confrontation. Still, the very presence of the police – with all the implications of the potential criminality of people of colour – followed by the sensationalist lies of the APA’s statement, certainly compounded the difficulty of coping with a family member’s passing. 

While the SMH refrained from referring to race in any of its articles about the death of Hamze Ibrahim, this scenario should be viewed through a lens of how the emotional responses of people of colour are racialised and perceived as a threat. In this country, where power is built into structures of whiteness and colonisation, the ‘integration’ that is demanded is emotional and psychological, as well as social and cultural. People of colour are expected to express their emotions in forms that are recognisable to white culture. Attendant to this is the permanent residue of the coloniser’s attitude that with whiteness comes the potential for the ‘savages’ to escape their irrationality and barbarity and take a step towards civility. I don’t need to detail here the hypocrisy of white Australian culture, built upon genocide and the violent displacement of this land’s first peoples, having the arrogance to hold such expectations.

What most people of colour have come to learn is that any outward display of emotion, even when it is evidently justifiable, has the potential to be mis-read and turned against us. Sadness is interpreted as anger, concern can be seen as a pretence, joy viewed as erratic and potentially dangerous. Sit in a train carriage on the western line in Sydney and see how startled and uncomfortable so many white people will become when a group of brown or black people are simply joyful or exuberant.

While this discomfort reveals an inherent cultural racism – we are still expected to be the ones who keep our heads down, stay quiet and be thankful for being given any space in this country – it also illustrates how the emotional responses of people of colour are often not immediately recognisable to white people. This might be partially due to different cultural heritage and forms of expression, but it’s also about being non-white in a country where power resides in whiteness. To paraphrase the artist Texta Queen from her piece “Good White Person” in the zine Fix My Head, people of colour have “a lifetime of being conditioned to adapt”, while white people have a “lifetime of having those without their privilege adapting to them”.  This distance in experience, of having to adapt rather than being adapted to, effects in divergent ways how we emotionally respond and interact within the society that surrounds us.

Although having our feelings misinterpreted as people of colour is frustrating in multiple ways, it is specifically the effect of being mis-read as threatening that can be immediately harmful. When white people are faced with behaviours or emotional responses that they do not find easily understandable, there is a tendency to regard them as dangerous.  This is an outcome of power – living with an expectation of having others adapt towards you, ensures that white people can exist believing that they are the standard by which ‘normality’ is defined in Australian society. While some divergence is acceptable, celebrated even, it is when confronted with unrecognisable difference that a series of racialised mechanisms of control, with the effect of disciplining people of colours’ emotions, are activated. This occurred in the case of the Ibrahim family. From the police being called, to the APA statement and Andrew Bolt’s comments, to the online trolls, an entire trajectory of harmful and endangering blowback resulted from an initial fear of the unrecognisable grief of a family of brown people.

It is also what happened to Serena Williams. The publishing of the cartoon was an act of discipline that was specifically targeted at her, but also served to reinforce the general racist stereotype that the emotional responses of brown and black people are erratic and cannot be trusted. That we are always on the brink of exploding out of the moderated ‘civility’ that white people have offered us and returning to base instincts and barbarity. In her article that went viral in May this year, Ruby Hamad talked about how, for brown and black women, “whether angry or calm, shouting or pleading, we are still perceived as the aggressors”. Significant in the subtext of this statement is that anger is not inherently illegitimate, that anger itself is not dangerous, but that instead, it is the racist casting of brown and black people as potentially threatening aggressors that carries the menace. In Jacqueline L. Scott’s analysis of the cartoon, she makes an excellent point about how the drawing of Williams contrasts with how brown, bi-racial woman Naomi Osaka is depicted as slight, blonde and, significantly, white. The cartoonist understood that to draw the calm and composed Osaka as a person of colour would undermine the racist casting that was his purpose.

Referring to a “violent mob” of “angry males” was a clear racist signifier that sought to depict the Ibrahim family as an out-of-control, threatening ‘other’, instead of the sympathetic image of a grieving family. While the Ibrahim’s did receive an amount of closure due to the absolute retraction that the APA offered, it was a case of after the damage had been done. It is also significant that the APA did not acknowledge their clear and present race-baiting. This reflects a reality where, even as this moment is accepted as a mistake, the basis from which it emerged – the racist stereotyping and disciplining of people of colours’ expression of emotion – will not be challenged in any real sense.

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