Long before Donald Trump became known as a political contender, communities of colour tussled with the spaces between campaign lines. Either side of economic graphs and cultural cut-backs remains our instinct, from which we may swiftly tell if this is an individual who will push a person of colour under the bus, or allow us space when we step back from the curb.
Experience hardens such insight — of who will reach for a slur, or bar stool, upon seeing our skin or learning of our religion. It works to remove us from the misery (where we can) before the outburst can make headway. We spot swiftly which rooms to leave, with which acquaintances to cut conversations short. Sometimes the clues are subtle, sometimes they are not. Just as a woman quickly assesses the man who has approached her, she may tell in a moment or two whether he is unsafe — a lean too close, an unbidden grip of the arm. We collect throwaway comments until they are a body of evidence. We become experts in passive-aggression — the meaning behind a look, a flinch, the tone of a debate.
Surveyors of white supremacy will tell you that violence doesn’t lie in the obvious alone. It lives and breathes in the given dialogue of black characters on our screens, the buzzwords attached to Middle Eastern men and women, in mock-accents, Halloween costumes, and Knock Knock jokes. Films and punchlines exist where white people have laughed, perhaps not because they are racist, but because they are not scared enough to have gathered their own clues.
On his show, the comedian John Oliver spoke of how it is time to take Trump seriously — the farce has not deterred the votes. “There is a part of me that likes this guy,” he said, “and it may be a part of me I hate, but it’s a part of me.” There is nothing ultimately wrong in his admission. But what has only become terrifying to Oliver and others like him in recent days, is not a new apprehension to those of us who have practice in being the punchline.
Trump has never been funny. His child-like entitlement, the stupidity and shamelessness, the hair — whilst objectively comical, has always belonged to such a narrative. How often as people of colour have we been accused of replacing our sense of humour with a tedious sensitivity. Yet, it is easy to laugh if you have not become masters in seeing ahead to the future. There is consequence even in humour. Borat may be laughable, but the long endured surmise of Kazakhstanis as foolish misogynists is not. The timeless satire of The Simpsons may be amusing, but the reinforced image of Apu — a servile, hard-working, shopkeeping South Asian — is far from it.
Same too if you are Mexican. The concern of being treated as a rapist will override the slapstick of Trump having reached such assertions. If you are Muslim, the fear of having your mosque burnt to the ground, or worse, arrives ahead of the jocularity that Trump is a man who runs his mouth. Once the words are out there, they are out there. They have reached an America already pre-disposed to racial suspicion and violent knee-jerk acts of “defence”. This was never a man who needed to become President to win. That he has created a common and public space for bigotry and hate to comfortably reveal itself is the America Trump strives for, and to which he has already succeeded.
Fascism flourishes when there is no trust in the reasoning of communities of colour. Just as to reproduce cultural appearances as festival gear, to paint ones skin black as fancy-dress, the mimicking of accents, and recycling of underwritten television characters exists when the pain of affected communities is not believed. Likewise, “Why can’t you take a joke?” belongs to the same blindspot that has allowed Trump’s exhibition to be laughed off ahead of feared as long back as the start of his campaign.
“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” Trump boldly said. Perhaps if you belong to whiteness your attention will go to the insolence, the shortage of filter, the insult he is casting upon his supporters with this bleak portrait of them. But if you don’t belong to whiteness your pivot may go to the imagined victim — one who almost certainly would not be white. It may find itself duplicated in the parallels of police authority shooting black bodies without being brought to justice or losing public support.
To understand why Trump has never truly been a farcical, unimportant contender, is to understand that the freedom to act and speak outrageously, offensively and without thought, is the climbing-frame from which white supremacy rests upon. Unhinged megalomania has never amused those of us who have seen what a match like this does to a flame.
No matter. As panic sets across the mainstream of Trump’s progress, the call to take the man and leave the joke behind is of no good if it is to be presented as original thought. Were the historical relationship between marginalised communities and angry white men taken seriously, there would never have been a joke to begin with. Trump’s greatest weapon of all was not his foolishness, but a society that habitually forgets to check in for feedback from those most vulnerable to such outbursts.
Only immunity from dogmatism can explain the casualness with which such a political contender has been met. Why the violence of his beliefs have been framed as merely facetious, and not as the abuse it has always been, remains to be asked. There has been a steady anxiety amongst communities at the receiving end of such diatribes. It has been there all along. For it to have gone unnoticed is the greatest joke of all.
Chimene Suleyman is a writer from London of Turkish / Middle Eastern heritage. She writes opinion pieces, contributing to The Independent as well as regularly featured writing for online blog and events organiser Poejazzi. She has represented the UK at the International Biennale, Rome 2011 with spoken word. Her poetry collection “Outside Looking On” published by Influx Press is out now. She collects photos of Canary Wharf. Find her on Twitter: @chimenesuleyman
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