Nicola Lauré al-Samarai
Reference text Piper
Belinda Kazeem, 2011
You know the feeling when you encounter an artwork and it totally clicks? Around six years ago, when a sister showed me My Calling (Cards) #1 and #2 by Adrian Piper, I had that feeling—a click that went through my eyes, brain, and heart and made me think: I know what you’re talkin’ about. Since then I’ve been dreaming—and I know I’m not the only one—of “My Calling (Cards)” especially produced for Austria. Imagine a racist-sexist situation: You stay calm, don’t say a word. You just take out a card and hand it over with a smile, or without. You turn round, head held high, and leave. Breath in. Breath out. Don’t miss a beat.
We have all found ourselves in situations of being the only Black woman in the room. This may not always give cause for concern. But somewhere inside, are we not always prepared for the possibility that the mask of political correctness might fall, that someone might at the very least make a racist remark?
In her texts on the Guerilla Performances, which include My Calling (Cards), Adrian Piper describes eight ways to deal with racist situations. Five of these are not open to me because of my visibility. Blending in against a white background doesn’t work for obvious reasons, even if I were to adapt in terms of dress code, manners, and language. Informing other guests that a Black person who is not immediately identifiable as such will be present is also not an option in my case. But the experience of (white) people warning each other in advance is very familiar, and not only to me. The result is always the same: total strangers approach you and tell you, without being asked, all about their work with Light For The World or some organization offering development aid (sorry: development cooperation). Or, they tell you: “At school I was already a fan of Martin Luther King and I think it’s really important to fight for these kinds of things. Bob Marley is also totally great, by the way.” If, in the course of a single evening, you are faced with five such attempts to appear anti-racist, then you know people were forewarned.
Had I known as a teenager about My Calling (Card) #2 (for Bars and Discos), I could have saved myself a lot of talking and above all a lot of bother—by which I mean the kind of anger we have in our guts when we have to deal with unwanted advances in such places. Comments on how well you dance—regardless of whether or not it’s true. Accompanied by pseudo-biologist explanations intended to support the claim that in your case this is entirely “natural.” A few comments on the oh-so-positive vibes emanating from you and your kind. Not forgetting the attempts to get physical. My favorite is the question of whether you happen to know ..................... [insert random name here] who is also Black and who comes from ..................... [insert name of random African country here]. In Austria, such advances are also often made in English. After all, who ever heard of a Black woman with German as her first language? If I deliberately answer in broad Viennese dialect and the other person continues speaking English, then I know it’s not me they are seeing, but some imaginary figure, some idea of a prototypical African (whoever or whatever that might be).
Racism and sexism are often masked as “friendliness,” making it more difficult to react appropriately. Each of us knows the knee-jerk defensive claim that we have misunderstood “totally innocent” remarks or questions, that we are strangely oversensitive. This immediately stamps us as the aggressive Black woman who starts talking about such harassment, and there is a suggestion that in fact it was us who actually triggered the conflict.
For a (visibly) Black person in a white space the question constantly arises: ignore or confront? In the past, I would often act as if I hadn’t heard. Not now. I no longer go home with a feeling of visceral dread. Or if I do, then everyone else involved should take the same feeling of dread home with them, and with the smallest effort required on my part. I’m increasingly convinced that only mainstream white society benefits if we exhaust ourselves in daily re/enactments of colonial violence instead of investing our energies in the realization of our visions. Which is why we need to cultivate guerilla performances—energy-efficient forms of resistance. Adrian Piper’s My Calling (Cards) represent such a possibility: a way of talking back without saying a word and without wasting any energy. Handing out cards would probably soon become a habit. There’s certainly no shortage of opportunities…
For centuries, Black people—and Black women in particular—have been compiling knowledge about white people and white power structures. All over the world, this reservoir serves us as the basis for creating instruments of resistance. I dream of making this archive of knowledge visible: a hard drive capable of holding millions of terabytes with the broadest possible range of sources and materials, with references to activists, artists, and thinkers in Africa itself and in the African diaspora. From Sojourner Truth to Ike Ude, from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to Ursula Rucker, from Oscar Micheaux to Fasia Jansen, from Anton Wilhelm Amo to Frantz Fanon, from Josephine Soliman to Beauford Delaney, from Audre Lorde to May Ayim. Not homogenous, not one-dimensional, and therefore also reflecting a diversity of hi/stories and viewpoints.
My own search, across various Black times and spaces, not only taught me something about the global arsenal of repressive structures. Above all, it made me realize just how many parallels, similarities, and differences have been articulated by Black people—Black women in particular—in their practical and theoretical, their literary and artistic responses to these structures. To the recurring re/enactments of racist-sexist and other forms of discriminatory violence, we have always responded with Black (female) counter-realities. Focusing attention on these timespaces means acknowledging that resistance is sustained by experience and knowledge, by analyses and visions, which it requires in order to establish something new.
With Adrian Piper’s example in mind, I design my own “My Calling (Cards),” ones that fit my own place and time. I make copies and carry them with me. I imagine what it would be like to use them when the need arises. Countless Black women around the world doing the same. We stay calm. Just take out our cards and hand them over with a smile, or without. Turn round, head held high, and leave. Breath in. Breath out. Don’t miss a beat.
Belinda Kazeem is a cultural theorist and writer based in Vienna.
Edited by Nicola Lauré al-Samarai & Jo Schmeiser
Translated from the German by Nicholas Grindell, copyedited by Harold Otto
This text was published (in German) on October 15, 2011, in the Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard.