The title of this piece is taken directly from Malcolm X’s speech, “The Race Problem,” which he delivered at Michigan State University in East Lansing on Jan. 23, 1963. In the speech, he drew a distinction between the terms “house negro” and “field negro” as they relate to the problem of race and the internalization of racial structures by a large segment of the African-American community. The constructed dichotomy was very instrumental in Malcolm X’s attempt to break through the constructed racial epistemology that made African-Americans relate to the life, joy and suffering of the slave master while erasing themselves in the process. It is to be seen inline and building upon W. E. B. Du Bois’s idea of a black double consciousness.
“We sick?” represents the epitome and pinnacle of embodiment of the slave master in the slave’s worldview and the super imprint on the slave mind of the master’s dominant narrative. The slave no longer exists for himself or herself; rather they are a mere personification and an extension of the master’s identity.
Revisiting Malcolm X’s words is instructive and timely for it can help explain the overwhelming response to the Charlie Hebdo murders by the terrorist, but the failure to do so for 37 Yemenis who died in a terrorist attack on the same day, even coverage in Yemen was more focused on the events in France. More critically, the response to terrorist attacks in Nigeria that killed possibly thousands did not receive any mention in the international press, including Nigerian coverage, which gave more time, space and content to the deaths in Paris than to its own domestic circumstances. On Dec. 16, a few weeks before the Paris attacks, 145 people were massacred in an attack at a school in Pakistan, but once again press coverage in Muslim majority countries were rather limited compared to the attention given to the terrorist attacks in France.
A cursory examination of press coverage from the southern hemisphere over the past two weeks illustrates more than anything else Malcolm X’s critique and diagnosis of the race problem and its internalized affects. The subject is not to downplay the murders or to diminish the significance of what occurred in Paris, but to confront the different values we assign to human lives based on racial, ethnic, linguistic or religious identities. A white person’s death is more painful in public discourse than a person of color.
In the aftermath of Michael Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths, protestors in the streets aptly adopted the rallying cry, “Black lives matter,” which after the gunning down of two New York police officers it was transformed by some supporters to “all lives matter.” Both themes are important and point deeply to the profound disconnect on all issues related to race in society today, not only in the U.S., but across the globe.
In reality and in today’s world, all lives do not matter. Only the few, the white, Euro-Americans and present colonial masters’ lives matter more than any other group, thus bringing about the sympathy, concern and non-stop coverage since the material world exists as a playing field for them and them alone. The notion that the world has arrived at a post-racial stage just because Obama was elected to the White House is a figment of imagination totally severed from the racist reality experienced daily on the streets of Ferguson, New York, Paris, London or around the global south.
In reality, all lives do not matter and, critically, at this time, Muslim lives do not matter either as the case of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq illustrate with well-documented torture, rendition and intentionally targeting journalists, as well as in the Israeli slaughter this past summer witnessed live on TV around the globe. Muslim lives do not matter as the case of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and al-Nusra Front plainly demonstrates as Europe and the U.S. did not respond to hundreds if not thousands of Muslims murdered, only when whiteness was touched was the Western world shocked into action. This piece is not about settling accounts or laying blame despite it being needed, it is rather meant to shed light on the dark corners constructed in our own minds that permit us to see, feel and experience the pain of the northern hemisphere while denying it for all others. Malcolm X’s “we sick” is to be understood and transformed today into a global identification with Paris’ suffering as the only measure of being and meaning. Freedom of speech is meaningless for the southern hemisphere for “we sick” is meant to silence “us,” and even when we speak, it is not our voice that is heard, but rather the global master’s own reflection that is reproduced.